St. Basil the Great: 14 June

Br. Columba Maria

Basil was born in 329, about the same time as his intimate friend Gregory Nazianzen, both of them natives of Caesarea, the capital of Cappadocia, at that time a very Catholic town. St. Gregory of Nyssa, Basil's brother, says that the family were descended from the forty martyrs of Sebaste in Armenia (Feast Day: 10 March), and if they could glory in that bloodline, earthly nobility was flowing in their veins too.

His paternal Grandmother, St. Macrina, whose feast is celebrated on 14 January, was herself instructed in the faith by Gregory Thaumaturgus (feast day: 17 November) and she and her husband spent seven years in the forests of Pontus, during the persecutions of, amongst others, Diocletian and Maximian Galerius, where they were miraculously fed by deer, it being manifestly God's will that they not undergo martyrdom. For it was their son Basil who would be the father of our saint. This Basil was considered the most upstanding man of Pontus in his day.

Emily, who became his wife, was equally virtuous (their feast day is 30 May). They had ten children, five brothers and five sisters, each as holy as the next. One died in infancy, about the time of his father's death. Thecla, the eldest (who later became Macrina) had a great influence on her mother and the others, even Basil. The other sisters all married, at least one of the subsequent children continuing the family tradition and venerated as St. Gaudence.

Basil was educated by his grandmother Macrina in the knowledge that she had imbibed from St. Gregory Thaumaturgus. He said in later years that what he learned afterwards only honed what Macrina had given him. We are not certain if he was baptised as a child or after his studies.

Early life

From Caesarea to Constantinople, Basil followed his desire to learn; then to Athens, and there befriended St. Gregory of Nazianzen. Both of these holy youths, while ardently studying, were, in Gregory’s own words, “a rule to each other for the discernment of what was right and what was wrong. The most chaste scholars were the only ones we associated with, and we only walked two streets, one to the church, where the holy doctors taught; the other to the schools, where the masters of literature spoke.” So united in spirit were they.

By a wonderful coincidence, the young Julian, the Emperor Constance’s cousin-germane, was also studying philosophy at that time in Athens, and the pair became good friends.

Macrina, his holy sister, noticed a certain pride in his relations with his family since his elevation in grammatical and oratorical skills. Basil himself says he awoke as if from a sleep and recognised in himself a roughness in manners hitherto unseen. Basil then, in 356, resolved, as recommended in the Gospel, to sell his goods, give them to the poor, and go follow Him.

In 362, He was ordained Priest by St. Eusebius, yet returned again to the desert, this time next to the convent founded by his sister Macrina and his mother, and as Superior to twelve monks.

A bit later on, Basil and Gregory Nazianzen lived together in a hermitage for some time. They had neither door nor window, ate only what they could grow, and read nothing but the Psalms and other Scripture. They cared no longer for the grammatical skills they had hitherto laboured to acquire, caring only if their discourse was true or not.

About this time Basil was founding monasteries, and to aid this most pious work, he composed a book of Rules, much celebrated, especially in the eastern countries. With this volume were works on monastic constitutions, penances for religious, and included earlier works on the Judgement of God, and the Faith; since entitled The Morals of St. Basil, this is a selection of texts from Scripture to reveal what is pleasing or displeasing to Almighty God: showing what had been inserted by men’s self-love, or foolish imagination.

He engaged Emperor Julian (now the Apostate!) who, remembering Basil from Athens and knowing his great reputation for holiness, tried to deceive him into paying him a little visit! But Basil was neither fooled nor cowed and was spared the ire of the Emperor by the latter’s sudden death in June of 363.

Almighty God visited his people with a scourge, perhaps in punishment for the inroads of the Arians. Hail like stones rained on and around Constantinople. Many died directly while scores more died from the ensuing famine. Caesarea was not spared and it was Basil who took on the part of Joseph in feeding his people. His preaching opened the cellars of the rich, and it was he himself who distributed the wheat to the poor, also soothing their afflictions by washing their feet.


In 370, Eusebius died. At this time, Caesarea was an archiepiscopal see with at least 50 suffragan bishops. Gregory Nazianzen saw Basil as entirely the best candidate to rule this important see, and did all he could to secure his election. He wrote letters to all the people of influence, adding prayers, and at length succeeded in having his great friend elected.

His very election provoked another quasi-schism amongst all the other bishops, even in his uncle, (another!) Gregory. One of his bishops, Anthime, took advantage of Valens’ division of Cappadocia into two administrative departments, to divide Basil’s metropolitan see into two, and make himself the metropolitan of his new creation!

One of the first things he did for Caesarea itself was the building of a large hospital on the outskirts. There all his charity came to the fore, as he aided all, even the leprous—with his own hands when necessary. For many years after, this great edifice, with its magnificent church, was known as the Basiliade.

