What was the reason and purpose of Christian monasticism in Cappadocia? St. Basil the Great (329–380 AD) started monasteries to address crucial problems of the fourth century church. This article explains the social context and vision of St. Basil's monasticism
After Constantine legalized Christianity, under the Edict of Milan in 313, pagan elites in search of notoriety and political gain filled the institutional church. In this season of significant transition in the Roman Empire, opportunists took the title "Christian" and sought ecclesiastical positions to improve one's socio-political status. People became Christian in name only, thus compromising the morality of the church. Already at the Council of Nicaea in 325, church officials recognized that too many ill-prepared pagan converts had been promoted to positions of leadership.
By the 360's and 370's, Basil perceived this leadership crisis as a "shipwreck" plunging Christians into a sea of ignorance, division, and ungodliness. Basil described the situation in these dire terms:
"The doctrines of piety have been brought to ruin and the laws of the church are thrown into confusion. The ambition of those who do not fear the Lord rushes into the foremost positions, and episcopal office is now publically known as the prize of impiety. The result is that the more a man blasphemes the more worthy people judge him to be a bishop." (Letter 92.2)
At the same time, there remained many faithful Christians who endured recent persecution under Emperor Diocletian (284–305). These Christians abhorred the apathy of the recent status-seeking converts. They wanted a more rigorist expression of worship. But as the church became more politicized and dominated by people with imperial connections, the faithful remnant had lost their voice, and eventually their hope of change. So in a public display of protest, many fervent Christians made an exodus into the desert as solitary (eremitic) monks. In their minds, this ascetic life replaced the institutional church as the means of salvation. On some occasions, their deep animosity towards the institutional church turned into physical aggression and violence. When the solitary monks separated from the institutional church, they became like sheep without a shepherd. They had zeal and passion, but lacked leadership or moral guidance.
By the mid-300's Christianity was divided into two extremes—the institutional church corrupted by Byzantine politics, and protesting monks who were living as independent Christians. Both sides needed reform and visionary leadership to follow the teachings and person of Jesus Christ.
St. Basil (329–380) was born into a wealthy Cappadocian family. As a young man Basil studied in Athens, and then he toured monastic communities in Egypt and Syria. Upon his return to Cappadocia, he sold his personal possessions and organized a communal monastery for relatives and friends on his family’s estate. This was the fulfillment of Basil's dream.
But during this time of monastic retreat, Basil became disillusioned by many problems in the church and society. He lamented the injustice of poverty, the oppressive “Christian” aristocracy, the church’s marriage to politics, the spread of Arian heresy, and the withdrawal of hermetic believers. The institutional church had lapsed and disgruntled monks withdrew from the church. Both forms of Christianity needed restoration.
Basil sensed that retirement to the monastic life was selfish. He felt called to use his education, zeal, and leadership abilities to restore Christians to their true calling. Basil seized upon communal monasticism to both renew the institutional church and reform the marginalized ascetic monks. Vibrant monastic communities could address the dire problems on multiple fronts.
The Church historian Rufinius of Aquileia in 397 AD explains Basil’s course of actions:
“Basil went round the cities and countryside of Pontus and began by his words to rouse that province from its torpor and lack of concern for our hope for the future, kindling it by his preaching, and to banish the insensitivity resulting from long negligence; he compelled it to put away its concern for vain and worldly things and to give its attention to him. He taught people to assemble, to build monasteries, to take care of the poor and furnish them with proper housing and the necessities of life, to establish the way of life of virgins, and to make the life of modesty and chastity desirable to almost everyone.” (Church History 11:9)
Even though Basil was a prominent theologian and bishop of Caesarea, he always remained committed to developing and strengthening Cappadocian monasteries. Basil corresponded with the satellite communities about various aspects of the Christian life. Basil's book The Rule of St. Basil (aka, Asketika) articulates his monastic vision and became the foundational text for Christian monasticism.
Through communal monasticism, Basil reformed Christianity at both the institutional and grassroots level. Monasticism had been pitted against the church, but Basil, ever the ecclesiastical statesman, incorporated the monastic movement into the church so they could benefit each other. As a powerful bishop over Cappadocia, Basil used his ecclesiastical authority to speak against the secularizing forces, refute the heresy of Arianism, appoint monk-bishops to leadership positions, publish theological treatises, and advocate for the poor among the elite.
At a grassroots level, Basil organized monastic communities of love-motivated disciples. These groups strengthened the church by providing true teaching, spiritual ministry, and capable leadership. Monks cared for lay people, both physically and spiritually. Monasticism expressed the true character of Christianity and thus restored confidence in the church. Monks would also purify the church by modeling faithful devotion to God. Their lives summoned the politicized church back to holiness and mission.
The following sections explain how Basil developed the monastic communities to strategically address the social and ecclesiastical problems of his day.
