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SAINT BASIL THE GREAT

Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church, c.329-379

 ONE of the four greatest Eastern Doctors of the Church, Saint Basil was a man of learning, talent, and holiness-all to an incredibly advanced degree. He came from the same brilliant family that produced Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Peter of Sebaste (his brothers), and was born at Caesarea in Cappadocia in 329. His education began in Caesarea and continued at Constantinople and Athens. His classmates in the latter city included his friend Saint Gregory Nazianzen (another Cappadocian) and Julian the Apostate, the future Roman emperor. School days were anything but frivolous in Athens; according to Gregory, he and Basil knew only two streets in the city: those leading to the church and to the school.

 Faithful as Basil may have been to those streets, when he returned to Caesarea about 356, both his brother Gregory and his sister Macrina (who is also honored as a saint) noticed pronounced tendencies to worldliness in him. Easily the most learned person in Caesarea by this time, Basil had established himself as a teacher of rhetoric and seemed to be enjoying, very complacently, the prestige the position was bringing him. He was shaken out of this self-satisfied attitude by Macrina, who, through her appeals to Basil's good sense and spiritual awareness, made him see the cramping limitations of a life taken up entirely by worldly activity. Mainly through her influence, Basil left on a tour, in 357, Of monastic centers in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia. When he returned to Caesarea the next year, he knew what he had to do; breaking all his former ties, he traveled northward to Pontus, near the Black Sea, and there, on the banks of the river Iris, established his own monastery.

 Basil was to be involved in other kinds of activity later in life, but this monastic foundation was probably his most important work and the one he loved the most. With a profound understanding of the role played by monasticism in Christianity and of how that way of life should be carried out, Basil wrote a set of rules-later called the Basilian Code -that became the inspiration of all later Eastern monasticism. Saint Benedict subsequently borrowed for his own Rule from that of Basil, and even today most Eastern Catholic and Orthodox monks follow the Basilian Code.

 The pressure of the times, however, soon interrupted Basil's life in Pontus. With the support of the emperor Valens, Arianism was threatening the Church in Cappadocia, and strong leadership was needed to meet the attack. Basil was persuaded to come to Caesarea first to assist its bishop, and then, when the bishop died in 370, to become bishop himself. One of his first acts in his new position was to show open defiance to Valens, who was trying to secure a profession of Arian faith from all the Cappadocian clergy; Basil refused and, by the weight of his influence and personality, made the emperor cease his demands. Active as he was in the fight against heresy, Basil was closely attentive to the other needs of his diocese. just outside Caesarea, he built a travelers' hospice (the first of its kind) with a hospital attached for the poor. Other projects included a revision of the liturgy for his diocese (this is the older of the two liturgies of the Byzantine Rite) and a careful weeding out of heretical priests from his clergy. A brilliant orator and writer, Basil also poured out a steady stream of sermons and theological works, most of them aimed at strengthening his people against Arianism. Heresy was the ever-present danger and was accompanied by such minor misfortunes as a quarrel with his old friend Gregory of Nazianzen and misrepresentations of his orthodoxy to the pope by his enemies.

 Basil surmounted all the difficulties, however, and during his short tenure as bishop (less than nine years) he became the leading force in Caesarea. When he died on January 1, 379, the Jews and pagans there, as well as the Catholics, were willing to admit that the city had lost its best friend. Years after his death, Basil was described by a Church council as "the great Basil, the minister of grace who has expounded the truth to the whole world": a just verdict, and one that has stood the test of time.

 

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