The Greek Fathers

Some works of religious history may be read out of a sense of duty. Others, like Adrian Fortescue’s  The Greek Fathers, Their Lives and Writings, can also be read for pleasure. This book, originally published in 1908, was written by an English born Latin rite priest who was drawn to the history and spirituality of the Eastern Church, and who traveled extensively throughout the eastern Mediterranean. (Although most Christians in the east had split with Rome, a minority of “Uniates” remained Catholic).

Fortescue’s style is marked by an elegant directness. He is not one to hide his opinions, but they are always offered in a way that is informed and balanced. Of St. Gregory Nazianzos (330-390) he says that he was “not always very prudent.” It is nice to be reassured that while all holy men may be admired they must not necessarily be imitated. Fortescue explains, for example, that Gregory of Nazianzos put pressure on his brother, who was studying medicine at Constantinople, to join him in the monastic profession. His brother declined and Gregory became unnecessarily indignant. At the same time the young cleric was not very resigned about his appointment as bishop to Sasima, a place which he never visited and which he regarded as ugly and detestable.

That said, one admires Gregory’s abilities as a theologian. One can also count in his favor his friendship with St. Basil (330-379), who is Fortescue’s favorite Greek Father. He says of Basil’s epistles

Sometimes he is angry and complains, sometimes he describes the country where he is; he constantly makes quiet fun…. There is certainly no collection of Greek letters so entertaining as these.

One of my favorite passages describes Basil arriving as a student in Athens, still the great seat of learning in the Hellenic world, and admired (cautiously) even by Christians:

The city of Pallas Athene, crowned with violets, was still ancient Athens. That wonderful vision of gleaming marble and stately orders of columns, the glowing colours of the Parthenon, the shining golden helmet of the virgin goddess, the cool arcades, crowded theatre and the glorious Propyleia—all the splendours that we now try to recall among the piteous ruins of the Acropolis—were then real things…. Athens was still the heart of that rich and subtle combination of philosophy, letters and perfect aesthetic taste that make up Hellenism. Here were the temples and statues that formed the standard of beauty for the rest of the world… the olive-groves at Kolonos still sheltered the discussions of philosophers.

Fortescue also chronicles the lives of Athanasius (293-373), John Chrysostom (344-407), Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386), Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) and, finally, John of Damascus (d. 754) who marks the end of the Greek patristic period. There are many interesting lessons, some of them still relevant, and some important facts about the life, liturgy, and teachings of the early church which should undoubtedly be better known by modern Christians.

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