Skip to comments.[Catholic Caucus] Saint Basil the Great, Bishop and Doctor of the Church (Gueranger)
Posted on 06/13/2018 9:16:00 PM PDT by CMRosary
THE DOCTORS WHO FORM the fourfold glory of the Greek Church complete their sacred number, on the cycle, this day. John Chrysostom was the first to greet us with his radiant light, during Christmastide; the glorious Pasch saw the rise of two resplendent luminaries, Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzen; Basil the Great, having checked his effulgent blaze till now, illumines the reign of the Holy Ghost. He well deserves so distinguished a place, by reason of his eminent doctrine and brave combats, which prepared the way for the triumph of the divine Paraclete over the blasphemies of the impious sect of Macedonius, who used against the Third Person of the Consubstantial Trinity, the very same arguments invented by Arius against the Divinity of the Word. The Council of Constantinople, putting the finishing stroke to that of Nicæa, formulated the faith of the Churches, in Him who proceedeth from the Father, no less than doth the Word Himself, Who is adored and glorified conjointly with the Father and the Son. Basil was not there on the day of victory; prematurely exhausted by austerities and labors, he had been sleeping the sleep of peace for quite two years when this great definition was promulgated. But it was his teaching that inspired the assembled council; his word remains as the luminous expression of tradition, concerning the Holy Spirit, who is himself the divine loadstone attracting all in the vast universe that aspire after holiness, the potent breeze uplifting souls, the perfection of all things. Just as we hearkened to Gregory Nazianzen on his feast day, speaking magnificent truths concerning the great Paschal mystery, let us listen now to his illustrious friend (de Spiritu Sancto, Lib. ix, xxvi, xviii, xxi, xvi, & xxii) explaining that of the present season—Sanctification effected in souls.
“The union of the Holy Ghost and the soul is effected by the estrangement of the passions, which having crept in had separated her from God. Whoso, therefore, would disengage himself from the deformity that proceedeth from vice, and return to that beauteousness which he holds of his Creator, whoso would restore within himself the primitive features of that royal and divine original, such an one doth verily draw nigh unto the Paraclete. But then also, even as the sun, coming in contact with an unsullied eye, illumines it, so the Paraclete reveals to such an one the image of Him that cannot be seen; and in the blissful contemplation of this image, he perceiveth the ineffable beauty of the Principle, the Model of all. In this ascension of hearts, whereof the first tottering steps as well as the growing consummation are equally His work, the Holy Spirit rendereth them spiritual who are quit of all stain, by reason of that participation of Himself into which He initiates them. Bodies that are limpid and translucent, pierced by a brilliant ray, become resplendent and shed light all around them; thus also souls bearing the Holy Spirit within them are all luminous with Him, and becoming themselves spiritualized, shed grace all around. Hence, the superior understanding possessed by the elect, and their converse with heaven; hence, all fair gifts; hence, thine own resemblance to thy God; hence, O truth sublime! thou thyself art a god. … Wherefore it is, that properly and in very truth, by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, we contemplate the splendor of God’s glory; yea, it is by the character of resemblance which He has imprinted in our soul that we are raised up even unto the loftiness of Him whose similitude He, the divine Seal, beareth with Himself. … He, the Spirit of Wisdom revealeth unto us (not as it were outside, but within Himself) Christ, the Wisdom of God. The path of contemplation leads from the Holy Ghost, by the Son, unto the Father; concurrently, the goodness, holiness, and royal dignity of the Elect come from the Father by the Son to the Holy Ghost, whose temples they are; … and He filleth them with His own glory, illuminating their brow with a radiance, like to that of Moses, at the sight of God. … Thus likewise did He, in the case of our Lord’s Humanity; thus doth He unto the Seraphim who cannot cry their triple Sanctus, save in Him; so also unto all the choirs of Angels, whose concerts He regulates, whose sons He vibrates. … But the carnal man, who hath never exercised his soul in contemplation, holding her captive in the mud and mire of the senses, cannot lift his eyes unto Light supernal; the Holy Spirit belongs not to him.”
