Fr Anthony Nzubechukwu Ibegbunam.
“A tree is known by its fruit; a man his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.” ― St. Basil the Great
Basil was born into the wealthy and pious family of Basil the Elder and Emmelia around the year 330 at Caesarea in Cappadocia (present day Turkey). He was one of ten children. Four of his siblings are also numbered among the saints: Macrina was an exemplar of ascetic life and exerted strong influence on the life and character of Basil; Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa; Peter, Bishop of Sebaste; and Theosebia, a deaconess. (St Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2016/01/01/100003-saint-basil-the-great-archbishop-of-caesarea-in-cappadocia
His father, Basil the elder, a lawyer and renowned rhetorician, oversaw his young son’s initial education. Basil studied at Caesarea and Constantinople and finally at Athens (c. 351–356), where he developed his friendship with St Gregory of Nazianzus (330-389). In fact, they regarded themselves as one soul in two bodies. Later, in his eulogy for Basil, St Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian) speaks with delight about this period: “Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong” (From a sermon by St Gregory Nazianzen, bishop, Oratio 43, in laudem Basilii Magni, 15, 16-17, 19-21; PG 36, 514-423).
Basil left Athens in 356 and returned to Caesarea. For around a year he practiced law and taught rhetoric. Basil was influenced by of his sister, St Macrina, who was already living the ascetic life of a nun; but his life changed radically after he encountered Eustathius of Sebaste, a bishop and ascetic. “Abandoning his legal and teaching career, Basil devoted his life to God. In a letter he described his spiritual awakening: “I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world” (Basil of Caesarea, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basil_of_Caesarea).
After his baptism by Bishop Dianios of Caesarea, Basil traveled in 357 to Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia to study ascetics and monasticism. He distributed his fortunes among the poor and went briefly into solitude near Neocaesarea of Pontus (modern day Niksar, Turkey) on the Iris. Basil eventually realized that while he respected the ascetics’ piety and prayerfulness, he was not called to the solitary life. Basil instead felt drawn toward communal religious life, and by 358 he was gathering around him a group of like-minded disciples, including his brother Peter. Together they founded a monastic settlement on his family’s estate near Annesi. His widowed mother Emmelia, his sister Macrina, and several other women, joined Basil and devoted themselves to pious lives of prayer and charitable works. It was here that Basil wrote about monastic communal life. His writings became pivotal in developing monastic traditions of the Eastern Church (ibid). In 362, Bishop Meletius of Antioch ordained Basil a deacon. In 364, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea ordained him a priest.
Arianism, one of the most damaging heresies in the history of the Church which denied the divinity of Christ, was at its height. Basil and his friend Gregory were very successful in combating the Arian heresy, which threatened to divide Christians in Cappadocia. “But seeing,” as Gregory the Theologian relates, “that everyone exceedingly praised and honored Basil for his wisdom and reverence, Eusebius, through human weakness, succumbed to jealousy of him, and began to show dislike for him.” The monks rose up in defense of Basil. To avoid causing Church discord, Basil withdrew to his own monastery and concerned himself with the organization of monasteries.” (St Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, www.oca.org)
With the coming to power of Emperor Flavius Valens (364-378), who was a resolute adherent of Arianism, a time of troubles began for Orthodoxy, the onset of a great struggle. In 365, Basil hastily returned to Caesarea at the request of Bishop Eusebius. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, he was for Bishop Eusebius “a good advisor, a righteous representative, an expounder of the Word of God, a staff for the aged, a faithful support in internal matters, and an activist in external matters.” (ibid). In 370, Eusebius died, and Basil was chosen to succeed him, and was consecrated bishop of Caesarea on 14 June, 370.
The emperor Valens was relentless in promoting the heresy of Arianism, sending any bishop that displeased him into exile. He planted Arianism into other Asia Minor provinces and suddenly appeared in Caesarea for the same purpose in 371. Basil dramatically opposed him. He sent the prefect Modestus to Basil. He began to threaten Basil with the confiscation of his property, banishment, beatings, and even death. Basil said, “If you take away my possessions, you will not enrich yourself, nor will you make me a pauper. You have no need of my old worn-out clothing, nor of my few books, of which the entirety of my wealth is comprised. Exile means nothing to me, since I am bound to no particular place. This place in which I now dwell is not mine, and any place you send me shall be mine. Better to say: every place is God’s. Where would I be neither a stranger and sojourner (Ps. 38/39:13)? Who can torture me? I am so weak, that the very first blow would render me insensible. Death would be a kindness to me, for it will bring me all the sooner to God, for Whom I live and labor, and to Whom I hasten.” The official was stunned by his answer. “No one has ever spoken so audaciously to me,” he said. “Perhaps,” Basil remarked, “that is because you have never spoken to a bishop before. In all else we are meek, the most humble of all. But when it concerns God, and people rise up against Him, then we, counting everything else as nothing, look to Him alone. Then fire, sword, wild beasts and iron rods that rend the body, serve to fill us with joy, rather than fear.” Reporting to Valens that Basil was not to be intimidated, Modestus said, “Emperor, we stand defeated by a leader of the Church.” Basil again showed firmness before the emperor and his retinue and made such a strong impression on Valens that the emperor dared not give in to the Arians demanding Basil’s exile (ibid).
