Basil and Gregory: school friends who became saints!

Today the Church offers us the memorial of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen. By celebrating the feasts of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen on the same day, the Church praises a virtue which has always been held in high esteem friendship. Born in Cappadocia around 330, Basil and Gregory first were schoolfriends, they studied together in Athens. Following this, they were co-defenders of the orthodox teaching on the Trinity. As the French say, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Basil and Gregory faced the same problems as modern Christians. Sainthood meant trying to preserve the spirit of Christ in such perplexing and painful problems as reform, organization, fighting for the poor, maintaining balance and peace in misunderstanding.

For Gregory, we are reminded in The Church's Year of Grace by Pius Parsch that ‘during his life span the pendulum was continually swinging back and forth between contemplation and the active ministry. He longed for solitude, but the exigencies of the times called him repeatedly to do pastoral work and to participate in the ecclesiastical movements of the day.

As a bishop, Basil was a courageous and heroic champion of the Catholic faith against the Arian heresy. He was a strong character, a burning lamp during his time. But as the fire from this lamp illumined and warmed the world, it consumed itself; as the saint's spiritual stature grew, his body wasted away, and at the early age of forty-nine his appearance was that of an old man. In every phase of ecclesiastical activity he showed superior talent and zeal.’

Later on, as dear friends, they both returned to their homeland where they led a monastic life for several years in the beautiful surroundings at the monastery at Pontus on the Iris River. Their temperaments were quite different. We see that while Basil had the qualities of a leader and a gift for organization that made him a legislator for monks in the east, Gregory was a contemplative and a poet. Both dwelt with wisdom through study and prayer, first in the silence of the monastic life and later in the midst of their pastoral responsibilities as bishops.

Their friendship has a lot to teach us about friendship, especially as we begin this New Year. Our friends do not have to be exactly like us. Gregory and Basil were two very different people but what bound them together was their zeal for Christ. There is a very interesting paper which can be read here which looks at the bond of friendship between these two great saints.

In our lives, we value friends, but the path of friendship, like love, rarely runs smooth. Friends can make our life beautiful. Friends can change you. Friends must change you. True friends are hard to find so hold on to the ones you still have, they are precious. However there is always space for new friends who share your values and are on the same wavelength as you. There is a lovely phrase which reads: "A true friend also knows when to give you your space, but still be around at the same time. The true friend knows how to be there for you even when you don’t think you need them there." There is always hidden beauty in real friendship that often takes us a long time to discover.

With social media nowadays it is easy to clock up ‘friends’ but who do you turn to when you’re in trouble or having something very special to share. As the New Year 2016 begins, I’m able to count my true friends on one hand with a smile on my face. I used to not be able to do that, but today, I can.
We might find it hard to give friends objective advice, unrelated to the person we want them to be. We can be reluctant to allow each other to change, sometimes falling out in a way that is painful for all involved. And yet, friendships are vitally important; central to our enjoyment of life. If you want a litmus test for choosing friends, use this question: Will spending time with this person make me want to be a better person? Looking at Basil and Gregory, they were willing to correct each other so as to help each other grow, to be more authentic, happier, freer. They made each other better people because their gaze was on Christ and the goal was holiness. We are truly blessed if we have these kind of people in our lives. As Henri Nouwen writes: “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” 

Yes, the saints can teach us so much because there is nothing more attractive than holiness. Throughout history, wherever men and women of holiness have lived, the Church has blossomed and bloomed. This is the answer to all of our questions and the solution to all of our problems—holiness of life. Wishing you a holy 2016, in the company of holy and wholesome friends!

Sr. M. Louise, pddm.