St Basil the Great – Jan 1 Cappadocian Father, Bishop of Caesarea
St. Basil of Caesarea, also called Saint Basil the Great was one of the towering figures of ancient Christianity and was indeed one of the greatest pillars of the Church. He born in a Caesarea, Cappadocia, Turkey, in AD 329, into the wealthy Christian family of Basil the Elder, a famous rhetor, and Emelia. Elder Basil’s family was an old rich and remarkable Christian family of sanctity and distinction, with a remarkable religious history. It was a large household, of holiness and consisting of ten children – five sons and five daughters; the parents, and Basil’s grandmother, Macrina the Elder. His parents were known for their piety, and his maternal grandfather was a Christian martyr, executed in the years prior to Constantine’s conversion. His forefathers had to suffer a lot of tribulations during the persecution under Emperor Diocletian.
Four of Basil’s siblings are known by name and considered to be saints by various Christian traditions. Three sons became bishops – St. Basil in Caesarea, St. Gregory in Nyssa and St. Peter in Sebaste. His elder brother Peter served as bishop of Sebaste in Armenia and wrote a few well-known theological treatises. His brother Naucratius was an anchorite and inspired much of Basil’s theological work. Perhaps the most influential of Basil’s siblings was his younger brother Gregory. St. Gregory of Nyssa was appointed by Basil to be the bishop of Nyssa, and he produced a number of writings defending Nicene theology and describing the life of early Christian monastics. His older sister Macrina the Younger, was a well-known nun, a saint and a scholar, the founder of monastic communities for women. She was also the teacher of her brothers who became bishops. Even as a bishop, says St. Gregory, he learned from his sister the great mysteries of the faith.
With his life-long friend, Gregory of Nazianzus and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, he makes up the trio known as ‘The Three Cappadocians Fathers’, far outclassing the other two in practical genius and actual achievement. St. Basil the Great was one of the most influential of the Greek Fathers of the Church during the ‘Golden Age of the Fathers’ (4th – 5th Centuries). St. Basil was an amazing example of a person gifted with tremendous talents, who used these God given talents in the service of the Holy Church and the Kingdom of God.
St. Basil the Great received the best education in pagan schools and Christian culture available in his day, studying in his native Cappadocia, Constantinople, and Athens, was thus one of the most educated of his contemporaries. He studied first from his father and grandmother, who were themselves both great scholars. St. Basil completed his primary education in his own country and proceeded for further studies in Caesarea. From there he moved to Constantinople and finally to Athens, the centre of all learning at that time. There, he met with Gregory who became his life-long friend and later the bishop of Nazianzus. Thus, he acquired the highest education of those times, but he was equally critical of classical wisdom. His association with scholars was useful to him in various ways in later life. His education at the best centres of learning of those days enabled him to present the Orthodox faith of the Christian Church in a manner intelligible to the learned.
After all his studies, which he completed with the greatest honours, he returned to his native Caesarea, proud as a peacock as his own brother says. He began his career as a rhetorician in his own native Caesarea. St. Basil took to monastic life at the age of 26. His grandmother Makrina the Elder and elder sister Makrina the Younger inspired him to take to asceticism as his way of life. Basil was baptized after having been duly instructed by his sister Makrina. St. Basil’s life changed course decidedly when he forsook a worldly career to embrace the monastic life. He lived a life of prayer and tranquility, far from the turbulence of city life.
He then travelled in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia to learn from the many monks who lived in these parts. When he returned, he had some specific ideas and concrete plans about his future life. He aimed at a monastic community which could concentrate on prayer and service to the poor. He distributed his wealth among the poor and went into solitude for prayer and fasting. St. Basil collected solitary ascetics and organized them as a community. This community grew and it became a great spiritual centre of Christianity in Asia. He had a strong practical sympathy with the poor and downtrodden and was merciless towards the enormities of the wealthy.
He realized that such ascetic communities were better for spreading the gospels and protecting the destitute. He established special accommodation facilities for orphans, destitute and the sick along with the monasteries. In a short time, Basil founded other monasteries, and his sister Makrina started a convent for women across the river. Soon he and his colleagues of the monastery, established hospitals for the sick, nursing homes for lepers, homes for the poor, inns for travelers and strangers. Thus, the vicinity of his monasteries became a new spiritual city, where the poor and the destitute praised God for his wonderful works. This new city was in later years known as the ‘Basliead’. History records that it was St. Basil who started hospitals which gave medical care to patients by providing them with accommodation facilities. Many followed his example including his friend and class-mate St. Gregory of Nazianzus, though only temporarily.
He vigorously fought the Arian heresy. Bishop Eusebius, called St. Basil in 364 to help defend Orthodox Christianity against the Arian emperor, Valens. He became Archbishop of Caesarea on June 14, 370. His ability to balance his theological convictions with his political connections made Basil a powerful advocate for the Nicene position. He ranks after Athanasius as a defender of the Oriental Church against the heresies of the fourth century. A good deal of what is known of St. Basil’s life is derived from his own letters and sermons, which give a vivid picture of his many-sided character and activities.
St. Basil’s great theological contributions were:
- He established the full deity of Christ, against Arius and his disciples, thus bringing to completion the work of St. Athanasius.
- He established clearly the deity of the Holy Spirit. He was the first to use the word procession in Trinitarian theology.
- He contributed much to expound the doctrine of Holy Trinity as three Persons (hypostases) in one substance (ousia).
One of the controversies that arose in the early Church was regarding the divinity of Christ and the Godhead of the Holy Spirit. St. Basil wrote scholarly defenses thus affirming the faith of the Church in these matters. The most notable among his writings are those regarding the Holy Spirit. and his treatise on the Holy Spirit laid the groundwork for the clarification of the Holy Spirit’s full divinity that was defined by the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.
St. Basil wrote out in cooperation with St. Gregory Nazianzen, the rules of a monastic community, which is the basis for all Eastern monasticism and set the tone for religious life in the East. He composed directions for the use of the monks instructing them to lead a simple life. His Monastic Rule forms to this day the basis of virtually all religious life in the Eastern Churches and the liturgy named after him is one of the principal liturgies of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Monks of the Eastern Church today still follow the monastic rules which he had laid down.
St. Basil was an authority on the monastic life. He was a great monk who laid down the basic principles of community monasticism – a balance between prayer, study and work. He was a great man, learned, aristocratic, who lived in simplicity and poverty. His humility was not on the surface. He was seen by many as a proud man, but his heart was truly humble. Above all, his concern for the poor and the needy makes the Church proud of Him. Very few people in the world were ever given the magnificent title, “Great“! Alexander the Great was so-called because he conquered the world, but St. Basil was called “Great” because he conquered the hearts and souls of men for Jesus Christ. He dedicated his entire whole life to Jesus and to the message of Christianity. He was humble like Moses, had the zeal of Elijah and the piety of Peter. He spoke with eloquence of John the Theologian, and had the dedication of Paul. One of his greatest works had been the provision at Caesarea of an estate which included dwelling-houses, a Church, a hospital for the sick, a hospice for travellers, a staff of doctors, nurses, and artisans, the whole on such a scale as to be called a new town, called as Basliead. He passed away in 379 AD, Jan 1 at an age of 50. The Oriental Churches observe his commemoration on January 1st, along with St. Gregorios of Nazianzus the Theologian.