Monday, January 02, 2012

What Made St. Basil "Great"

Today is the Feast Day of one of my favorite saints: St. Basil the Great, a Doctor of the Church. In honor of him, I just had to post a little bit about him.

Good Stock

Basil came from a holy family. His parents suffered under Galerius’ persecution of the Church. His father was well-known for his virtue and as a teacher and his mother was the daughter of a martyr. In fact, his parents produced three saints: Macrina, Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. Basil and Gregory of Nyssa with Gregory of Nazianzus of course go on to become known as the Cappadocian fathers. Two other sons also became bishops.
After his father died, Basil went off to study at Caesarea. He then went on to become a student at Constantinople and Athens. Of course, it while studying at the latter that he became close friends with Gregory of Nazianzus. In Oration xliii we find Gregory's description of Basil. You can read it here.

Basil's Conversion

The key turning point in Basil's life when he read the Gospel. He writes about how he wept many tears on account of his life.
“Much time had I spent in vanity, and had wasted nearly all my youth acquiring the sort of wisdom made foolish by God. Then once, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvelous light of the truth of the Gospel, and I perceived the uselessness of ‘the wisdom of the princes of this world, that come to naught.’ I wept many tears over my miserable life, and I prayed that I might receive guidance to admit me to the doctrines of true religion.” (Ep. Ccxxiii).
Basil as Founder of Communal Monasticism

Basil eventually traveled around to meet other ascetics.
“I admired their continence in living, and their endurance in toil. I was amazed at their persistency in prayer, and at their triumphing over sleep. Subdued by no natural necessity, ever keeping their soul’s purpose high and free in hunger and third, in cold and nakedness, they never yielded to the body; they were never willing to waste attention on it. Always, as though living in a flesh that was not theirs, they showed in very deed what it is to sojourn for a while in this life, and what to have one’s citizenship and home in heaven. All this moved my admiration. I called these men’s lives blessed, in that they did indeed show that ‘they bear about in their body the dying of Jesus’. And I prayed that I too, as far as in me lay, might imitate them.”
He later founded a monastery. Indeed, in many ways, he is the father of communal monasticism.

"The Great" Reconciler 

What makes Basil truly remarkable is his exemplary handling of heretics, such as heretics. How did he deal with them? Well, Basil essentially won over most of the Arians. Gregory describes his approach as “blending his correction with consideration and his gentleness with firmness” (Gregory of Nazianzus., Or. xliii).

Indeed, he enacted numerous reforms. He was particularly concerned with simony. He is also associated with liturgical reforms. In addition, he established hospitals for the sick and hospices for travelers and strangers.

Theological Genius

This is my favorite thing to write about, however, since it is late I need to keep my comments brief.

As I hinted at above, Basil had an amazing talent for reconciling theological debates. In particular, basil played a critical role in the development of the Church's Trinitarian doctrine. There had been much confusion over language in wake of Arian heresy. Theologians were using the terms ousia (=Latin: "substance") and hypostases (=Latin: "persons") interchangeably.

These terms were being used by different people to mean different things. Basil helped sort things out and helped to show how theological differences among many were a matter of semantics. (That's oversimplifying things a bit, but I'm trying to be brief).

Basil helped to articulate the understanding that Christ shares divinity with the Father but is not the same person as the father. He thus helped develop the idea of "person" (prosopon), a key theological concept for Trinitarian theology.

Moreover, Basil wrote a great deal on the Holy Spirit. In particular, Basil demonstrates the divinity of the Spirit by turning to Scripture.
Let them listen to even more testimony of the Spirit’s Lordship: “Now the Lord is the Spirit” [2 Cor 3:17] and “this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit”. [2 Cor 3:18] But to leave no room for further doubt, I will quote the Apostle’s words in greater detail: “To this day, when they read the Old Testament, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away…when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit…” [2 Cor 3:14, 16-17] Why does Paul say this? Because someone who adheres to the bare letter of the law, and busies himself with legal observances, had veiled his own heart with Jewish interpretation of the law. Such a person is ignorant that the bodily observance of the law has been abrogated by the coming of Christ, and the types have been exchanged for the truth. Lamps are not needed after sunrise, and since the truth has appeared, the job of the law is over, and the prophets become silent. On the other hand, someone given the ability to perceive the depth of the law’s meaning, who passes through the curtain of literal obscurity and arrives at unutterable truths, is like Moses, who removed his veil when he spoke with God. Such a man has turned from the letter to the Spirit. The veil on Moses’ face is analogous to the obscurity of the instruction offered by the law, just as spiritual contemplation corresponds to Moses speaking to the Lord with face unveiled. He who throws away the letter and turns to thw Lord when reading the law (and now the Lord is called Spirit) becomes like Moses, whose face shone with the glory of God’s manifestation. Objects placed near something brilliantly colored themselves become tinted through reflected light; likewise he who fixes his gaze on the Spirit is transfigured to greater brightness, his heart illuminated by the light of the Spirit’s truth. Then the glory, not stingily, or dimly, but with the abundance we would expect to find within someone who has been enlightened by the Spirit (On the Holy Spirit, 52) [H/T Brian LePort]
In addition, he explained that
  • the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son
  • the Holy Spirit does not proceed from the Father in the same way Son proceeds from Father (there is only "begotten son").
All of this will later become important in light of the controversy over the filioque clause. One fascinating line from Basil bears mentioning here:
"Even if the Holy Spirit is third in dignity and order, why need He be third also in nature? For that He is second to the Son, having His being from Him and receiving from Him and announcing to us and being completely dependent on Him, pious tradition recounts; but that His nature is third we are not taught by the Saints nor can we conclude logically from what has been said." (Against Eunomius 3:1 in PG 29:655A). 
Happy Feast Day! St. Basil, pray for us!

1 comment:

De Liliis said...

'When you sit down to eat, pray. When you eat bread, do so thanking Him for being so generous to you. If you drink wine, be mindful of Him who has given it to you for your pleasure and as a relief in sickness. When you dress, thank Him for His kindness in providing you with clothes. When you look at the sky and the beauty of the stars, throw yourself at God's feet and adore Him who in His wisdom has arranged things in this way. Similarly, when the sun goes down and when it rises, when you are asleep or awake, give thanks to God, who created and arranged all things for your benefit, to have you know, love and praise their Creator.'

St. Basil the Great

Inspirational Quotes from the Saints

The saints certainly have a way with words don't they?