Basil the Great

Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia,
Teacher of the Faith

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Basil the Great
Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia,
Teacher of the Faith
St Basil depicted on the ceiling of Sta Maria sopra Minerva, The Domincan church in the centre of Rome.

Picture courtesy of Lawrence OP, flickr.com

Basil was a significant leader of the church in the later 4th century, not only in his native Cappadocia, but throughout the eastern church. His provisions for the monastic movement gave it a shape that has had permanent effect on the church.

Basil was born about 330 in Caesarea in Cappadocia, Asia Minor (not to be confused with Caesarea in Palestine). He received a thorough education in the best pagan and Christian cen-tres of the day. He contemplated an academic career, but was attracted to the idea that only a life lived in the power of the Spirit and subject to God was truly worth living. He felt a call to a life of intense self-discipline that set one free to be at one with God. He saw this not an end in itself. Rather, for him the key to the monastic life was love, and therefore it was to be lived in community.

For a while Basil lived in community on his family estates. His brother Gregory of Nyssa and his sister Macrina were also significant figures in the church in the later Roman Empire. Basil laid the foundation for his two sets of monastic rules, which were very influential only being superseded in the west by the Rule of St Benedict. Basil provided for spiritual discipline in a round of prayer and worship coupled with manual and charitable work, but he discouraged the austerities practised by some of the hermits.

In 364 Basil was ordained. In the theological disputes of the day, he strongly supported the emphasis of the Nicene Creed on the full and essential divinity of the Son. Together with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and his close friend Gregory of Nazianzus (see 9 May), he did much to persuade those who were hesitant. This Nicene theology was eventually agreed to at Constantinople in 381 and is part of the Nicene Creed that is still regularly recited in church.

Basil’s moderating influence was not always appreciated, least of all by the emperor Valens, who sought to undermine Basil’s position by dividing his parish of Cappadocia. Basil re-sponded by making his friend Gregory bishop of the new diocese despite Gregory’s great re-luctance. Basil also wrote a treatise, ‘On the Holy Spirit’, since the debates on the Son’s rela-tion to the Father in the Trinity had implications for the theology of the Holy Spirit too. Basil was a convinced Trinitarian and a warm supporter of the engagement of theology with the best intellectual tradition of the day.

From 370 onwards Basil was Bishop of Caesarea, and in that position had responsibilities for the churches in Pontus. He did much to organise the monastic life of the city into a significant social force as an example of community love in action. On his death, Basil left to the city a complete new town on his own estates, with hospital, hospice and church, to be used as an outreach to the poor.

BORN: 330 AD, Kayseri, Turkey

DIED: 1 January 379 AD, Caesarea (Kayseri), Cappadocia, Turkey