Saint Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, was a younger brother of St Basil the Great (January 1). His birth and upbringing came at a time when the Arian disputes were at their height. Having received an excellent education, he was at one time a teacher of rhetoric. In the year 372, he was consecrated by St Basil the Great as bishop of the city of Nyssa in Cappadocia.
St Gregory was an ardent advocate for Orthodoxy, and he fought against the Arian heresy with his brother St Basil. Gregory was persecuted by the Arians, by whom he was falsely accused of improper use of church property, and thereby deprived of his See and sent to Ancyra.
In the following year St Gregory was again deposed in absentia by a council of Arian bishops, but he continued to encourage his flock in Orthodoxy, wandering about from place to place. After the death of the emperor Valens (378), St Gregory was restored to his cathedra and was joyously received by his flock. His brother St Basil the Great died in 379.
Only with difficulty did St Gregory survive the loss of his brother and guide. He delivered a funeral oration for him, and completed St Basil’s study of the six days of Creation, the Hexaemeron. That same year St Gregory participated in the Council of Antioch against heretics who refused to recognize the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God. Others at the opposite extreme, who worshipped the Mother of God as being God Herself, were also denounced by the Council. He visited the churches of Arabia and Palestine, which were infected with the Arian heresy, to assert the Orthodox teaching about the Most Holy Theotokos. On his return journey St Gregory visited Jerusalem and the Holy Places.
In the year 381 St Gregory was one of the chief figures of the Second Ecumenical Council, convened at Constantinople against the heresy of Macedonius, who incorrectly taught about the Holy Spirit. At this Council, on the initiative of St Gregory, the Nicean Symbol of Faith (the Creed) was completed.
Together with the other bishops St Gregory affirmed St Gregory the Theologian as Archpastor of Constantinople.
In the year 383, St Gregory of Nyssa participated in a Council at Constantinople, where he preached a sermon on the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. In 386, he was again at Constantinople, and he was asked to speak the funeral oration in memory of the empress Placilla. Again in 394 St Gregory was present in Constantinople at a local Council, convened to resolve church matters in Arabia.
St Gregory of Nyssa was a fiery defender of Orthodox dogmas and a zealous teacher of his flock, a kind and compassionate father to his spiritual children, and their intercessor before the courts. He was distinguished by his magnanimity, patience and love of peace.
Having reached old age, St Gregory of Nyssa died soon after the Council of Constantinople. Together with his great contemporaries, Sts Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa had a significant influence on the Church life of his time. His sister, St Macrina, wrote to him: “You are renowned both in the cities, and gatherings of people, and throughout entire districts. Churches ask you for help.” St Gregory is known in history as one of the most profound Christian thinkers of the fourth century. Endowed with philosophical talent, he saw philosophy as a means for a deeper penetration into the authentic meaning of divine revelation.
St Gregory left behind many remarkable works of dogmatic character, as well as sermons and discourses. He has been called “the Father of Fathers.”
Feast Day: January 10
Gregory of Nyssa: His Great Ecclesiastical Personality
By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
St. Gregory was a truly great spiritual figure. When one reads his works, one delights in the breadth of his thought, the fertility of his teaching, and above all, his great sensitivity. He deals with very difficult topics, and yet he does not depart from the Orthodox Tradition.
In St. Gregory of Nyssa we find the teaching that the deepest task of the Church is to cure man, who is in the process of purification, and that man’s goal is deification. Other Fathers too analysed this fact but St. Gregory of Nyssa undertook a delicate analysis. In his work “The Life of Moses”, which is a model theological treatise, he makes wonderful elaborations and observations.
In general, St. Gregory of Nyssa, brother of Basil the Great was concerned with subjects which were difficult for the human spirit to work out. His great sensitiveness, which is felt in the conversation that he had with his sister Macrina before she died, and in the way in which he presented her death and faced the separation from her, makes a striking impression. He was a truly great theologian and quite a sensitive spiritual father.
The merit of his great personality was recognised by the whole Church. After the death of his brother Basil the Great in 379, St. Gregory of Nyssa made several ecclesiastical initiatives to fortify the Orthodox faith against the Christological heresies of his time. His presence at the Council of Antioch in 379 was dynamic, as were his peace-making missions for the Church in Pontos and Arabia. Generally speaking, St. Gregory possessed great authority, and therefore he was interested in the regulation of ecclesiastical matters, chiefly on dogmatic questions.
His presence at the Second Ecumenical Council, in Constantinople in 381, was important. To be sure, the theology of his brother Basil the Great, who had died two years previous to the convocation of the Council, predominated at this Council, but St. Gregory proved to be the theological voice of the Council.
During the business of the Council, St. Gregory read to St. Gregory the Theologian his treatise opposing the views of Eunomios, who had opposed Basil the Great after the latter had written an attack on the heretical views of Eunomios. The reasoning of Basil the Great so astonished Eunomios that he replied fourteen years later with his work “Apologia for an apologia”. But then it was not possible for Basil the Great to answer because he was approaching the end of his life. St. Gregory of Nyssa fulfilled this mission with success. With his three books he literally pulverised the views of Eunomios, defending the Orthodox faith as well as the memory of his brother. These writings are among the finest anti-heretical texts.
In the Second Ecumenical Council he was recognised by all as the theologian par excellence. He read the opening speech at the Synod, pronounced the funeral oration to Meletius of Antioch, who was chairman of the Council, gave the speech at the enthronement of St. Gregory the Theologian at Constantinople, and, as is believed, was the one who gave the final form to the Creed and formulated the article about the Holy Spirit: “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life; Who proceedeth from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets”. In particular, it is said that in the iconography of the Second Ecumenical Council St. Gregory is presented as the recording clerk of the Council.
Before the end of the business of this Council the emperor Theodosios gave a decree by which St. Gregory was defined as one of the three bishops who would be a model of the faith for the bishops of Pontos, meaning that all who did not agree with the teaching of St. Gregory and have communion with him were heretics.
After the Council he made trips to Syria, Palestine and Arabia to solve various problems of the Church, as well as taking part in councils for the defence of the Orthodox faith. All these things show that he had a position of great influence in the Orthodox world. Indeed it was assigned to him to give the funeral orations for princess Pulcheria and Queen Plakilla.
After these events, which are known in church history from the ecclesiastical activities of St. Gregory of Nyssa, there are also synodal texts which point to him as a great ecumenical father of the Church. The Third Ecumenical Council, recognising the value of his personality and his theology, named him “second man after his brother in both words and manners”. This phrase means that he was second only to his brother Basil the Great. But also four hundred years after his death the Seventh Ecumenical Council gave him the one and only title which it has given to theologians in the Church, naming him “father of fathers”. Indeed it is well known how Basil the Great answered the expressions of surprise that he had made such a very valuable man bishop of the unimportant city of Nyssa – and he was not referring to St. Gregory the Theologian, since he used the word `brother’. “Let a Bishop not be proud of the place, but let the place be proud of him”.
After the catastrophe which took place in Asia Minor during the 1920s, the precious relics of his sacred skull were removed. Together with the relics of the Great-martyr Theodore and the holy New-hieromartyr George of Neapolis, Saint Gregory’s relics were translated to the Church of Saint Efstathios in Perissos, Attike, located in the outskirts of Athens. His jaw is pictured above.