When he heard that some of his suffragans were taking money from their ordinands, he threatened them with excommunication if they persisted in simony. On another occasion, certain boys were caught stealing in a church, Basil insisted on judging the case himself, and dispensing justice. A report was sent to the civil court, stating both the case and the Bishop’s right to try it. Hardened sinners, liars, were firstly excommunicated, with their family, for a time, to see if this measure would bring them round. If they proved incorrigible, they were completely cut off from all communication, sacred or commercial, with the faithful and abandoned to the devil.

During all of this, the Arian and semi-Arian heresies continued to work division. Basil, like any good shepherd, was eager to maintain unity. St. Athanasius had occasion to write to one monk to defend the apparent weakness of Basil in these controversies, which had tempted this monk into schism. Basil reasoned that, for the weak in faith, a discreet approach would work better over time than an importune one; he merely exacted from suspected apostates the Nicene Creed and that the Holy Ghost was not a creature. Their full conversion would, he believed, be achieved by further communion with the strong. He had only, asserted Athanasius, “weakened himself with the weak to gain the weak.” Hardened heretics and blasphemers were excommunicated, however. He could only conclude with St. Gregory the Great that all heresies come from a scorn of God, and some would rather score an imaginary victory over truth than be conquered by a humble submission. St. Ambrose of Milan wrote too, praising Basil’s piety and teaching, lending support to his conflicts with heretics and schismatics.

At length, Emperor Valens himself, the leader of the Arians, wrote to Basil and threatened to visit and depose him if he would not receive the Arians. By way of introduction, he sent his prefect, Modestus, who began by speaking mildly to our saint. But seeing this as fruitless he resorted to threats. “What kind?” asked Basil. “What kind?” retorted Modestus, “Only a thousand evils: Confiscation of your goods, exile, torture, death.” “None of that bothers me at all,” replied Basil, “a man who has nothing does not fear confiscation, unless you mean a few torn rags and a few old books. As for exile, I don’t know it: I don’t own where I live; I live where I’m given. The whole earth is God’s, and I’m a foreigner to it all. With respect to torture, my body won’t suffer it: the first blow will carry me off. Death would be a favour to me, as it will lead me straight to God.”

Modestus showed a bit more respect for Basil from that time on. In fact he told Basil that he had never met anyone like him before. "Perhaps,” said Basil, “it’s because you’ve never met a Bishop before. If you did, he would speak the same way to you. Normally, we are the most humble of men, since God ordains it so. But when there is question of God and His interests, we are obliged to speak so, even to Emperors.”

Modestus then tried persuading Basil that it would be a fine thing to have an emperor in church, listening to his sermons; and to delete one little word, "consubstantial", would be a small price to pay. To that, Basil replied that he would welcome an emperor to church, since he desired his salvation, with that of all men. But to change one word in the Creed was beyond him, even to change the order of the words! Even Valens was abashed.

The following feast of the Epiphany, Valens came with his retinue to the Cathedral for Mass. At the Offertory, he brought his gifts himself to the table, and although he was a heretic, Basil received them graciously, much to the relief of the Emperor, who was visibly shaking in anticipation of their being rejected. There was to be no relaxation of Canon Law at communion, however, and Valens did not approach the rail.

Yet, however, Valens continued to receive so many importunities from the Arian bishops and priests that he attempted again and again to at least send Basil into exile. But after his son’s death, and three times his pen’s disintegration when attempting to sign the order, he thought better of it, and finished the affair by granting Basil the commission of all the bishops in Armenia!

Modestus even became Basil’s friend, after his health was cured by the prayers of the saint, and he became a worthy governor, to help defend the Church in public.

In answering the request of a loyal brother bishop, Diodorus of Antioch (one of the few he could count on), to appraise two books he had written against the heretics, “the first,” Basil said, “is too elevated in tone, too flowery, has too many figures, too much embellishment in rhetoric. The second has secure thinking, judicious reasoning, a simple style without affectation; such should be the design of a Christian desiring less to gain esteem than to profit the world.” St. Basil is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest speakers and writers in the Church.

Basil lived to see peace return to the empire. Valens received the just reward for his equivocal deceits, when the Goths, having been welcomed into his lands in 376 and having been converted by him from their hitherto Catholicism to Arianism, they later turned against him and burned down the refuge he had taken in the ensuing war in 378. His successor Gratian, being master now of both east and west, and a Catholic, restored all the banished bishops.

Basil's last ecclesiastical act was the consecration of his most devoted disciples, to the most important sees attached to Caesarea.

St. Basil the Great died on 1 January 379. His feast day is 14 June.

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