“When the great St Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373) died, the mantle of defender of the faith against Arianism fell upon Basil. He strove mightily to unite and rally his fellow Catholics who were crushed by tyranny and torn by internal dissension. He was misunderstood, misrepresented, accused of heresy and ambition. Even appeals to the pope brought no response. “For my sins I seem to be unsuccessful in everything” Basil said. (St Basil the Great, https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-of-the-day/saint-basil-the-great)
Basil used all his personal wealth and the income from his church for the benefit of the destitute. He built a large complex just outside Caesarea, called the Basiliad, which included a poorhouse, hospice, and hospital, and was compared by Gregory of Nazianzus to the wonders of the world. This large complex became a lasting monument of Basil’s care for the poor.
“Basil’s numerous and influential writings stemmed from his practical concerns as monk, pastor, and church leader” (Edward R. Hardy, St. Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Basil-the-Great). Through his preaching and writings, he carried out immensely busy pastoral, theological and literary activities. Many writers of ancient monasticism drew from his works, including St Benedict, who considered Basil his teacher (cf. Rule 73, 5). St Basil is to monks of the East what St Benedict is to the West, and Basil’s principles influence Eastern monasticism today. (St Basil the Great, franciscanmedia.org)
The toil of teaching and pastoral care and his life of abstinence took their toll on Basil who was sickly since his youth. He died on 1 January, 379 at age 49. Following his death, the Church immediately began to celebrate his memory as a saint. His feast day is January 2. Pope Pius V proclaimed St Basil, Doctor of the Church in 1568.
LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF ST BASIL THE GREAT
St “Basil bore an effective witness to God, who is love and charity, by building for the needy various institutions (cf. Basil, Letter 94: PG 32, 488bc), virtually a “city” of mercy, called “Basiliade” after him (cf. Sozomeno, Historia Eccl. 6, 34: PG 67, 1397a). This was the origin of the modern hospital structures where the sick are admitted for treatment.” (Benedict XVI, Saint Basil (1), General Audience, Paul VI Audience Hall Wednesday, 4 July 2007). Speaking about the care for the poor, “Basil’s profound thought stands out in this evocative sentence: “All the destitute look to our hands just as we look to those of God when we are in need”. (Benedict XVI, Saint Basil (2), General Audience, Paul VI Audience Hall, Wednesday, 1 August 2007). Therefore, Gregory of Nazianzus’ praise after Basil’s death was well-deserved. He said: “Basil convinces us that since we are human beings, we must neither despise men nor offend Christ, the common Head of all, with our inhuman behaviour towards people; rather, we ourselves must benefit by learning from the misfortunes of others and must lend God our compassion, for we are in need of mercy” (Gregory Nazianzus, Orationes 43, 63; PG 36, 580b). These words are very timely. We see that St Basil is truly one of the Fathers of the Church’s social doctrine” (ibid).
Also, St Basil was a champion of orthodoxy against Arianism. “With zeal and courage Basil opposed the heretics who denied that Jesus Christ was God as Father (cf. Basil, Letter 9, 3: PG 32, 272a; Letter 52, 1-3: PG 32, 392b-396a; Adv. Eunomium 1, 20: PG 29, 556c). Likewise, against those who would not accept the divinity of the Holy Spirit, he maintained that the Spirit is also God and “must be equated and glorified with the Father and with the Son (cf. De Spiritu Sancto: SC 17ff., 348). For this reason Basil was one of the great Fathers who formulated the doctrine on the Trinity: the one God, precisely because he is love, is a God in three Persons who form the most profound unity that exists: divine unity” (Benedict XVI, Saint Basil (1), General Audience).
Furthermore, Basil reminds us that to keep alive our love for God and for men, we need the Eucharist, the appropriate food for the baptized, which can nourish the new energies that derive from Baptism (cf. De Baptismo 1, 3: SC 357, 192) (Benedict XVI, Saint Basil (2), General Audience).
St Basil “was a man who truly live8d with his gaze fixed on Christ. He was a man of love for his neighbour. Full of the hope and joy of faith, Basil shows us how to be true Christians” (Benedict XVI, Saint Basil (1), General Audience).
St Basil the Great, pray for us
Fr Anthony Ibegbunam is a priest of Nnewi Diocese
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