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St. Basil (330-379) was one of the giants of the early Church. He was responsible for the victory of Nicene orthodoxy over Arianism in the Byzantine East, and the denunciation of Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381-382 was in large measure due to his efforts. Basil fought simony, aided the victims of drought and famine, strove for a better clergy, insisted on a rigid clerical discipline, fearlessly denounced evil wherever he detected it, and excommunicated those involved in the widespread prostitution traffic in Cappadocia. He was learned, accomplished in statesmanship, a man of great personal holiness, and one of the great orators of Christianity.

He was born at Caesarea of Cappadocia (modern day Kayseri, Turkey) in 330. He was one of 10 children of St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia. His parents were renowned for their piety, and his maternal grandfather was a Christian martyr, executed in the years prior to Emperor Constantine’s conversion. Among Basil’s siblings, four are venerated as saints: Macrina the Younger, Naucratius, Peter of Sebaste and Gregory of Nyssa.

Basil attended school in Caesarea, as well as Constantinople and Athens, where in 352 he became acquainted with St. Gregory Nazianzen, who became his lifelong friend. A little later, he opened a school of oratory in Caesarea and practiced law. Eventually he decided to become a monk and found a monastery in Pontus which he directed for five years. He wrote a famous monastic rule which has proved the most lasting of those in the East. After founding several other monasteries, he was ordained and, in 370, made bishop of Caesaria. In this post until his death in 379, he continued to be a man of vast learning and constant activity, genuine eloquence and immense charity. This earned for him the title of “Great” during his life and Doctor of the Church after his death.

Together, Basil and Gregory went on to study in Constantinople, where they would have listened to the lectures of Libanius. Finally, the two spent almost six years in Athens starting around 349, where they met a fellow student who would become the emperor Julian the Apostate. Basil left Athens in 356, and after travelling in Egypt and Syria, he returned to Caesarea, where for around a year he practiced law and taught rhetoric.

A year later, Basil’s life would change radically after he encountered Eustathius of Sebaste, a charismatic bishop and ascetic. He abandoned his rising career as a lawyer and teacher in order to devote his life to God, beginning a religious life of poverty.

After receiving the sacrament of baptism, Basil traveled in 357 to Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia to study ascetics and monasticism. While impressed by the piety of the ascetics, the ideal of solitary life held little appeal to him. 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. Basil soon ventured out of this solitude, and by 358 he was gathering around him a group of like-minded disciples, including his brother Peter. Together they founded a monastic settlement on his family estate at Annesi in Pontus. Joining him there were his mother Emmelia, then widowed, his sister Macrina and several other women, who gave themselves to a pious life of prayer and charitable works.

It was here that Basil wrote his works regarding monastic communal life, considered pivotal in the development of the monastic tradition of the Eastern Church and have led to his being called the “father of Eastern communal monasticism.” In 358, he wrote to his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, asking Gregory to join him in Annesi. Gregory eventually agreed to come; together, they collaborated on the production of the Philocalia, an anthology drawn from Origen. Gregory then decided to return to his family in Nazianzus.

Basil attended the Council of Constantinople in 360. It was here that he first sided with the Homoiousians, 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. 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 him 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.

In 362, Basil was ordained a deacon by Bishop Meletius of Antioch. He was summoned by Eusebius to his city, and was ordained a priest there in 365. His ordination was probably the result of the entreaties of his ecclesiastical superiors.

Basil and Gregory Nazianzus spent the next few years combating the Arian heresy, which threatened to divide the region of Cappadocia. The two friends then entered a period of close fraternal cooperation as they participated in a great rhetorical contest of the Caesarean Church precipitated by the arrival of accomplished Arian theologians and public speakers. In the subsequent public debates, Gregory and Basil emerged triumphant. This success confirmed for both Gregory and Basil that their futures lay in administration of the Church. Basil next took on functional administration of the Diocese of Caesarea. Eusebius is reported as becoming jealous of the reputation and influence which Basil quickly developed, and allowed Basil to return to his earlier solitude. Later, however, Gregory persuaded Basil to return. Basil did so, and became the effective manager of the diocese for several years, while giving all the credit to Eusebius.

In 370 Eusebius died, and Basil was chosen to succeed him. He was consecrated bishop on June 14, 370. His new post as bishop of Caesarea also gave him the powers of exarch of Pontus and metropolitan of five suffragan bishops, many of whom had opposed him in the election for Eusebius’s successor. It was then that his great powers were called into action. Hot-blooded and somewhat imperious, Basil was also generous and sympathetic. He personally organized a soup kitchen and distributed food to the poor during a famine following a drought. He gave away his personal family inheritance to benefit the poor of his diocese.

His letters show that he actively worked to reform thieves and prostitutes. They also show him encouraging his clergy not to be tempted by wealth or the comparatively easy life of a priest, and that he personally took care in selecting worthy candidates for holy orders. He also had the courage to criticize public officials who failed in their duty of administering justice. At the same time, he preached every morning and evening in his own church to large congregations. In addition to all the above, he built a large complex 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.

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 waive the use of orthodox terminology when it could be surrendered without a sacrifice of truth. The emperor Valens, an adherent of the Arian philosophy, sent his prefect Modestus to at least agree to a compromise with the Arian faction. Basil’s adamant negative response prompted Modestus to say that no one had ever spoken to him in that way before. Basil replied, “Perhaps you have never yet had to deal with a bishop.” Modestus reported back to Valens that he believed nothing short of violence would avail against Basil. Valens was apparently unwilling to engage in violence. He did however issue orders banishing Basil repeatedly, none of which succeeded. Valens came himself to attend when Basil celebrated the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Theophany (Epiphany), and at that time was so impressed by Basil that he donated to him some land for the building of the Basiliad. This interaction helped to define the limits of governmental power over the Church.

