ST. BASIL: FATHER OF EASTERN MONASTICISM

Fr. Martin Velliamkulam

frmartinv@gmail.com

basil2

St Basil is known as the Father of Eastern Monasticism.[1]He was the Bishop of Caesarea and he is one of the most distinguished Doctors of the Church. St. Basil ranks after Athanasius as a defender of the Oriental Church against the heresies of the fourth century. With his friend Gregory of Nazianzus and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, he makes up the trio known as “The Three Cappadocians”, far outclassing the other two in practical genuine and actual achievement.

1. The Person and Life of Basil

 Even though he was popular in his time there is no written record on the exact birth date of Basil. It is generally considered that he was born on 330;[2]and died on 1 January379.[3] St. Basil was born into a wealthy and a holy family of Basil the elder, a famous rhetor,[4] and _____1~1Emmelia of Caesarea in Cappadocia[5] (precisely in Caesarea Mazaca – now known as Kayseri, Turkey). His was a large family consisting of ten children, the parents, and Basil’s grandmother, St. Macrina the Elder. His parents were known for their piety and Christian witness,[6] and his maternal grandfather was a Christian martyr, executed in the years prior to Constantine I’s conversion. Four of Basil’s siblings are known by name, and considered to be saints by various Christian traditions. His elder sister Macrina the Younger   was a well-known nun of that period. His younger brother, Peter was a famous theological writer and he served as bishop of Sebaste in Armenia. Naucratius, his brother was an anchorite, inspired much of Basil’s theological works. Perhaps the most influential among Basil’s siblings was Gregory, his younger brother. Gregory was appointed as the bishop of Nyssa by Basil, and he produced a number of well known writings defending Nicene theology and describing the life of early Christian monks.

Short after the birth of Basil, the family moved to the estate of his grandmother Macrina in the region of Pontus. There, he was educated in the home by his father and grandmother. He was greatly influenced by the elder Macrina, who herself was a student of Gregory Thaumaturgus.[7] Gregory Thaumaturgus, a student of Origen influenced Basil through his grandmother Macrina the Elder.

Basil studied in all the famous schools of the day, in Caesarea, Athens and Constantinople, which gave him confidence and enthusiasm.  After the death of his father Basil returned to Caesarea in Cappadocia around 350-51 to begin his formal education.[8] There he met Gregory of Nazianzus, who became a lifetime friend.[9] Basil was very smart in his studies and was well respected.  He opened a school by himself, teaching ‘oratory’ (public speaking) and became a lawyer. He was so successful, and as popular as a public speaker he soon found himself becoming proud of his abilities. Basil together with Gregory went on to study in Constantinople, where they had listened to the lectures of Libanius. Both of them spent almost six years in Athens starting around 349,[10]where they met a fellow student who would become the emperor Julian the Apostate.[11]It was the first time that Basil began to think about living a life focused on Christian principles and morals. Returning from Athens around 355, Basil briefly practiced law and taught rhetoric in Caesarea. After one year he encountered Eustathius of Sebaste, a charismatic bishop and ascetic[12] which changed Basil’s life radically. Soon he abandoned his legal and teaching professions in order to devote his life to God. And he decided to receive baptism. Describing his spiritual awakening in a letter, Basil said:

I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.[13]

2. Founding of a Monastic Group in Arnesi

After the reception of baptism, Basil traveled in 357 to Palestine, Egypt[14], Syria and Mesopotamia to study ascetics and monasticism.[15] While motivated by the piety of the ascetics, the ideal of solitary life held little appeal to him.[16] Rather, he turned his attention toward communal religious life. After dividing his fortunes among the poor he went briefly into solitude near Neocaesaria on the Iris.[17] In 358 Basil ventured out of this solitude, and including his brother Peter, he was gathered around him a group of like-minded disciples. Together with Peter   founded a monastic group in his family estate at Arnesi in Pontus. Many of his family members, his widowed mother Emmelia, his sister Macrina and several other women gave themselves to a pious life of prayer and charitable works. 

