Saint Basil the Great

In his Funeral Oration on St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen says: "Basil reached such perfection in all things as to be a subject of pride for the whole human race. His wealth was to have nothing. And the cross, which alone was his life, was treasured more than great riches .. . He had no need of a pedestal, of an empty glory, of a public proclamation ... for he tried not to seem, but to be perfect" (Or. 43:60). And this outstanding figure of the IV century was the Founder of the Order of St. Basil the Great.

St. Basil was born about 329 in the town of Caesarea, the capital of Cappadocia in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), the son of wealthy and virtuous parents, Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia. In addition to his mother, the other saints in his family are St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St Peter of Sebaste.

After completion of his studies at home, Basil pursued his education in Constantinople, and finally in Athens, "the golden city of learning". "Equipped with all learning attainable" in about the year 356, he became a prominent professor of eloquence in his native Caesarea, a post that had formerly been occupied by his late father.

His brilliant success in rhetoric caused Basil to forget his youthful dream to dedicate himself to God. However, due to the beneficial influence of his older sister Macrina, the voice of his calling was reawakened once again. Basil responded wholeheartedly to God's voice, abandoned his successful career, and gave himself to the pursuit of a religious life. He referred to his decision as “a conversion” "I shed a vale of tears at my pitiful life and prayed for someone to introduce me to the teachings of piety" (Ep. 223).

In his time there was very little monastic life in Asia Minor. Therefore, Basil made an extended tour of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to acquaint himself with the flourishing monastic life in the desert. The monks of the desert filled his heart with great admiration, and he considered "the life of these men to be blessed." He confesses, "I pray that I, too, if possible, become like them" (Ibid.)

On his return to Cappadocia, Basil sold his possessions and divided them among the poor. With a small group of his friends, he retreated into solitude upon the banks of the river Iris, not far from his family estate at Annesi, in the province of Pontus to begin his monastic life. In this solitude, Basil outlined his first Monastic Rules which were later formulated into 55 Long Rules, and his counsels to his monks which were arranged into 313 Short Rules. These Rules are the cornerstone of what we call today “a Basilian way of Life.”

In solitude and contemplation, Basil found spiritual strength for his tremendous activities. After he established a sound community at Annesi and assisted his sister in forming a similar community for women, Basil set out to organize religious communities in the provinces of Pontus and Cappadocia. By his lofty example and teaching on ascetical life, Basil found numerous followers and disciples. Thus his idea of monastic life was generally accepted and became a true school of Christian perfection.

The genius of St. Basil was soon discovered by his Archbishop Dianius. These were difficult times for the Church and Basil describes the situation in one of his letters: "Charity has grown cold. The teachings of the Fathers are being destroyed. The loss of faith is frequent. The voices of the pious people are silent, and the faithful are driven from the churches. Truly, the affliction is great" (Ep. 164). Basil was asked by Archbishop Dianius of Caesarea to assist him in his struggle against the Arian heresy. Thus, in 362 he was ordained a deacon and became a public figure. After his ordination as a priest in 364, he became to the newly-consecrated Archbishop Eusebius a "good counsellor, a competent helper, an inspired interpreter of Holy Scripture, a guide and bulwark of his Faith, and an experienced administrator" (Or. 43:33).

Basil's pastoral work was so outstanding that in 370 he was elected to succeed Eusebius in the See of Caesarea. As Metropolitan, Basil directed his work toward the main problems of the time: a) the preservation of unity in the Church; b) the struggle against the heresy, especially Arianism; 3) the strengthening of Christian spirit in the faithful,

To preserve Church unity, Basil maintained friendly relations with the great champion of unity St. Athanasius, and he tried earnestly to obtain the assistance of Pope Damasus to bring the Hierarchy of the Church into closer harmony. In combating the heresy movement, he composed two splendid works, "Against Eunomius” and "On the Holy Spirit", which became the rule of orthodoxy for centuries to come. To strengthen his flock, Basil introduced strict discipline among the clergy, defended his people against the tyranny of the imperial officials, reformed and revived liturgical worship. He was the first in history to organize a whole network of charitable institutions. Day and night he preached to the faithful, as Ephraem says: "The words flowed from his mouth like rivers, and the truth as the waves of the sea" (Enc. on Basil).

Basil spent his short but glorious life going about his Heavenly Father's business. On January 1, 379, he passed to his eternal reward before reaching his 50th year but with the fame of a Saint and of a great Father of the Church. By his intrepid character, profound knowledge, inspiring eloquence, undivided dedication to a cause, superhuman work, angelic piety, and above all, by his heroic love of God and his fellowman, St. Basil left a deep imprint on the history of the Church. Justly, he was named "the Great".

Historians have provided us with a description of his physical appearance, saying Basil was tall in stature, pale in face, very silent and dignified in his posture. He had a long beard which at the end of his life turned grayish. He enjoyed a friendly disposition, knew how to control his feelings, and was excellent in guiding others. He never gave up in his difficulties, was constant in his intentions and a most practical man in every regard. By his appearance alone he made a deep impression on the people. He was a man of complete dedication. When he did anything, he did it with his whole heart. Herein lies the secret of his greatness.

The symbol of St. Basil the Great is “a pillar of fire” — as it was seen by St. Ephraem, soaring toward heaven, whence came the Voice: "Such is the Great Basil!"

Only for a short while, O great Basil, did you live on this earth, the glory of Christ, to whom you donated all: your soul, and your body; your word and your hand.” - St Gregory of Naz. (6 Epitaph)