Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Bishop and Confessor

Saint Gregory of NyssaArticle

He was younger brother to Saint Basil the Great; was educated in polite and sacred studies, and married to a virtuous lady. He afterwards renounced the world, and was ordained lector; but was overcome by his violent passion for eloquence to teach rhetoric. Saint Gregory Nazianzen wrote to him in the strongest terms, exhorting him to renounce that paltry or ignoble glory, as he elegantly calls it. This letter produced its desired effect. Saint Gregory returned to the sacred ministry in the lower functions of the altar: after some time he was called by his brother Basil to assist him in his pastoral duties, and in 372 was chosen bishop of Nyssa, a city of Cappadocia, near the Lesser Armenia. The Arians, who trembled at his name, prevailed with Demosthenes, vicar or deputy-governor of the province to banish him. Upon the death of the Arian emperor, Valens, in 378, Saint Gregory was restored to his see by the Emperor Gratian. Our holy prelate was chosen by his colleagues to redress the abuses and dissensions which heresy had introduced in Arabia and Palestine. He assisted at the council of Constantinople in 381, and was always regarded as the centre of the Catholic communion in the East. Those prelates only who joined themselves to him, were looked upon as orthodox. He died about the year 400, probably on the 10th of January, on which the Greeks have always kept his festival: the Latins honour his memory on the 9th of March. The high reputation of his learning and virtue procured him the title of Father of the Fathers, as the seventh general council testifies. His sermons are the monuments of his piety; but his great penetration and learning appear more in his polemic works, especially in his twelve books against Eunomius. Dr Cave imagines that Saint Gregory continued to cohabit with his wife after he was bishop. But Saint Jerome testifies that the custom of the eastern churches did not suffer such a thing. She seems to have lived to see him bishop, and to have died about the year 384; but she professed a state of constinency: hence Saint Gregory Nazianzen, in his short eulogium of her, says, she rivalled her brothers-in-law, who were in the priesthood, and calls her sacred, or one consecrated to God; probably she was a deaconness.

