Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

St. Basil the Great - A Historical Sketch

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We are too little familiar with the saint whose name is attached to our liturgy. Athanasius naturally awes us with his fearless championing of orthodoxy against a world turned heretical; we are moved by the golden eloquence of Chrysostom; Cyril the Great dominates our christological language; the passion and depth and personal touch of Augustine delight our hearts. But Basil the Great, whose life remains misty and unknown to us, stands on equal footing with even these apostolic men, and there are few biographies which will so richly reward careful study as that of the great Archbishop of Caesarea.

The world of Basil's day was shaken by a storm of religious discord that reached from Constantinople to Cappadocia. The ruinous blights of Arianism, semi-Arianism, and Eunomianism were gaining considerable ground in the Christian world—almost every city in the East had two bishops, one Arian and one orthodox. The very foundations of orthodoxy and church unity were being shaken to the core by men of little faith and low character, and the future of the faith seemed for a time perilously uncertain. God raised up heroes of the faith in those days: Athanasius in Egypt, Chrysostom in Greece, Ambrose in Italy, Augustine in North Africa—and to Basil was assigned the arduous role of restoring peace to the orthodox church in Asia Minor.

I. Life

Born circa 329 AD, the young Basil was reared as a child in a sort of nursery of saints. His eldest sister, St Macrina, dominated the spiritual upbringing of her siblings and instilled in them a stout and relentless devotion to the faith. Two of his brothers, Gregory and Peter, became celebrated bishops over the towns of Nyssa and Sebaste.1 The happy family lived in the province of Cappadocia in Asia Minor, a place so reputedly bad that it was grouped with Crete and Cilicia as the evil triad of the ancient world: Tria Kappa Kaka, "The Three Evil K's."2 Their attainment of sanctity in such an unfavorable environment serves as a rebuke to those moderns who are in the habit of bewailing the hardship of living pure amidst the decadence and depravity of the present world.

Basil's fertile mind was nourished by the best education the world could then provide; he was first taught at Cappadocia, then continued at the great metropolis of Constantinople, and his learning was finally consummated at the renowned school of Athens. In Athens, his friendship with Gregory Nazianzen or "the Theologian"—another name associated with our liturgy—speedily ripened into an ardent friendship, and their close companionship endured until almost the end of their lives. Basil returned to Cappadocia to practice the ancient profession of rhetoric with success for a time, until his sister Macrina's counsels persuaded him of the futility of the world. He forsook his career, donated all his belongings to the poor, and took up an exclusively religious life. This abandonment of so auspicious a career and prospect of worldly comfort was the first step to Basil's greatness. For, like the future John Chrysostom, had he continued to employ his intellectual skills in a secular career, he would have reaped the finest physical and social pleasures society had to offer; but his name would have perished from the annals of history.

Before beginning his monastic life, Basil embarked on a tour of Alexandria, upper Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia to seek the most celebrated ascetics upon whose lives he might model his own. He eventually chose the wild region of Pontus, just north of Cappadocia, as the place of his retreat, and in time established a family of monasteries there. Though a recluse could occasionally be found somewhere in Asia Minor, Basil is credited with being the founder of the coenobium3 there, or monastic community, where a group of monks lived together subject to a single rule. In exact imitation of the monastic systems of Egypt, his rule united active industry with quiet devotion, and by the labor of the monks over wild desert tracts, hopeless sterility gave place to fruitful harvests.4 Every day and night were divided into hours for work, prayers, hymns, and alternate psalmody. His monks were limited to one meal per day consisting of bread, water and herbs, and he allowed sleep only until midnight, when all arose for prayer. His monasteries soon became schools of that holy faith which had been almost banished from the sees of Asia by imperial decrees, and he was in the habit of making a circuit of the neighboring towns, preaching to them the Nicene faith. This indeed was a benefit not infrequently rendered to the universal Church by the desert fathers, that when orthodox doctrine was assailed and forbidden by heretical bishops and magistrates, the monasteries remained the staunch and fearless depositories of truth.

