Since I posted about his thoughts on the Holy Spirit this past Sunday, and since Sunday was also his feast by the old BCP calendar,* I’ve decided for this Doctor of the Church to be this week’s saint.
St. Basil the Great was born c. 329 in Caesarea Mazaca, Cappadocia, and fell asleep on January 1, 379, in Caesarea, Cappadocia.** He was born of a Christian family, with a grandmother who was a saint (St. Macrina the Elder) and a grandfather who was a martyr. His elder sister, St. Macrina the Elder, became a nun, and two of his brothers, Sts. Gregory of Nyssa and Paul of Sebaste became bishops. (They’re worse than my family!) For a brief note about St. Gregory of Nyssa and the Cappadocians, read my page here.
He studied as a young man at Caesarea, Constantinople, and Athens. He befriended St. Gregory of Nazianzus (also to become a bishop) during this time. He and Sts. Gregory of Nazianzus and of Nyssa are collectively known as the Cappadocian Fathers for their fundamental work combatting Arianism and articulating the Trinitarian faith.
Basil felt the allure of the monastic life, which was just taking off at this time, and spent time in Syria and Egypt, the home of the monastic movement (read about the Desert Fathers here). Thence he settled as an anchorite near Neo-Caesarea (c. 358). He left the life of solitude and anachoresis in 364 when Eusebius of Caesarea,*** his bishop, summoned him to defend orthodoxy against Arianism under the Arian emperor Valens.
In 370, he became Bishop of Caesarea upon Eusebius’ death. He spent the last nine years of his life preaching, teaching, writing, and shepherding his flock in Cappadocia, where he was not only a champion of orthodoxy but of orthopraxy as well, reaching out in ministries to the poor, such as a soup kitchen. He also wrote a Eucharistic liturgy, a form of which is used to this day by Eastern Orthodox Christians on January 1, when they celebrate his feast day, and during Lent. In 378, the orthodox Gratian became emperor, providing a foundation for the survival of Basil’s great work in defence of the orthodox faith.
On January 1, 379, “worn out by austerities, hard work, and disease,” (Oxford Dictionary of Saints) St. Basil the Great went to be with the most glorious Trinity.
I can only recommend, in all honesty, On the Holy Spirit and The Divine Liturgy out of his works, although they also include many letters and two so-called “regulae.” On the Holy Spirit gives a spirited defense of the orthodox faith that we have received from the days of the Apostles and is well worth reading. Using his keen intellect, and no doubt aided by that selfsame Spirit, he unlocks the mysteries of the Divine Three as he analyses both Scripture and Tradition. This is one of his most well-known and influential works. It is also not very difficult to read, is short, and won’t bore you. If you want help in understanding the Trinity and the Person of the Holy Spirit, I highly recommend this book. If you wish to be transported to heights of worship and praise of the One Who created and sustains us, I highly recommend this book.
If your worship and praise is seeking expression, I further recommend to you his Divine Liturgy, not to be confused with that of St. John Chrysostom, although both are worth reading. I read the edition published by Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Although a Eucharistic liturgy, many of the prayers could be used by any Christian at any time. It also helps cast light on the prayer life of the Christian East and causes one to consider how exactly to approach Almighty God.
Although I have not read his “monastic” writings, I am interested to. This is in part due to my unflagging interest in monasticism, but also to the fact that, contrary to popular belief, these writings, Regulae Fusius Tractatae and Regulae Brevius Tractatae, or The Longer Rule and Shorter Rule, are not the rule of Eastern Orthodox monasticism; they no doubt influence, but the Eastern Orthodox are not divided into rules as the West was following Benedict. Each monastery establishes its own rule, and there are variations from place to place.
More to my interest regarding these monastic writings is the fact that Richard J Goodrich, in Contextualizing Cassian, observes that these Rules never use the word “monk” but always refer to “Christians.” Thus, he contends that the works were written by St. Basil for the use of the Christians in his diocese who were seeking a mode of life. These rules are theoretically for all Christians if Goodrich is right. I am not a monk; thus, these interest me.
How to Honour This Saint
I recommend that we honour this saint first and foremost by reading his works and learning more thoroughly about his life than I could provide here. We should emulate that life. We should try to grasp, as far as human minds are capable, the glory of the most holy Trinity; in so doing, we will undoubtedly see the incomprehensible Mystery at hand and be drawn to worship. This, indeed, St. Basil would approve. We should read his liturgy and try to make his prayers our own. Read his Rules and take their lessons to heart. In so doing, we will honour St. Basil the Great as well as Christ, and be conformed in the likeness of the spotless Lamb of God.
He has writings available at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
*Under the new calendar, he’s been moved to January 2. His death was January 1, but I think the feast is delayed a day so as not to share with the Naming of Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox celebrate his feast on the first, though.
**I am clueless as to whether these are the same city, and the brief articles on him seem to assume we all know which Caesarea everyone’s talking about. Help requested.
***Different Eusebius, different Caesarea. That one, writer of an Ecclesiastical History, died in 339.