As a monk, he wrote a set of ‘rules’ for monastic life that are still used today, 1600 years later. And Basil wrote his works regarding monastic communal life,[18] which are accounted as being pivotal in the development of the monastic tradition of the Eastern Church and have led to him being called the “father of Eastern communal monasticism”.[19] In 358 he invited his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, to join with him in Arnesi.[20] There they collaborated on the production of the Philocalia[21], a compilation drawn from Origen.[22]

3. Ordination to Priesthood and Bishop of Caesarea

Basil was ordained a deacon by Bishop Meletius of Antioch in 362and was ordained presbyter   in 365. His ordination is considered theMHS_ojcowie_ks_Bazyli_Wlk_Jan_Chryzostom_Grzeg_Wlk_XVII_Lipie_p result of the entreaties of his ecclesiastical superiors,[23] who wished to use his talents against the Arians, who were numerous in that part of the country and were favored by the Arian emperor, Valens, who then reigned in Constantinople. Basil and Gregory Nazianzus fought against the Arian heresy, which threatened to divide the region of Cappadocia.

It was in 360, in the Council of Constantinople that Basil supported the Homoiousians which is a semi-Arian faction who taught that the Son was of like substance with the Father, neither the same (one substance) nor different from him.[24] Its members included Eustathius, Basil’s mentor in asceticism. The Homoiousians opposed the Arianism of Eunomius but refused to join with the supporters of the Nicene Creed, who professed that the members of the Trinity were of one substance (“homoousios”). This stance put Basil at odds with his bishop, Dianius of Caesarea, who had subscribed only to the earlier Nicene form of agreement. Some years later Basil abandoned the Homoiousians, emerging instead as a supporter of the Nicene Creed.[25] And later Basil took charge of the functional administration of the Diocese of Caesarea.[26] After the death of Eusebius, Basil was chosen to succeed him, and was consecrated bishop on June 14, 370.[27] The powers of exarch of Pontus and metropolitan of five suffragan bishops were also given to him.

As human he was Hot-blooded and somewhat domineering, at the same time as Bishop he was generous and sympathetic. He actively worked for the reform of thieves and prostitutes. He encouraged his clergy to be holy men and he personally took care in selecting worthy candidates for holy orders. He preached every morning and evening in his own church to large congregations. He also had the courage to criticize public officials who failed in their duty of administering justice.  Under his leadership a large complex was built just outside Caesarea, called the Basiliad, which included a poorhouse, hospice, and hospital, and was regarded at the time as one of the wonders of the world.[28]

Basil had to face the growing spread of Arianism, as posing a threat to the unity of the church, particularly in Alexandrian church.[29]   His zeal for orthodoxy did not blind him to what was good in an opponent; and for the sake of peace and charity he was content to relinquish the use of orthodox terminology when it could be surrendered without a sacrifice of truth. Basil entered into connections with the West, and also with the help of Athanasius, he tried to overcome its distrustful attitude toward the Homoiousians. The difficulty was enhanced by bringing in the question as to the essence of the Holy Spirit. Although Basil advocated objectively the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son, he belonged to those, who, faithful to Eastern tradition, would not allow the predicate homoousios to the former; for this he was reproached as early as 371 by the Orthodox zealots among the monks, and Athanasius defended him. He maintained a relationship with Eustathius despite dogmatic differences. On the other hand, Basil was grievously offended by the extreme adherents of Homoousianism, who seemed to him to be reviving the Sabellian heresy[30] (whereby the eternal distinctions between the persons of the Trinity are destroyed or explained away) and implicated Basil by association .The followers of Eustathius published a document of Basil’s association with Apollinaris. [31]

Basil responded to these unfounded accusations. As ecclesiastical conflict had led Basil to be less than true to Gregory of Nasianzus , so it is also happened with Appolinaris . Rather than rallying to Appolinaris’ defense, Basil publically distanced himself from him and even admitted certain closeness between Appolinaris’ theology and Sebellianism. At the same time, however, Basil wrote that he did not believe the charges against Appolinaris , that he did not consider him as enemy , and that he respected him.[32]

Basil did not live to see the end of the factional disturbances and the complete success of his continued exertions in behalf of the Church. Basil’s illness and his excessive asceticism seem to have hastened him to an early death. It is believed that he died on 1st of January 379 in Caesarea.

