Thursday, June 14, 2007
Feast of Basil the Great
Almighty God, you have revealed to your Church your eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace that, like your bishop Basil of Caesarea, we may continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; for you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.
Basil was born in the year 329, just a few years after the first Ecumenical Council held in Nicea from which came the Nicene Creed. This is important because Basil would become one of the great defenders of orthodoxy against the Arian Heresy. His family was wealthy, well educated, and very devout Christians. His father was a lawyer and he was so devout that some people thought he was able to perform miracles. Basil's grandparents were converts and disciples of Gregory Thaumaturgus, the Wonder-worker, a disciple of Origen. They spent seven years in the woods of Pontus hiding during the Decian persecution, and their estate at Annesi on the Iris river had a chapel to forty martyrs. It must have been quite a household, for this family produced two bishops and the head of the first convent, and all three are considered saints by the Church.
Basil received a classical Greek education. He started in Caesarea, then studied under Libanius in Antioch, and, feeling restless, spent some time studying in Constantinople. Finally, he entered the University of Athens, studying under the best teachers of his time. He spent five years studying history, geometry, astronomy, poetics, and the classics. Athens was where he met his life-long friend Gregory of Nazianzus, another Cappadocian Father and future bishop. Another classmate was the future emperor, Julian. He returned to Cappadocia, having graduated from the best university in the world at that time, and took the seat of Rhetoric at the University of Caesarea. He enjoyed the academic life and oratory, and his sister, Macrina, accused him of being “puffed up beyond all measure with the pride of oratory” and complained that he thought he was better than anyone in town. He was always quoting the classics at her and showed absolutely no interest in following the Christian traditions of the family. Macrina was already preaching renunciation to the family, but Basil wasn't buying any of that! Then tragedy struck his family; his brother, Naucratius, who was the most handsome of the children, the most athletic, and the best scholar, and mom's favorite child, died suddenly. He was living at the family estate at Annesi, and had gone out fishing with a servant, and was brought home dead. Basil was overwhelmed by this event; he gave up his chair at the University and came to sit at his sister’s feet and learn of renunciation.
Macrina was the source of solace in the family. She comforted her mother and brothers, and soon changed things around the house, having the slaves treated as equals and started talking about closing the house and moving to one of the other estates to found a religious community for women. This was the first monastery and the first monks were women, not men! Inspired by his sister’s example, Basil went to Egypt where he studied with the Anchorites. The Anchorites were hermits who lived lives of strict asceticism, living in the desert in caves and holes and little huts. They lived in communities but had no leader and tended to suffer from spiritual pride, believing that they were holier than everyone else. Basil spent a few months visiting Anchorites in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, but he decided that the life of an Anchorite was undisciplined and lacking in humility. When Basil returned to Cappadocia, he was fired-up and wanted to start a community for men similar to the community for women Macrina had started at Annesi. He decided to found his community in Ibora, across the Iris river and facing Annesi. He invited his friend Gregory to come join him. His description of the place and the life they would live there sounds more like a great camping adventure than the monastic life: There is a high mountain very thickly wooded, watered toward the north with cool and transparent streams. Below the mountain lies a plain, richly watered by the mountain streams, skirted by a tremendous growth of trees thick enough to form a fence; and so, as you see, we live on an island more beautiful than the island of Calypso, which Homer thought to be the most beautiful on earth. Indeed, this is truly an island, enclosed on all sides and the earth dips away at the frontiers of the island; and the river, which flows from a mountain precipice, runs along one side, and is impassable as a wall; while the mountain, extending itself behind, and meeting the hollows in a crescent, stops up the path at its roots. There is but one pass, and I am the master of it. Gregory thought the place was cold and dark and full of thorns and he hated the little hut that he and Basil stayed in, and he hated the poor food; he and Basil almost broke their teeth on the homemade bread. Gregory left, but Basil was now convinced that the life of renunciation was the life for him. Taking his sister’s group as a model, he decided that it was better for monks to live under a rule of discipline: when and how much one should eat, rules deciding when and how often monks should pray, even rules on how many blankets one could have on one's bed. He developed the “Rule of Basil” which is still the model for monasteries of the Eastern Church. According to Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil wanted to take the best from his sister's system and the Anchorite system, "so that the contemplative life might not be cut off from society, nor the active life be uninfluenced by contemplation."
