The Feast of Basil the Great

I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish (1 Cor. 1:20). 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 that was come to naught (1 Cor. 2:6). I shed a flood of tears over my wretched life, and I prayed for a guide who might form in me the principles of piety.

These are the words of the powerful fourth century Christian thinker, Basil of Caesarea, who along with his brother, Gergory of Nyssa, and his life-long friend Gregory of Nazianzus, came to be known as the Cappadocian Fathers, a trio of theological giants who continued the tradition of Athanasius into the late fourth century, hence for Basil, the title, "Basil the Great."

In the Eastern Church Basil has always been associated with January 1 because it was on that day in A.D. 379 that he died, not even quite fifty years of age. Almost immediately after his death January 1st became denoted as the Feast of St. Basil in the East and is celebrated to this day.

Basil was one of ten children from a solid Christian family, but it wouldn't be until much later that he would draw his conclusions about Christianity. Schooled at the greatest institutions of learning, including Constantinople and Athens, where his classmates included the future emperor Julian (361-363), the infamous "Apostate," and Gregory of Nazianzus with whom he forged a strong brotherly friendship, Basil was one of the great intellectuals of the time. In addition to his erudite nature, Basil's interest in the ascetic life along with his compassion for the poor marked him for a sacrificial life in the pastorate. His "shelter" for the homeless poor (called "Newtown"), which would also provide medical treatment and the teaching of work-skills would become a model institution for other dioceses.

Among his many achievements, Basil is most known for his emphasis on the unity of the Church, his liturgy (the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great), and his beautiful oratories (e.g. the "Hexaemeron" = "The Six Days [of Creation]", where he teaches the Christian view of the creation as opposed to pagan ideas such as Manicheism and the like); and most importantly his teachings which defended the Nicene doctrine of the "Logos" and its implications. A long friend and ally of Athanasius as well, Basil was the first to define "once and for all," the concrete meanings and distinctions of the creedal words "ousia" and "hypostases." His important work on the divine nature of the Holy Spirit (De Spiritu Sanctu) is to be noted as well.

In addition to his academic strengths, he also demonstrated a strength of a different kind (as we see in this story recorded by the hand of Gregory of Nazianzus). It concerned the Emperor Valens (364-378) and his Prefect Modestus in Cappadocia (modern day Turkey). It happened in the wake of Eusebius the historian's death in 370 when Basil became bishop of Caesarea (neo-Caesarea) in Cappadocia, and the Emperor Valens, who had Arian leanings was trying to establish Arianism in the region of Cappadocia. As the story goes, the Prefect Modestus approached Basil and threatened him with confiscation and exile if he did not cede to the wishes of the Emperor. Basil responded,

"The confiscation of goods does not harm one who has nothing, unless perchance, for these tortures and sufferings you need a cloak and a few books which are my whole life. Exile I do not know, for I am bound to no one place: not only this my own land in which I live, but the whole world into which I may be banished, I hold as my own, for the whole world is of God, whose dweller and sojourner I am."

Modestus replied, "No one has ever spoken to me in such a manner!"

And Basil replied, Perhaps you have never met a bishop before... Fire, swords, beasts and the instruments for tearing the flesh are wished for by us as delights more than horrors. Afflict us with such torture, threaten, do all that you can now devise, enjoy your power. Also, let the Emperor hear this, that at all events you will not persuade us nor win us over to the impious doctrine [Arianism], though you threaten with cruel deeds.

Here, then, is Basil the Great ... and as you might imagine, the Emperor Valens abandoned any ideas of subduing the Bishop of Caesarea after this futile confrontation.

So, as we move into the New Year, perhaps we should spend some time and consider the life and writings of Basil the Great. Certainly, if we are without "resolutions," to study the lives of the Saints, whether it be Basil or another, we will find great strength from the lives of these Christian heroes who have gone before us.