Appendix on the Writings of Saint Gregory of Nyssa

Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote many learned works, extant in three volumes in folio, published by the learned Jesuit, Fronto le Duc, at Paris, an. 1615 and 1638. They are eternal monuments of this father’s great zeal, piety, and eloquence. Photius commends his diction, as surpassing that of all other rhetoricians, in perspicuity, elegance, and a pleasing turn of expression; and says, that in the beauty and sweetness of his eloquence, and the copiousness of his arguments in his polemical works against Eunomius, he far outwent the rest who handled the same subject. He wrote many commentaries on holy scripture. The first is his Hexæmeron, or book on the six days’ work of the creation of the world. It is a supplement to his brother Basil’s work on the same subject, who had omitted the obscurer questions, above the reach of the vulgar, to whom he preached. Gregory filled up that deficiency, at the request of many learned men, with an accuracy that became the brother of the great Basil. He shows in this work a great knowledge of philosophy. He finishes it by saying, the widow that offered her two mites did not hinder the magnificent presents of the rich; nor did they who offered skins, wood, and goats’ hair towards the tabernacle, hinder those who could give gold, silver, and precious stones. “I shall be happy,” says he, “if I can present hairs; and shall rejoice to see others add ornaments of purple, or gold tissue.” His book, on the Workmanship of Man, may be looked upon as a continuation of the former, though it was written first. He shows it was suitable that man, being made to command in quality of king all this lower creation, should find his palace already adorned, and that other things should be created before he appeared who was to be the spectator of the miracles of the Omnipotent. His frame is so admirable, his nature so excellent, that the whole Blessed Trinity proceeds as it were by a council, to his formation. He is a king, by his superiority and command over all other creatures by his gift of reason; is part spiritual, by which he can unite himself to God; part material, by which he has it in his power to use and even enslave himself to creatures. Virtue is his purple garment, immortality his sceptre, and eternal glory his crown. His resemblance to his Creator consists in the soul only, that is, in its moral virtues and God’s grace; which divine resemblance men most basely efface in themselves by sin. He speaks of the dignity and spiritual nature of the soul, and the future resurrection of the body, and concludes with an anatomical description of it, which shows him to have been well skilled in medicine, and in that branch of natural philosophy, for that age. The two homilies on the words, Let us make man, are falsely ascribed to him. Being desired by one Cæsarius to prescribe him rules of a perfect virtue, he did this by his Life of Moses, the pattern of virtue. He closes it with this lesson, that perfection consists not in avoiding sin for fear of torments, as slaves do; nor for the hope of recompense, as mercenaries do; but in “fearing, as the only thing to be dreaded, to lose the friendship of God; and in having only one desire, viz., of God’s friendship, in which alone man’s spiritual life consists. This is to be obtained by fixing the mind only on divine and heavenly things.” We have next his two treatises, on the Inscriptions of the Psalms, and An Exposition of the Sixth Psalm, full of allegorical and moral instructions. In the first of these, extolling the divine sentiments and instructions of those holy prayers, he says, that all Christians learned them, and thought that time lost in which they had them not in their mouths: even little children and old men sung them: all in affliction found them their comfort sent by God: those who travelled by land or sea, those who were employed in sedentary trades, and the faithful of all ages, sexes, and conditions, sick and well, made the Psalms their occupation. These divine canticles were sung by them in all times of joy, in marriages and festivals; by day, and in the night vigils, etc. His eight homilies, on the Three First Chapters of Ecclesiastes, are an excellent moral instruction and literal explication of that book. He addressed his fifteen homilies, on the Book of Canticles, which he had preached to his flock, to Olympias, a lady of Constantinople, who, after twenty months’ marriage being left a widow, distributed a great estate to the church and poor, a great part by the hands of our saint, whom she had settled an acquaintance with in a journey he had made to the imperial city. Saint Gregory extols the excellency of that divine book, not to be read but by pure hearts, disengaged from all love of creatures, and free from all corporeal images. He says the Holy Ghost instructs us by degrees; by the Book of Proverbs to avoid sin; by Ecclesiastes to draw our affections from creatures; by this of Canticles he teaches perfection, which is pure charity. He explains it mystically. He has five orations on the Lord’s Prayer. In the first, he elegantly shows the universal, indispensable necessity of prayer, which alone unites the heart to God, and preserves it from the approach of sin. Every breath we draw ought also to be accompanied with thanksgiving, as it brings us innumerable benefits from God, which we ought continually to acknowledge. But we must only pray for spiritual, not temporal things. In the second, he shows that none can justly call God father who remain in sin, without desires of repentance, and who consequently bear the ensigns of the devil. Resemblance with God is the mark of being his son; that title further obliges us to have our minds and hearts always in heaven. By the next we pray that God alone may reign in us, and his will be ever done by us; and that the devil or self-love never have any share in our hearts or actions. By the fourth we ask bread, i. e. absolute necessaries, not dainties, not riches, or anything superfluous, or for the world, and even bread only for to-day, without solicitude for to-morrow, which perhaps will never come: all irregular desires, and all occasions of them, must be excluded. “The serpent is watching at your heel, but do you watch his head: give him no admittance into your mind: from the least entrance he will draw in after him the foldings of his whole body. If Eve’s counsellor persuade you that anything looks beautiful and tastes sweet, if you listen you are soon drawn into gluttony, and lust, and avarice, etc.” The fifth petition he thus paraphrases: “I have forgiven my debtors, do not reject your suppliant. I dismissed my debtor cheerful and free: I am your debtor, send me not away sorrowful. May my dispositions, my sentence prevail with you. I have pardoned, pardon: I have showed compassion, imitate your servant’s mercy. My offences are indeed far more grievous; but consider how much you excel in all good. It is just that you manifest to sinners a mercy suiting your infinite greatness. I have given proof of mercy in little things, according to the capacity of my nature; but your bounty is not to be confined by the narrowness of my power, etc.” His eight sermons, on the Eight Beatitudes, are written in the same style. What he says in them on the motives of humility, which he thinks is meant by the first beatitude, of poverty of spirit, and on meekness, proves how much his heart was filled with those divine virtues.

