Saint Basil the Great

Our holy father Basil the Great was born at Caesarea in Cappadocia in 329 into a rich and distinguished family, whose greatest glory is that of having adorned the robe of the Church with a cluster of Saints like so many jewels. One of his forebears on his mother's side had won the palm of martyrdom; his paternal grandparents had confessed Christ during the persecution of Maximinus. His parents, Saint Basil the elder and Saint Emmelia were well-known for their virtues, their care for the poor, and for having guided their ten children on the path of holiness. Encouraged by his sister Saint Macrina (July 19), the real spiritual leader of the family, his mother and his brothers, Saint Naucratius, Saint Gregory the future Bishop of Nyssa (Jan. 10), and Saint Peter, the future Bishop of Sebaste (Jan. 9) - all embraced the monastic life.

Saint Basil's early years were spent at Neocaesarea in Pontus, imbibing the principles of the Orthodox faith from his mother and from his grandmother, Saint Macrina the Elder, a disciple of Saint Gregory the Wonderworker (Nov. 17). Tutored by his father, a renowned professor of rhetoric, he made rapid strides in secular studies, which he was at pains to link to growth in virtue. He continued his studies after his father's death, seeking out the best masters in the great seats of learning of those days: Caesarea in Palestine, Constantinople and finally Athens, the very center of scholarship and eloquence in the Ancient world. His reputation had preceded him there through Gregory the Theologian, whom he had known in Cappadocia, and from ordinary, human beginnings their friendship developed into something altogether holy and spiritual, with the mutual discovery that God and the acquisition of the good things of heaven was their one and only aim. Closely united in the bond of charity, they had all things in common: lodgings, a spare diet, aversion from the dissolute pleasures of their contemporaries, an unquenchable thirst for learning and wisdom, the same intellectual daring in reaching for the heights, the same love of eloquence and, above all, a holy rivalry in their course towards perfection of virtue. Such was their unity that, despite their very different characters, one could have believed them to possess a single soul. The stout-hearted Basil, with his penetrating intellect, was interested and excelled in every branch of learning, whether it was philosophy, grammar, logic and rhetoric, mathematics or astronomy, or even practical arts like medicine. In that city, where the proud sophists had disdainfully rejected the preaching of Saint Paul, Basil and Gregory brought about the triumph of the foolishness of the Cross by making use of the very weapons of secular wisdom itself. The renown which Basil gained thereby led his fellow-students to seek to retain him as their master on completion of his studies; but, eager to wing his way to fresh scenes, he parted from the city and from the culture of ancient Greece, leaving Gregory, for the time being, a hostage to them both.

On returning to his own country in 356, he found that his mother Emmelia and his sister Macrina had transformed the family home of Annesi on the River Iris into a convent, and that his brothers also, along with some others, were leading the monastic life in the vicinity. It was Macrina's ardent exhortations, the example of the ascetics recently settled in Cappadocia under the influence of Eustathius of Sebaste, the sudden death of his younger brother Naucratius and, above all, his own thorough going meditation upon the Gospel, which brought home to him the vanity of his course hitherto in seeking after the wisdom of this world. He abandoned his promising career as an academic and lawyer in Caesarea, was baptized, and decided to look for a spiritual father to direct him along the path of ascesis.

Unable to find one in Cappadocia, he set out on a long journey to the fountainheads of the true philosophy in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and as far away as Mesopotamia, where he was able to admire the ascetic feats and the divine virtues of the citizens of heaven who illuminated those regions. Like an industrious bee, he gathered from each one the best of what he found and thus gained in a few months a thorough knowledge of the ascetic art. The next thing was to look for a remote and quiet place where he could put it into practice. This he found at Ibora on the other side of the River Iris from the family monastery of Annesi, in a wild valley which he regarded as a veritable earthly paradise, where he could attend without distraction to the work of God. He succeeded in attracting Gregory to join him, and together for a time they led the ascetic life of manual work, meditation on Holy Scripture and prayer, which they had dreamt of ever since their time in Athens. Stripped of all his possessions that he might be poor like our Savior, who relinquished His Glory in order to enrich us with His divinity, Basil kept nothing for himself beyond what was necessary to cover his body and to survive the day. Owning no more than a single tunic and coat, he wore a long hair cloth at night and slept on the ground. He denied himself the use of a bath, even in the sweltering Cappadocian summer, and would never have a fire lit on winter days, which can be bitterly cold in the mountains of Pontus. His diet of bread and water, with the addition of a few vegetables on feast days, was so sparing that he seemed to live almost without nourishment. He himself said that he treated his body like a rebellious slave which had to be kept under with a heavy hand.

But most wonderful of all were his deep humility and the cutting off of his own will, seen in his constant desire to live in solitude unknown to men and in his ascribing the calamities of the world to his own sins. In his dealings with others he was the mildest and most patient of men. Living in the greatest possible poverty, even as a bishop, he was content to receive his subsistence from the charity of his friends. The Cross was his only treasure, which he clung to in his every action: by ascesis, by living as though free of the flesh, and by patience in the illness that would be with him to his dying day. Alone once more after a year, he exerted nonetheless an influence throughout the region, and many sought him out by reason of his knowledge and his virtue – including monks, laymen and even children, for whom he always showed a tender affection. Because an increasing number of his visitors decided that they, too, would embrace the life similar to that of the angels, Basil began to compose for them his Rules, which are regarded, in the East as much as in the West, as the real foundation charter of monasticism.

