St. Basil lived and worked in the fourth century, when the Church was just starting to work hand in glove with the Roman state. The new relationship took some getting used to: before this, the Christians tried to avoid the State and its police whenever they could, since the coming of the Roman police (i.e. soldiers) was often a prelude to Christian martyrdom. Now the Roman State was everywhere inclined to favour the Christians, and even fund their endeavours. Like I said, it took some getting used to. But many career-minded Christians got used to it soon enough, and began working enthusiastically with the State, taking abundant care not to rock the new boat. Basil of Caesarea, however, was not among them. He never minded rocking the boat if he thought the boat needed rocking. And during the Arian interlude in the fourth century, it needed plenty of rocking.
One day, for example, as the new Bishop of Caesarea, Basil strove against the popular and State-sponsored Arian heresy. In his exchange of words with the Emperor’s prefect, Modestus, Basil spoke so boldly and bluntly that it left the prefect stammering in astonishment. The prefect had summoned Basil to a tribunal, and insisted that Basil fall in line with the rest of the more pliant bishops and accept the Imperial interpretation of the faith (i.e. Arianism).
“Everyone else has yielded, and you alone refuse to accept the religion commanded by the King!”
“It is not the will of my King,” replied Basil, “I cannot worship anything that has been created, since I myself am created by God.”
The prefect examining Basil was incensed. “What do you think of us?” he roared. “Are we nothing?”
“You are a prefect, but I shall not honour you more than I do God.”
“Do you know what I can do to you? Don’t you fear my power?” asked Modestus. “There are many things I can do to you!”
“I can confiscate your possessions, banish you, torture you, put you to death!”
“Is that all? None of these things trouble me! You cannot confiscate my possessions, for I have none. Banishment, exile—what are these to me? Everywhere on God’s earth I am at home. Torture cannot touch me, for I have no longer a body to torture. As for death, it is welcome to me, for it will bring me sooner into His blessed Presence.”
The prefect was taken aback. “No one has ever addressed me in such a manner until now.”
“No doubt.” Basil replied. “Probably you have never met a proper bishop until now.”
Basil lived in his whole life with that same indomitable courage. When he was first elected bishop of Caesarea, he was ill and living on his nerves alone. At the time of the election, his detractors said that he should not be chosen as their bishop, because he was so weak and his health so precarious. His friend and supporter asked in return whether they wanted a bishop or a gladiator. As it turned out, they got both.
But he was also a man of self-sacrifice and compassion, and he worked at his facility feeding the poor with his own hands. “If you are reduced to your last loaf of bread and a beggar appears at your door, then take that loaf and lift your hands to heaven and say, ‘Lord, I have but this one loaf; hungers lies in wait for me, but I revere your commandments more than all other things.’ If you say this, then the bread you gave in that hour of poverty will be changed for an abundant harvest.” Basil knew how to love the poor. He was a proper bishop.
Now more than ever we need proper bishops. The threat of Arianism is long gone, but the deadly threat of worldliness and moral compromise with the secular age remains. St. Basil also remains, not just as our intercessor in heaven, but as an abiding example for us who still labour on earth. Now is the time for plain speaking and courageous confrontation. Now is the time to unite compassion for the poor and ascetic holiness and daring defiance of the world’s standards in one potent and powerful package. Now is the time for St. Basil the Great.
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