Basil was born in AD 329 in Caesarea Mazaca (modern Kayseri), the capital of Cappadocia, a province of the Roman Empire. His vast learning, eloquent oratory, monastic movement, and extensive charitable works earned for him the title of “Great” during his lifetime.
Life and Career
Basil was one of ten children from a prominent and pious family. He was well educated in Caesarea, Constantinople and later Athens, where he formed a lifelong friendship with Gregory Nazianzus in 352. When Basil returned to Caesarea, he opened a school of oratory in Caesarea and practiced law like his father. However, under the influence of his pious sister Macrina, Basil decided to leave his secular career to establish a monastic community at his family estate in Annesi, towards the Black Sea region.
After founding several monasteries, Basil was ordained Bishop of Caesarea in 370. He was a key figure in the victory of orthodoxy over Arianism in Asia Minor, fearlessly opposing Emperor Valens at great personal risk.
Basil lived an ascetic life and used his personal wealth and the income of his church for the benefit of the poor. He founded charitable institutions to help the destitute, the sick, and travelers. Basil is also known for aiding the victims of drought and famine, his high moral standards for clergy, and his campaign against the widespread prostitution traffic in Cappadocia.
Basil died on January 1, 379 at age 49. He was declared a saint soon after his death.
Opponent of Arianism
Basil was an outspoken opponent of the Arian heresy. Arians rejected the orthodox belief that Jesus the Son is co-equal with God the Father. They instead regarded Jesus as merely the first and greatest creation of God.
Emperor Valens (r. 364-378), an Arian supporter, attempted to suppress the growing controversy by forcing church leaders to submit to Arian teaching. However, when Valens threatened Basil with the confiscation of his property, banishment, torture, and even death, Basil refused to submit and responded:
“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. . . every place is God’s. 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.”
Basil’s courage and piety made such a strong impression on Valens that the Emperor dared not move against him. Basil continued to speak and write against Arian teachings until the end of his life. This paved the way for the denunciation of Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381-82.
Works and Legacy
Basil’s numerous writings address his practical concerns as a monk, pastor and church leader. In particular, his Longer Rules and Shorter Rules (for monasteries) outlined the virtues monks should embrace and the vices they should avoid. Basil was notably concerned that monks practice brotherly love in community rather than live in isolation as hermits. These writings exerted a strong and lasting influence on the monastic life of Eastern Christianity. For more, read "St. Basil's Monastic Vision."
Basil was influential theologically. He shaped the Christian doctrine of the Trinity through his defense of Nicene Christology and original theology about the Holy Spirit's divinity.
His most enduring aspect of his legacy is St. Basil's Liturgy. Orthodox churches throughout the world continue to use his order for church services.