Born into one of the most illustrious Christian families in history, Basil the Great would do his family proud both in his lifetime and after his death. Known, along with his closest friend, Gregory the Theologian, and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, as one of the three Cappadocian Fathers, Saint Basil is credited with establishing the Nicean understanding of the Christian faith, and of being (incorrectly, it turns out) the man who established or “invented” monasticism in Asia Minor.
Born in Neocaesarea in approximately 329 to devout Christian parents, Emmelia and Basil the Elder, Basil had an impressive ancestry. His family, although centered in what is now northwestern Turkey, not far from the shores of the Black Sea, were wealthy Roman citizens, with a long history of prestigious and important appointments in the government. His mother’s father had been a martyr. His father’s mother, Macrina the Elder, while not martyred, had also suffered grievously for her faith, and it’s thought by some that her husband was killed during one of the persecutions.
The second eldest of a family that eventually numbered nine living children, Basil, like his elder sister Macrina, and his two next closest brothers, Naucratius and Gregory, had an amazing intellect. Taught initially by his grandmother and elder sister, he and his brothers attended their father’s school as soon as they were old enough. They were given a classical Christian education and more than likely Basil and his brothers shared their lessons with Macrina.
His father’s death in 340, when he was eleven years old, meant that he had to be sent to Caesarea, south and east of his home town, in the care of his mother’s brother Robert, a bishop, to finish his education. Once he’d graduated, instead of taking up his father’s career of rhetoric, Basil decided to continue his studies, first in Constantinople, and then in Athens, where he met the man who would be his closest ally and supporter for the rest of their lives – Gregory of Nazianzus. The two distinguished themselves in the largely pagan city with their talent and brilliance. However, in 356, Basil suddenly left the city and traveled back to Annisa, where his next younger brother, Naucrautius, had died in a fishing accident. It’s unclear whether it was the news of Nacrautius’s death that brought him, or the effect of reading a treatise by a certain Eustathius, on the monastic life. What is certain, however, is that while he was at Annisa, he was in constant touch with his sister, who had been pursuing a monastic vocation since the age of twelve, and her counsel, along with the treatise, convinced Basil he also was called to such a life.
He spent the next year or two teaching for some months in Ceasarea, then travelling down the Mediterranean and through Egypt, trying the whole while to meet up with Eustathius, but was unsuccessful. He returned to Annisa, the family estate, located on the river Iris, and on Via Pontica, the major highway that led from Constantinople in the west to Sebastia and Armenia in the east. From 358 to 362, Basil lived on the estate, removed from the main house, pursing his monastic calling, joined for a while by his brother Gregory and his best friend – the Gregory he met in Athens. He and his brother attended the council of Constantinople in 360, one of the many councils called to try and resolve the Arian controversy. It, like many of the other councils, produced a creed that satisfied no one. But Basil did speak there and was regarded with respect.
In 361, he returned to Casearea and was ordained a priest, but between 362 and 365, he spent a great deal of time at Annesi and traveling through and around Pontus with Eustathius, learning about monasticism from his sister’s community, and advising monastics and monastic communities. He took notes during his visits, then wrote them up into a question and answer format that he published as the Small Asketikon (or monastic rule) sometime between 362 and 370. It was the first major, widespread rule for monastics and monastic communities, and over the rest of his life, he continually edited and annotated it until it was republished, after his death, as the Great Asketikon. It formed the Rule for monastics for both eastern and western Christianity, and while Benedict published his own rule for Roman Catholic, Western monasteries, it was based on Basil’s Rules. Much of Basil’s information came not only from the monastic rule he himself followed, but from the life and routines he found in his sister’s religious community at Annesi, where, by 360, her asceticism had grown from a private dedication to include first, members of her family and household, and then eventually, a full double monastery, with a men’s and a women’s side where the inhabitants lived with everything in common, and worked to support themselves and the needy.
All through his adult life, Basil wrote. We have over 300 of his letters. He wrote prayers and liturgies, books and treatises, sermons and exhortations that constantly affirmed the Orthodox belief in the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son. He wrote to refute the Arian heresy, which insisted that the Son was a created being – that God the Father and God the Son were not of one nature. This, in addition to his writings on the monastic life, is primarily what prompted the church to recognize him as a saint. But from the records we have, Basil’s piety and humility shine as brightly as his intellect, political astuteness and his steadfast courage in defending the true Orthodox faith.
He gave away three fortunes in his lifetime, to support the poor and destitute. He built a “city” called (by others) the Basealiad, composed of a hospital, a hospice for travelers, a poor house and a monastery on land the emperor gave him. He was noted for the plain and humble clothing he wore, even as a bishop and Metropolitan. Macrina and Gregory chided him for the austerity under which he lived – he was not a well man, and suffered from liver, kidney and stomach problems most of his life, yet insisted on a meagre and restricted diet, as befit a humble monk. He ministered to all his flock – rich and poor, healthy and ill, and was beloved (even if he did irritate the rich by nagging them to give more to their poorer brethren) by them all. He advocated for a simple, monastic style of life for all Christians, and gave generously of his substance, time and efforts during a severe famine in 370. He had the courage of his conviction, standing up even to the emperor Valens in defense of his beliefs, and he was loyal to a fault.
In 370, Basil was made Bishop of Caesarea and Metropolitan of Cappadocia. The province was almost immediately split in two by the emperor Valens (who was an Arian). In order to increase the number of Orthodox (Nicean) bishops in his area, Saint Basil created two new sees – one in Nyssa, to which he appointed his brother (hence, Gregory of Nyssa), and one in Sasima, on the border of the split province to which he named his dear friend, Gregory (the “other” Gregory). His brother took the appointment, although he wasn’t happy about it, and had serious doubts about his ability to administer a diocese. Gregory the Theologian was another matter. He was enraged, bitter and deeply hurt that Basil would assign him to such an ugly and remote spot. He didn’t see Basil’s reason: that you put those you most trust into the locations of greatest weakness in order to be assured that the edges will hold. All Gregory could see was that he didn’t want the position, felt it was a small, mean and disgusting place. He resigned the post and returned to the city of his birth – Nanzianzus. The two never spoke again.
Despite the break, and the tensions with his brother, Basil ruled his area ably and well, although as he aged, his health worsened. Toward the end of the summer in 378, he was laid low once again, and this time it was the last. Saint Basil died in September of 378, and although he was unable to attend the Constantinople council in 381 which saw, finally, the triumph of Orthodox belief over the Arian heresy, his friend and his brother, the two Gregories, ably and brilliantly supported his life’s work of establishing the Nicean understanding of the faith at least partly in his memory; the faith that we still today practice and live in the Orthodox church.
- Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series II, Volumes 2 (Sozomon), 5 (Gregory of Nyssa), 7 (Gregory Nazianzus), 8 (Basil)
- The Cappadocians by Anthony Meredith SVS Press, 1995
- The Asketikon of St. BAsil the Great, Anna M. Silvas, Oxford Early Christian Studies, 2005,
- Gregory of Nyssa, The Letters, translated and written by Anna Silvas Brill, 2007
- Wandering, Begging Monks, DF Craner, University of California Press, 2002
- Virgins of God, Susanna Elm, Clarendon Paperbacks, 1994
- Macrina the Younger, Philosopher of God, by Anna Silvas, Brepols 2008
- Fathers of the Church, St. Gregory Ascetical Works translated by Virginia Wood Callahan, CUA Press, 1967
- The Life of St. Macrina by Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, translated by Kevin Corrigan, Peregrina Publishing Company 1996
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