Besides what we have of Saint Gregory on the holy scripture, time has preserved us many other works of piety of this father. His discourse entitled, on his Ordination, ought to be called, on the Dedication. It was spoken by him on the consecration of a magnificent church, built by Rufin, (præfect of the prætorium,) ann. 394, at the Borough of the Oak, near Chalcedon. His sermon, on Loving the Poor, is a pathetic exhortation to alms, from the last sentence on the wicked for a neglect of that duty. “At which threat,” he says, “I am most vehemently terrified, and disturbed in mind.” He excites to compassion for the lepers in particular, who, under their miseries, are our brethren, and it is only God’s favour that has preserved us sound rather than them; and who knows what we ourselves may become? His dialogue against Fate, was a disputation with a Heathen philosopher, who maintained a destiny or overruling fate in all things. His canonical epistle to Letoius, bishop of Melitine, metropolis of Armenia, has a place among the canons of penance in the Greek church, published by Beveridge. He condemns apostasy to perpetual penance, deprived of the sacraments till the article of death: if only extorted by torments, for nine years; the same law for witchcraft; nine years for simple fornication; eighteen for adultery; twenty-seven for murder, or for rapine. But he permits the terms to be abridged in cases of extraordinary fervour. Simple theft he orders to be expiated by the sinner giving all his substance to the poor; if he has none, to work to relieve them.

His discourse against those who defer baptism, is an invitation to sinners to penance, and chiefly of catechumens to baptism, death being always uncertain. He is surprised to see an earthquake or pestilence drive all to penance and to the font: though an apoplexy or other sudden death may as easily surprise men any night of their lives. He relates this frightful example. When the Nomades Scythians plundered those parts, Archias, a young nobleman of Comanes, whom he knew very well, and who deferred his baptism, fell into their hands, and was shot to death by their arrows, crying out lamentably: “Mountains and woods, baptize me; trees and rocks, give me the grace of the sacrament.” Which miserable death more afflicted the city than all the rest of the war. His sermons, against Fornication, on Penance, on Alms, and on Pentecost, are in the same style. In that against Usurers, he exerts a more than ordinary zeal, and tells them: “Love the poor. In his necessity he has recourse to you, to assist his misery, but by lending him on usury you increase it: you sow new miseries on his sorrows, and add to his afflictions. In appearance you do him a pleasure, but in reality ruin him; like one who, overcome by a sick man’s importunities, gives him wine, a present satisfaction, but a real poison. Usury gives no relief, but makes your neighbour’s want greater than it was. The usurer is no way profitable to the republic, neither by tilling the ground, by trade, etc.; yet idle at home, would have all to produce to him; hates all he gains not by. But though you were to give alms of these unjust exactions, they would carry along with them the tears of others robbed by them. The beggar who receives, did he know it, would refuse to be fed with the flesh and blood of a brother; with bread extorted by rapine from other poor. Give it back to him from whom you unjustly took it. But to hide their malice, they change the name of usury into milder words, calling it interest or moderate profit, like the Heathens, who called their furies by the soft names Eumenides.” He relates that a rich usurer of Nyssa, was so covetous as to deny himself and children necessaries, and not to use the bath to save three farthings, dying suddenly, left his money all hid and buried where his children could never find it, who by that means were all reduced to beggary. “The usurers answer me,” says he, “then we will not lend; and what will the poor do? I bid them give, and exhort to lend, but without interest; for he that refuses to lend, and he that lends at usury, are equally criminal;” viz., if the necessity of another be extreme. His sermon on the Lent Fast, displays the advantage of fasting for the health of both body and soul; he demands during these forty days’ strenuous labour to cure all their vices, and insists on total abstinence from wine at large, and that weakness of constitution and health is ordinarily a vain pretence. Saint Gregory’s great Catechistical Discourse is commended by Theodoret, Leontius, Euthymius, Germanus patr. of Constantinople. The last lines are an addition. In the fortieth chapter he expounds to the catechumens the mysteries of the Unity and Trinity of God, and the Incarnation: also the two sacraments of baptism and the body of Christ, in which latter Christ’s real body is mixed with our corruptible bodies, to bestow on us immortality and grace. In his book upon Virginity, he extols its merit and dignity.

