St. Gregory of Nyssa and His Family

As Orthodox Christians, we should and probably do, read the lives of the saints and pray to them. However, the saints sometimes seem “strange” to us. We read about their strict fasting, sleeping on boards and wearing chains. These things see distant from our lives. However, all human beings are called to be saints. In fact, a French writer wrote that the only sadness is not being a saint. Today we consider a family in which being a saint seems to be the norm, a family in which being a saint is quite natural.
Today we commemorate St. Gregory of Nyssa. St. Gregory was a 4th century bishop in Cappadocia, a part of present-day Turkey. However, before we turn to St. Gregory himself, let us look at his family. St. Gregory’s grandmother Macrina the Elder is a saint, and his grandfather died as a martyr. His sister St. Macrina is a saint and theologian in her own right. His most famous brother was St. Basil the Great, an important church father and author of the Liturgy we use on Sundays in Lent. His brother Naucratis and Peter of Sebaste are also saints. His sister, Theosebia is also a saint, however we know almost nothing about her. So we have indeed a family of saints St. Gregory was born around 335 AD and was educated at home. He may have
studied in Athens. At first St. Gregory did not pursue a career in the church but was a rhetorician. However, due to confusion in church life in Cappadocia, he became a bishop with his brother’s (St. Basil) support. He was active in the struggle against the Arians who taught that Jesus was not truly God. He was also present at the second ecumenical council in Constantinople in 381 AD. St. Gregory defended the traditional teaching about the Trinity, that God is one in essence (substance) and three in person.
St. Greogry, together with many saints of the church, taught that God is essentially incomprehensible to human minds. Now this may sound negative, implying that we never know God. But it’s quite positive because it shows us that human life begins here on earth and continuing in heaven, is a ceaseless growth in knowledge and love of God.
St. Gregory died in 395. His relics were at the Vatican until 2000 when they were transferred to St. Gregory of Nyssa Greek Orthodox Church in San Diego. St. Gregory, together with his brother St. Basil, and later their friends St. Gregory Nazianzus, are called the Cappadocian Fathers and have played an important role in the development of Orthodox theology.
St. Basil the Great was St. Gregory of Nyssa’s older brother. He was born in 329 or 330. St. Basil was educated at home, then in Caesarea, Constantinople and Athens. At first St. Basil followed a secular career; then Basil met a holy bishop who inspired him to be baptized. After baptism he visited various monasteries and tried living as a hermit. However, he did not like the life of a hermit and began gathering disciples around him to begin a monastery. Eventually, St. Basil became a bishop. As bishop he founded an institution known as the Basiliad. It contained a hospital, poor house and hospice. St. Basil strongly believed that the church should help the poor and needy.
As mentioned above, St Basil founded a religious community. He is remembered as one of the fathers of eastern monasticism. He wrote monastic rules, which also inspired St. Benedict the great founded or monks in the West. In addition, St. Basil wrote the Liturgy we use on the Sundays of Great Lent, as well as some other times and was the author of many important theological works. St. Basil died on January 1, 379 and his feast day is January 1st.
St. Macrina was the elder sister of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory. In her youth, she was planning to get married but her finance died before the wedding. Since she had been betrothed to the man, she did not think it was appropriate to marry another man, but she saw Christ as her eternal bridegroom. Hence she became a nun. Her ascetic lifestyle greatly influenced her brothers. St. Gregory wrote a book, The Life of St. Macrina, which describes her lifelong holiness. Before her death St. Gregory wrote a book which was a dialogue between Macrina and himself concerning the soul and resurrection showing that Macrina was a saint in her own right. She died in 379 at her family estate which she had turned into a monastery.
As mentioned in the introduction almost the whole family of St. Gregory, St. Basil and St. Macrina were saints. Time and space preclude us from writing about the other lesser known of this family but this shows that sainthood is possible for human beings living in the world and is really the fulfillment of human nature which as St. Gregory has written is always striving to God, in a process which begin in this life and continues for all eternity.

Troparion — Tone 4

You were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence; your humility exalted you; your poverty enriched you. Hierarch Father Gregory, entreat Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

Kontakion — Tone 1

You kept watch with the eyes of your soul, holy bishop, revealing yourself as a watchful pastor for the world. With the staff of your wisdom and your fervent intercession, you drove away all heretics like wolves. You preserved your flock free from harm, most wise Gregory!

Fr. John