As we have seen above Basil’s mission was during the time of some great challenges like Arianism. But he led the Church to the direction of light and Truth. Basil taught and spoke for to defend the Catholic doctrine. All his efforts were for God’s church, and not for himself. His contribution was great as Bishop and as a theologian. It is because of his staunch zeal for the Church, he is declared as a Great Doctor of the Church.

4. Main Writings

The prolific writing of Basil covers almost all the areas of Christian Theology. They include dogmatic, ascetic, pedagogic and liturgical treatises besides a great number of sermons and letters. Those widely accepted theological writings of Basil are On the Holy Spirit, a lucid and edifying appeal to Scripture and early Christian tradition (to prove the divinity of the Holy Spirit), and his Refutation of the Apology of the Impious Eunomius, written in between 363 – 365, three books against Eunomius of Cyzicus, the chief exponent of Anomoians which was a form of Arianism. The first three books of the Refutation are his work; the fourth and fifth books that are usually included do not belong to Basil, or to Apollinaris of Laodicea, but probably to Didymus “the Blind” of Alexandria. He was a famous preacher, and many of his homilies, including a series of Lenten lectures on the Hexaëmeron (the Six Days of Creation), and an exposition of the Psalter, have been preserved.

 Some moral instructions can be seen in his writings especially in, like that Against Usury and that on The Famine in 368. These are valuable for the history of morals. His ascetic tendencies are exhibited in the Moralia and Asketika  (sometimes mistranslated as Rules of St. Basil), Ethical Manuals for use in the world and the cloister, respectively. Of the two works known as the Greater Asketikon and the Lesser Asketikon, the shorter is the one most probably his work. It is in the ethical manuals and moral sermons that the practical aspects of his theoretical theology are illustrated. So, for example, it is in his Sermon to the Lazicans that we find St. Basil explaining how it is our common nature that obliges us to treat our neighbor’s natural needs (e.g., hunger, thirst) as our own, even though he is a separate individual.

 Some other works illustrate the honor paid to martyrs and relics; the address to young men on the study of classical literature and all these show that Basil was lastingly influenced by his own education, which taught him to appreciate the propaedeutic importance of the classics.[33]

In his Biblical exegesis Basil was a great admirer of Origen and he stresses the need for the spiritual interpretation of Scripture, as his co-editorship of the Philokalia with Gregory of Nazianzen testifies. In his work On the Holy Spirit, he asserts that “to take the literal sense and stop there is to have the heart covered by the veil of Jewish literalism. Lamps are useless when the sun is shining”.[34] He frequently stresses the need for Reserve in doctrinal and sacramental matters. At the same time he was against the wild allegories of some contemporaries.

Most of his extant works, and a few spuriously attributed to him, are available in the Patrologia Graeca, which includes Latin translations of varying quality. Several of St. Basil’s works have appeared in the late twentieth century in the Sources Chrétiennes collection. His Three Hundred Letters reveal a mixed, rich and observant nature, which, are mainly letters of friendship, recommendation, consolation, canonical, moral-ascetical, dogmatic, liturgical, and historical as we see in the Quasten, Johannes, Patrology, v.3. [35]  His principal efforts as a reformer were directed towards the improvement of the liturgy, and the reformation of the monastic institutions of the East.

5. Liturgical Contributions

St Basil of Caesarea holds a very important place in the history of Christian liturgy. A universal tradition of the Orient attributes to him the so –called Liturgy of St. Basil, which is still used in the Churches of the Byzantine rite on the Sundays in Lent (except palm Sunday), on Maundy Thursday, Easter Eve, Christmas Eve, the Eve of Epiphany and on January the first, the Feast of St. Basil. On other days, the liturgy of St. Chrysostom is followed.[36] At the time of St. Basil, the liturgical prayers were in a transition period from being extemporaneous or memorized into written formulas, and liturgy began to be influenced by court ritual. Basil’s liturgical influence is well attested in early sources. Though it is difficult at this time to know exactly which parts of the Divine Liturgies which bear his name are actually his work, a vast corpus of prayers attributed to him has survived in the various Eastern Christian churches. Most of the liturgies bearing the name of Basil are not entirely his work in their present form, but they nevertheless preserve a recollection of Basil’s activity in this field in formularizing liturgical prayers and promoting church-song. Patristic scholars conclude that the Liturgy of Saint Basil “bears, unmistakably, the personal hand, pen, mind and heart of St. Basil the Great.[37]

