Basil the Great 330 – 379

In 03 Nicean Fathers on 2011/11/21 at 11:15 AM

Holiness was what made Basil great. His superb intellectual gifts led him to wisely search out the deep truths of the mysteries of God.  In his defense of the Faith, this godly bishop of Caesarea and Doctor of the Church was of the same cloth as Athanasius. He fought heresies with the Truth of God.  He and his brother, Gregory of Nyssa were the triumvirate called “The Three Cappadocians” and was by far greater in achievement and practically than the other two luminaries, great as each one of them was in his own sphere.

Basil’s and Gregory’s great grandparents and grandparents were martyred for the faith.  The whole family was saintly. Basil the Elder was a virtuous and reputable teacher.  Of the ten children he had, three are honored as saints: Macrina the Younger, Basil and Gregory.  Basil, Gregory and another brother, Peter, were bishops.

Constantinople was then renowned for its philosophy and rhetoric teachers and there the brilliant Basil studied before going to Athens.  In Athens he and Gregory of Nazianzen became inseparable life-time friends.  Impressed by Origen, the collaborated in compiling and anthology of his writings. From there Basil went to Athens.

Nazianzen described their academic experiences in his famous eulogy of his friend: Basil was renowned for his brilliant mind, serious mind, and studious company with which he conferred; he was industrious and quite advance in rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, astronomy, geometry, and medicine.

Having completed his formal study, Basil established a school of rhetoric (law) and became quite pleased with himself.   This lack of humility was corrected quickly by his sister, Macrina.

Both she and Basil had been powerfully influenced by their saintly grandmother, Macrina the Elder who had in the minds of all her grandchildren the seeds of piety and the desire for Christian perfection.

Their father, having died, Macrina took in hand her five brothers and four sisters.  Their mother had agreed to found a religious community on their estate, and there, Macrina guided the proud Basil.  Basil himself wrote of how “like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvelous truth of the Gospel.”

Afterwards, Basil journeyed through the monasteries of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia where he noted with admiration the piety of the monks.  Upon his return, he founded a monastery in Cappadocia and composed a Rule to guide the life of the monks.  Basil is considered the father of Eastern monasticism as later Benedict would be that to Western monasticism.  Basil’s genius was stamped indelibly on the Eastern concept of religious life.

Basil also assisted the bishop of Caesarea in diocese and noted the plight of the poor and ill.  Eventually he would build an institution which included a home to care for the abandoned and strangers, a hospital for the sick poor, and a place for the training of the unskilled.  Originally, built in the suburbs, it grew to such proportions as to develop into a new city, given the name of “Kainepolis” (Newtown). This institution and the subsequent ones through the centuries are called Basileaiads.

Arianism was still a problem because of the support from emperors.  In 365, Emperor Valens demanded that the clergy and people adopt Arianism.  For five years Basil’s strong and resolute personality led the people.  Powerfully and with conviction, he guided the people, kept the imperial governors and leading citizens in line and resolved controversies and contentions with wisdom and sound judgment. Basil was courageous in his battle against heresy but he was also quite concerned for the souls of those in heresy and sought to return them to the Faith. To insure proper worship, he wrote a liturgy which is used to this day by the Orthodox Church.

Ephesus and Caesarea ranked after the patriarchal sees of Nicea, Constantinople and the see of Ephesus (all seats of councils).  Caesarea was next in rank when in 370 Basil was made Bishop of Caesarea. Now, Basil’s sphere of influence was from the Balkans to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the Aegean Sea to the Euphrates River. (In our times from the former Yugoslavia down to Mediterranean and from Greece to Iraq).

Under his guidance the metropolitan see of Caesarea took shape as a model Christian diocese. Hardly any detail of episcopal activity was left without guiding lines. Furthermore, he modeled how he maintained that fearless dignity and independence towards the secular officials of the state which is indispensable for the Catholic episcopate.

Basil’s correspondence and letters fill volumes.  They reveal his varied activities and his tremendous energy in the accomplishment of a great variety of duties including the exclusion of unfit candidates from the sacred ministry, preventing bishops from the temptation of simony, requiring of exact discipline and the faithful observance of the rules by both clergy and laity, correcting the sinners, restoring the offenders and pardoning the remorseful.

In addition to all these activities, Basil was in the middle of the theological controversies that were shattering Christian unity.  He composed a summary of the orthodox faith, disputed orally with heretics in public debates, and wrote to challengers throughout the known world.

In his voluminous correspondence we can read that he instructed, threatened, scolded, and guided many by writing or visiting them and even giving interviews.  No one was more important to him than anyone else, and he dealt with all classes of people and levels of society.

Persecution led to great growth for monastic life particularly in the desert areas under Basil’s supervision.  These monastic centers totally supported their bishops who refused to accept the Arian Creed which Emperor Valens was trying to enforce. To the monks at the Coptic Monastery of St. Catherine of Alexandria Basil wrote:

“We urge you not to be faint-hearted in your afflictions, but to renew yourselves in your love for God and daily to increase your zeal, being conscious that in you ought to be preserved the remnants of true religion, which when the Lord comes, He will find upon earth.

And, if bishops have been driven from their churches, let this not cause you to waver, or, if traitors have sprung up among the clergy themselves, let not this weaken you confidence in God. The names are not the things which save us, but our motives and our sincere love for him who created us.”

Basil was a composed, calm, persistent and fearless fighter in defense of doctrine and principles.  In 371 Basil had to face a Prefect demanding that he adhere to the Arian Creed.

Prefect: What, do you not fear my power? Basil: What could happen to me? What might I suffer?

Prefect: Any one of numerous torments which are in my power.  Basil: What are these? Tell me about them.

Prefect: Confiscation, exile, torture, death. Basil: If you have any other, you can threaten me with it, for there is nothing so far which affects me.

Prefect: What do you mean? Basil: Well, in truth Confiscation means nothing to the man who has nothing, unless you covet these wretched rags, and a few books: that is all I possess. As to Exile, that means nothing to me, for I am attached to no particular place. That wherein I live is not mine, and I shall feel at home in any place to which I am sent. Or rather, I regard the whole earth as belonging to God, and I consider myself as a stranger or sojourner wherever I may be. As to Torture, how will you apply this? I have not a body capable of bearing it, unless you are thinking of the first blow that you give me, for it will take me sooner to the God for Whom I live, for Whom I act, and for Whom I am more than half dead, and Whom I have desired long since.

Basil stunned the emperor who was dumbfounded by this prelate’s calm indifference to his presence and his wishes; both the emperor and prefect retreated never to challenge Basil or the aged but unbowed Athanasius.  We know of this incident from Gregory and it reveals much of Basil’s character.   Furthermore, it shows history that because of the tenacious bishops that countered the emperors, and that without the imperial power behind Arianism, it ended up making little impression on Catholicism’s growth and development.

Towards the end of his life, Basil suffered the loss of Athanasius, of other good friends, and broken health.  The Goths were pounding the periphery of the empire, the church in Antioch was in schism, and his efforts to get the Western bishops to come together did not succeed.  He had hoped to attend the Council of Constantinople called for 381 but his death prevented it.  However, his teachings formed the foundation of the anti-Arian decision of the Council.

His death was mourned by his flock and Jews, pagans and foreigners. He ranks among the greatest figures in church history, who valiantly defended the Faith against its attackers in a world in convulsion.


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