St Basil the Great
1st of January
One of the Greatest Fathers of the Church; he, his friend St Gregory of Nazianzus and his brother St Gregory of Nyssa are called “the three great Cappadocians”. They came from the Greek area of Cappadocia in the Eastern part of Asia Minor. The three great Cappadocian Fathers are considered to be amongst the greatest theologians of the Christian Church.
St Basil was born at Caesarea in Cappadocia about 330 A.D. He came from a family distinguished for its Christian faith, its nobility and wealth. In his early childhood he was under the influence of his grandmother Macrina and his mother Emmelia, the daughter of a Christian Martyr. Those two women planted deep in young Basil’s heart the faith and love for our Lord, which made him really Great. Gifted with a strong mind, St Basil received his elementary education from his father. Then he received his higher education at the schools of rhetoric at his native city, Caesarea, at Constantinople and finally at Athens in Greece. There he met St Gregory of Nazianzus with whom he entered upon a life-long friendship.
At that time, Athens was still the centre of culture of the ancient World. So St Basil studied there Literature, Philosophy, Astronomy, Mathematics, Physics and Medicine. At the same time, he continued the study of the Bible until it became the only source of his spiritual training and pleasure, the safe guide to faith and knowledge, leading to God and showing him the way to the true life.
After he had completed his studies in Athens, St Basil returned to his native city, where he became a rhetorician for a short time. A little later, following his elder sister’s advice, he decided to withdraw from his secular profession and devote himself to God.
First he traveled to Egypt in order to meet the famous ascetics who lived there and whose life and activities he admired. In Egypt the ascetics and the Orthodox people generally were persecuted by the heretics )the followers of Arius, who taught that our Lord cannot be truly God, but He is the first of God’s creatures). St Basil was inspired by the fight of the Orthodox clergy and all the faithful against the heretics; above all he admired the courage of St Athanasius the Great, the Patriarch of Alexandria, who was called “pillar of Orthodoxy”.
When he returned to Caesarea, St Basil divided his fortune among the poor and following the advice of his sister, St Macrina, he withdrew to a place near the river Iris in Pontus, in the North of Asia Minor. There he led an ascetic life, too. When his friend St Gregory of Nazianzus visited him, they studied the Holy Scriptures together and they wrote very important books. St Basil founded a number of Monasteries in that place.
About 363 or 364 A.D. St Basil was ordained priest and helped the bishop of Caesarea with his duties and he “ ‘was all in all to him, a good counsellor, a skillful helper, an expounder of the Scriptures, an interpreter of his duties, the staff of his old age, the prop of his faith, more trustworthy than all his clerics, more experienced than any layman,’ as Saint Gregory of Nazianzus reports”.
His activity reached its climax in the severe winter of 367-368 when a great famine broke out in vast areas of Asia Minor and especially in Caesarea, where thousands of children died of starvation.
St Basil worked hard; he went from one place to another encouraging the people, persuading the rich and the merchants to give wheat to those in need; he gave away what was left from his own fortune; he collected money or food and organized soup kitchens for the starving people, making no distinction between Christians, Jews and pagans. He also worked as a doctor (he had studied medicine in Athens) and offered services even as a labourer himself. Thus he managed what seemed to be impossible: to save a lot of people from starvation. His name became famous in the vast area of Cappadocia and Pontus and everybody, Orthodox, Jews and Pagans respected him. He proved to be a worthy leader of the Church though he was still a priest. But because of the hard work and the pains he took during that time, he fell seriously ill and took a long time to recover.
In 370 A.D., Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, died and St Basil became his successor as bishop of Caesarea, metropolitan of Cappadocia and exarch of the civil diocese of Pontus on the coast of the Black Sea. He was forty years old then, but already ill and rather old for his age because of the ascetic life he was leading, the hard pastoral duties he had undertaken and the pains he took as an exponent of Christian doctrine.
However, he proved to be a worthy shepherd of his flock. St Basil’s main interest was in the unity of the Church. The Arians, I.e. the heretics who denied that Jesus Christ was truly God, supported by Valens, the Emperor of Constantinople, had drawn many people to their side; and St Basil took great pains in upholding the Orthodox faith. The holy Father opposed firmly the Emperor and his Prefect Modestus who wanted him to surrender to their heretical ideas. When Prefect Modestus visited St Basil and threatened him with confiscation of goods and exile, he answered: “The confiscation of goods will not harm me as I own nothing but an old cloak and a few books. I fear no exile for I am bound to no one place; the whole world into which I may be banished, I hold as my own, for the whole world is of God. The tortures can do no harm to me as my body is so weak as to stand only the first blow. Death will bring me near to God, for Whom I live and for Whom I have been created and to Whom in the greater part I have died and towards Whom I hasten.”
