Our Father Among the Saints Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea of Cappadocia.
Saint Basil the Great was born about the end of the year 329 in Caesarea of Cappadocia, to a family renowned for their learning and holiness. His parents’ names were Basil and Emily. His mother Emily (commemorated July 19) and his grandmother Macrina (Jan. 14) are Saints of the Church, together with all his brothers and sisters: Macrina, his elder sister (July 19), Gregory of Nyssa (Jan. 10), Peter of Sebastia (Jan. 9), and Naucratius.
Basil studied in Constantinople under the sophist Libanius, then in Athens, where also he formed a friendship with the young Gregory, a fellow Cappadocian, later called “the Theologian.” Through the good influence of his sister Macrina (see July 19), he chose to embrace the ascetical life, abandoning his worldly career. He visited the monks in Egypt, in Palestine, in Syria, and in Mesopotamia, and upon returning to Caesarea, he departed to a hermitage on the Iris River in Pontus, not far from Annesi, where his mother and his sister Macrina were already treading the path of the ascetical life; here he also wrote his ascetical homilies.
About the year 370, when the bishop of his country reposed, he was elected to succeed to his throne and was entrusted with the Church of Christ, which he tended for eight years, living in voluntary poverty and strict asceticism, having no other care than to defend holy Orthodoxy as a worthy successor of the Apostles. The Emperor Valens, and Modestus, Prefect of the East, who were of one mind with the Arians, tried with threats of exile and of torments to bend the Saint to their own confession, because he was the bastion of Orthodoxy in all Cappadocia, and preserved it from heresy when Arianism was at its strongest. But he set all their malice at nought, and in his willingness to give himself up to every suffering for the sake of the Faith, showed himself to be a martyr by volition. Modestus, amazed at Basil’s fearlessness in his presence, said that no one had ever so spoken to him. “Perhaps,” answered the Saint, “you have never met a bishop before.” The Emperor Valens himself was almost won over by Basil’s dignity and wisdom. When Valens’ son fell gravely sick, he asked Saint Basil to pray for him. The Saint promised that his son would be restored if Valens agreed to have him baptized by the Orthodox; Valens agreed, Basil prayed, the son was restored. But afterwards the Emperor had him baptized by Arians, and the child died soon after. Later, Valens, persuaded by his counsellors, decided to send the Saint into exile because he would not accept the Arians into communion; but his pen broke when he was signing the edict of banishment. He tried a second time and a third, but the same thing happened, so that the Emperor was filled with dread, and tore up the document, and Basil was not banished. The truly great Basil, spent with extreme ascetical practices and continual labors at the helm of the Church, departed to the Lord on the 1st of January, in 379, at the age of forty-nine.
His writings are replete with wisdom and erudition, and with these gifts he set forth the doctrines concerning the mysteries both of the creation (see his Hexaemeron) and of the Holy Trinity (see On the Holy Spirit). Because of the majesty and keenness of his eloquence, he is honored as “the revealer of heavenly things” and “the Great.”
Saint Basil is also celebrated on January 30 with Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John Chrysostom.
In the above account from the Great Horologion we quote Saint Basil’s reply to the prefect Modestus. His exchange with him, as recorded by Saint Gregory the Theologian in his funeral oration on Saint Basil, is worth quoting in full:
Who has not heard of the prefect of those days, who, for his own part, treated us with such excessive arrogance, having himself been admitted, or perhaps committed, to baptism by the other party [the Arians]; and strove by exceeding the letter of his instructions, and gratifying his master in every particular, to guarantee and preserve his own possession of power. Though he raged against the Church, and assumed a lion-like aspect, and roared like a lion till most men dared not approach him, yet our noble prelate was brought into or rather entered his court, as if bidden to a feast, instead of to a trial. How can I fitly describe, either the arrogance of the prefect or the prudence with which it was met by the Saint. “What is the meaning, Sir Basil,” he said, addressing him by name, and not as yet deigning to term him Bishop, “of your daring, as no other dares, to resist and oppose so great a potentate?”
“In what respect?” said our noble champion, “and in what does my rashness consist? For this I have yet to learn.”
“In refusing to respect the religion of your Sovereign [the Arian Emperor Valens], when all others have yielded and submitted themselves?”
“Because,” said he, “this is not the will of my real Sovereign; nor can I, who am the creature of God, and bidden myself to be God, submit to worship any creature.”
“And what do we,” said the prefect, “seem to you to be? Are we, who give you this injunction, nothing at all? What do you say to this? Is it not a great thing to be ranged with us as your associates?”
“You are, I will not deny it,” said he, “a prefect, and an illustrious one, yet not of more honor than God. And to be associated with you is a great thing, certainly; for you are yourself the creature of God; but so it is to be associated with any other of my subjects. For faith, and not personal importance, is the distinctive mark of Christianity.”
Then indeed the prefect became excited, and rose from his seat, boiling with rage, and making use of harsher language. “What?” said he, “have you no fear of my authority?
“Fear of what?” said Basil, “How could it affect me?
“Of what? Of any one of the resources of my power.”
“What are these?” said Basil, “pray, inform me.”
“Confiscation, banishment, torture, death.”
“Have you no other threat?” said he, “for none of these can reach me.”