6. Influence on Monasticism

Through his examples and teachings Basil effected a noteworthy moderation in the austere practices which were previously the characteristic of monastic life. As a result of his influence, numerous religious orders in Eastern Christianity bear his name. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Basilian Fathers, also known as The Congregation of St. Basil, an international order of priests and students studying for the priesthood, is named after him. He is also credited with coordinating the duties of work and prayer to ensure a proper balance between the two.[38]  Patristic scholars such as Meredith assert that Benedict himself recognized this when he wrote in the epilogue to his Rule that his monks, in addition to the Bible, should read “the confessions of the Fathers and their institutes and their lives and the Rule of our Holy Father, Basil.[39] Basil’s teachings on monasticism, as encoded in works such as his Small Asketikon, was transmitted to the west via Rufinus during the last 4th century.[40]

7. Commemorations of Basil

Saint Basil died on January 1, and the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates his feast day together with that of the Feast of the Circumcision on that day. This was also the day on which the Roman Catholic calendar of saints celebrated it at first; but in the 13th century it was moved to June 14, a date believed to be that of his ordination as Bishop, and it remained on that date until the 1969 revision of the calendar, which moved it to January 2, rather than January 1, because the latter date is occupied by the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. On January 2 Saint Basil is celebrated together with Saint Gregory Nazianzen.[41]

In Greek tradition, Basil’s name is given to Father Christmas and he is supposed to visit children and give presents every January 1 (St Basil’s Day) — unlike other traditions where Saint Nicholas arrives either on December 6 (Saint Nicholas Day) or on Christmas Eve (December 24). It is traditional on St Basil’s Day to serve “Vasilopita”, rich baked bread with a coin inside. It is customary on his feast day to visit the homes of friends and relatives, to sing New Year carols, and to set an extra place at the table for Saint Basil. In Greek tradition and according to historical records, St Basil, of Greek heritage, is the original “Father Christmas”, who being born into a wealthy family, gave away all his possessions to the poor and those in need, the underprivileged and children.[42]

 

 


[1]FEDWICK, Paul Jonathan (ed.), Basil of Caesarea Christian, Humanist, Ascetic: A sixteen Hundredth Anniversary Symposium in Toronto June 10-16, 1979.Part.1, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Canada1981.P.XLIII.

[2] Ibid, p.204. The exact date of Basil’s birth is debated by historians. Some theologians like Hilderbrand question the position of Quasten, See HILDEBRAND, STEPHEN. M., The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea, Catholic University of America Press, Washington 2007, p. 18.And alsoROUSSEAU, PHILIP, Basil of CaesareaAppendix III: The Date of Basil’s Death and of the Hexaemeron ,  University of California Press, Berkeley1994 .pp360-363.

[3]  Liturgy of the Hours Volume I. Proper to  Saints, January 2.

[4] QUASTEN, JOHANNES, Patrology, v.3. Christian Classics. 1986, p. 204.

[5] ROUSSEAU, PHILIP, Basil of Caesarea, University of California Press, Berkeley 1994, P. 1.

[6]  Oratio 43.4, PG 36. 500B, tr. p.30, as presented in ROUSSEAU 1994, p.4.

[7]  BAUER, JERALD, Basil of Caesarea “The Westminster Dictionary of Christian History”.  Westminster Press, Philadelphia1971.

[8]  Ibid. 

[9]NORRIS, FREDERICK, “Basil of Caesarea”. In Ferguson, Everett (ed.) ,The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (second edition), Garland Press, New York 1997.

[10]RUETHER, ROSEMARY RADFORD., Gregory of Nazianzus, Oxford Press University, Oxford 1969,  pp. 19-25.

[11] ROUSSEAU, PHILLIP, Basil of Caesarea.  University of California Press, Berkeley1994, pp. 32–40.

