Who was Saint Basil the Great?
St. Basil was Bishop of Caesarea (an area now in eastern Turkey) in the fourth century and is one of the foremost Doctors of the Church who, along with St. Athanasius, is noted as an outstanding defender of Christian orthodoxy during the Arian heresy – a heresy that denied the Divine Nature of Christ, among its other errors. St. Basil was the son of St. Basil the Elder and Emmelia, the daughter of a Christian martyr. He was one of ten children, three of whom became saints – Basil, Macrina and Gregory. Basil the Great, along with his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa and his friend St. Gregory of Naziansus, have been called the “Cappadocian Fathers” – renowned in Church history for their distinguished work and lives of holiness.
Born in 329, Basil was raised primarily by his grandmother. After completing his education and becoming a teacher at Caesarea, Basil underwent a profound spiritual conversion and set out on a journey in 357 to visit monasteries in Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Palestine. Upon his return, he gathered disciples and founded a monastic community near Annesi where his sister Macrina had already established a religious community.
Because of his innovations and philosophy of monastic life, and especially his creation of the Lesser Rule and the Greater Rule, Basil is considered to be the Father of Monasticism in the Eastern Churches. He gave monasticism a theological content and transformed it into an intellectual movement from simply the popular and evangelical movement it had been before. Basil's monasteries had schools attached to them, preparing children for life in the monastery or for life as strong Christians “in the world” outside the monasteries. The Rule of St. Basil is still followed by members of religious communities in both the Eastern Catholic and the Orthodox churches.
In the year 360, Basil reluctantly left his hermitage and embarked on a journey to Constantinople, the Imperial capital, to take part in a church council. Somewhat later, after his ordination, Basil played a major role in the administration of the diocese of Caesarea under Bishop Eusebius and this eventually brought the two men into serious conflict. Basil withdrew to his monastic community but was recalled in 365 at the urging of Gregory of Naziansus.
In 370, he was chosen as successor to the episcopal see at Caesarea, which had been elevated to a metropolitan see. His appointment was lauded by St. Athanasius but was not welcomed by the Emperor Valens, who had fallen into the Arian heresy. Throughout the next ten years, Basil was noted for his dutiful care of the poor and disadvantaged, his defense of the rights of the Church in the Empire, and, most of all, his steadfast opposition to heresy, especially the widespread Arian heresy.
Basil the Great died on January 1, 379, at a time of terrible upheaval in the Roman Empire – the Goths were on the attack against the Empire on many fronts and the Arian heresy was raging with many leading church figures having fallen into heresy. Because the saint was so beloved, his funeral was attended by an enormous weeping crowd, including Christians, Jews, and pagans.
St. Basil is ranked as a giant figure in Church history for his spiritual achievements and for his vast contributions to the Church in the tempestuous fourth century. The great saint was the one who formulated the classic definition of the Holy Trinity as three Persons in one Nature. His letters show us a remarkably holy and eloquent man, who, while never strong physically, was utterly fearless in both his defense of orthodox Christianity and while facing threats and pressure from the imperial authorities.
The saint has left us over three hundred letters, mostly written after he became bishop. Saint Basil the Great's other writings include a treatise “On the Holy Spirit”; three books against Enomius, a heretical bishop; a compilation along with his friend Gregory from the works of Origen in the Pholokalia; and the fragments of his Lesser Rule and Greater Rule. He is also the ascribed formulator of the Liturgy of Saint Basil, still used on certain days of the year by both Eastern Catholic churches and Orthodox churches.