St. Basil, 18th c. Russian Icon
of Gregory of Nyssa; hermit in Neocaesaria 358-370;
Bishop of Neocaesaria 370-379.
ONE of the three Cappadocian Fathers. He was the brother of St.Gregory of Nyssa and St. Macrina. After being educated at Caesarea in Cappadocia, Constantinople, and Athens in the best pagan and Christian culture of his day, he forsook the world for the monastic life, and, after a brief period in Syria and Egypt, settled as a hermit by the river Iris near Neo-caesarea (358). Here his early friendship with St. Gregory of Nazianzus was renewed, and they preached missions together. The Emperor Julian (361–3), his former fellow-student at Athens, made an unsuccessful attempt to bring him to the court, but only in c. 364 did he leave his retirement when called by his bishop, Eusebius of Caesarea in Cappadocia, to defend orthodoxy against the Arian emperor, Valens. In 370 he was appointed to succeed Eusebius in the see of Caesarea, and held this office for the rest of his life. It brought him into the thick of further controversies with the extreme Arian party led by Eunomius, as well as with the Pneumatomachi, who denied the divinity of the Holy Ghost, and with the Bps. of Rome (Damasus) and Alexandria (Athanasius), who refused to recognize his revered supporter, St. Meletius, as Bishop of Antioch.
In character Basil, besides being eloquent, learned, and statesmanlike, was possessed of great personal holiness. His nature was at once sensitive and pugnacious. To these qualities he added an unusual talent for organization, and impressed on Eastern monasticism the structure and ethos which it has retained ever since. The vast series of buildings he established on the outskirts of Caesarea, which included, besides the church and episcopal residence, hospitals and hostels for the poor, who were cared for by a carefully planned system of relief, long remained a monument to his memory.
His more important writings include a large collection of letters, his treatise ‘On the Holy Spirit’, and his three ‘Books against Eunomius’. In conjunction with Gregory of Nazianzus he compiled the Philocalia, a selection of passages from the works of Origen. In the field of doctrine he made a strong effort to reconcile the Semiarians to the formula of Nicaea, and to show that their word Homoiousios (‘like in substance to the Father’) had the same implications as the Nicene Homoousios (‘of one substance’). The virtual termination of the Arian controversy at the Council of Constantinople in 381/2 shortly after his death is a tribute to his success. In some quarters he was suspected of Apollinarianism, because he corresponded with Apollinarius, and also because in his writings he stressed the unity of the Person of Christ more than the separateness of the two natures. Feast day in W., 2 Jan. (formerly 14 June, as now in parts of the Anglican Communion); in E., 1 Jan.
Let us remember today one of the great Fathers of the Church, St Basil, described by Byzantine liturgical texts as “a luminary of the Church”. He was an important Bishop in the fourth century to whom the entire Church of the East, and likewise the Church of the West, looks with admiration because of the holiness of his life, the excellence of his teaching and the harmonious synthesis of his speculative and practical gifts. He was born in about 330 A.D. into a family of saints, “a true domestic Church”, immersed in an atmosphere of deep faith. He studied with the best teachers in Athens and Constantinople.
Unsatisfied with his worldly success and realizing that he had frivolously wasted much time on vanities, he himself confessed: “One day, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvellous light of the truth of the Gospel..., and I wept many tears over my miserable life” (cf. Letter 223: PG 32, 824a). Attracted by Christ, Basil began to look and listen to him alone (cf. Moralia, 80, 1: PG 31, 860bc). He devoted himself with determination to the monastic life through prayer, meditation on the Sacred Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and the practice of charity (cf. Letters 2, 22), also following the example of his sister, St Macrina, who was already living the ascetic life of a nun. He was then ordained a priest and finally, in the year 370, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in present-day Turkey.
Through his preaching and writings, he carried out immensely busy pastoral, theological and literary activities. With a wise balance, he was able to combine service to souls with dedication to prayer and meditation in solitude. Availing himself of his personal experience, he encouraged the foundation of numerous “fraternities”, in other words, communities of Christians consecrated to God, which he visited frequently (cf. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 43, 29, in laudem Basilii: PG 36, 536b). He urged them with his words and his writings, many of which have come down to us (cf. Regulae brevius tractatae, Proemio: PG 31, 1080ab), to live and to advance in perfection. Various legislators of ancient monasticism drew on his works, including St Benedict, who considered Basil his teacher (cf. Rule 73, 5).
Indeed, Basil created a very special monasticism: it was not closed to the community of the local Church but instead was open to it. His monks belonged to the particular Church; they were her life-giving nucleus and, going before the other faithful in the following of Christ and not only in faith, showed a strong attachment to him - love for him - especially through charitable acts. These monks, who ran schools and hospitals, were at the service of the poor and thus demonstrated the integrity of Christian life. In speaking of monasticism, the Servant of God John Paul II wrote: “For this reason many people think that the essential structure of the life of the Church, monasticism, was established, for all time, mainly by St Basil; or that, at least, it was not defined in its more specific nature without his decisive contribution” (Apostolic Letter Patres Ecclesiae, n. 2, January 1980; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 25 February, p. 6).
