Gregory of Nyssa and His Compassion for the Poor

His reflections on the making of mankind are evident in his insistence on seeing every man as bearer of the image of God.

Like Macrina and the other Cappadocian fathers, Gregory put great emphasis on the community’s responsibility for the poor and needy, including the lepers, who were traditionally excluded from society. His sermons challenged the rich to give of their wealth and the healthy to give of their strength.

 

I have written about Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus, two of the famous three men from Cappadocia (in today’s Turkey) who stood for the divinity, unity, and distinction of the three Persons of the Trinity. I have also written about Macrina, Basil’s sister, who can justly be called “the fourth Cappadocian.” It’s only right that I write now about the third Cappadocian, Gregory of Nyssa.

Gregory was Basil’s brother. I mentioned him in my article on Macrina, because he was very close to her and wrote an account of her life. Macrina’s death caused him to question the propriety of Christian mourning, and moved him to write a philosophical dialogue, On the Soul and Resurrection.

Gregory’s Life

Born around 335 in a wealthy family of nine children, Gregory chose a different path than his brother. He didn’t study in Athens, but taught himself at home, thanks to the family’s large library and with the assistance of his mother Emmelia and sister Macrina. He learned the rudiments of rhetoric from Basil, then continued on his own. His education, however, was by no means inferior to the others’. His writings reveal a sharp mind and impressive knowledge.

Some believe he married a woman named Theosebeia. This belief is based on a letter by Gregory of Nazianzus, who consoled his friend after Theosebeia’s death. He called her his suzugon, which could be translated as companion or yoke-fellow. Much ink has been spilled on whether she was his wife or a close coworker. Some believe she was another sister.

In any case, he must have achieved some ecclesiastical status because around 372 Basil (then bishop of Caesarea) ordained him as bishop of Nyssa. This ordination was part of Basil’s plan to counteract the restrictions of Emperor Valens, who had just cut in half the territories under Basil’s jurisdiction. In response, Basil doubled the number of bishops in his area, enlisting both his brother Gregory and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus (who became bishop of Sasima).

Both Nyssa and Sasima were small Cappadocian towns, which we would describe as “out in the boonies.” Both Gregories were generally unhappy with their posts. Eventually, Gregory of Nazianzus resigned, while Gregory became embroiled in a conflict with the civil government and forced to temporarily leave his post on charges of mismanaged funds.

During his two-year absence, a pro-Arian faction that denied the divinity of Christ took control of the area. Basil was disappointed by this turn of events, and blamed this defeat on his brother’s lack of experience. He was also frustrated by Gregory’s attempts to bring peace in the area by forging some letters between Basil and one of their uncles.

Overall, however, Gregory and Basil enjoyed a good relation. Basil was ready to take the blame for any problem that had resulted from his appointment of his brother, and Gregory continued to express his love and respect for Basil, deeply mourning his heath.

After Valens’s death, Gregory returned to Nyssa for some time. He became, with Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the strongest defenders of Christ’s divinity at the Synod of Antioch in 379 and especially at the Council of Constantinople in 381. He also proved to be an excellent preacher, so much that he was asked to deliver funeral orations for members of the imperial family in 383 and 385.

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