The gift on the Eighth Day: Eight Maids A-Milking. What could that be? Are these young women themselves the gift, which is quite repugnant, or are there services being provided for by the “True Love.” This, and all the subsequent gifts, are gifts of human beings, or better, human services. As one can infer from this hundred-year-old photo, maids have long since been replaced – for better or worse? – by factory-farming methods.
Religiously and metaphorically, they represent the Eight Beatitudes. Perhaps as milk is a primal source of food, the Beatitudes are the beginnings of a well-nourished spirituality.
Happy St. Basil’s Day! Unless you’re Greek, you probably never have heard that greeting. Basil is also the one who brings gifts to children on January 1, and even has a special bread , vasilopita, with a surprise inside.
Basil is one of an interesting extended family of saints, early in our history, whom I like to call the “Cappadocian Clan,” the most famous of whom we celebrate this week and next.
The second day of the New Year, January 2, is now the feast of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen in the current General Roman Calendar. Then on January 10 we celebrate the feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa. They lived in the fantastic and rugged landscape of Cappadocia, in the heart of present-day Turkey, in the fourth century.
This was a time of great intellectual ferment in the Christian Church. Christianity had recently been given freedom and support by Emperor Constantine, and was on the verge of being made the “official” religion of the then-Roman Empire, headquartered in the Emperor’s new city, Constantinople.
With legitimacy came problems for the Church. One problem was how to be part of worldly governance and at the same time remain faithful to Christ – a problem relevant to today’s times as well. Another problem was how to translate an essentially Jewish concept of the One God in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ, including belief in his divinity, into the prevailing thought patterns of Greek culture. Each of these saints made a significant contribution. All of them were deeply committed Christians who had been steeped in the philosophical studies of their time.
Basil abandoned his worldly career to take up a spiritual life of prayer, contemplation, study and writing. Monasticism was just beginning to develop as a way of living a holy life in community, apart from the distractions of commerce and worldly commitments. Basil was a genius at organizing communities of like-minded people, and composed a rule that would ensure order within the community and help them live a holy life together. He influenced the later rule of St. Benedict, and so became the foundation of all subsequent religious monastic orders.
Gregory of Nyssa was his brother, younger by a year but who would outlive him by more than ten years. His lasting influence in Christianity was to develop a mystical outlook that probed behind and beneath experience and philosophy.
Much of the mystical tradition of Christianity, including such later giants as Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross, owe a lot to his inspiration.
Gregory Nazianzen was a close friend of both, and his contribution was primarily to help understand and express the doctrine of the One God as a Trinity of Divine Persons, at a time when the whole Church was trying to “get a handle” on what divine revelation in Jesus Christ actually means and how do we express it in human language.
Not an easy task, and one that we, by our very nature, will always do imperfectly.
The two brothers, Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, were members of a large family of recognized saints. Their parents, Basil the Elder and Emmelia, were both recognized as saints, and influential figures in the beginnings of Christianity in the region, which has been called by our current Holy Father, Benedict XVI, “the Holy Land of the Church.” Their paternal grandmother, Macrina the Elder, seems to have started Christianity in the family because she was converted by Gregory the Wonder-Worker, a great man of the previous century (the mid-200s).
They come from a family of ten siblings, of whom at least four are recognized as saints in Christian tradition. The other two are Macrina the Younger and Peter of Sebastea.
Their close friend and colleague, Gregory of Nazianzen has his own family of saints associated with them. His parents, Gregory of Nazianzen the Elder and Nonna, as well as his sister and brother, Gorgonia and Caesarius, are all venerated as saints.
Notice I say “recognized” or “venerated” as saints. Before the Middle Ages there was no formal, universal process of canonization of saints. (By the way, the word “canonization” simply means “putting them on the official list, called a “canon.”) Great figures of faith and holiness usually just began to be acclaimed for their virtuous lives, and after their death it was believed that they could serve as both intercessors and models for the rest of us. Often, with the approval and support of local bishops, their reputation spread widely.
The life story of this “Cappadocian Clan” of saints would make a fascinating movie, especially if filmed on location in central Turkey which is one of the natural wonders of the world.