Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of the Three Holy Hiearchs: Sts Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Gregory the Theologian. The story of how this feast came about is most intriguing. During the reign of Emperor Alexius Comnenus (1081-1118), a controversy broke out in Constantinople concerning which of the three holy bishops was the greatest saints. Three fractions arose: The "Basil-ites," who argued that St Basil was the greatest of these three, since he was the finest theologian and a zealous guide to monastics. The "John-ites," who thought their saint the best for his eloquence in explaining the Holy Scriptures. Finally, the "Gregory-ites," who boasted that their saint had reached "such a pitch in the contemplation of God that no one had been able to express the dogma of the Holy Trinity as perfectly as he."
The controversy was resolved by a vision:
With each faction setting up one of the Fathers against the other two in this way, the whole Christian people were soon caught up in the dispute, which far from promoting devotion to the Saints in the City, resulted in nothing but ill-feeling and endless argument. Then one night the three holy Hierarchs appeared in a dream to Saint John Mauropus, the Metropolitan of Euchaïta (5 Oct.), separately at first, then together and, speaking with a single voice, they said: “As you see, the three of us are with God and no discord or rivalry divides us. Each of us, according to the circumstances and according to the inspiration that he received from the Holy Spirit, wrote and taught what befits the salvation of mankind. There is not among us a first, a second or a third, and if you invoke one of us the other two are immediately present with him. Therefore, tell those who are quarrelling not to create divisions in the Church because of us, for when we were on earth we spared no effort to re-establish unity and concord in the world. You can conjoin our three commemorations in one feast and compose a service for it, inserting the hymns dedicated to each of us according to the skill and knowledge that God has given you. Then transmit it to the Christians with the command to celebrate it each year. If they honor us thus as being with and in God, we give them our word that we will intercede for their salvation in our common prayer.” At these words, the Saints were taken up into heaven in a boundless light while conversing with one another by name.The Three Holy Hierarchs, especially Sts Basil and Gregory, were among the most learned men of their time. Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) speaks eloquently of this in the following sermon:
Saint John immediately assembled the people and informed them of this revelation. As he was respected by all for his virtue and admired for his powerful eloquence, the three parties made peace and every one urged him to lose no time in composing the service of the joint feast. With fine discernment, he selected 30 January as appropriate to the celebration, for it would set the seal to the month in which each of the three Hierarchs already had a separate commemoration (Saint Basil – January 1; Saint Gregory – January 25; Saint John (translation of relics) – January 27).
We may note that early Christian literature at times saw human civilisation, art and culture, as being demonic in their provenance, since they result from the fall. John Chrysostom himself wrote that 'cities, arts, clothes and many other things... were introduced by death'. In the 'Macarian Homilies' we read that wise men, philosophers, writers, poets, artists, sculptors, architects and archaeologists were 'prisoners and slaves of the evil power' and worked under the influence of the devil.The entire sermon is very much worth reading. On a personal note, I was standing behind the late Professor Jaroslav Pelikan, the greatest historical theologian of the past century, when Vladyka Hilarion delivered these words. Dr Pelikan was very pleased by the sermon, quietly praising it to those standing near him.
Yet many church writers pointed to the positive aspects of human civilisation and culture. Gregory the Theologian was one of them. He argued that no nation, religion, or philosophical school can monopolise culture, science and art, because these belong to the whole of humanity. For Gregory, it is God himself who is the true creator of human civilisation, and the artists are instruments in God's hands: 'Language belongs not to those who invented it but rather to all who use it, and so also art and every occupation which you can imagine. In music, each string has its own sound, high or low – so also in these arts the Divine Word, Artist and Creator, appointed various inventors of various occupations and arts, giving everything to those who desire to use it, in order to unite us by the bonds of common life and friendship, and to make our life more civilised'.
Gregory the Theologian respected everything which demonstrates the power of human reason, be it humanitarian and natural sciences, rhetoric, literature, poetry, music or other arts, even the art of circus trainers, about which he spoke with great admiration. Gregory's ideal is a man of reason, of high intellectual culture, of great erudition, who combines the true faith with knowledge in various fields and with an open attitude to the world. It is reason that makes humans alike to the divine Logos. Many of Gregory's poetic works contain praises of reason, education, and scholarship. 'Consider reason as the lamp of your whole life', he says. 'Do not think that there is anything better than education', he writes elsewhere.
At the same time Gregory underlines that education should not be considered as an aim in itself: it is necessary in order to bring one to the knowledge of God and to contribute to one's progress in faith. One has to study in youth in order to offer the fruits of one's learning to the divine Spirit when one reaches maturity. This was Gregory's own aspiration from his early years. In the twilight of his life he wrote: 'One glory was pleasing to me, to progress in literary sciences, which are collected by East and West, and by Athens, the glory of Greece. In them I toiled much for a long time. But even these I placed before Christ, having prostrated myself, in order that they should give room to the Word of great God, which eclipses any changeable and diverse invention of the human mind'.
Thus, secular letters and the fullness of non-Christian culture withdraw into shadow when a person encounters Christ. Compared with the Divine Word, every human word is nothing but myth, tale and invention. Yet the studies of Greek philosophy, mythology, poetry and other humanitarian and natural sciences are necessary in order to bring them to Christ's feet.
Gregory the Theologian had before his eyes many living examples of true Christian scholarship. One of them was Basil the Great, his friend and classmate, of whose erudition and learning he spoke with admiration. Praising Basil's knowledge of rhetoric, grammar, history, poetry, philosophy, astronomy, geometry, mathematics and medicine, Gregory exclaims: 'He was a ship loaded with scholarship insofar as human nature can possibly accumulate'.
Being a defender of the Greek paideia (literary/philosophical cultivation), Gregory the Theologian was a strong opponent to any kind of ignorance and obscurantism. Resistance to learning, contempt for education and unwillingness to accumulate the richness of human culture are, according to Gregory, incompatible with Christianity. The understanding of Christianity as a semi-catacomb sect which encloses itself by thick walls of suspicion and prejudice, opposed to the outside world, is alien to Gregory. On the contrary, Christianity must be open and all-embracing enough to be able to contain within itself the achievements of human reason.
I am particular struck by the last two sentences from the passage I cite above. I know many very devout Orthodox Christians whose view of the world is one above all of paranoia and suspicion, interpreting every historical event as another step in the march towards the apocalypse.I sometimes wonder if they are more interested in the coming of the Antichrist than of Christ Himself. Another attitude is one which follows this logic: the Orthodox Church has the fullness of the Truth; I am Orthodox; I possess the fullness of the Truth; therefore there is no need for any further investigation or education. Finally, there are those who feel that education is simply an obstacle to leading the spiritual life; it is just another vanity. The example of the Three Holy Hierarchs, and the enormous veneration the Church shows to all three both individually and collectively, should stand as a sufficient rebuttal of these obscurantist tendencies. Christ, after all is the Teacher, and we are His students.
The Three Holy Hierarchs are also the patron saints of Orthodox seminarians, and of students of theology in general. This has long been the "name's-day" celebration of all seminarians, at least of the Russian tradition. In the pre-Revolutionary Theological Academies, much if not all of the liturgical services in their honor were celebrated in Greek in their honor.
The above icon depicts, from left to right: St Basil the Great, St John Chrysostom, and St Gregory the Theologian. The first link in this post contains an explanation of the saints' vestments.