St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom – the three Holy Hierarchs, celebrate a shared observance day on January 30th.
They lived in roughly the same time period – the fourth century. St. Basil and St. Gregory were born in approximately 329 or 330 AD, and St. John Chrysostom was born about 347 (Basil and Gregory would have been about eighteen years old). St. Basil and St. Gregory met when they were still in school in Caesarea, and then formed their famous friendship later, when they were both studying in Athens.
All three men lived exemplary lives, living the words they preached, exhorting those who had fallen away or were living a worldly, sinful life to come back to the faith, and be cleansed. They stood up against attacks, and held their ground, not only in the things they said and wrote, but in the way they conducted themselves.
Their fame, obviously, outlived them. Their words were read, copied and discussed in the centuries after their deaths, they were recognised as saints and their feast days were celebrated throughout Christendom. In the eleventh century a dispute arose as to which of the three had been the best, truest example of a living Christian faith, and the most eloquent and able of the three in their writings on the faith. It became a cause celebré, with the arguments and divisions spreading far and wide. It got so bad that schisms were forming and threatening to split the Church, which was ironic, to say the least, since the three men had spent the greater portion of their lives fighting for an orthodox, catholic (and above all, unified) Church.
Enter St. John Mauropus, the Metropolitan of Euchaita, known for his virtue and his powerful eloquence. One night, he dreamed that the three appeared before him, and assured him, both separately and speaking together in unison, that before God they were all equal, and that no discord or rivalry divided them. They asked the Metropolitan to tell those causing the disputes to cease their arguing and to stop creating divisions in the Church where none needed to be, especially since they had all worked for that exact unity during their lives. They suggested that a commemoration be established, to honour all three of them on the single day. Then they departed, talking amongst themselves with all amity and friendship.
When John woke, he called an assembly and announced his dream to his people. Word spread, and amazingly enough, the divisions ceased when the feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs was set on the last day of January to honour, “These three luminaries of the Church who have shed the light of the true Faith all over the world, scorning dangers and persecutions, and they have left us, their descendants, this sacred inheritance by which we too can attain to utmost blessedness and everlasting life in the presence of God and of all the Saints.”
The Three Hierarchs and Education
It was recognised officially as the greatest feast for Greek schools and for education more generally, first by the University of Athens, with a motion by the Senate in the academic year 1843-4, and then later, by law, by the Greek state.
From childhood, all three Fathers loved education whole-heartedly, sought knowledge and devoted themselves earnestly to learning. After the general education he was given by his father, Basil the Great studied in the famous schools of Caesarea, later pursuing higher studies in Constantinople. In 351, he moved to Athens, where he studied rhetoric, philosophy, dialectics, astronomy, geometry and medicine.
Saint Gregory was probably given his general education in Nazianzos and continued his studies in Caesarea, Alexandria and Athens. In Athens he was a fellow-student of Basil the Great and studied philosophy, rhetoric, music, astronomy and geometry with unusual enthusiasm. He impressed his teachers so greatly that, on the completion of his studies, they forced him to remain in Athens and teach philosophy and rhetoric.
Saint John studied in Antioch under the famous philosophers Andragathios and Libanios. Immediately after his studies, he practiced as a lawyer and proved to be “most proficient at speaking and convincing”. He is considered the greatest orator of all times. He was awarded the sobriquet “Golden-Mouthed” because of his eloquence and the power of his speeches.
Despite the fact that all three devoted their talents and abilities to the service of Christ’s Gospel, they did not turn their backs on secular wisdom. They recommended the serious study of all academic subjects and, moreover, emphasised the value of Greek wisdom.
The three hierarchs proved to be incomparable educators. Their advice and precepts to both parents and children are still applicable to this day. Saint John emphasised that education is superior to any other profession, because it has to do with forming souls. He urged educators to demonstrate their love for their students while they were teaching and to respect and recognise the specific traits of each one. He focused on the character of the teacher and recommended that anyone wishing to undertake the task of educator should be compassionate, self-effacing, willing to sacrifice themselves and be free of pride and arrogance.
Basil the Great was even more practical as regards his educational precepts. He suggested that schools should be built in quiet places and that teachers should try to attract the confidence of their students. During the lesson, the teacher should make himself clear and be brief, though not so much so that that the students would be unable to retain what he said. He pointed out to educators that they should not deal with more than one subject at any one time; should repeat what they have said; not attempt to prove what is obvious and self-evident; should use lots of examples; and generally teach in the capacity of a guide.