Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea Cappadocia, “belongs not to the Church of Caesarea alone, nor merely to his own time, nor to his own kinsmen was he merely of benefit, but rather to all lands and cities worldwide, and to all people he brought and yet brings benefit, and for Christians he always was and will be a teacher most salvific,” thus spoke the contemporary of Saint Basil, Saint Amphylochius, Bishop of Iconium (+344).
Saint Basil was born about the year 330 at Caesarea, the administrative centre of Cappadocia. He was of illustrious lineage, famed for its eminence and wealth, and giftedly zealous for the Christian faith. The grandfather and grandmother of the saint on his father’s side, during the time of persecution under Diocletian, had to hide themselves away in the forests of Pontum for a space of seven years. The mother of Saint Basil, Saint Emilia (Emily), was the daughter of a martyr. The father of Saint Basil was also named Basil: he was a lawyer and reknowned rhetorician and lived constantly at Caesarea.
Into the family of this elder Basil ten children were born: five sons and five daughters. Of these, five were later enumerated to the ranks of the Saints: Basil the Great; Macrina, who was an exemplar of ascetic life and exerted strong influence on the life and character of Saint Basil the Great; Gregory, afterwards Bishop of Nyssa; Peter, Bishop of Sebasteia; and Righteous Theozua, a deaconess.
Saint Basil spent the first years of his life on an estate belonging to his parents at the River Irisa, where he was raised under the supervision of his mother Emilia and grandmother Macrina. They were women of great refinement, preserving in memory the tradition of an earlier sainted hierarch of Cappadocia, Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus (Wonderworker) (+ c.266-270).
Basil received his initial education under the supervision of his father, and then he studied under the finest teachers in Caesarea Cappadocia, and it was here that he made the acquaintance of Saint Gregory the Theologian. Later on, Basil transferred to school at Constantinople, where he listened to eminent orators and philosophers. For the finishing touches to his education Saint Basil set off to Athens – a centre of classical enlightenment.
After a four or five year stay at Athens, Basil the Great had mastered all the available disciplines. “He so thoroughly studied everything, more than others are wont to study a single subject, each science he studied to its very totality, as though he would study naught else.” Philosopher, philologist, orator, jurist, naturalist, possessing profound knowledge in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine, “this was a ship, loaded down full of learning, to the extent allowed of by human nature.”
At Athens a close friendship developed between Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus), which continued throughout all their life. Later on, in a eulogy to Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian speaks with delight about this period: “Various hopes guided us and indeed inevitably – in learning… Two paths opened up before us: the one – to our sacred temples and the teachers therein; the other – towards preceptors of disciplines beyond.”
In about the year 357 Saint Basil returned to Caesarea, where for a certain while he devoted himself to rhetoric. But soon, refusing offers from Caesarea citizens wanting to entrust him with the education of their offspring, Saint Basil entered upon the path of ascetic life.
After the death of her husband, Basil’s mother together with her eldest daughter Macrina and several maid-servants withdrew to the family estate at Irisa and there began to lead an ascetic life. Basil, however, having accepted Baptism from the bishop of Caesarea Dianios, was ordained a reader. As an expounder of the Sacred Scriptures, he at first read them to the people. Later on, “wanting to acquire a guide to the knowledge of truth,” the saint undertook a journey into Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, to the great Christian ascetics dwelling there. Upon returning to Cappadocia, he decided to do likewise.
Having given his wealth to the needy, Saint Basil settled on the opposite side of the river not far from his mother Emilia and sister Macrina, gathering around him monks living in common community. Through his letters, Basil the great attracted to the wilderness monastery his good friend Gregory the Theologian. Saints Basil and Gregory asceticised amidst strict abstinence in their hovel, without roof and without fireplace, and the food was very humble. They themselves heaved the stones, planted and watered the trees, and carried heavy loads. Their hands were constantly calloused from the hard work. For clothing Basil the great had only chiton-tunic and monastic mantle; the hairshirt he wore only at night, so that it would not be obvious. In their solitude, Saints Basil and Gregory occupied themselves in an intense study of Holy Scripture with manuscript guidances from the most ancient commentators, and in parts Origen also, from all whose works they compiled an anthology – a Philokalia (Dobrotoliubie). And also at this time at the request of the monks, Basil the Great wrote down a collection of rules for virtuous life. By his preachings and by his example Saint Basil the Great assisted in the spiritual perfecting of Christians in Cappadocia and Pontus; and many indeed turned to him. Monasteries were organised for men and for women, in which places Basil sought to unite the coenobitic (or life-in-common) lifestyle with that of the solitary hermit.
