The Cappadocian Fathers

The Church commemorates today the lives of Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus. Both were very good friends and studied together in Athens long before becoming bishops. Their lives in the Church played out in the middle to late fourth century in the region of Cappadocia (now modern day Turkey), hence they are often referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers. However, in the Latin Rite, this commemoration is actually ‘2/3 Cappadocian Feast Day.’ Basil’s younger brother, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, is not reckoned on the Latin Rite calendar … yet (I am holding out hope for this day to eventually include ‘younger brother.’)

Basil, given the title “Great,” brought strong administrative and theological skills to his shepherding ministry as bishop. He is credited with establishing the communal form of monasticism in Eastern Christianity and establishing the first institutional operation of Church charity along with a hospital. Basil saw prayer, charity and healing as imperatives for the pastoral life of the Church because these were essential actions in the life of Jesus. Among Basil’s writings is his famous On the Holy Spirit in which he defends the Personhood and Divinity of Holy Spirit against the teachings and writings of Eunomius and others. Eunomius was a contemporary of Basil (as well as Gregory and Gregory) who vociferously taught and wrote against the distinctiveness of Divine Personhood claiming that ‘God’ is simply known by actions or functions: creating, redeeming and sanctifying and not the Names expressive of oneness, distinctiveness and Personhood: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Eunomius’ teaching so gripped many places that the Baptismal formula morphed to baptism in the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – an abuse and an error that the Council of Constantinople addressed and rectified in 381.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil’s close friend, bears the title “The Theologian” and sometimes also “The Poet.” While definitely more subdued in personality to the impressive and at times larger-than-life Basil, Gregory longed for the solitude of the monastery. He wrote of his own reluctance to accept priestly ordination and with that writing penned numerous pieces on pertinent theological and pastoral questions. 5 of those treatises are known as the “Theological Orations” as they dealt with Trinitarian Personhood against the writings of Eunomius.

Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s younger brother, is known as “The Mystic.” Initially very reluctant to embrace Christianity and not blessed with the administrative skills of older brother Basil, Gregory of Nyssa came into his own after Basil’s rather untimely death at the age of 49. Gregory ended up providing theological depth to much of Basil’s initiatives. While early in his episcopal career many thought he was simply ‘completing’ or ‘building on’ Basil’s thought, Gregory soon proved to be a gifted speculative theological thinker who simultaneously sought to make connections with living a spiritual (actually virtuous, as it was termed then) life that disposed one to the transformation of the Holy Spirit. He too penned a voluminous work against Eunomius and also numerous works on the spiritual life. Among some of his more famous works are On the Making of Man (a great work on theological anthropology), The Great Catechetical Oration (among the first ‘catechisms’ ever written and used in the Eastern Church well into the 15th century), the Life of Moses, the Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homilies on the Beatitudes, Orations on the Lord’s Prayer, to name only a few all of which  offer deep insights into the spiritual life). Indebted to Origen of Alexandria for his pioneering work on biblical interpretation, Gregory wove together both the literal and spiritual senses of Sacred Scripture to express a pastoral and theological approach to life known as epektasis: a continuous being-drawn by the Holy Spirit to live the life of Jesus Christ culminating in eternal life with God the Father.

The Cappadocian Fathers lived in a time of theological passion and a time that was replete with all kinds of theological confusion and heretical movements, some of which were grounded in ‘hurt pride’ and an inability to humbly receive the Church’s teachings. Gregory of Nyssa captured a glimpse of this passion in an introduction to one of his works:

“A city [Constantinople] full of profound theological disputes, everyone talking and preaching in the squares, in the market places, at the crossroads, in the alleyways: old clothes men, money-changers, costermongers: they are all at it. If you ask a man to change a piece of silver, he informs you wherein the Son differs from the Father; and if you ask for the price of a loaf, you are told by the way of reply that the Son is the inferior of the Father; and if you inquire whether the bath is ready, the man solemnly informs you that the Son was made out of nothing! (Oratio de Deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti (PG XLVI, 557: 20-28)”

The Cappadocians knew proper worship, theology and expressions of the Divine Mystery were indispensable for authentic Christian living. Their preaching, teaching and writing - at times very technical and highly nuanced - were always placed at the service of concrete virtuous living that mirrored Jesus Christ. One of their many theological legacies is that mystery and teachings are not about the abstract or ethereal, rather they are about a way of living. This way of living is about always being drawn-up to contemplate and to live divinely. The saintly Nyssian bishop summed it up well: “Let faith thunder loud and pure in the proclamation of the Most Holy Trinity and may life imitate the fruit of the pomegranate!” (The Life of Moses)

On this day, I express gratitude to one (certainly, there are others!) of my mentors: Fr Ambrosius Eßer (Esser), OP who directed by doctoral studies in the Fathers of the Church and my dissertation on Saint Gregory of Nyssa. Fr. Eßer himself had studied under the great patristic scholar, Fr Irene Hausher and I am grateful for the many conversations in which Fr Eßer ‘handed-on’ the great patristic legacy of the Church.

After years of ministry as a Dominican priest, Fr Eßer died during the Easter Season of 2010 on April 12.

Lord God,
You chose our brother Ambrosius
to serve your people as a priest
and to share the joys and
burdens of their lives.
Look with mercy on him
and give him the reward of his labors,
the fullness of life promised to those
who preach Your holy Gospel.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Amen. Alleluia!

Glory to the Father
and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and will be forever. Amen