St. Gregory of Nyssa was one of a group of illustrious 4th Century saints who left an enduring imprint on the Orthodox Church.
With St. Basil, the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory, the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa created a rich legacy of theology, liturgy, and spiritual literature unsurpassed in any era of the Eastern Church. This body of work is vastly important for its interpretation of Eastern Christianity’s theology, liturgical texture, and the nature of God. Orthodoxy’s distinctive mysticism has its origins in this period with much owing to St. Gregory of Nyssa.
Like other saints, St. Gregory of Nyssa was a unique and gifted human being with extraordinary powers of observation and expression. His family was equally remarkable, an intellectual and spiritual citadel in the Church’s history. St. Gregory’s brother, St. Basil, the Great, not only wrote one of the core liturgies of the Orthodox Church, he created prayers that today remain commonplace in the lives of ordinary Orthodox believers, and he educated or served as an icon for clergy and bishops of his and later ages. Basil, with his brother Gregory, helped to establish our understanding of the Trinity and of the distinctive nature of Christ within the Trinity. Their saintly mother, Emmelia and renowned lawyer father raised nine children–five girls and four boys—of whom, one brother Nacratious was a lawyer and another, Peter was the Bishop of Sebasta, a small town on the Mediterranean coast.
If the other brother and four sisters, little is known. Macrina, Gregory’s older sister, was widely known and beloved for her devout and holy life, who ultimately was honored as a saint. She was Gregory’s confidant, sometimes intellectual partner, and deep spiritual influence, who probably influenced his ordination decision. St. Basil, in all likelihood, was the driving force in St. Gregory’s decision to pursue holy orders. St. Basil appears to have been the dominating intellectual and social force in Gregory’s life and probably in Peter’s life as well. In a letter to Peter, St. Gregory expressed his deep gratitude to their older brother Basil whom Gregory described as “our father and our master.” The letter conveyed great affection for Basil and for Peter as well.
Most scholars agree that St. Basil played a principal role not only in guiding Peter’s and Gregory’s life choices but equally in educating and raising his younger brothers.
St. Gregory was a reluctant cleric. He had trained for and started a career as a teacher of rhetoric, the study of effective pubic speaking and writing. His family, however, did not support his career choice and tried to convince Gregory to use his talents in the service of the Church. When he chose to become a teacher, his brother Basil, by then a powerful bishop, objected to and argued against St. Gregory’s choice with long and impatient letters to his younger brother. St. Basil initially failed to persuade his young brother of his mistake, but ultimately with Gregory’s friends and sister, Macrina, St. Basil persuaded Gregory to become a priest. Shortly thereafter, Gregory was elevated to Bishop of Nyssa.
St. Gregory’s large body of theological work and his many letters constitute an eloquent and intellectually distinctive contribution to Orthodox theology and spirituality. His Catechism is testimony to his profound grasp of Christian belief. In The Life of Moses, St. Gregory’s mystical portrayal of God–simultaneously audacious and humble and thoroughly brilliant—has no parallel in Christian thought. Similarly, his letters are models of elegant grace and beauty, some miraculously anticipating a style of writing and thought not to arise until 1400 years later in the Romantic era of western literature. He was a gifted writer and speaker who delighted in language and its power to persuade and invoke the senses while illuminating the intellect, a wholly unmatched attribute among writers of his period and unique among the early Church Fathers.
In 787 A.D., roughly four centuries after Gregory’s death, the Seventh General Council of the Church honored St. Gregory of Nyssa by naming him, “Father of Fathers.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, whose mystical rejoicing of the Trinity and consuming love for his fellow human beings, continues to touch our souls as, Father Gregory, the sublime catechist, reluctant cleric, and unlikely hero of the Church.