30 January 2018

A most salvific teacher, for all and always

Saint Basil the Great

It’s the Feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs! And so far I’ve commemorated Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John the Golden-Mouthed here, two of the three Holy Hierarchs. That leaves only Holy Father Basil the Great, whose feast on New Year’s Day I unfortunately missed. Saint Basil is another whose writings and insights on various matters pertaining to political philosophy I have shamelessly borrowed, so my oversight shall not pass uncorrected!

Saint Basil of Cæsarea was born in Cappadocia, right in the middle of Asia Minor, in the year 330. His family were all remarkably illustrious, and very well-respected in Christian circles. His paternal grandfather and grandmother had fled to Pontus during the persecutions of Diocletian, and his wealthy mother Emmeleia of Cæsarea was the daughter of a martyr in the same persecutions. His father, Saint Basil the Elder, was a lawyer and a master of rhetoric. From the prolific union of Saint Basil and Saint Emmeleia sprang ten children, of whom five were to become saints in the Orthodox Church in their own right: Saint Basil the Great, Saint Naukratios, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Peter of Sebasteia and Venerable Macrina the Younger.

The eldest son, Basil, was given every attention by his doting mother Emmelia and grandmother Macrina the Elder, and thus raised to respect and love the Church. His father saw to it that he got the finest tutors in Cappadocia, and then sent him to Constantinople and later to Athens to finish his learning in philosophy and the classics. He was acquainted with Gregory of Nazianzus (later Saint Gregory the Theologian) from childhood. Being schoolmates in Athens, the two of them came to be lifelong friends, closer than brothers. Basil soaked up knowledge like a sponge soaks up water, thirsted after it insatiably, and never stopped learning – he mastered each discipline in turn until he could truly be considered a polymath. He mastered dialectic, rhetoric and grammar, as well as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy; in addition, he gained a thorough knowledge of the practical arts of medicine and law.

Basil, now being an accomplished scholar and rhetorician, returned to Cappadocia where he was at once solicited by a number of well-to-do families to tutor their children. However, instead of such a life, he chose instead the tonsure and habit after being baptised into the Christian Church by the local bishop, Dianios. Where Basil had learned rhetoric from sæcular and pagan teachers, he now used his knowledge to expound the Holy Scriptures and reveal their inner meaning to his pupils.

He made journeys thereafter to the great centres of ascetic life in the early Christian world: the Egyptian Thebaïd, Syria and Palestine. He made careful note of the practices and wisdom that he found there, and began to imitate them on his own, upon his return. He sold everything he had, gave it all to the poor, and settled in a small dwelling close to where his mother Emmeleia and his sister Macrina had also retired from the worldly life. He gathered disciples around him who would become monks, and invited his friend Gregory to join him. Together they laboured to build a common, simple monastic life, and soon Basil’s fellow-monks asked him to draught a Rule, based on his observations in Egypt, Syria and Palestine and also on his experiences building a monastic community. This Rule would come to be followed by all Orthodox monks who followed Saint Basil. Saints Basil and Gregory also made intensive study of the Holy Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church who had come before them, and the teachings of Origen – and from these they compiled an anthology of spiritual writings, a Philokalia. Basil taught the infant cœnobitic communities in Cappadocia and the Pontus, which naturally gravitated to his reasoning and advice, both by preaching and by his personal example.

Basil’s relationship with his bishop, Eusebios, was apparently a bit rocky at first. Eusebios was a little bit awed, intimidated and envious of Basil’s success and his sway with the new monastic communities. In order to avoid a clash with the bishop, Saint Basil yielded and retired to his own monastery, using his seclusion to write more books on the cœnobitic life. However, later on, when the Arian heresies began to gain ground in Cappadocia, Eusebios asked for Basil’s aid and advice in countering them, which Basil was happy to give. As helpmeet to Eusebios, Basil was tireless. He authored the Divine Liturgy which now bears his name; delivered daily homilies; authored commentaries on Genesis (the Hexæmeron), the book of Isaiah and the book of Psalms; and published refutations of the Arian heresiarch Eunomios. In addition to this – and Saint Basil himself would likely argue, most importantly – he began funding houses for wayfarers, debtors, the impoverished and the sick.

Eusebios reposed in 370, and Saint Basil was given his omophor, to the great joy of other bishops in the Greek-speaking world. Saint Basil’s tenure as bishop, however, was not an easy one. The Arian heresy was making inroads into Asia Minor with the encouragement of Emperor Valens, who sent one of his prefects, Modestos, into Cappadocia to harass Saint Basil and to threaten him with exile. The saintly Basil responded thus:
If you take away my possessions, you will not enrich yourself, nor will you make me a pauper. You have no need of my old worn-out clothing, nor of my few books, of which the entirety of my wealth is comprised. Exile means nothing to me, since I am bound to no particular place. This place in which I now dwell is not mine, and any place you send me shall be mine. Better to say: every place is God’s. Where would I be neither a stranger and sojourner? Who can torture me? I am so weak, that the very first blow would render me insensible. Death would be a kindness to me, for it will bring me all the sooner to God, for Whom I live and labor, and to Whom I hasten.
The prefect expressed shock that someone would speak so audaciously to him. Saint Basil then answered:
Perhaps that is because you’ve never spoken to a bishop before. In all else we are meek, the most humble of all. But when it concerns God, and people rise up against Him, then we, counting everything else as naught, look to Him alone. Then fire, sword, wild beasts and iron rods that rend the body, serve to fill us with joy, rather than fear.
Modestos reported back to the Emperor that Saint Basil would not be intimidated; the Emperor himself, when he took it upon himself to visit Basil, was awestruck by the devotion and selflessness with which the Saint celebrated the Divine Liturgy. As Bishop, also, Saint Basil managed to establish a relationship between the Church and the state that made the Church the instrument of public philanthrōpía; he also established a free hospital on the edges of Cæsarea, attached to his monastery and at which the monks of his monastery would attend the poor and sick, the Basilead, which received support from the governor of Cappadocia. In addition to this, he established poor-houses at each settlement in his eparchy, which were funded from whatever his monastery could produce or had left over. Saint Basil preached caritative, self-giving love in a radical way that still challenges many of us. (I know that, for me personally, reading Saint Basil’s Homilies on social justice, and taking his unsparing admonitions to heart, was a challenging task to say the very least.)

When Saint Basil the Great reposed in the Lord at the age of forty-nine – the result of his hard toils, his demanding fasts, his active pastoral ministry, combined with a weak constitution – he was remembered in eulogy by his younger brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa, by his friend Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, and by the latter Gregory’s cousin Saint Amphilochios of Ikonion, not only for his virtues but also for the knowledge of holy things which he took pains to impart to his fellow monks, and for the social service with which he faced the world more broadly.

Holy Father Basil, revealer of the heavenly mysteries for all and always, entreat Christ our God to save our souls!
Your proclamation has gone out into all the earth
Which was divinely taught by hearing your voice
Expounding the nature of creatures,
Ennobling the manners of men.
O holy father of a royal priesthood,
Entreat Christ God that our souls may be saved.
Let us who love their words gather together
And honor with hymns the three great torch-bearers of the triune Godhead:
Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom.
These men have enlightened the world with the rays of their divine doctrines.
They are sweetly-flowing rivers of wisdom
Filling all creation with springs of heavenly knowledge.
Ceaselessly they intercede for us before the Holy Trinity!

No comments:

Post a Comment