Basil then had to face the growing spread of Arianism. This belief system, which denied that Christ was consubstantial with the Father, was quickly gaining adherents and was seen by many, particularly those in Alexandria most familiar with it, as posing a threat to the unity of the Church. Basil entered into connections with the West, and with the help of Athanasius, he tried to overcome its distrustful attitude toward the Homoiousians. The difficulties had been 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.

Basil corresponded with Pope St. Damasus I in the hope of having the Roman bishop condemn heresy wherever found, both East and West. The pope’s apparent indifference upset Basil’s zeal and he turned around in distress and sadness.

Cardinal Newman wrote of St. Basil that “from his multiplied trials he may be called the Jeremiah or Job of the fourth century... He had a very sickly constitution, to which he added the rigor of an ascetic life. He was surrounded by jealousies and dissensions at home; he was accused of heterodoxy in the world; he was insulted and roughly treated by great men; and he labored, apparently without fruit, in the endeavor to restore unity and stability to the Catholic Church.” Cardinal Newman does not explicitly say so here, but even Pope St. Damasus suspected Basil of heresy. Basil’s efforts to have Damasus come to the East met with no success, and while Basil’s ensuing bitterness indicated his intense dedication to Church unity, it showed too the personal pain of being misunderstood.

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. He suffered from liver illness and his excessive asceticism seems to have hastened him to an early death.

The principal theological writings of Basil are his “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 363 or 364, three books against Eunomius of Cyzicus, the chief exponent of Anomoian Arianism.

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, like that against usury and that on the famine in 368, are valuable for the history of morals; others illustrate the honor paid to martyrs and relics; the address to young men on the study of classical literature shows that Basil was lastingly influenced by his own education, which taught him to appreciate the importance of the classics.

Basil was a great admirer of Origen and 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.” He frequently stressed the need for reserve in doctrinal and sacramental matters. At the same time, he opposed the wild allegories of some of his contemporaries. Concerning this, he wrote: “I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those, truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own end.”

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. It is in his ethical manuals and moral sermons that the practical aspects of Basil’s theoretical theology are illustrated. So, for example, it is in his “Sermon to the Lazicans” that St. Basil explains 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.

His 300 letters reveal a rich and observant nature, which, despite the troubles of ill-health and ecclesiastical unrest, remained optimistic, tender and even playful. His principal efforts as a reformer were directed towards the improvement of the liturgy, and the reformation of the monastic institutions of the East.

St. Basil holds a very important place in the history of Christian liturgy, coming as he did at the end of the age of persecution. His 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 hymns. Patristics scholars conclude that the Liturgy of St. Basil “bears, unmistakably, the personal hand, pen, mind and heart of St. Basil the Great.”

One liturgy that can be attributed to him is the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great – a liturgy that is somewhat longer than the more commonly used Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The difference between the two is primarily in the silent prayers said by the priest, and in the use of the hymn to the Theotokos, All of Creation, instead of the Axion Estin of St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy. Chrysostom’s Liturgy has come to replace St. Basil’s on most days in the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic liturgical traditions. However, they still use St. Basil’s Liturgy on certain feast days: the first five Sundays of Great Lent, the Eves of Nativity and Theophany, on Great and Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday and on the Feast of St. Basil on Jan. 1. The Eastern Churches preserve numerous other prayers attributed to St. Basil, including three Prayers of Exorcism, several Morning and Evening Prayers, the “Prayer of the Hours” which is read at each service of the Daily Office, and the “Kneeling Prayers” which are recited by the priest at Vespers on Pentecost in the Byzantine Rite.

Through his examples and teachings, Basil effected a noteworthy moderation in the austere practices which were previously characteristic of monastic life. He is also credited with coordinating the duties of work and prayer to ensure a proper balance between the two.

Basil is remembered as one of the most influential figures in the development of Christian monasticism. Not only is he recognized as the father of Eastern monasticism; historians recognize that his legacy extends also to the Western church, largely due to his influence on St. Benedict. 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.”

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.

St. Basil was given the title Doctor of the Church for his contributions to the debate initiated by the Arian controversy regarding the nature of the Trinity, and especially the question of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Basil was responsible for defining the terms “ousia” (essence/substance) and “hypostasis” (person/reality), and for defining the classic formulation of three Persons in one Nature. His single greatest contribution was his insistence on the divinity and consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son.

In Greek tradition, he brings gifts to children every Jan. 1 (St. Basil’s Day) – unlike other traditions where Father Christmas arrives either on Dec. 6 (St. Nicholas Day) or on Christmas Eve (Dec. 24). It is customary on his feast day to visit the homes of friends and relatives, to sing New Year’s carols, and to set an extra place at the table for St. Basil. Basil, being born into a wealthy family, gave away all his possessions to the poor, the underprivileged, those in need, and children. A similar story exists for another Greek bishop, St. Nicholas of Myra. Over the centuries these two legends have blended together, though the Western Santa Claus remains associated with Nicholas, while the Eastern “Santa” is identified with Basil.

St. Basil died on Jan. 1, 379, 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 Jan. 2, rather than Jan. 1, because the latter date is occupied by the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. On Jan. 2 St. Basil is celebrated together with his lifelong friend St. Gregory Nazianzen.

There are numerous relics of St. Basil throughout the world. One of the most important is his head, which is preserved to this day at the monastery of the Great Lavra on Mount Athos in Greece.

He is the patron saint of hospital administrators.

— The Catholic Encyclopedia, www.catholic.org, Wikipedia