Saint Gregory was much scandalized in his journey to Jerusalem to see contentions reign in that holy place; yet he had the comfort to find there several persons of great virtue, especially three very devout ladies, to whom he afterwards wrote a letter, in which he says “When I saw those holy places, I was filled with a joy and pleasure which no tongue can express.” Soon after his return he wrote a short treatise on those who go to Jerusalem, in which he condemns pilgrimages, when made an occasion of sloth, dissipation of mind, and other dangers; and observes that they are no part of the gospel precepts. Dr Cave borrows the sophistry of Du Moulin to employ this piece against the practice of pilgrimages; but in part very unjustly, as Gretser demonstrates. Some set too great a value on pilgrimages, and made them an essential part of perfection: and by them even many monks and nuns exchanged their solitude into a vagabond life. These abuses Saint Gregory justly reproves. What he says, that he himself received no good by visiting the holy places, must be understood to be a Miosis, or extenuation to check the monks’ too ardent passion for pilgrimages, and only means, the presence of those holy places, barely of itself, contributes nothing to a man’s sanctification: but he does not deny it to be profitable by many devout persons uniting together in prayer and mortification, and by exciting hearts more powerfully to devotion. “Movemur locis ipsis in quibus eorum quos admiramur aut diligimus adsunt vestigia,” said Atticus in Cicero. “Me quidem illæ ipsæ nostræ Athenæ, non tam operibus magnificis exquisitisque antiquorum artibus delectant, quam recordatione summorum virorum, ubi quis habitare, ubi sedere, ubi disputare sit solitus, studiosque eorum sepulchra contemplor.” Much more must the sight of the places of Christ’s mysteries stir up our sentiments and love. Why else did Saint Gregory go over Calvary, Golgotha, Olivet, Bethlehem? What was the unspeakable (spiritual certainly, not corporal) pleasure he was filled with at their sight? a real spiritual benefit, and that which is sought by true pilgrims. Does he not relate and approve the pilgrimages of his friend, the monk Olympius? Nor could he be ignorant of the doctrine and practice of the church. He must know in the third century that his countryman Alexander, a bishop in Cappadocia, admonished by divine oracle, went to Jerusalem to pray, and to visit the holy places, etc. as Eusebius relates; and that this had been always the tradition and practice. “Longum est nunc ab ascensu Domini usque ad præsentem diem per singulas ætates currere, qui episcoporum, qui martyrum, qui eloquentium in doctrina ecclesiastica virorum venerint Hierosolymam, putantes se minus religionis, minus habere scientiæ, nec summam ut dicitur manum accepisse virtutum, nisi in illis Christum adorassent locis de quibus primum Evangelium de patibulo coruscaverat.” Saint Jerom, in ep. Paulæ et Eustochii ad Marcellam. As for the abuses which Saint Gregory censures, they are condemned in the canon law, by all divines and men of sound judgment. If, with Benedict XIV, we grant this father reprehended the abuses of pilgrimages, so as to think the devotion itself not much to be recommended, this can only regard the circumstances of many who abuse them, which all condemn. He could not oppose the torrent of other fathers, and the practice of the whole church. And his devotion to holy places, relics, etc. is evident in his writings, and in the practice of Saint Macrina and his whole family.

His discourse on the Resurrection, is the dialogue he had with his sister Saint Macrina the day before her death. His treatise on the Name and Profession of a Christian, was written to show no one ought to bear that name who does not practise the rules of this profession, and who has not its spirit, without which a man may perform exterior duties, but will upon occasions betray himself, and forget his obligation. When a mountebank at Alexandria had taught an ape dressed in woman’s clothes to dance most ingeniously, the people took it for a woman, till one threw some almonds on the stage; for then the beast could no longer contain, but tearing off its clothes, went about the stage picking up its dainty fruit, and showed itself to be an ape. Occasions of vain-glory, ambition, pleasure, etc. are the devil’s baits, and prove who are Christians, and who hypocrites and dissemblers under so great a name, whose lives are an injury and blasphemy against Christ and his holy religion. His book on Perfection teaches that that life is most perfect which resembles nearest the life of Christ in humility and charity, and in dying to all passions and to the love of creatures: that in which Christ most perfectly lives, and which is his best living image, which appears in a man’s thoughts, words, and actions; for these show the image which is imprinted on the soul. But there is no perfection which is not occupied in continually advancing higher.

