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St. Basil the Great: Father of Communal Monasticism

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

January 2, 2015
Basil the Great 1
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Basil the Great was a strong supporter of the Nicene Creed – the profession of faith that is most commonly used when we come together to celebrate Mass. In the Universal Catholic Church, we celebrate his feast day on January 2 and so do the Anglican and Lutheran Churches. We also call to mind the incredible spirituality and impact that St. Basil the Great left on the Church in Europe.
When we begin looking at his early life, we know that St. Basil the Great was born around the year 330 AD. He came into this world through the support of a very wealthy family, in Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia. Today, Cappadocia is most widely known as Kayseri, Turkey. Shortly after he was born, his family moved to Pontus. It was at Pontus where he was schooled at home by both his father and grandmother.
Basil then returned to Caesarea in Cappadocia around the year 350-51, where he began his formal studies. It was at school where he met his life-long friend, Gregory of Nazianzus. Both Basil and Gregory studied under Libanius in Constantinople. They also spent six years in Athens. For a brief period, St. Basil practiced law and taught rhetoric in Caesarea, after returning from Athens around the year 355.
Basil the Great 2
In his most significant move yet, St. Basil put aside his legal and teaching aspirations in order to devote his life to God. In 357, St. Basil travelled to Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia to study ascetics and monasticism. Upon his return, he along with his brother Peter started a monastic settlement on his family estate. His mother Emmelia, sister Macrina and several other women joined them in living out a more fruitful and pious life.
Basil was a strong character, a burning lamp during his time. But as the fire from this lamp illumined and warmed the world, it consumed itself; as the saint's spiritual stature grew, his body wasted away, and at the early age of forty-nine he looked like an old man. He was a great theologian, a powerful preacher, a gifted writer, the author of two rules for monastic life, a reformer of the Oriental liturgy. He died in 379, hardly forty-nine years old, yet so emaciated that only skin and bones remained, as though he had stayed alive in soul alone.
St. Basil the Great is the patron Saint for both hospital administrators and reformers. More than that, he is the patron saint for the region of Cappadocia in Turkey. This is quite significant because being a Patron Saint for the region of Cappadocia serves as a reminder to all that Christianity has a long history in that particular region, especially in Russia.
On this day, most especially, we give thanks to God for the gift of St. Basil and for the many religious women and men who serve in congregations under his patronage. We remember especially the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers of Toronto). St. Basil, pray for us.
St. Basil, pray for us.
“It is the Holy Spirit by whom we are restored to paradise, ascend into the kingdom of heaven, and come to be adopted sons.  The Spirit gives us the confidence to call God Father, to share in Christ's grace, to be called children of the light, to have a share in eternal glory, to be filled with every blessing, in this age and in the age to come, to see as in a mirror, as if they were already present, the gifts promised us and which, in faith, we look forward to enjoying.  If the pledges are such, what will the fulfillment be like?  And if the first-fruits are so great, what shall we say of the fullness?”
–St. Basil of Caesarea, Treatise on the Holy Spirit XV, 36
“The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry;
the clothing which you store in your closets to the naked;
to the bare-footed the shoes which are rotting;
to the needy the silver which you have buried.”
–St. Basil of Caesarea
Basil & GregoryO what union and what estrangement!
How I was joined to a body, I do not know.  How I am the image of God and kneaded together from clay, I do not know.  This body, when it is doing well, makes war on me and when it is oppressed, it grieves me.  I love it as a fellow servant, yet turn my back on it as an enemy: flee it as a prison, and am ashamed of it as a co-heir with me.  I struggle to waste it away and I do not have any collaborator to use for the best undertakings, since I know for what purpose I have come to be and that I must ascend to God through my actions.  I spare it as a collaborator, and I have no way in which I may flee from its rebellion, nor any way in which I may not fall away from God, since I am weighed down by shackles which drag me down and hold me to the earth.  It is a gracious enemy and a treacherous friend.  O what union and what estrangement!
I embrace what I fear and fear what I love.  Before making war on it, I am reconciled with it, and before making peace discord breaks out.  What is this wisdom about me and what is this great mystery?  Perhaps since we are God's portion and have come down from above God wants us to look always to him on account of the struggle and battle lest, having exalted and raised ourselves up on account of our dignity, we despise the Creator.  God wants the weakness which has been joined to us to serve for the education of our dignity, so that we may see that we are at once very great and very lowly, of earth and of heaven, temporal and immortal, heirs of light and fire as well as of darkness; to which ever way we might incline.  This is our mixture which, as it appears to me, exists for this reason: as we have been exalted by the divine image we bear, so may we also be humbled by our clay.  We must, brothers, care for our body as for a kinsman and fellow servant.  And if I accuse it on account of the suffering it causes, I nevertheless embrace it as a friend on account of the One who has bound us together.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Friend of St. Basil
Sermon 14, On the love of the Poor