Tuesday, March 3, 2015

'Perhaps you have never met a bishop before.'

I am reading John McGuckin's Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001), which I commend.  I am learning much about the fraught relationship between St. Gregory and St. Basil (I thought these guys were saints!  But - surprise!- it turns out, they are in many ways like us.)

McGuckin recounts a remarkable incident in St. Basil's life, after he had become the bishop of Caesarea.  The Arian emperor Valens was making a progress through Cappadocia, one of the aims of which was to examine the theology of the many bishops there and replace those of Nicene persuasion with respect to the divinity and humanity of Christ with Arians.  St. Basil was ordered to meet with the emperors chief interrogator in the matter, the Prefect Modestus.  McGuckin, following St. Gregory's account of the event, picks up the story from here:

The Prefect 'roared like a lion' but Basil was like a martyr unflinching in his trial, as Gregory paints him.  He was accused of 'not honoring the religion of the emperor,' and answered that if he followed the Arian tradition he would be guilty of worshiping a creature.  Gregory depicts Basil before Modestus' tribunal as if he were a martyr from the old times confessing his faith before a persecuting pagan magistrate.  The more the official 'seethes and rages' the more Basil replies with calmness and superior dignity, as Christ did to the servant of the High Priest when he too was under the duress of arrest.  Basil is threatened with punishments for his insolence: confiscation, exile, torture, even death.  All of these things lay within the power of the Prefect, but Basil enjoyed the bold freedom of a confessor.  The famous encounter deserves a retelling:

'None of these things can hurt me,' Basil replied.  'How can that be true?' said the Prefect.  Basil said to him: 'It is because confiscation holds no threat for a man who owns nothing unless you want to have these few threadbare rags, and a few books which represent my whole sub stance.  As for exile I do not know the meaning of it since no place can confine me, nor do I have any place that I can call my own, either where I live now or anywhere else where I might be exiled.  All belongs to God and I am merely a passing guest enjoying his hospitality.  As for torture how can I suffer that since I barely have a body any longer?  Unless you mean the right to inflict the first stroke, of course, for this alone is in your power.  But death would be a welcome friend as far as I am concerned for it would send me to God, and for him alone I live, and order my existence, and for him I have died to the most part, and towards him I have long been hurrying.'  The Prefect was struck with amazement.  He said, 'No man to this day has ever spoken to me like this, with such boldness.' 'Perhaps you have never met a bishop before?' said Basil.
From St. Gregory, Oration 43.49-51, Patrologiae Graecae, ed. J.P. Migne, 36: 560-561.
John McGuckin, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, 182-183.

May God raise up such shepherds for His Churches in our day.