Modestus was astonished at such words and then St Basil went on: “where God is endangered and exposed, there all other things are considered as nothing. Him alone do we look to. Fire, swords, beasts, and the instruments for tearing the flesh are wished for by us as delights rather than horrors. Afflict us with such tortures, threaten, do all that you can now devise, enjoy your power. Also, let the Emperor hear this, that at all events you will not persuade us nor win us over to the impious doctrine (Arianism), though you threaten with cruel deeds”. The Prefect felt a kind of respect for that holy man, and the Emperor himself when they met, could not make him surrender. Valens tried to sign a decree for St Basil’s banishment three time, but his pen broke in his hand and he was so horrified that he tore up the document and left the holy father to live in peace and continue his great work. Moreover the Emperor donated to St Basil for his leper hospital some land he owned in that area.
On the other hand, the holy father sent letters to St Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt and to Damasus, bishop of Rome asking them to help him restore the unity of the Church; he also undertook tiring journeys in Asia Minor for the same purpose.
During this period, he worked hard for the acceptance of the Creed of the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) by all Christians; he also wrote very important letters and a treatise “On the Holy Spirit” in order to overthrow Arianism and restore Orthodoxy and thereby unity in the Church.
At the same time, he established an entire “new city”, as St Gregory of Nazianzus says, consisting of hospitals for the sick and victims of contagious diseases, homes for the poor and hospices for travellers and strangers. This “city” near Casesarea included also a big church, a house for nurses and a kind of technical school. St Basil persuaded many rich people to give money for this purpose; he himself lived in a small cell there, wearing an old robe, living on vegetables and stale bread only. He helped those in need, comforted the sick and distressed, advised everybody and prayed for all. The “new city’ w as called “Vassilias’, i.e. city of St Basil.
But he was run down, because of the pains he undertook for his flock, his fights against the heretics and for the prevalence of Orthodoxy over its enemies, together with the ascetic life he led and his physical weakness. He had already lost his teeth, and suffered from stomachache. The winter of 378 A.D. was severe. Sp St Basil stayed in his cell praying continually thus. “Paraclete, Holy Spirit, guide me”, “Almighty God, help Your creature”, “Lord, forgive the sinful man”.
In December of 378 A.D. clergymen and play people from long distances came to see him. On his deathbed he spoke to his mourning friends, fellow-workers, clergy, doctors, etc. comforting and advising them. On the 1st of January 379 A.D. he whispered our Lord’s words “into your hands I commit my spirit” and passed away peacefully at the age of fifty.
Thousands of people from Caesarea and the surrounding area were present at his funeral. Some were asking for his blessing, some for his forgiveness; at that last moment, many people repented of their behaviour towards him, and hearts were purified because of the holiness that emanated from his relics. Even Jews and pagans mourned the holy man. During the funeral quite a number of people died from the pressure or out of sorrow. The crowds said “farewell” to him with the promise that they would be faithful to his teaching.
St Basil, the bishop of Casesarea of Cappadocia in the East of Asia Minor, was the only Father of the Church who was called “Great” while still alive. He was really Great. His noble origin, his great fortune, his excellent education and his talents (strong mind and will, great rhetorical ability, active personality) were offerings to the Church and also the defence of Orthodoxy. In spite of his physical weakness, he worked very hard in every aspect of Church life. HE organized the coenobitic (common life) system of monasticism, and wrote important rules for the monks upon which the ascetic life in the East and to some large extent in the West in still based. It St Basil’s idea that the monastic life is also social life in the sense that monasteries are places in which love is practiced among the monks and for the members of the Church as a whole. Since his time monasteries have becomes places of co-operation between monks and of hospitality, charity and culture.
St Basil also was interested in Church worship, and he formed at least the anaphora, (other parts have developed since), of the Liturgy that is known as the “The Liturgy of St Basil”. This wonderful Liturgy is used in the Orthodox Church ten times in the year.
The holy father’s social activities were also of high importance, as already mentioned, and he is the model bishop in this aspect for all times.
But above all St Basil is the brave defender of the Orthodox faith and of the Unity of the Church. He lived at the time when the heresy of Arius denied that Jesus Christ is truly God – though the Creed of the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) speaks of Him as “true God of true God, begotten not made”. The holy father fought bravely against those heretical ideas and left us writings of paramount importance which played a decisive part in the overthrowing of Arianism. Thus he, together with a few other great Church Fathers, laid the foundations for the victory of Orthodoxy and the unity of the Church. The Second Ecumenical Council which met at Constantinople in 381 A.D. brought order and unity to the Church. St Basil had passed away two years earlier, but it is mostly to him that we owe this great moment in the history of Christianity. St Basil was a model bishop, a father to his flock, a friend to the unhappy, a firm and fearless defender of Orthodoxy. Another great father of the Church, his brother, St Gregory of Nyssa, writes about: “What was Basil’s nobility? What was his home? His nobility was the relationship with God; for, in the Gospel according to S John it is written: ‘to all who received him (the Son of God), to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’ (Jn.1,12). That is true nobility; his home (St Basil’s) was virtue: modesty, wisdom, justice, sincerity and chastity were his dwelling”.
St. Gregory’s of Nyssa praise sums up St Basil’s personality and his contribution to the Church.
-From An Abridged Calendar of the Feasts of the Orthodox Church (including all the fixed feasts of our Lord and His Mother and selected Saints’ day based on authentic ecclesiastical sources) by M. Tsami-Dratsellas, vol. 1: January to June, Myrioviblos Publications: Athens, 2008.