Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s vision of the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

Saint Gregory of Nyssa did not enjoy the benefit of infant Baptism, and remained for many years unbaptized, according to the custom of the time. It is unclear whether he delayed it himself, or it was delayed for him. Saint Gregory was first moved to make a public avowal and receive Holy Baptism due to an extraordinary vision in which he was made to take part. While his mother Emmelia was at her sacred retreat at Annesi, she implored her son to attend a service commemorating the Holy Forty Martyrs. At his mother’s behest he went, though reluctantly; for he had been studying in Caesarea, and felt incommoded that he should have to leave his studies at such an inconvenient time. The journey to the retreat proved tiring to him, and the length of time for the divine office was protracted. The vigil was already well into the night, and Gregory found himself physically unable to remain on his feet. He withdrew to the garden, where he was overtaken by sleep. He beheld a vision of the very Forty Martyrs. They reproved him for his lack of zeal, and started to strike him with rods. Only through the efforts of one of the warrior Martyrs did he escape the thrashing.

Straightway, Saint Gregory was roused from his slumber. Filled with remorse at his past laxity, he was resolved to change his ways. He begged God and the Martyrs for mercy and forgiveness. Still struck with the effect the vision laid upon his tender conscience, he was inspired to accept the rank of Reader in the Church. This acceptance meant a public profession of the Faith. Saint Gregory assumed the duties of that position for a short time, but could not dedicate himself exclusively to it. He then turned to the profession of a rhetorician or advocate. His retirement from his duties as a Reader led to a reprimand from his elder brother Basil (the Great) and his good friend Gregory (the Theologian).

Saint Gregory the Theologian chided him in a letter, which moved the young man to remorse. He frankly told him, “Why should you not hear from me what all men are saying in whispers? They do not approve your inglorious glory … and your gradual descent to the lower life, and your ambition …. For what has happened to you, O wisest of men? And for what do you condemn yourself, that you have cast away the sacred and delightful books which you were reading to the people … and applied yourself to bitter ones, and preferred to be called a Professor of Rhetoric rather than of Christianity? … Though it is full late, become sober again, and come to yourself once more, and make your apology to the faithful, and to God, and to His altars and Mysteries, from which you have taken yourself away …. What of the offense given to others by your present employment? … For a man lives not for himself alone but also for his neighbor …. I shall be grieved–to speak gently–if you do not see what is right, nor follow the advice of others….Forgive that my friendship for you makes me grieve.”*

Saint Gregory’s sister Macrina, after much prayer and persuasion, prevailed upon Gregory to leave his secular concerns and the law court, and devote himself entirely to asceticism. Saint Gregory removed himself to his brother’s retreat in Pontos, which was in the same neighborhood as the convent of his mother and sister. Saint Gregory stayed in that monastic foundation for several years, hallowing his time with the study of sacred Scriptures and holy writings.

Source: Saint Gregory (the Theologian), “Epistles 1, To Saint Gregory of Nyssa,” Nicene, 2nd Ser., VII:459

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