In 359, Basil became a lector in the church, and five years later, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, against Basil's will, had him ordained a presbyter. As a presbyter he dealt with the minor duties of the episcopate. Basil and Bishop Eusebius were both stubborn, opinionated guys, and there were many arguments. At one point Basil had enough; he left Caesarea and returned to Ibora. When Valens, an Arian, became emperor, Eusebius, being one of the few orthodox bishops around, needed Basil's help and he was recalled to Caesarea. It was a difficult time for Caesarea; in the year 368 there were hailstorms, then floods, then earthquakes, and all of this was followed by a terrible drought. The peasants lost their crops and starvation hit the area. Basil, a rich young man, saw starvation for the first time and the plight of the poor and hungry touched him deeply. He sold the property he had inherited and gave the money to the hungry. He went around Caesarea to all the rich people he knew and demanded that they collect money and bread and give it to the poor. He told them, "There would be neither rich or poor if everyone, after taking from his wealth enough for his personal needs gave to others what they lacked." (Let those with ears, hear!) But the rich were more selfish than he ever expected, and if you read his homilies from that time, they often have a protest against wealth. He loved the poor, and to them he wrote: "since you have nothing, lend what you have to God." He realized the truth (a truth that I myself have seen many times) that there is often more human charity and warmth among the poor than anywhere else.
Two years later Eusebius died, and, with an Arian Emperor in Constantinople and an Arian Patriarch at Hagia Sophia, two bishops fighting for the throne in Antioch and Rome far away and out of touch, Basil saw no choice but to become a Bishop. Nothing would stop him and he would be victorious against all enemies. Bishop Gregory Nazianzus, father of his dear friend, recognized that there was no alternative, and arranged in his old age to be carried to Caesarea in order to take part in the election. Gregory won the election by a narrow margin, and the Bishop of Nazianzus consecrated Basil with his own hands. Athanasius wrote from Alexandria that every diocese should have a bishop like Basil. Basil was now Bishop of Caesarea, Metropolitan of Cappadocia, and Exarch of Pontus. As bishop he fought the Arians constantly and required all his clergy to be orthodox. When the Emperor tried to reduce his power by cutting his See of Cappadocia, Basil forced his brother Gregory to become bishop of Nyssa, and, upon his father's death, his dear friend Gregory as bishop of Nanzianzus. His fight for orthodoxy prevailed, and the Nicene faith was affirmed at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381.
Basil was also considered a great Liturgist, and the Liturgy of St. Basil is used in the Eastern Church for special occasions when the Liturgy of St. John Chrysotom is not used. It seems proper to me that we celebrate the feast of Basil the Great a little after the Feast of Pentecost, the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, as the third person of the Trinity was very important to Basil. In his treatise On the Holy Spirit, Basil stated that both scripture and the faith of the Church requires that the same honor, glory and worship is to be paid to the Holy Spirit as to the Father and the Son. There was a traditional formula for liturgical prayer at that time which used the words: “Glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit,” but Basil wrote that we should say: “Glory to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit.” Of course, now we deal with the issue by saying "Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit" which works quite well. Basil was devoted to, and recognized, the importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. Basil was also devoted to the poor, and this was illustrated in his will. When Basil died, he willed to the city of Caesarea a complete new town, built on his estate, with housing and a staff, a church for the poor, and a hospice for travelers. Basil was serious about the faith and he was also serious about the monastic life, that is why he developed his rule. But his concern for the poor also showed how seriously he took the commands of our Lord Jesus to care for the poor.
Let me share a story about Basil told by Robert Payne:
One day when the saintly Ephraem Syrus was wandering through Cappadocia, he heard a voice saying: "Rise, Ephraem, and feed upon intellect." "Where shall I find it, Lord?" he asked. "Go toward My church, and there thou shalt find a royal vase full of the nourishment that is good for thee." He entered the church and saw a priest standing at the alar, a tall man with stooping shoulders; on one of those shoulders a snow-white dove sat, whispering in Basil's ear.
I See You!
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