His book on the Resolution of Perfection to the monks, shows perfection to consist in every action being referred to God, and done perfectly conformable to his will in the spirit of Christ. Saint Gregory had excommunicated certain persons, who, instead of repenting, fell to threats and violence. The saint made against them his sermon, entitled, Against those who do not Receive Chastisement submissively; in which, after exhorting them to submission, he offers himself to suffer torments and death, closing it thus; “How can we murmur to suffer, who are the ministers of a God crucified? yet under all you inflict, I receive your insolences and persecutions as a father and mother do from their dearest children, with tenderness.” In the discourse on Children dying without Baptism, he shows that such can never enjoy God; yet feel not the severe torments of the rest of the damned. We have his sermons on Pentecost, Christ’s Birth, Baptism, Ascension, and on his Resurrection, (but of these last only the first, third, and fourth, are Saint Gregory’s,) and two on Saint Stephen, three on the Forty Martyrs; the lives of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus, Saint Theodorus, Saint Ephrem, Saint Meletius, and his own sister, Saint Macrina: his panegyric on his brother, Saint Basil the Great, the funeral oration of Pulcheria, daughter to the Emperor Theodosius, six years old, and that of his mother, the empress Flaccilla, who died soon after her, at the waters in Thrace. Saint Gregory was invited to make these two discourses in 385, when he was at Constantinople. We have only five of Saint Gregory’s letters in his works. Zacagnius has published fourteen others out of the Vatican library. Caraccioli, of Pisa in 1731, has given us seven more with tedious notes.

Saint Gregory surpasses himself in perspicuity and strength of reasoning, in his polemic works against all the chief heretics of his time. His twelve books against Eunomius, were ever most justly valued above the rest. Saint Basil had refuted that heresiarch’s apology; nor durst he publish any answer, till after the death of that eloquent champion of the faith. Then the Apology of his Apology began to creep privately abroad. Saint Gregory got at last a copy, and wrote his twelve excellent books, in which he vindicates Saint Basil’s memory, and gives many secret histories of the base Eunomius’s life. He proves against him the Divinity and Consubstantiality of God the Son. Though he employs the scripture with extraordinary sagacity, he says, tradition, by succession from the apostles, is alone sufficient to condemn heretics. We have his Treatise to Ablavius, that there are not three gods. A Treatise on Faith also against the Arians. That on Common Notions, is an explication of the terms used about the Blessed Trinity. We have his ten Syllogisms against the Manichees, proving that evil cannot be a God. The heresy of the Apollinarists beginning to be broached, Saint Gregory wrote to Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, against them, showing there is but one person in Christ. But his great work against Apollinaris, is his Anterretic, quoted by Leontius, the sixth general council, etc. Only a fragment was printed in the edition of his father’s works; but it was published from MSS. by Zacagnius, prefect of the Vatican library, in 1698. He shows in it that the Divinity could not suffer, and that there must be two natures in Christ, who was perfect God and perfect man. He proves, also, against Apollinaris, that Christ had a human soul with human understanding. His book of Testimonies against the Jews, is another fruit of his zeal.

Saint Gregory so clearly establishes the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Son, that some Greeks, obstinate in that heresy, erased out of his writings the words out of, as they confessed in a council at Constantinople, in 1280. He expressly condemned Nestorianism before it was broached, and says, “No one dare call the holy Virgin and mother of God, mother of man.” He asserts her virginity in and after the birth of Christ. He is no less clear for Transubstantiation in his great catechistical discourse, for the sacrifice and the altar. Private confession of sins is plain from his epistle to Letoius in which he writes thus: “Whoever secretly steals another man’s goods, if he afterwards discover his sin by declaration to the priest, his heart being changed, he will cure his wound, giving what he has to the poor.” This for occult theft, for which no canonical penance was prescribed. He inculcates the authority of priests, of binding and loosing before God, and calls Saint Peter “prince of the apostolic choir,” and “the head of the apostles;” and adds, In glorifying him all the members of the church are glorified, and that it is founded on him.” He writes very expressly and at length on the invocation of saints, and says they enjoy the beatific vision immediately after death, in his sermons on Saint Theodorus, on the Forty Martyrs, Saint Ephrem, Saint Meletius, etc.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Bishop and Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 8 March 2013. Web. 1 November 2014. <>