1. Love in Community
Basil never developed a standardized rule for monasteries. In his view, love was the guiding rule for all the Christian life. The opening questions of Basil's Asketika explain how the "utterly ineffable love of God" compels and guides the entire Christian life, including monastic communities. To fulfill the rule of love, each monastic community was free to develop in its own way. Byzantine monasteries constructed their own rule based on the monastic principles in Basil’s books Moralia and Asketika.
Basil’s emphasis on love and community was a deliberate corrective to the lifestyle of the solitary (eremitic) monks. They practiced extreme forms of asceticism, such as competing to see who could most severely torment their body. Basil said asceticism without love was useless. This echoes the Apostle Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 13:3, "If I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” In serving one another in a community of love, Basil encouraged the moderation of austere practices. Basil insisted that self-denial must be rooted in love and the power of the Holy Spirit. For Basil the purpose of the monastic life was cultivating a true love for God and fellow humans.
Basil placed a strong emphasis on work as service. Monks were to work in groups for mutual edification, protection and to conduct prayer. Work was an expression of love. Monks assumed vows of poverty and shared property in common. This act resisted the allure and love of private property. Basil highlighted the loving purpose of mutual labor. In earlier models of asceticism, work was a way to overcome the lust of the flesh. But for Basil, work was an expression of love toward others.
2. Social Care
The monastic community not only served itself, but it was located near towns to serve as a public example and to help lay Christians. Social service was another overflow of the monastic life. Monks cared for the marginalized and poor. In 369 a severe famine caused mass starvation throughout Cappadocia. Strange weather patterns devastated crops and the rich stockpiled food. Basil explained, "The hungry are dying...The naked are stiff with cold. The man in debt is held by the throat."
In response Basil constructed a large complex next to the original monastery to care for the poor. So many people came to receive services that the growing region became known as “New Caesarea.” The Basilian complex was a source of great stability for the community. Both church and the State supported the work, and other monasteries followed suit by helping the poor. Almsgiving and generosity to the poor were defining aspects of monasticism.
3. Preaching and Teaching
Basil peppered monasteries throughout the populated areas of the Roman world to stop the spread of Arian heresy. Arianism taught that Jesus was not eternally God, but only "similar" to God. In the 360's and 370's when Basil was bishop, Arians controlled most episcopal leadership and enjoyed political support from the emperors in Constantinople. According to Basil, the champions of Arianism were waging war against Apostolic teaching, and were to be resisted. In Basil's monasteries, monks studied the Nicene doctrines, learned rhetoric, and went into nearby towns to preach. Monasticism became a frontline defense against Arian heresy. As Christianity expanded into new areas, monks were ordained and sent out to evangelize.
4. Church Leadership
The leadership of the church had fallen into moral decline. Basil lamented there was "a complete immunity to sinning" among church bishops. As Arians gained political power, many Orthodox bishops were banished into exile and replaced by incompetent church leaders. In this perilous time, Basil developed the vision of the "bishop-monk." The contemplative life at monasteries provided the biblical education and character development essential for church leadership. As a prominent bishop, Basil labored assiduously to recruit monks to serve as bishops. Their monastic training equipped them to shepherd local Christian communities. Monasteries trained and restored church leadership.
After Constantine's political and religious reforms in the early 300's, the church quickly became diluted by political opportunists, neglected the needs of the marginalized, and fell into Arian heresy. Pious Christians grew disillusioned and retreated to isolated asceticism. In response to these crises, St. Basil of Caesarea formed monastic communities. These groups emphasized community, strived towards love, served the poor, refuted heresy, and trained leaders. These monastic communities that Basil shepherded became the antidote to the social and ecclesiastical problems that arose after Constantine.
Basil's Legacy in Cappadocia
None of the surviving cave churches or monasteries in Cappadocia date to Basil's lifetime (d. 380 AD). In fact most Cappadocian cave churches date to 850–1070 AD, over 500 years after Basil. As a result some historians have suggested Cappadocian cave monasteries have no historical connection to Basil's original monastic version. Certainly we must acknowledge some social and monastic developments between Basil's lifetime and the 10th century. However, the historical record suggests Basil's monastic vision continued to influence Byzantine monasticism for many centuries.
Several examples illustrate the depth of Basil's legacy in Cappadocian monasticism:
The ecumenical Council of Trullo in 692 AD cites "the holy and divine Basil" when they pronounce regulations for monks. Basil's teaching on monasticism had become canonical for the Orthodox Church.
Monastic documents from the 12th and 13th centuries reflect the pattern and content of Basil's thought. Byzantine monks preserved and promoted Basil's books for at least 1,000 years.
Wall paintings in the cave churches of Cappadocia give special place to Basil. His image appears in many apses, often to the immediate right of Mary. Buckle Church (Tokalı Kilise, Göreme), perhaps the most famous cave church in Cappadocia, seems dedicated to Saint Basil. His picture is prominent on the central apse, and the lower left wall featured scenes from his life.
As history indicates, Basil's fourth-century monastic vision continued to shape Cappadocian Christianity in later centuries.