‘Two Streams of a River’ — Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen

Their friendship wasn’t always peaceful, but the two great saints shared the same spirit.

St. Basil (left) and St. Gregory Nazianzen
St. Basil (left) and St. Gregory Nazianzen (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

For all the joy that Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen found in being best friends, they also experienced stormy periods of disappointment, betrayal and frustration in their relationship which, some say, helped these fourth-century doctors of the Church to become their true selves.

Both saints, who share a Jan. 2 feast day, left written legacies of their work as scholars, teachers and defenders of the faith, but in addition, Gregory’s writing offers a record of some of the highs and lows of his friendship with Basil.

The roots of their friendship are found in what was then Cappadocia — the region of central Turkey where both are believed to have been born the same year (A.D. 330). Basil is called “the Great” for his contributions including the development of a monastic rule still followed in the Eastern Churches, his defense against the heresy of Arianism (denial of Christ’s divinity) and generosity to the poor. Gregory is known as “the Theologian” for his important teaching, eloquence and defense of the faith. Each offered wisdom and doctrinal contributions to the Nicene Creed.

Both friends’ parents would later become canonized saints and they attended the same school in Caesarea. From there went in different locations: Basil to Constantinople and Gregory to Palestine and Egypt.

Gregory was the first to be drawn to study in Athens, the city of culture and classical literature. When Basil arrived later, Gregory, perhaps to win his friendship, arranged for him to bypass the rowdy initiation that students gave newcomers. The two young scholars soon became close friends, as Gregory described in a sermon he wrote for his friend’s funeral:

Basil and I were both in Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.

For almost six years Basil and Gregory were nearly inseparable in their scholarly life. But Basil grew weary of the pagan, idolatrous city and left to pursue life as a hermit.

Gregory was devastated and took Basil’s departure as a betrayal, both to their friendship and their life of scholarship. The pain of separation is understandable, given how Gregory describes their friendship:

We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that everything is contained in everything, yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other. (Oratio 43)

Drawn to the monastic life, Basil formed a community in his native Pontus. Gregory joined him but didn’t feel called to Basil’s form of monasticism. He continued to miss the scholarly life they had shared.

As a priest in the Caesarea diocese, Basil sometimes clashed with his bishop. More eloquent than his fiery friend, Gregory was able to reconcile them. The two collaborated in compiling a selection of works by the Alexandrian theologian Origen which is considered a spiritual classic of Eastern Christianity.

The friends also joined several times to advocate for the truth of the faith with the Arian emperor, Valens, and his theologian.

When Basil’s bishop died, he sought to succeed him but it’s possible that Gregory also wanted the bishopric.

Basil’s ordination as bishop of Caesarea gave him ecclesial superiority over Gregory which caused more strain between them. When the emperor Valens divided Basil’s see in an effort to usurp his power, Basil appointed Gregory as bishop of a remote diocese in an effort to keep it from a rival. Gregory was incensed and refused the appointment.

Basil called his friend, but Gregory refused to come. In 379 Basil died. Gregory wrote his moving sermon in honor of his friend, which appears in the Office of Readings for their Jan. 2 feast day.

After Basil’s death Gregory was persuaded to become bishop of Constantinople, although some didn’t accept the appointment. As bishop, Gregory presided over the First Council of Constantinople in 381 with the adoption of the Nicene Creed and affirming the definition of the divinity of the Holy Spirit in a moving address. Following his courageous leadership, Gregory stepped down later that year.

The scholar who would prefer a quiet life of learning and writing, seemed to have taken on the spirit of his friend, Basil, at a time when his leadership was needed, suggested St. John Henry Newman. Gregory spent his remaining years in the life he preferred until his death in 389.

The disagreements Basil and Gregory had throughout their lives tested their friendship but didn’t diminish their love for each other. Instead, as Gregory states, they encouraged each other toward holiness:

We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong. (Oratio 43)

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Michelangelo, “The Last Judgment,” 1536-1541

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