Basil subjected his own self to the most rigorous asceticisms. He ate only what was necessary for existence, and his fare was of the poorest. He owned only one inner and one outer garment. At night he slept in hairskin and only on the floor. He treated his body, says his brother Gregory, as an angry owner treats a runaway slave. Gregory the Theologian describes him as "without a wife, without property, without flesh, and almost without blood." It is believed that his severe bodily austerities weakened his frame and enfeebled his health, sowing the seeds of maladies to which in later years he was martyr. But the singular fact that Basil was able to travel all over Asia Minor and to exert such monumental toils in his defense of the truth, on such a spare diet, is proof of the body's remarkable ability to endure fatiguing exertion when commanded by a resolute will and strong soul.

It is worth mentioning the bountiful and loving works of mercy which Basil rendered to the poor and suffering of his diocese, as well as to those outside his see. One of the results of his missionary tours was the formation of numerous hospitals for the poor, refuges for virgins, orphanages, as well as harbors of safety for slaves, married persons, and other needy. His most famous philanthropic establishment was an enormous hospital for the poor which was erected in Cappadocia's capital, Caesarea.5 It included a church, an episcopal residence, rooms for the clergy, hospices for the sick and poor, and workshops for artisans and laborers. There was a special department for the lepers, whom Basil served with his own hands. The establishment was so extensive that it was dubbed the "New Town" and subsequently "Basileiad". However, as a reenactment of Sanballat and Tobiah's scheme to halt Nehemiah's rebuilding of Jerusalem's wall,6 Basil's enemies used the hospital as a pretext for denouncing him to the governor, representing as attempting to seize undue power for himself—a charge which Basil adroitly deflected by reminding the governor that the hospital could only be in his best interests.

Passing over a host of details in the saint's life, we may move forward to 370 AD, the year he was placed upon Caesarea's episcopal chair, making him archbishop of Cappadocia and the surrounding regions. His nomination was attended by not a little turbulence, due to heretical factions and the imperial power that disfavored his elevation; but through the wise mediation of a venerable bishop Eusebius of Somata, and his friend Gregory the Theologian, the people were convinced that the cause of orthodoxy was at stake, and that only Basil's theological precision and vigorous character were equal to the challenge. Perhaps no more comforting outcome resulted from the whole occasion than a letter from the patriarch Athanasius, the veteran champion of the faith, congratulating Cappadocia on possessing a bishop whom every province might envy.

But being an orthodox bishop in the East was not an easy task in those days, and Basil had scarcely been on the throne for twelve months when the emperor Valens, a strict Arian, traveled to Asia Minor with the fixed intention of exterminating the orthodox faith and imposing Arianism on all the churches. One Asian province after another fell to the tyrant's violence. But it is said that he shrunk from an encounter with the famous prelate of Cappadocia, lest the stern eye and iron will of the bishop vanquish the frail character of the emperor. Consequently, in order to avoid a personal clash with Basil, the emperor sent the prefect Modestus to intimidate him into submission.

Modestus accosted the saint with the grossest insolence, shouting his name without the title, and threatening him with confiscation, banishment, torture, and death. "Have you no other threat?" responded the undaunted bishop, "for none of these things can reach me." "How indeed is that?" the prefect asked startled. "Because," Basil replied, "a man who has nothing is beyond the reach of confiscation, unless you demand my tattered rags. Banishment is impossible for me, who do not count any land as my own, but all to be God's, whose guest and dependent I am. As for tortures, what can they do to this body that scarcely exists? Death is my benefactor, who will send me to God all the quicker." Amazed at the language, the prefect retorted, "No one has ever spoken with such boldness to Modestus." "Perhaps," replied the saint, "you have never before met a bishop." Seeing Basil was impervious to intimidation or threats, and overwhelmed by his fearless attitude, the prefect's menacing temper gave way to respect and deference, and he dismissed him from his presence. This remarkable interview is preserved in full for us in St Gregory the Theologian's eulogy of his closest companion.7