The action of the Paraclete surpasses the power of any creature; therefore, in thus drawing attention to the operation of the Spirit of Love, St. Basil is anxious to bring his adversaries to confess, of their own accord, the Divinity of the Holy Ghost. On the other hand, who can fail to recognize in this burning exposition of doctrine, not merely the invincible theologian, vindicating dogma; but furthermore, the experienced guide of souls, the sublime ascetic, deputed by God to bring down within reach of all marvels of holiness such as an Anthony or a Pachomius brought forth in the desert?
Even as the bee humming amidst the flowers avoids the thorn and knows how to eschew empoisoned sap, so Basil in his youthful days had hovered amidst the schools of Athens and of Constantinople, without sucking in aught of their poison. According to the advice he himself gave to youth, at a later date, in a celebrated discourse, his quick intelligence, unsullied by passions (too often found even in the most gifted), had succeeded in stealing from rhetoricians and poets all that could adorn as well as develop his mind, and discipline it for the struggle of life. The world smiled on the young orator, whose pure diction and persuasive eloquence recalled the palmy days of Greek literature; but the noblest gifts of glory earth could offer were far beneath the lofty ambition wherewith his soul was fired, in reading the holy Scriptures. Life’s struggle, in his eyes, seemed a combat for truth alone. In himself, first of all, must Divine Truth be victorious, by the defeat of nature and by the Holy Ghost’s triumphant creation of the new man. Therefore, heedless to know before God’s own time whether he might not be used in winning souls to God; never once suspecting how soon multitudes would indeed come pressing to receive the law of life from his lips, he turned his back upon all things and fled to the wilds of Pontus, there to be forgotten of men in his pursuit after holiness. Nor did the misery of those times cause him to fall into that error, so common nowadays, namely that of wishing to devote one’s self to others, before having first regulated one’s own soul. Such is not the true way of setting charity in order; such is not the conduct of the saints. No, it is thyself God wants of thee, before all things else; when thou art become His, in the full measure he intends, he himself will know how to bestow thee upon others, unless perchance he prefer for thy greater advantage to keep thee all to himself! But in any case, he is no lover of all that hurry to become useful, He does not bless these would-be utilitarians who are all eagerness, as it were, to push themselves into the service of his Providence. Anthony of Padua showed us this truth yesterday; and here we have it given to us a second time; mark it well: that which really tends to the extension of our Lord’s glory is not the amount of time given to the works. but the holiness of the worker.
According to a custom frequent in that century, owing to the fear entertained of exposing the grace of baptism to woeful shipwreck, Basil remained a simple catechumen until his youth had well nigh matured to manhood. Of the years that followed his baptism, thirteen were spent in the monastic life and nine in the episcopate. At the age of fifty, he died; but his work carried on under the impulse of the Holy Ghost, far from finishing with him, appeared more fruitful, and went on thus increasing during the course of succeeding ages.
While living the life of a humble monk on the banks of the Iris, whither his mother and sister had preceded him, his whole being was all intent on the “saving of his soul” from the judgment of God, and on “running generously in the way that leads to the eternal recompense.” Later on, others having begged him to form them also “unto the warfare of Christ, the King,” according to the simplicity of faith and the Scriptures, our saint would not have them embrace the life of solitaries, such isolation being not without danger for the many; but he preferred for them, one that would join to the blissful contemplation of the solitary, the rampart and completeness of community life, wherein charity and humility (160, etc.; 110, etc.) are exercised under the conduct of a head who, in his turn, deems himself but the servitor of all (Interrogatio xxx.). Moreover, he would admit none into his monasteries, without serious and prolonged trial, followed by a solemn engagement to persevere in this new life.
At the remembrance of what he had admired amongst the solitaries of Egypt and Syria, Basil compared himself and his disciples to children who would strive in a puny way to mimic strong men; or unto beginners sticking at the first difficulties of the rudiments, and scarce yet fairly started on the path of true piety. Yet the day would come when the ancient giants of the wilderness, and the hoary legislators of the desert, would see their heroic customs and their monastic codes cede the place of honor to the familiar conferences, to the unprepared answers given by Basil to his monks, in solution of their proposed difficulties, and to form them to the practice of the divine counsels. Ere long, the whole of the East ranged itself under his Rule; while in the West, Saint Benedict called him his Father. His order, like a fruitful nursery of holy monks and virgins, bishops, doctors and martyrs, has stocked heaven with saints. For a long time it served as a bulwark of the faith to Byzantium; and even in our own day has beheld, despite the schism, its faithful children sparing not to render, under the savage persecution of the Tsar of Russia, their testimony of blood and suffering to Holy Mother Church.