As the Bishop and Pastor of his vast Diocese Basil was constantly concerned with the difficult material conditions in which his faithful lived; he firmly denounced the evils; he did all he could on behalf of the poorest and most marginalized people; he also intervened with rulers to alleviate the sufferings of the population, especially in times of disaster; he watched over the Church’s freedom, opposing even the powerful in order to defend the right to profess the true faith (cf. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 43, 48-51 in laudem Basilii: PG 36, 557c-561c). Basil bore an effective witness to God, who is love and charity, by building for the needy various institutions (cf. Basil, Letter 94: PG 32, 488bc), virtually a “city” of mercy, called “Basiliade” after him (cf. Sozomeno, Historia Eccl. 6, 34: PG 67, 1397a). This was the origin of the modern hospital structures where the sick are admitted for treatment.
Liturgy and Doctrine
Aware that “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed”, and “also the fount from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10), and in spite of his constant concern to do charitable acts which is the hallmark of faith, Basil was also a wise “liturgical reformer” (cf. Gregory Nazianzus, Oratio 43, 34 in laudem Basilii: PG 36, 541c). Indeed, he has bequeathed to us a great Eucharistic Prayer [or anaphora] which takes its name from him and has given a fundamental order to prayer and psalmody: because of the impulse he gave to the Psalms, the people loved and were familiar with them and even went to pray them during the night (cf. Basil, In Psalmum 1, 1-2: PG 29, 212a-213c). And we thus see how liturgy, worship, prayer with the Church and charity go hand in hand and condition one another.
With zeal and courage Basil opposed the heretics who denied that Jesus Christ was God as Father (cf. Basil, Letter 9, 3: PG 32, 272a; Letter 52, 1-3: PG 32, 392b-396a; Adv. Eunomium 1, 20: PG 29, 556c). Likewise, against those who would not accept the divinity of the Holy Spirit, he maintained that the Spirit is also God and “must be equated and glorified with the Father and with the Son (cf. De Spiritu Sancto: SC 17ff., 348). For this reason Basil was one of the great Fathers who formulated the doctrine on the Trinity: the one God, precisely because he is love, is a God in three Persons who form the most profound unity that exists: divine unity.
In his love for Christ and for his Gospel, the great Cappadocian also strove to mend divisions within the Church (cf. Letters, 70, 243), doing his utmost to bring all to convert to Christ and to his word (cf. De Iudicio 4: PG 31, 660b-661a), a unifying force which all believers were bound to obey (cf. ibid. 1-3: PG 31, 653a-656c).
To conclude, Basil spent himself without reserve in faithful service to the Church and in the multiform exercise of the episcopal ministry. In accordance with the programme that he himself drafted, he became an “apostle and minister of Christ, steward of God’s mysteries, herald of the Kingdom, a model and rule of piety, an eye of the Body of the Church, a Pastor of Christ’s sheep, a loving doctor, father and nurse, a cooperator of God, a farmer of God, a builder of God’s temple” (cf. Moralia 80, 11-20: PG 31, 864b-868b). This is the programme which the holy Bishop consigns to preachers of the Word - in the past as in the present -, a programme which he himself was generously committed to putting into practice. In 379 A.D. Basil, who was not yet 50, returned to God “in the hope of eternal life, through Jesus Christ Our Lord” (De Baptismo, 1, 2, 9). He was a man who truly lived with his gaze fixed on Christ. He was a man of love for his neighbour. Full of the hope and joy of faith, Basil shows us how to be true Christians.
[Basil 2 of 2]
Wednesday, 1st August 2007
[...] Today, I would simply like to resume my last Catechesis, whose subject was the life and writings of St Basil, a Bishop in present-day Turkey, in Asia Minor, in the fourth century A.D. The life and works of this great Saint are full of ideas for reflection and teachings that are also relevant for us today.
Mystery of the Trinity
First of all is the reference to God’s mystery, which is still the most meaningful and vital reference for human beings. The Father is “the principal of all things and the cause of being of all that exists, the root of the living” (Hom. 15, 2 de fide: PG 31, 465c); above all, he is “the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Anaphora Sancti Basilii). Ascending to God through his creatures, we “become aware of his goodness and wisdom” (Basil, Adversus Eunomium 1, 14: PG 29, 544b). The Son is the “image of the Father’s goodness and seal in the same form” (cf. Anaphora Sancti Basilii). With his obedience and his Passion, the Incarnate Word carried out his mission as Redeemer of man (cf. Basil, In Psalmum 48, 8; PG 29, 452ab; cf. also De Baptismo 1, 2: SC 357, 158). Lastly, he spoke fully of the Holy Spirit, to whom he dedicated a whole book. He reveals to us that the Spirit enlivens the Church, fills her with his gifts and sanctifies her.
