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St. Basil the Great.

"I wasted much time in youthful folly and misguided Hellenism. Suddenly, I awoke as from a dream, beholding the wonderful life of the Gospel truth, and prayed for guidance towards piety" --Letter 232.

Basil of Caesarea (born c.330, died January 1,390, Feast Days January 1 & 2, narrow-featured with dark vandyke beard) was one of nine children born to wealthy Christians Emmelia and Basil. Brothers Gregory and Peter became bishops; Naucratius drowned while fishing. Their elder sister Macrina was sanctified (379) for good works.

After a short stint teaching rhetoric (his father's profession), he toured Eastern monasteries: "I admired their endurance, was amazed at their capacity for prayer, and yearned to imitate them" (Letter 223). Giving all that he had to the poor, Basil lived as a hermit, resisting overtures from pagan emperor Julian, until ordained priest (364) by Caesarea's Bishop Eusebius, whom he succeeded (370) after a stormy relationship described in an unpublished sermon (Corpus Patrum Graecorum 2941).

Basil divided his time between the founding of monasteries and charitable institutions and combatting Arianism, which faded after the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, 381), a gathering that also reflects his efforts to improve East-West relations, e.g inviting Pope Damasus to visit and 'war reports' on the anti-heretic front (Letters 70 & 263).

His writings, filling four fat volumes (29-32) of Migne's Patrologia Graeca, are praised by the Byzantine Patriarch-critic Photius as "all equally admirable." Three anti-Arian treatises explicate the tricky semantic issues of 'Ousia' and 'Hypostasis.' Basil's 'On The Holy Spirit' (defended by Athanasius against some clerical-monkish objections) was the source and inspiration for that of Ambrose. 'Hexaemeron' ("of incomparable rhetorical beauty"--Johannes Quasten, Catholic University of America), comprising nine Lenten homilies on Genesis 1.1-26, rejects allegory: "I take all literally, being not ashamed of the Gospel" (9.2). This term ("the six Days of Creation") went back to Theophilus of Antioch (2nd-cent.), but Basil invented a genre followed poetically by George of Pisidia in the East, and Ambrose and Robert Grosseteste in the West. One passage prefigures Darwinism: "Why do the waters also generate birds? Because there is, so to speak, a family link between creatures that fly and those that swim. As fish use their fins to cleave the waters, so birds float in the air thanks to their wings."

Thirteen homilies on various Psalms establish them as "a treasury of moral excellence;" a Commentary on Isaiah 1-16 is now deemed spurious. 23 miscellaneous sermons embrace church festivals plus moral and social issues--one on drunkards is all too timely. Another provides early evidence for exorcism. That on the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste ("Their best praise is exhorting the congregation to virtue," 19), comparing words and pictures, greatly influenced Byzantine art.

His rule-books for monastic living, also his liturgical reforms, were in mediaeval times influential, remaining so with Greek Orthodoxy. Along with his Canonical Letters, they also originate the principle of regular Confession. He also provides (Letter 93) a history of the Eucharist and encouragement to daily Communion--Basil himself took at least 4 per week.

The 365 Letters ("forming a daily diary," 231) are a treasury of church and social history, also a prime autobiographical source. One overlooked disclosure (81,244,263) is of the priest Hermogenes' authorship of the Nicene Creed. With Iraq in mind, 286 on the treatment of prisoners is still relevant.

Written for his nephews, the treatise on pagan literature handles this hot potato with common sense, showing what to embrace in (especially) Homer and Plato (Basil's other writings are suffused with these, e.g. Letter 271) and what to avoid--"The fruit of the soul is truth, yet to clothe it with external wisdom is worthwhile;" it decisively shaped Church attitudes to the classical tradition.

"The whole world is of God, whose tenant I am"--Basil, in Gregory's Funeral Oration.

FURTHER READING:

* Roy Deferrari's Loeb translation of the Letters and treatise on literature;

* P. Fedwick (ed.), Basil of Caesarea: Christian, Humanist, Ascetic (Toronto, 1981);

* P. Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea (Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1994);

* 7110 'Google' sites, including his Catholic Encyclopedia notice.

NOTA BENE:

The existing Order of Saint Basil the Great, OSBM, of the Ukrainian Byzantine rite, which is quite prominent in Canada, traces its historical descent from Basil though not in a direct line. There are also Basilians of the Melkite rite. Another group that goes back to Basil are the Studites who adopted St Basil's rule in 799AD.

In the Latin Church, the Congregation of Saint Basil (CSB) has no direct link with Basil. They were founded in France in 1821 by a group of diocesan priests who met in the Church of St. Basil and decided to take him as their patron in their work of education, They, too, have been prominent in Canada.

St. Basil's Rules still remain the primary monastic source for the Orthodox church.

From a sermon on charity by Saint Basil the Great, bishop

(Horn. De Caritate, 3, 6: PG 31, 266-267, 275)

Sow integrity for yourselves

Man should be like the earth and bear fruit; he should not let inanimate matter appear to surpass him. The earth bears crops for your benefit, not for its own, but since the reward for good deeds goes to those who perform them. Give to a hungry man, and what you give becomes yours, and indeed it returns to you with interest. As the sower profits from wheat that falls onto the ground, so will you profit greatly in the world to come from the bread that you place before a hungry man. Your husbandry must be the sowing of heavenly seed: Sow integrity for yourselves, says Scripture.

You are going to leave your money behind you here whether you wish to or not. On the other band, you will take with you to the Lord the honour that you have won through good works. In the presence of the universal judge, all the people will surround you, acclaim you as a public benefactor, and tell of your generosity and kindness.

Do you not see how people throw away their wealth on theatrical performances, boxing contests, mimes and fights between men and wild beasts, which are sickening to see, and all for the sake of fleeting honour and popular applause? If you are miserly with your money, how can you expect any similar honour? Your reward for the right use of the things of this world will be everlasting glory, a crown of righteousness, and the kingdom of heaven; God will welcome you, the angels will praise you, all men who have existed since the world began will call you blessed. Do you care nothing for these things, and spurn the hopes that lie in the future for the sake of your present enjoyment. Come, distribute your wealth freely, give generously to those who are in need. Earn for yourself the psalmist's praise: He gave freely to the poor; his righteousness will endure forever.

How grateful you should be to your own benefactor; how you should beam with joy at the honour of having other people come to your door, instead of being obliged to go to theirs! But you are now ill-humoured and unapproachable; you avoid meeting people, in case you might be forced to loosen your purse-strings even a little. You can say only one thing: "I have nothing to give you. I am only a poor man." A poor man you certainly are, and destitute of all real riches; you are poor in love, generosity, faith in God and hope of eternal happiness.
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Title Annotation:Fathers Of The Church VI
Author:Baldwin, Barry
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:1256
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