Notwithstanding his youth, as a law-giver he possessed the authority of an elder grown gray in long years of ascetic labors, and he showed the deep knowledge of the human soul which God had granted him during the days and nights that he had devoted to contemplation. Steering clear of the eccentric asceticism of the disciples of Eustathius of Sebaste, he insisted on community life led under the direction of a single father who should be the living image of Christ; on the absolute necessity of giving up one's goods and one's own will; on charity and respect for one another; and on giving effect to the commandments of the Gospel with fear of God and Orthodox faith. He founded several monasteries for both men and women in different parts of Pontus, and even as a bishop he continued to direct them.

In 360, he was summoned to Caesarea and ordained deacon by Bishop Dianus. During the Council of Constantinople which he attended with his bishop, Basil was distressed to observe the extent to which the Church of Christ was torn apart by the endless struggles between Arians, Semi-Arians (Homoiousians) and Orthodox. Since Dianus weakly allowed himself to be led into signing the theological statement agreeable to the heretics, Basil broke communion with him for some time and returned to his solitude, where he was joined by Saint Gregory who was in flight after his forced ordination. In June 363, Basil was ordained a priest by Eusebius, the new Bishop of Caesarea, but he soon returned once more to his hermitage, following a disagreement between himself and the Bishop, provoked by some jealous people. It was now that he strove to bring the monks of Cappadocia together in coenobitic communities, laying down Rules for their way of life, their church services, and their relations with one another and with the world. Resolute advocate of the common life though he was, Saint Basil never lost his love for the anchoretic life; and he took care to establish cells for hermits not far from each monastery, so that the solitaries might benefit from the Security that human society provides, and those consecrated to the practical life might find example and inspiration in their brethren who remained steadfast and undistracted in silence and prayer.

The accession of the Emperor Valens (365-378), an incorrigible Arian, presented a threat which led to Basil's deciding once again to leave his monastery in order, on this occasion, to take an active part in the fight for the Truth. Having made his peace with Eusebius, Basil was entrusted with the instruction of the people of Caesarea. With wonderful eloquence, he taught them to admire the wisdom of God in the creation, and he inspired them with love for the true beauty that the soul obtains through practice of the virtues and meditation on Holy Scripture. During the dreadful famine which afflicted the city in 367, his active charity was wonderful to behold: he distributed the last of the goods that remained to him, and made the rich and the hoarders of corn open their granaries by the irresistible torrent of his eloquence; giving of himself to the uttermost, he supervised the distribution of food and put his medical skills at the service of the sick. The enthusiasm of the faithful at his eventual election to the see of Caesarea in 370 - in spite of intriguers and heretics - reflected the gratitude of the thousands whom he had saved from starvation.

No sooner had the new Metropolitan taken possession of his see than he prepared for battle by confirming the Faith and bringing his clergy and assistant bishops into line. He preached to his people daily morning and evening and introduced many pious customs which he had observed among the Christians of Egypt and Syria. When the province was afflicted by drought he prostrated himself before God in prayer until the rain came. Seeing that, apart from Alexandria, the metropolis of Caesarea alone, like a fortified tower, stood out against his heretical policy, Valens decided to go there in person and he sent the Prefect Modestus in advance to subdue the bold bishop. Having tried in vain to win Basil over with promises and flattery, the Prefect resorted to threats of confiscation, exile, torture and death. 'You will have to find something else to threaten me with,’ the Saint replied confidently, 'because you won't achieve your purpose with any of those things. You cannot confiscate my possessions, for I have none, unless you want to take the threadbare clothes I am wearing and a handful of books. As for exile, I don't know what it is, since I am not attached to any place; the place where I live does not belong to me, and I would consider myself at home whatever my place of exile; or rather I regard the whole earth as belonging to God and consider myself a sojourner wherever I happen to be. As for torture, where will you begin? I haven't a body strong enough to survive it... And I will accept death as a favor, for it will bring me all the sooner to God for whom I live, for whom I act, for whom I am more than half-dead already, and to whom my sighs have long been directed.' Amazed and disarmed, the Prefect admitted that he had never before heard words like these. 'That is because you have never had to deal with a BISHOP,’ Basil replied.