Mystery and Glory of Human Beings
The resplendent light of the divine mystery is reflected in man, the image of God, and exalts his dignity. Looking at Christ, one fully understands human dignity. Basil exclaims: “[Man], be mindful of your greatness, remembering the price paid for you: look at the price of your redemption and comprehend your dignity!” (In Psalmum 48, 8: PG 29, 452b). Christians in particular, conforming their lives to the Gospel, recognize that all people are brothers and sisters; that life is a stewardship of the goods received from God, which is why each one is responsible for the other, and whoever is rich must be as it were an “executor of the orders of God the Benefactor” (Hom 6 de avaritia: PG 32, 1181-1196). We must all help one another and cooperate as members of one body (Ep 203, 3).
And on this point, he used courageous, strong words in his homilies. Indeed, anyone who desires to love his neighbour as himself, in accordance with God’s commandment, “must possess no more than his neighbour” (Hom. in divites: PG 31, 281b). In times of famine and disaster, the holy Bishop exhorted the faithful with passionate words “not to be more cruel than beasts... by taking over what people possess in common or by grabbing what belongs to all (Hom. tempore famis: PG 31, 325a). Basil’s profound thought stands out in this evocative sentence: “All the destitute look to our hands just as we look to those of God when we are in need”. Therefore, Gregory of Nazianzus’ praise after Basil’s death was well-deserved. He said: “Basil convinces us that since we are human beings, we must neither despise men nor offend Christ, the common Head of all, with our inhuman behaviour towards people; rather, we ourselves must benefit by learning from the misfortunes of others and must lend God our compassion, for we are in need of mercy” (Gregory Nazianzus, Orationes 43, 63; PG 36, 580b). These words are very timely. We see that St Basil is truly one of the Fathers of the Church’s social doctrine.
Furthermore, Basil reminds us that to keep alive our love for God and for men, we need the Eucharist, the appropriate food for the baptized, which can nourish the new energies that derive from Baptism (cf. De Baptismo 1, 3: SC 357, 192). It is a cause of immense joy to be able to take part in the Eucharist (cf. Moralia 21, 3: PG 31, 741a), instituted “to preserve unceasingly the memory of the One who died and rose for us” (Moralia 80, 22: PG 31, 869b). The Eucharist, an immense gift of God, preserves in each one of us the memory of the baptismal seal and makes it possible to live the grace of Baptism to the full and in fidelity. For this reason, the holy Bishop recommended frequent, even daily, Communion: “Communicating even daily, receiving the Holy Body and Blood of Christ, is good and useful; for he said clearly: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life’ (Jn 6: 54). So who would doubt that communicating continuously with life were not living in fullness?” (Ep. 93: PG 32, 484b). The Eucharist, in a word, is necessary for us if we are to welcome within us true life, eternal life (cf. Moralia 21, 1: PG 31, 737c).
Finally, Basil was of course also concerned with that chosen portion of the People of God, the youth, society’s future. He addressed a Discourse to them on how to benefit from the pagan culture of that time. He recognized with great balance and openness that examples of virtue can be found in classical Greek and Latin literature. Such examples of upright living can be helpful to young Christians in search of the truth and the correct way of living (cf. Ad Adolescentes 3). Therefore, one must take from the texts by classical authors what is suitable and conforms with the truth: thus, with a critical and open approach - it is a question of true and proper “discernment”- young people grow in freedom.
With the famous image of bees that gather from flowers only what they need to make honey, Basil recommends: “Just as bees can take nectar from flowers, unlike other animals which limit themselves to enjoying their scent and colour, so also from these writings... one can draw some benefit for the spirit. We must use these books, following in all things the example of bees. They do not visit every flower without distinction, nor seek to remove all the nectar from the flowers on which they alight, but only draw from them what they need to make honey, and leave the rest. And if we are wise, we will take from those writings what is appropriate for us, and conform to the truth, ignoring the rest” (Ad Adolescentes 4). Basil recommended above all that young people grow in virtue, in the right way of living: “While the other goods... pass from one to the other as in playing dice, virtue alone is an inalienable good and endures throughout life and after death” (Ad Adolescentes 5).
Dear brothers and sisters, I think one can say that this Father from long ago also speaks to us and tells us important things. In the first place, attentive, critical and creative participation in today’s culture. Then, social responsibility: this is an age in which, in a globalized world, even people who are physically distant are really our neighbours; therefore, friendship with Christ, the God with the human face. And, lastly, knowledge and recognition of God the Creator, the Father of us all: only if we are open to this God, the common Father, can we build a more just and fraternal world.
This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 1998
BASIL LATIN RULE (ASCETICON) to RB
9: 40.6; 55.7 we should choose whatever is easy to obtain in each region,
192: 48.1 Should brothers learn crafts immediately - superiors decide