Impressed and perhaps intimidated by the steadfast resolution of the bishop, the emperor Valens decided against using harsher measures decided instead to moderate his demands to the allowance of Arian bishops into communion with Cappadocia. But here again Basil was inflexible. To bring matters to a head, Valens approached the main church of Caesarea during Epiphany of 372 AD. The sight that met his eyes was not to be forgotten. The church flooded with "a sea" of worshippers, whose chants pealed forth light thunder; the clergy were positioned in a semicircle around altar; and in the midst stood the august prelate, erect and rapt in prayer, undisturbed by the rude entrance. "The unearthly majesty" of the scene, the reverent order of the immense throng, "more like angels than men," overpowered the excitable mind of the emperor, and he almost fainted to the ground but for a clergyman who seized him for support. Pitying his enemy's frailty, Basil accepted the gift from his trembling hand, and discoursed with him on the orthodox faith.

But the Arian party would not tolerate the reconciliation between the orthodox prelate and the emperor, and they had little trouble convincing the Valen's fickle mind that Basil's banishment was essential for the peace of the East. Basil was ordered to leave the city, and he made his preparations for departure at once, designing to leave in the night to avoid a popular riot. But his journey was arrested by the sudden and alarming illness of Galates, Valen's son, and the empress Dominica attributed her child's sickness to divine displeasure at Basil's treatment. Valen's desperately summoned Basil to come and pray over his child, who was yet unbaptized, and the bishop gave his assent on the condition that the boy would receive an orthodox baptism. He prayed over the boy, and the illness was alleviated. But on Basil's leave, the Arian bishops got round to the boy and subjected him to a heretical baptism. His condition immediately deteriorated again, and he died the same night. Once more Basil's unwearied enemies pressured the emperor to banish him; but when the decree of exile came to be signed, the pen refused to write, and split apart in Valen's agitated hand, and the mini-miracle impelled the emperor to leave the city. Soon afterwards, the prefect Modestus also came down with a severe malady, and he presented himself as a suppliant to Basil. Through the saint's intercessions he was healed and consequently became his fast friend. Caesarea's archbishop was triumphant.

The result of these conflicts was to leave Basil in a state of invincibility, which gave him full ability to administer his diocese and exarchate without interference. His firm and unflinching hand was needed in correcting many of the irregularities that existed among the people and the clergy. The reputation of his clergy attained to such a high point that the bishops of neighboring sees would request his presbyters to become their coadjutors. He was very diligent in preaching both in Caesarea and in the country villages. The details of public worship also commanded his close attention; he arranged specific patterns of prayer for the church in Caesarea, which were the precursors of our present Coptic liturgy. The archbishop's incessant diocene labors and strenuous personal exertions naturally exhausted his already weak body. His chief malady, a disease of the liver, caused him protracted bouts of suffering in bed; and he complains frequently of his bodily ailments in his letters to intimate friends. At the premature age of 50, the immense physical and spiritual burdens which he bore as Christ's servant took their final toll, and his spirit was released unto its everlasting rest.

II. Works

It might be imagined that a man of such incessant and intense labors would find no time for literary work. The duties of diocean oversight, relief of the poor, administration of the gigantic hospital, correspondence with neighboring bishops and sees, war with heretics and calumniators, and finally a personal battle with the spiritual and medical challenges that attend human life, would leave a common man with little leisure for writing. But the St. Basil's extant works are quite numerous; and it will be hoped that the following sampling is sufficient to give the reader an adequate taste of the saint's mind.

1. Against Eunomius.8 This is a work comprised of five books in refutation of a heresy whose chief exponent was a fellow Cappadocian by the name of Eunomius. He became the pupil of a certain Arian by the name of Aetius, and became such an extreme advocate of his doctrines that the heresy came to be identified with his name. The catch-phrase that made the Eunomian heresy was, "We believe that ingenerateness [or unbegottenness]9 is the essence of God," implying that "begotten" implied inferiority and unlikeness. And since the Son is the "only-begotten,"10 He was lesser than the Father, who stood alone and supreme in His unbegottenness.