Healed of an illness by the prayer of the Saint, Modestus later became his friend and attentive admirer. In the following year, Valens entered the great church of Caesarea at the feast of the Theophany. The beauty of the chanting, the attentiveness of the congregation and, above all, the majestic presence of Saint Basil standing before the altar like Jesus the High Priest of our Salvation, impressed him in spite of himself, and he came up with the faithful to bring his offering with a trembling hand and shaking knees; but he did not present himself at the time of Communion knowing that he would be refused. Nevertheless, Valens gave way soon after to the demands of his Arian bishops and was persuaded to banish Saint Basil. That very night, his six-year-old son Valentinian was seized by a violent fever. He recovered only when Valens summoned the Saint to the Palace and countermanded his banishment. Basil assured him of the child's complete recovery if he were brought up in the Orthodox faith, but when Valens had him baptized by an Arian bishop the lad immediately relapsed and died. Valens later approved a second decree for the banishment of Saint Basil, but on attempting to sign it the pen broke in his hand, not once but thrice: and making a fourth attempt his hand trembled, and his arm grew so slack that he took fright and left Basil in peace, although persisting in the same policy.

Once, when the Arians were threatening to seize the Church of Nicaea, Saint Basil, like a second Elias (1 Kings 18:20-40), proposed that the contending parties should send up their prayers in turn in front of the closed doors of the church. The supplications of the heretics were of no effect, but as soon as the Saint raised his hands in prayer to God the whole church shook to its foundations and the doors flew open, to the shouts of joy of the faithful. In order to reduce the influence of the Bishop of Caesarea, the Emperor divided Cappadocia into two ecclesiastical provinces, to which Saint Basil responded by creating new sees and appointing sound men as bishops, such as his brother Gregory at Nyssa and Gregory the Theologian at Sasima.

In the doctrinal field, Saint Basil routed the extreme Arians in the Treatise against Eunomius (364) and then went on to attack the Semi-Arians (Homoiousians) who, in spite of their apparent closeness to the Orthodox, were a very disturbing element in the situation with their endless debates about the theological credentials of different churchmen. Countering the Pneumatomachoi or Macedonians, who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, Saint Basil was the first of the Fathers to declare clearly and boldly that the Holy Spirit is fully God, of the same nature as the Father and the Son. Since he was himself inspired by the Spirit of God and communicated by Grace in the mystery of the ineffable union of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, Saint Basil was able to discern the opportune moment and manner in which to set forth with incomparable clarity and precision, in his treatise, On the Holy Spirit, the fundamental terms of Orthodox theology (essence, hypostasis), while never isolating them from the mystery of our Salvation and from the deification of man.

Criterion of truth, his authority extended far beyond the confines of his diocese. Like the eagle which mounts up to the heights, he surveyed everything and kept watch over all, protecting the Churches in distress and covering them with his wings. He made many journeys on this account, and when prevented, as he often was by illness, he would indicate what was to be done in letters, which are among the treasures of patristic literature. Saint Basil's ever-growing renown made him the natural successor of Saint Athanasios of Alexandria, upon the death of that tireless defender of the Nicene faith (373) and, as such, he became the guiding light of Orthodoxy and the most authoritative spokesman of the Truth.

Care for the Church at large did not prevent him from being a devoted shepherd of his Spiritual flock and a compassionate father to each one of his faithful. With a concern for the poor that knew no bounds, he carried forward the construction, just outside Caesarea, of the 'city of charity', an extensive benevolent institution which he had planned and initiated when he was still a priest. Later known as Basiliad, it consisted of hospices, hospitals, a leprosarium, a school and other buildings, grouped around a church. The Saint used to go there whenever he could, and he would tend without hesitation those suffering from the most loathsome diseases, and embrace the lepers. Saint Ephraim (Jan. 28) averred that when Saint Basil preached, a Shining, white dove would murmur Sublime words into his ear, and that when he offered the holy Sacrifice, he became like a pillar of fire rising from earth to heaven. The Orthodox Church still celebrates the Liturgy which he composed and she uses his prayers which are of high theological inspiration. The feasts of the Martyrs began to be kept with enhanced solemnity due to the encouragement of Saint Basil, as well as veneration of their holy relies.

Teacher of the universe, light of the Orthodox Faith, father of monks, cherisher of the poor, providence of all those who hope in God, Saint Basil was the flawless exemplar of bishops, the living image of Christ, Who, through him, made Himself all things to all men, speaking with his words, and through his actions dispersing the treasures of His love for mankind. However, in his lifetime Saint Basil had to put up with setbacks, calumnies and afflictions of all kinds; despite his efforts, divisions persisted in the Church to such an extent that any but he would have despaired of ever seeing peace re-established. But, only one year after his death, Valens was killed on campaign against the Goths (378) and was succeeded by the pious Theodosius, who lost no time in driving out the Arians and restoring the Orthodox bishops to their sees.

His body worn out by disease and austere ascesis, the Saint gave back his soul to God on January 1, 379 (or 377) before the crowning of his labors at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople (381). His funeral, which took place amid an extraordinary concourse of people, was truly his triumph. So many assembled that one might have thought it was for the Second Coming of Christ, and many miracles were wrought. Sighs and lamentations drowned the chanting of the Psalms. Even the pagans and Jews wept with the Christians, lamenting the death of the common father of them all – “the great Basil, the minister of grace, who has explained the truth to the whole earth: as he is described in the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon." True to his name, Saint Basil now occupies a royal place in the court of the Holy Fathers, close to the throne of the King of Heaven.

Portions of the preceding text are from “The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church” by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, and translated from the French by Christopher Hookway