During the reign of Constantius (337-361) the heretical false teachings of Arius spread about, and the Church summoned both its saints into service. Saint Basil returned to Caesarea. In the year 362 he was ordained deacon by the bishop of Antioch, Meletios; later on, in 364 he was ordained to the dignity of priest by the bishop of Caesarea, Eusebios. “But seeing,” as Gregory the Theologian relates, “that everyone exceedingly praised and honoured Basil for his wisdom and reverence, Eusebios, through human weakness, succumbed to jealousy of him, and began to show dislike for him.” The monks rose up in defense of saint Basil. To avoid causing Church discord, Basil withdrew to his own monastery and concerned himself with the organisation of monasteries. With the coming to power of the emperor Valens (364-378), who was a resolute adherent of Arianism, there began for Orthodoxy the onset of a time of troubles – “the onset of the great struggle.”
Saint Basil then hastily returned to Caesarea at the call of bishop Eusebios. In the words of Gregory the Theologian, he was for bishop Eusebios “a good advisor, a righteous representative, an expounder of the Word of God, a staff for the aged, a faithful support in matters internal, and an activist in matter external.” From this time church governance passed over to Basil, though he was subordinate to the hierarch. He preached daily, and often twice so – in the morning and in the evening. And during this time Saint Basil compiled the order of his Liturgy; he wrote a work “Discourse on the Six Days” and another in sixteen chapters on the Prophet Isaiah, yet another on the Psalms, and also a second compilation of monastic rules. Saint Basil wrote also three books “Against Eunomios,” an Arian teacher who with the help of Aristotelian concepts had presented the Arian dogmatics in learnedly philosophic form, converting the Christian teaching into a logical scheme of rationalist concepts.
Saint Gregory the Theologian, speaking about the activity of Basil the Great during this period, points to “the caring for the destitute and the taking in of strangers, the supervision of virgins, written and unwritten monastic rule for the monasticising, the arrangement of prayers, the felicitous arrangement of altars and other things.” Upon the death of the bishop of Caesarea Eusebios, Saint Basil in the year 370 was elevated onto his cathedra.
As Bishop of Caesarea, Saint Basil the Great was the newest in rank of 50 bishops in eleven provinces. Saint Athanasius the Great, with joy and with thanks to God, welcomed the bestowing of Cappadocia with such a bishop as Basil, famed for his reverence, deep knowledge of Holy Scripture, great learning, and his efforts for the welfare of Church peace and unity. In the empire of Valens the external government belonged to the Arians, who held several various opinions on questions of the Divinity of the Son of God and hence were divided into several factions. And to these dogmatic disputes were connected questions about the Holy Spirit. In his books “Against Eunomios,” Saint Basil the Great taught about the Divinity of the Holy Spirit and Its Oneness together with the Father and the Son. Subsequently, for a full explanation of the Orthodox teaching on this question, at the request of the Bishop of Iconium Saint Amphylochius, Saint Basil wrote his book “About the Holy Spirit.”
The generally sorry state of affairs for the Caesarea bishop was made even worse by various circumstances: Cappadocia was divided in two under the rearrangement of governance of provincial districts. Then too at Antioch a schism occurred, occasioned by the ordination of a second bishop. There was the negative and haughty attitude of Western bishops to the attempts to draw them into the struggle with the Arians. And there was also the departure over to the Arian side by Eustathios of Sebasteia, with whom Basil had been connected by close friendship. Amidst the constant perils Saint Basil gave encouragement to the Orthodox, affirmed them in the faith, summoning them to bravery and endurance. The holy bishop wrote numerous letters to the Churches, to bishops, to clergy and to individuals. Overcoming the heretics “by the weapon of his mouth, and by the arrows of his letters,” as an untiring champion of Orthodoxy, Saint Basil all his life gave challenge to the hostility and the every which way possible intrigues of the Arian heretics.