Basil rejoins that Eunomious had confused God's unbegotteneness, which is a mere negative title we ascribe to God, and God's essence, a thing wholly unknowable and unapproachable and above human expression. He quotes St Paul: "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!" If the great apostle thus grew dizzy contemplating God's majesty, what conceit is it for those who announce that they have understood His essence! "It is a terrible thing for us to coin names for Him to whom God has given a ‘name which is above every other name.'11 We must not add to or subtract from what is delivered to us by the Spirit. Things are not made for names but names for things."

2. On the Holy Spirit.12 In the creed written up at Nicea in 325 AD, the wording terminated at "We believe in the Holy Spirit," leaving the church's faith as to the divinity or work of the Holy Spirit officially undefined. This deficiency was remedied at the council of Constantinople in 381 AD when the clause with which we are all familiar was added: "…the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified." During the fifty-six year interval between these two councils, an extreme Arian faction began publishing their opinion that, because they denied the Son the honor of divinity, they also denied the Spirit as God. They were dubbed Pneumatomachoi, "fighters against the Spirit," and Basil rightly viewed the new blasphemy as a threat to Nicene orthodoxy.

A short extract will display the fervent eloquence with which the saint defends the Spirit's godhead: "Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension to the kingdom of heaven, our adoption as God's sons, our freedom to call God our Father, our becoming partakers of Christ's grace, being called ‘children of light,' sharing in eternal glory, and in a word, our inheritance of the fullness of blessing, both in this world and the world to come."

3. The Hexameron.13 The Six Days of Creation, also know as the hexameron, is a collection of nine homilies delivered by St. Basil during Lent on the cosmogony of the opening chapters of Genesis. Patristics works on the first six days were numerous: John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, and Bede each had their own series of homilies on this celebrated topic. It exhibits the typical patristic reverence for the Pentateuch; and, as the product of a mind trained up in the rigors of an Athenian education, it delves into a laborious analysis of every verse and word of the creation narrative. It was his most celebrated work during his lifetime.

4. Letters. Throughout his lifetime, Basil kept up a lively and persistent correspondence with friends and enemies of the faith. They are perhaps one of the most interesting examples of Basilian literature, as they provide us with a vivid, first-hand picture of the saint's personal life, as well as an informative and engaging picture of the historical incidents of his day. The subject matter is extremely diverse; his letters have been divided under the categories of historical, dogmatic, moral and ascetic, disciplinary, consolatory, commendatory, and familiar.14 They exhibit the great breadth of his interests, as well as the flexibility of his mind to engage in theological matters, practical administration, and personal discourse. The beginner in patristic reading will find the best cross-section of Basil's work as teacher, theologian and pastor in his letters.

III. Literature

1 – Primary Sources

  1. Original content on the life of Basil can be found in the standard church historians: Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret.

  2. His personal works, esp. his monastic rules and letters, add a directly personal dimension to his history.

2 – Secondary Sources

  1. NPNF vol. 8. 2004. A valuable Prolegomena elucidating the chief incidents in the saint's life as well as the primary points of his teaching.

  2. Dictionary of Christian Biography. Wace & Piercy. 1994. An concise and informative summary.

  3. Historical Sketches. Vol 2. Cardinal Newman. 1917. An interesting and lively sketch of the saint's trials and friendship to Gregory the Theologian.

  4. On the Holy Spirit. SVS Press. 1980.

1 An icon of the three bishop-brothers standing behind their illustrious sister can be found in our liturgy book.
2 Cf. Titus 12
3 , Gr. "life of fellowship."
4 Compare the similar phenomenon of the labor of Coptic monks converting the Egyptian desert to green fields.
5 Not to be confused with Caesarea Philippi of the Gospels.
6 Nehemiah 4
7 Greg. Naz. Panegyric on St Basil.
9 , agennesian.
10 , monogenes.
11 Phil 2:9
14 The Rev. Blomfield Jackson, NPNF vol. 8.

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