“How indeed is that?” said the prefect.
“Because,” he replied, “a man who has nothing, is beyond the reach of confiscation; unless you demand my tattered rags, and the few books, which are my only possessions. Banishment is impossible for me, who am confined by no limit of place, counting my own neither the land where I now dwell, nor all of that into which I may be hurled; or, rather, counting it all God’s, whose guest and dependent I am. As for tortures, what hold can they have upon one whose body has ceased to be? Unless you mean the first stroke, for this alone is in your power. Death is my benefactor, for it will send me the sooner to God, for Whom I live, and exist, and have all but died, and to Whom I have long been hastening.”
Amazed at this language, the prefect said, “No one has ever yet spoken thus, and with such boldness, to Modestus.”
“Why, perhaps,” said Basil, “you have not met with a Bishop, or in his defense of such interests he would have used precisely the same language. For we are modest in general, and submissive to every one, according to the precept of our law. We may not treat with haughtiness even any ordinary person, to say nothing of so great a potentate. But where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else, and make these our sole object. Fire and sword and wild beasts, and rakes which tear the flesh, we revel in, and fear them not. You may further insult and threaten us, and do whatever you will, to the full extent of your power. The Emperor himself may hear this — that neither by violence nor persuasion will you bring us to make common cause with impiety, not even though your threats become still more terrible.”
At the close of this colloquy, the prefect, having been convinced by the attitude of Basil, that he was absolutely impervious to threats and influence, dismissed him from the court, his former threatening manner being replaced by somewhat of respect and deference. He himself with all speed obtained an audience of the Emperor, and said: “We have been worsted, Sire, by the prelate of this Church. He is superior to threats, invincible in argument, uninfluenced by persuasion. We must make trial of some more feeble character; and in this case resort to open violence, or submit to the disregard of our threatenings.” Hereupon the Emperor, forced by the praises of Basil to condemn his own conduct (for even an enemy can admire a man’s excellence), would not allow violence to be used against him: and, like iron, which is softened by fire, yet still remains iron, though turned from threatening to admiration, would not enter into communion with him, being prevented by shame from changing his course, but sought to justify his conduct by the most plausible excuse he could, as the sequel will show.
For he entered the Church attended by the whole of his train; it was the festival of the Epiphany, and the Church was crowded, and, by taking his place among the people, he made a profession of unity. The occurrence is not to be lightly passed over. Upon his entrance he was struck by the thundering roll of the Psalms, by the sea of heads of the congregation, and by the angelic rather than human order which pervaded the sanctuary and its precincts: while Basil presided over his people, standing erect, as the Scripture says of Samuel, with body and eyes and mind undisturbed, as if nothing new had happened, but fixed upon God and the sanctuary, as if, so to say, he had been a statue, while his ministers stood around him in fear and reverence. At this sight, and it was indeed a sight unparalleled, overcome by human weakness, his eyes were affected with dimness and giddiness, his mind with dread. This was as yet unnoticed by most people. But when he had to offer the gifts at the Table of God, which he must needs do himself, since no one would, as usual, assist him, because it was uncertain whether Basil would admit him, his feelings were revealed. For he was staggering, and had not some one in the sanctuary reached out a hand to steady his tottering steps, he would have sunk to the ground in a lamentable fall. So much for this.
As for the wisdom of his conference with the Emperor, who, in his quasi-communion with us entered within the veil to see and speak to him, as he had long desired to do, what else can I say but that they were inspired words, which were heard by the courtiers and by us who had entered with them? This was the beginning and first establishment of the Emperor’s kindly feeling towards us; the impression produced by this reception put an end to the greater part of the persecution which assailed us like a river.
Saint Gregory also recounts how this same Modestus was later healed by Saint Basil when he approached him as a suppliant:
The same mischance is said to have befallen the prefect. He also was obliged by sickness to bow beneath the hands of the Saint, and, in reality, to men of sense a visitation brings instruction, and affliction is often better than prosperity. He fell sick, was in tears, and in pain, he sent for Basil, and entreated him, crying out, “I own that you were in the right; only save me!” His request was granted, as he himself acknowledged, and convinced many who had known nothing of it; for he never ceased to wonder at and describe the powers of the prelate. Such was [Saint Basil’s] conduct in these cases, such its result.
Saint Gregory’s funeral oration on Saint Basil is full of affection and admiration for his life-long friend and brother in Christ. It is one of his longest orations, and the great length of it alone indicates his love for him. It was delivered (if it was delivered orally: the sheer length of it, and Saint Gregory’s great physical infirmity at that old age, make some doubt that he spoke it, at least in its full present form) when Saint Gregory was towards the end of his life. The way he expresses the pain of separation from Saint Basil is deeply moving, but it is mingled with the intimation that Saint Basil was still present with him in the spirit:
While I, Gregory, who am half dead, and, cleft in twain, torn away from our great union, and dragging along a life of pain which runs not easily, as may be supposed, after separation from him, know not what is to be my end now that I have lost my guidance. And even now I am admonished and instructed in nightly visions, if ever I fall short of my duty.
The full text, from which we have quoted above, is provided in Volume VII of the Second Series of the NPNF, pages 411–12, 413, and 422.
The above account is taken from the Great Horologion,
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