A weekly, brief reflection on the church calendar, hosted by Dr. Sr. Vassa Larin of the University of Vienna, Austria. This episode is on St. Basil the Great.
Basil the Great was born into a very saintly and wealthy family in the city of Caesarea in Cappadocia, in Asia Minor, in ca. 330. By the way, we did talk about this family already, in our episode on St. Macrina, who was Basil‘s elder sister. Basil was the second-eldest child of Basil the Elder and Emmelia, who are both canonized saints, as are several of their children, including St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Peter of Sebaste, Basil‘s younger brothers.
Basil was born at a time of great transitions and controversies both within the Church and in the Roman Empire. About 17 years before Basil‘s birth, Emperor Constantine the Great (+337) granted official toleration to Christians within the Empire, in an agreement he made together with his rival, Emperor Licinius (+324) in AD 313, an agreement known as the Edict of Milan. Constantine himself embraced the Christian
faith, and became interested in church matters, including theological questions, which had thus far been brewing in the underground of a persecuted Church. Just 5 years before Basil‘s birth, in AD 325, Constantine summoned the First Ecumenical Council in the city of Nicaea, not far from the new capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople. This Council officially condemned the teaching of Arius, called Arianism, which rejected the divinity of Christ, saying He was created by God the Father, and hence not co-eternal and consubstantial with the Father.
Although the Council rejected this teaching and proclaimed that Christ is, indeed, consubstantial with the Father, it actually marked only the beginning of the battle with Arianism. Because, as it turned out, most bishops of the East actually believed in some form of Arianism, even though they sign-ed the decree of the Council. The emperor himself also ended up siding with Arianism, somewhat after the Council, as did several emperors after him. But let‘s get back to St. Basil.
He received the best education available at the time, and not only in the Christian faith. He studied first in Caesarea, and then in Constantinople and Athens, along with another student, Gregory of Nazianz (+ca. 390), who became his close friend. Basil very industriously studied the subjects of Rhetoric (the art of effective speaking or writing), Grammar, Philosophy, Astronomy, Geometry, and Medicine. He was later to put all these subjects to good use in his theological works. When he returned home after his studies, as Gregory of Nyssa describes, he was „all puffed up“ about his academic achievements, and began to pursue an illustrious career in law and teaching rhetoric. But, largely under the influence of his elder sister Macrina, he soon decided to abandon his career and devote his life entirely to God, and become a monk. He was baptised at this point, in 356, at the age of 26, in Caesarea – because you see, it was not yet customary to baptise infants. He then traveled to various monastic centers in the East, and observed various forms of monasticism, and he found he was more drawn to the communal monastic life.
So he settled on his family‘s isolated estate near Annesi (modern Sonusa or Uluköy), together with a group of like-minded monastics. Although St. Basil lived in this monastic community for only 5 years, it was here that he wrote his very important instructions on monastic communal life, which were to influence the development of monastic traditions not only in the East, but also in the West.
In 364 Basil was summoned by the local bishop to Caesarea, where Basil was ordained priest and assisted the bishop in managing the diocese, combating various forms of the Arian heresy, and working hard to attain Church unity in a very complicated church-political climate. When the local bishop died, Basil was chosen to succeed him and was consecrated bishop of Caesarea in the year 370, at the age of 40. As bishop, St. Basil is described by his contemporaries as sometimes hot-blooded and imperious, but also generous and very sympathetic. He built a large complex outside Caesarea, which included a poorhouse, a hospice, and a hospital. And we know from his letters – we have many of his letters - that he personally worked to reform prostitutes and thieves. He was a very popular and ardent preacher, preaching every morning and evening in his own church. He also continued as bishop his efforts to achieve church unity, as well as his theological writing, which contributed to defining the Church‘s teaching on the Holy Trinity with precision. St. Basil died in 379, at the age of 49.