[12]  HILDEBRAND, STEPHEN. M., The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea, Catholic University of America Press, Washington 2007, pp. 19–20.

[13]  QUASTEN, JOHANNES, Patrology, v.3. Christian Classics. 1986, p. 205.

 [14]Ibid, p. 205

[15] The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, London 15th edition, v. 1, p. 938

[16] MEREDITH, ANTHONY, The Cappadocians,St. Vladimir’s Seminar Press, Crestwood 1995, p. 21.

[17] QUASTEN, JOHANNES, Patrology, v.3. Christian Classics, 1986, p. 205.

[18]ROUSSEAU, PHILLIP, Basil of Caesarea.  University of California Press, Berkeley1994, pp. 32–40.

[19]ATTWATER, DONALD, and Catherine, Rachel John., The Penguin Dictionary of Saints,Penguin Books, New York 19933

[20]  ROUSSEAU, PHILLIP, Basil of Caesarea.  University of California Press, Berkeley1994, p. 66.

[21]Philocalia is an anthologyof Origen’s work and the two Rules which had a very strong influence on the expansion of the cloistered life in common. This gave even Basil to be called the Law giver of Greek Monasticism.

[22] MEREDITH, ANTHONY,  The Cappadocians, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood 1995, pp. 21–22.

[23] QUASTEN, JOHANNES , Patrology, v.3. Christian Classics. 1986, p. 205.

[24]MEREDITH, ANTHONY,  The Cappadocians,St. Vladimir’s Seminar Press, Crestwood 1995, pp. 21–22.

[25]Ibid, p.22.

[26]ATTWATER, DONALD, and Catherine, Rachel John.,The Penguin Dictionary of Saints (3rd edition),Penguin Books, New York 1993. 

[27]MEREDITH, ANTHONY, The Cappadocians, St. Vladimir’s Seminar Press, Crestwood 1995, p 23.

[28] Ibid., p23.

[29]FOLEY, O.F.M., LEONARD (2003). “St. Basil the Great (329-379)”. In MCCLOSKEY, O.F.M., Pat (rev.). Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons and Feasts (5th Revised Edition), St. Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati 2007.

[30]ROUSSEAU, PHILLIP,  Basil of Caesarea.  University of California Press, Berkeley1994, p. 241.

[31]HILDEBRAND, STEPHEN. M., The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea, Catholic University of America Press, Washington 2007, pp. 24-25.

[32] Cf. Ibid., p.26.

[33] DEFERRARI, ROY J., The Classics and the Greek Writers of the Early Church: Saint Basil, in “The Classical Journal” Vol. 13, No. 8 (May, 1918), PP 579–91.

[34] Cf. QUASTEN, JOHANNES, Patrology, v.3. Christian Classics. 1986, p. 209-222.

[35]QUASTEN, JOHANNES , Patrology, v.3. Christian Classics. 1986, p. 205. For the authenticity of the letters attributed to St.Basil see also American Journel of Philosophy (AJPh) Baltimore1931, pp.57-65. As quoted in QUASTEN, JOHANNES , Patrology, v.3. Christian Classics. 1986, p.225.

[36]QUASTEN, JOHANNES ., Patrology, v.3. Christian Classics. 1986, p226.

[37]BEBIS, GEORGE,  Introduction to the Liturgical Theology of St Basil the Great “Greek Orthodox Theological Review” 42(3-4) (1997), p.283.

[38]MURPHY, MARGARET GERTRUDE, St. Basil and Monasticism: Catholic University of America Series on Patristic Studies, Vol. XXV.  AMS Press, New York: 1930, pp.94-95.

[39]MEREDITH, ANTHONY, The Cappadocians, St. Vladimir’s Seminar Press,Crestwood 1995, P.24.

[40]SILVAS, ANNA M., Edessa to Cassino: The Passage of Basil’s Asketikon to the West,in “Vigliae Christianae”(Brill Academic) 56 (3) (September 2002),pp 247–259. 

[41] Calendarium Romanum, Libreria Editrice Vaticana 1969, p. 84

[42] “Santa Claus”, Eastern-Orthodoxy.com. Retrieved 2008-01-02.

Pin It

Comments are closed.