Faithful Through the Ages - Friday, January 3, 2014

The Cappadocians - Molded by a Woman's Touch

The Cappadocian Fathers, as they later came to be known, were brothers Basil and Gregory and Gregory Nazianzen, all from Cappadocia, a region in central Turkey. Recognized for their monastic leadership, they were also astute theologians. The term Cappadocians, however, is more fitting than Cappadocian Fathers because it captures three generations of a family, both women and men. The grandmother of Basil and Gregory was Macrina the Elder, who fled persecution only to be left widowed and impoverished. Yet she ministered to those who were even more needy and was canonized as the patron saint of widows.

One of Macrina's sons was Basil (the elder), who had nine children, five of whom were designated as saints. Macrina (the younger) (324 - 379), named for her grandmother, was the older sister who had a profound influence on her siblings as well as on her mother.

Macrina the Younger had chosen a life of asceticism after her fiancé died, and she treated her servants as sisters and equals. She later joined with Basil to form a convent in conjunction with his monastery. The most celebrated of the Cappadocians, he is recognized as Basil the Great (329 - 379), Father of Eastern Monasticism. Setting aside worldly aspirations and touring monasteries in Egypt, Basil returned to Cappadocia, where he established a monastery. His "Longer Rules" and "Shorter Rules" are still used today, and all monks in the Eastern church are Basilian monks. Basil viewed monastic life as one of service to those in need, setting the example by selling his family's estate for famine relief and calling on other wealthy landholders to do likewise. He worked in the kitchen and dispersed provisions alongside ordinary monks, distributing food freely to any in need, regardless of ethnicity.

Basil had a flare for words and is remembered particularly for "The Six Days," his series of nine sermons on creation that display the beauty of God's natural wonders. In 370 he was named bishop of Caesarea, pitting him against Emperor Valens, an Arian. When he died in 379, the entire population of Caesarea—Christians, Jews, and pagans—is said to have followed his funeral cortege with weeping.

Basil's younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (335 - 394) did not enter the monastery and may have been married to Theosebia, a much-heralded deaconess in the church at Nyssa, where Gregory served as bishop. His writing set the stage for the Eastern church's focus on apophatic theology, which emphasizes that God is ultimately unknowable. While strongly defending the doctrine of the Trinity, he insisted that God is infinite and transcendent and thus beyond our understanding. The true way to God is through darkness.

Gregory Nazianzen (c. 325—389), the third of the Cappadocian Fathers, was a close associate and friend of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. His mother was instrumental in converting her husband, Gregory, who subsequently became bishop of Nazianzus. Young Gregory accused his father of tyranny and left home, only to later return and work with his father in the church.

Gregory later gave away his wealth and entered a monastery. On his own deathbed, Basil, not a man to hold grudges, recommended his friend Gregory to a post as the leading theologian in Constantinople with the hope that he would defeat Arianism. As such, Gregory's tenure in Constantinople was anything but peaceful. The city was deeply divided, but he began drawing crowds with his powerful preaching. His "Five Theological Orations," defending the Trinity and the deity of Christ, were aimed at Arians.

Arian opponents stormed his church in 379 during the Easter vigil, killing one bishop and wounding Gregory. Matters improved when Theodosius ascended the throne and vowed to rid the East of Arians once and for all. Gregory was elected bishop of Constantinople to replace the Arian bishop dismissed by the emperor, but his problems were far from over. Accused of attaining his position illegally, he resigned: "Let me be as the Prophet Jonah! I was responsible for the storm. . . . Seize me and throw me." The emperor accepted his resignation, and Gregory returned to Cappadocia where his ministry began.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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