The emperor Valens, mercilessly dispatching into exile any bishops that displeased him, and having implanted Arianism into other Asia Minor provinces, suddenly appeared in Cappadocia for precisely this purpose. He sent off to Saint Basil the prefect Modestus, who began to threaten the saint with ruin, banishment, beatings, and even death by execution. “All this,” replied Basil, “for me means nothing, since one cannot be deprived of possessions that one does not have, beyond some old worn-out clothing and some books, which comprises the entirety of my wealth. For me it would not be exile, since I am bound to no particular place, and this place in which I now dwell is not mine, and indeed any place whither I be cast shalt be mine. Better it is to say: everywhere is the place of God, whither be naught stranger nor new-comer (Ps. 38:13). And what tortures can ye do me? I am so weak, that merely but the very first blow will be felt. Death for me would be an act of kindness: it wilt bring me all the sooner to God, for Whom I live and do labour, and to Whom moreover I do strive.” The official was bewildered by such an answer. “Perhaps,” continued the saint, “thou hast never had encounter with a bishop; otherwise, without doubt, thou wouldst have heard suchlike words. In all else we are meek, the most humble of all, and not only afront the mighty, but also afront all, since such is prescribed for us by the law. But when it is a matter concerning God and they make bold to rise up against Him, then we, being mindful of naught else, think only of Him alone, and then fire, sword, wild beasts and chains, the rending of the body, would sooner hold satisfaction for us, than to be afraid.”
Reporting to Valens on the not to be intimidated Saint Basil, Modestus said: “Emperor, we stand defeated by a leader of the Church.” Basil the Great again showed firmness and in front of the very person of the emperor himself and his retinue produced such a strong impression on Valens, that the emperor dared not give in to the Arians demanding the exile of Basil. “On the day of Theophany, amidst an innumerable multitude of the people, Valens entered the church and mixed in amidst the throng, in order to give the appearance of being in unity with the Church. When began the singing of psalmody in the church, it was like thunder to his hearing. The emperor beheld a sea of people, and in the altar and all around was splendour; in front of all was Basil, acknowledging neither by gesture nor by glance, as though in church was occurred aught else, than that everything was intent only on God and the altar-table, and the clergy thereat in awe and reverence.”
Saint Basil almost daily celebrated Divine-services. He was particularly concerned about the strict fulfilling of the canons of the Church, and kept attentive watch, so that only worthy individuals should enter into the clergy. He incessantly made the rounds of his own church, lest anywhere there be an infraction of Church discipline, and setting aright any unseemliness. At Caesarea Saint Basil built two monasteries, a men’s and a women’s, with a church in honour of 40 Martyrs whose relics were buried there. On the example of monks, the metropolitan clergy of the saint, even deacons and priests, lived in remarkable poverty, to toil and lead lives chaste and virtuous. For his clergy Saint Basil got an exemption from taxes. All his personal wealth and the income-proceeds from his church he used for the benefit of the destitute; in every centre of his diocese he built a poor-house; at Caesarea a home for wanderers and the homeless.
Sickly since youth, the toil of teaching, efforts at abstinence, the concerns and sorrows of pastoral service early sapped the strength of the saint. Saint Basil died on 1 January 379 at age 49. Shortly before his death, the saint gave blessing to Saint Gregory the Theologian to enter upon the Constantinople cathedra.
Upon the repose of Saint Basil, the Church immediately began to celebrate his memory. Saint Amphylochius, Bishop of Iconium, in his eulogy to Saint Basil the Great, said: “It is neither without a reason nor by chance that holy Basil hath taken leave from the body and had repose from the world unto God on the day of the Circumcision of Jesus, celebrated betwixt the day of the Nativity and the day of the Baptism of Christ. Wherefore this most blessed one, preaching and praising the Nativity and Baptism of Christ, extolling spiritual circumcision, himself forsaking the flesh, doth ascend to Christ now especially on the sacred day of remembrance of the Circumcision of Christ. Therefore also let be established on this present day annually to honour the memory of Basil the Great festally and solemnly.”