Friday, March 12, 2010

Hope in Bereavement - What we can learn from Gregory of Nyssa

This past Tuesday was the feast day of St. Gregory of Nyssa, that great Cappadocian father (died c. A.D. 395). There is much that could be said of this luminary of the early Church. We might speak of his excellent early education and training in rhetoric; we might speak of his difficult episcopacy, which he reluctantly took, later to be exiled under trumped up charges of embezzlement by his Arian foes; we could speak of his vindication and return; we could speak of his biblical exegesis and preaching, his mystical and ascetical writing, his ardent defense of the Nicene faith against his Arian foes; we could speak of contributions to our understanding of the triune God, and especially, the person and working of the Holy Spirit; we could speak of all these things, but in doing so, I fear we may fail to see something very important about the man behind the doctor of the faith, something very ordinary, prosaic and indeed common to our human condition.

In perusing Father Stephen Reynold’s wonderful book, For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for the Saints’ Days (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2004) I learned a couple of very important things about Gregory. First, his older brother, St. Basil of Caesarea, coerced him into accepting the bishopric of the small town of Nyssa. It was, as mentioned, an episcopacy fraught with conflict, false criminal accusations against Gregory, and eventual exile. It is no small wonder that he had strained relations with his older brother, which is the second fact that I discovered. Thus, behind this great father of the faith, we see a man plagued with “brother issues.” We can only begin to imagine what their relationship must have been like. I suppose it was the usual sibling relationship filled, at once, with both deep love and moments of resentment. Father Reynolds writes, “Basil died leaving Gregory regretful over the history of their strained relations.”

In 2009 at Holy Trinity, Thornhill, the Canon and I officiated at a total of over forty funerals. About half of those were members (or close relatives) of the parish. On our vestry Sunday at the Eucharistic prayer, I slowly read the names of those twenty people who were close to us who have died since the previous year’s vestry meeting. It was the longest list in many years. Since January, we have officiated at sixteen funerals to date. In the midst of life we are in death. In the reality of so much death there is much reflection on things done and left undone; on broken promises, on unfulfilled dreams, on hurtful words. Of course there is also the reflection on joyful lives well lived, but one can never underestimated the unspoken regret that is present as we say farewell to those we love. St. Gregory of Nyssa, that great Cappadocian father and doctor of the faith, who defended the Nicene faith, was just like rest of us, with regrets over relationships whose frayed threads remain unresolved at the grave.

In his deep bereavement over the loss of his brother, Gregory faced another tragedy. His beloved sister, the Holy Macrina, was also deathly ill. After the death of Basil, and in Macrina’s final days, he nursed her caringly and lovingly. In those final moments together, they formed a deep and lasting bond that transcended the grave. They shared their thoughts on the Christian faith and life. He later referred to Macrina as “his teacher.”

His deep and profound regret over things said and left unsaid, and things done and left undone in his relationship with Basil, stirred him to a deep and holy communion with Macrina as she prepared to depart this life.

It calls to mind for me one of the prayers we use regularly in our funeral liturgy, a prayer in which we pray that, “those of who were close to the deceased may now because of his or her death, be even closer to each other.” In death there is a hope that transcends the grave, but there is also another hope that touches us in the course of our earthly pilgrimage. As we face the death of a loved one and stare into the face all the regrets that might linger in the loose ends of that relationship, the God of all hope stirs within us a deeper longing for communion, reconciliation, and love amongst those who remain. This is a hope worth laying hold of, that even in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death, our God is with us and his Holy Spirit comes to us, knitting the frayed ends of our broken relationships together, that we might not sorrow as a people without hope this side of the grave or the next. This is the quieter, but no less profound teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

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