Did Saint Basil the Great Invent Monasticism?

Jun 08, 2014 Comment(s) Tags: ,

There’s a popular belief about how monasticism came about, which tends to give Saint Basil the Great a lot more credit than he’d probably be comfortable with. It goes something like this:

After Saints Antony and Pachomius had more or less invented monasticism in Egypt, it went, as we’d say today, viral. Before long, there were so many monastics in Egypt and the Middle East, you couldn’t walk a mile without tripping over them. Eventually, the fad reached Asia Minor, (Turkey). Basil the Great, who lived there and who was interested in monasticism, learned about it. He travelled to Syria, Palestine and Egypt, (supposedly arriving in Alexandria just after St. Antony died) speaking to the anchorites and to St. Pachomius. He was so taken by what he saw he went home, set up a monastery on his family’s estate at Annesi, which his elder sister Macrina joined and of which his brother, Peter, was abbot before being ordained as bishop of Sebastia. Basil went on to found a number of other monasteries all through Cappadocia and the neighbouring areas and then wrote not one, but two books on the subject, called the Lesser and Greater Rules. His refinement of what the Egyptians were doing was so good that even today Orthodox monasteries the world over follow the rules he wrote down.

That’s not quite the case. If we’re going to be strict about giving credit where it’s due, then properly, we have to look into the distant Jewish past and give credit to the ascetic communities like the Essenes which existed long before Mary listened to Gabriel and said, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). As early as St. Paul’s letters, we hear about the “virgins” and the “widows” who had dedicated their lives to God, and who lived solely to submit to his will.

Historians now realize that monasticism grew up in places all over the empire, independently, and each person and each group had their own way of living a monastic life. Some individuals and groups wandered from place to place, begging and teaching, the way Christ and the apostles had done. Some people stayed at home, and their families became miniature monasteries, where husband and wife lived as brother and sister, and the children and servants were monastics alongside their parents and masters. Others gathered together into groups, and submitted to the rule of a leader, but were not necessarily related.

Basil and his family were a kind of poster family for monastic history. He came from a line of martyrs and confessors. His mother had wanted to become a dedicated virgin rather than marry. He was, by his own account, raised by his grandmother, Macrina the Elder, a confessor of the faith. His elder sister, Macrina the Younger, became a monastic at twelve, and it was her experience, along with their brother, Nacrautius’s devotion to the ascetic life, together with Basil’s own interest that led him to explore monasticism and to write down his experiences. He, in turn contributed to his younger brother Gregory’s desire to be a monk, and the four of them may have influenced yet another sister to join them, as well as the youngest brother, Peter. Six out of nine siblings all dedicated themselves to a monastic, celibate life.

Macrina was two years older than Basil, and while he was growing up and being educated, first by their father, and then by teachers in Caesarea, Constantinople and Athens, she was at home, pursuing a life of asceticism, and gradually drawing her mother and servants into a way of life more dedicated to God. While he was in Athens, Basil read a book by a man named Eustathius, who happened to be a family friend and who had been involved in the monastic movement for most of his adult life. Something in the book made Basil stop and think about his life, pack up his belongings and head home, where he spoke at length with his sister and may have been able to talk with Nacrautius as well, before that young man’s untimely and tragic death in a hunting or fishing accident. He then traveled through Syria and Egypt trying to catch up to Eustathius, but kept missing him. He also took the opportunity to talk to monastics about their life and their practices. Basil returned home, moved into a small building some distance from the main family house and lived as an ascetic for several years. He also spent several years after his ordination to the priesthood (in 362) traveling around Pontus, his home province, and at Annisa, at his sister’s monastery (for in the intervening years, it had expanded into a full monastic community), writing down his experiences, and the questions that other monastics asked both him and his friend Eustathius.

He published his book as the Asketikon and kept adding to it, editing and expanding, refining and changing things over the next twenty years. It was published again after his death as the Greater Asketikon, and it did become the standard Rule for monastics, both in the Orthodox world and in the West. (Even though most Western monks and nuns now base their Rules on Benedict’s writings, it’s known that Benedict himself based his work on Basil’s Asketikon.) Together with his brother Gregory’s biography of Macrina’s life, this family has provided the most comprehensive guides to monasticism ever written.

Basil didn’t “invent” monasticism, but he was responsible for recording the best practices of various monasteries all through Pontus, distilling what he learned from his sister, Eustathius, and others pursuing their dedication to the Lord, and putting it all into a book that has guided monastics and monasteries for over 1700 years.

For more detailed information on Basil the Great, and other saints of the church, visit our reference page.

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Bev. Cooke has been writing for publication since 1989. Her…
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