Saturday, January 2, 2010

For All the Saints: Basil and Gregory

Posted by Webster 
As I head to our first men’s group of 2010, I come across today’s reading in honor of Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. Like many readings from the Office, I begin it half asleep and finish it fully awake. This excerpt from a sermon by St. Gregory speaks to our men’s group, in particular, and Christian friendship between men, in general.

Today’s meeting is my first as secretary, which means, in theater parlance, that I book the acts. Today’s act is Big Bill—Cursillo. We have a Little Bill, too, which is why today’s Bill is known, to me alone, as Big Bill.

This will be Patrick’s first meeting as president, and as such, he will make the coffee and wield the invisible gavel against filibustering. I hope Patrick remembers the coffee.

Our outgoing president, my big brother Ferde, will be there, tickled to be relieved of the coffee duties after three years of building the group from scratch and surviving a terrible intramural crisis eighteen months ago about whether to put cinnamon in the coffee. Ferde said yea, everyone else said nay; Ferde was president; it was messy.

Jonathan, the outgoing secretary, will be there as well. Which is always a blessing, because Jonathan and Little Bill actually know something about Catholicism, its history and culture. They are, hands down, the two most knowledgeable Catholics in the group. Sorry, Ferde, that includes you. Same with you, Big Bill.

What touches me about the saints for today, both born in the same year, 330 AD, in Asia Minor, is that we remember them as friends. I wonder if friendship in Christ between men is illustrated in the lives of Sts. Basil and Gregory more vividly than in any other two saints’ lives. I don’t have the knowledge to judge this question, but I do have today’s reading.

I read St. Gregory’s words, and they are touching:

Basil and I were both in Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it. 

All of us come from the same river; some of us are “united again.” Do we acknowledge that this might be “by plan, for God so arranged it”? Who chooses our friends for us?

Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper. 

The key here is the joint ambition: a life of true wisdom. Men have many ambitions. Men, more than women, are known for ambition. We think of ambition sometimes as an outward expression of testosterone. But these fourth-century saints had a particular ambition that had nothing to do with possessions or acclaim. And it bound them together. Read their short biographies and you’ll see. Basil is here and Gregory is here.

The icon at the top of this post shows Basil (left) and Gregory (right) flanking St. John Chrysostom. I like this illustration because it seems to say what the preceding paragraph says: that for two men to be joined in true friendship, there must be a third factor present, and “a life of true wisdom” as a joint ambition will do very nicely.

The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own. 

Testosterone breeds envy, and in two men vying for wisdom there is a great temptation to envy. I don’t think men have an edge on women in the envy department, but men or women, we can take a lesson from this: Basil and Gregory “made capital” out of their rivalry. And ended cheering for each other’s successes. The excerpt closes with these words:

Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians. 

Father Barnes—no fan of filibustering and no regular at men’s group—once gave a homily about being called a Christian. He said that when the time comes for someone to say our eulogies, all we should want is to be “called Christians.” The rest of the details—what we did, who we knew, what we accomplished—are trivial. “He was a Christian” should be good enough for us. It was good enough for Sts. Basil and Gregory.