“I wish you would cancel the order, good sir,” said the apprentice to the merchant. The cobbler, Basil the apprentice’s master, looked at him askance.
“Be quiet, Basil! Tend to your work! The gentleman is free to order as many boots as he wants, and he’s certainly entitled to have them made the way he wants them.”
The merchant, a visitor to Elokhov, which was just outside Moscow, glanced over at Basil, and raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
“It’s just that he’s going to need a coffin long before he could possibly wear the boots, master.”
It perhaps didn’t happen quite that way, but this is recorded as St. Basil the Holy Fool’s first miracle, although tradition does note he was foretelling the future from a very early age.
Born in 1468 in the portico of the Elokhov church, he was by all reports a pious and devout child. His parents, Jacob and Anna, apprenticed him to a cobbler but, besides the foretelling of the merchant’s death, it wasn’t a happy situation. Not because he wasn’t a hard worker, but because Basil seemed to choose early the demanding vocation of Fool for Christ, some say as young as 16. It wasn’t unusual for him to shoplift from the market stalls on his way to work, grabbing food and then giving it away to the poor, both to help them and to shame the greedy and miserly who wouldn’t buy food for those in need.
He eventually moved to Moscow, where his ministry and his podvig began in earnest. Basil wore no clothing, and draped chains about himself. He lived on the streets, begging and acting the fool. In his lifetime, the Red Square was the principal market for the city, and he made this his “home”, wandering among the stalls, nude, even in the midst of the worst winters, bearded and unkempt and jingling as his chains rattled and moved with his footsteps. Occasionally he would run wild, and for no apparent reason, attack a stall, destroying or scattering the food or drink on it. He never tried to run away, as the merchants, furious at the loss of their goods, grabbed him and beat him soundly. He gave thanks to God and went on his way once they’d finished with him. If someone was curious enough to seek the sense in his actions, they would inevitably discover that the baker had added lime to the bread, or the kalachi had been poorly cooked, or the kvas was badly prepared, but were being sold at prime prices.
Any money he was given was immediately spent on food and clothing for other poor people, if he didn’t just give it away to them at once.
In his wanderings through the city, he would sometimes pick up stones and throw them at the houses of the rich. Other times, he would approach the buildings, and reverently kiss the stones of the houses, and pray for the people who lived in them. Once asked about his behavior, he said, “Angels stand in sorrow at the house and are distressed by the sins of the people, but I entreat them with tears to pray to the Lord for the conversion of sinners.”
He visited the taverns and spoke kindly to those far gone in drink, encouraging them and saying that we must always look for the grain of goodness even in those most.
His actions made him well known in the city, even as they caused talk and scandal. The Tsar, Ivan, knew and respected (and it’s said, feared) him, and would allow none to harm St. Basil. The saint was one of the few people who could scold the mercurial and cruel leader without fear, and he used the opportunity more than once to point the troubled leader toward a pious and reverential life and remind him that his cruelty would lead to condemnation, even chiding the ruler when Ivan’s thoughts strayed during Liturgy to a palace he was building. One Lent, he accosted the Tsar, handing him a cut of raw beef, demanding to know why the ruler fasted from meat during Lent when he was guilty of murdering men.
A merchant who wanted to build a church approached the saint for advice when the arches kept collapsing. Basil told him to speak with John the Cripple and he would find his solution. The merchant eventually tracked John down in Kiev, where he lived in a poor hut. When the merchant entered the hut, John was rocking a cradle and weeping.
“Why do you weep?” asked the merchant.
The disabled man lifted his eyes and said, “I cry for my mother, who was made poor by my birth and by raising me.”
The merchant then thought of his own mother, whom he had thrown out of his house. Realizing that this was the answer to his construction problem, he thanked John the Cripple and hurried home to set things right. It’s said that once he had begged his mother’s forgiveness, the construction of the church proceeded without further trouble.
St. Basil excited more talk when, after the Tsar gave him a gift of money, he immediately gave it away to a wealthy merchant. What people didn’t know was that the merchant had lost all of his wealth and had not eaten for three days. But he knew that begging would do no good, because he was well dressed.
In 1547 St. Basil predicted the great fire of Moscow, and it’s said that by prayer alone he extinguished a fire at Novogorod.
The saint died in 1557, and he was buried, not in the pauper’s grave, but in the cemetery next to the brand new church built by Tsar Ivan to commemorate his victories at Kazan and many priests and hierarchs attended his funeral. At the time of St. Basil’s death, the building was known as the Trinity Church, but because so many came to pray at his grave, it was known popularly as St. Basil’s Cathedral. In 1588, the year he was canonized, his grave was enclosed in a chapel added to the other chapels built around the central, original church and he is still one of the best-loved of the Russian saints.
For more information on St. Basil, here are some links:
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