Worthily also have they herein paid a personal testimony, as it were, to their intrepid father; for Basil too was the grandson of martyrs, the son and brother of saints. Would that we might be allowed to devote a page to the praises of his illustrious grandmother Macrina the elder; who seems to have miraculously escaped from the hands of her executioners and from a seven years’ exile in the wild forests, on purpose to be instrumental in infusing into Basil’s young heart that faith firm and pure, which she had herself received from St. Gregory Thaumaturgus. Suffice it to say that towards the close of his life, the great Basil, Doctor of the Church and Patriarch of Monks, was proud to appeal to Macrina’s name as a guarantee for the orthodoxy of his faith, when once called in question.
Basil’s lifetime was cast in one of those periods exceptionally disastrous to the Church, when shipwrecks of faith are common, because darkness prevails to such an extent as to cast its shades even over the children of light; a period, in fact, when, as St. Jerome expresses it, “the astonished world waked up, to bewail itself Arian.” Bishops were faltering in essentials of true belief and in questions of loyalty to the successor of Peter; so that the bewildered flock scarce knew whose voice to follow; for many of their pastors, some through perfidy, and some through weakness, had subscribed at Rimini to the condemnation of the Faith of Nicæa. Basil himself was assuredly not one of them, not one of those blind watchmen: dumb dogs not able to bark. When but a simple lector, he had not hesitated to sound the horn of alarm, by openly separating himself from his bishop who had been caught in the meshes of the Arians; and now himself a bishop, he boldly showed that he was so indeed. For when entreated, for peace’s sake, to make some compromise with the Arians, vain was every supplication, every menace of confiscation, exile, or death. He used no measured terms in treating with the prefect Modestus, the tool of Valens; and when this vaunting official complained that none had ever dared to address him with such liberty, Basil intrepidly replied: “Perhaps thou never yet hadst to deal with a Bishop!”
Basil, whose great soul was incapable of suspecting duplicity in another, was entrapped by the guile of a false monk, a hypocritical bishop, one Eustathius of Sebaste, who, by apparent austerity of life and other counterfeits, long captivated the friendship of Basil. This unconscious error was permitted by God for the increase of his servant’s holiness; for it was destined to fill his declining days with utmost bitterness, and to draw down upon him the keenest trial possible to one of his mould, namely, that several, in consequence, began to doubt of his own sincerity of faith.
Basil appealed from the tongue of calumny to the judgment of his brother bishops; but yet he recoiled not from likewise justifying himself before the simple Faithful. For he knew that the richest Treasure of a Church is the pastor’s own surety of faith and his personal plenitude of doctrine. Athanasius, who had led the battles of the first half of that century and had conquered Arius, was no more: he had gone to join in the well-merited repose of eternity his brave companions, Eusebius of Vercelli and Hilary of Poitiers. In the midst of the confusion that Valens’ persecution was then reproducing in the East, even holy men knew not how to weather the storm. Many such were to be seen adopting first the extreme measure of utter withdrawal, through mistaken excess of prudence; and then rushing into equally false steps of indiscreet zeal. Basil alone was of a build proportioned to the tempest. His noble heart, bruised in its most delicate feelings, had drunk the chalice to the dregs; but, strong in Him who prayed the prayer of agony in Gethsemani, the trial crushed him not. With wearied soul and with a body well-nigh exhausted by the jading effects of chronic infirmities, already in fact a dying man, he nevertheless nerved himself up against death, and bravely faced the surging waves. From this “ship in distress,” as he termed the Eastern Church, dashing against every rock amid the dense fog, his pressing cry of appeal reached the ears of the Western Church seated in peace in her unfailing light,—reached Rome, whence alone help could come, yet whose wise slowness, on one occasion, made him almost lose heart. While awaiting the intervention of Peter’s successor, Basil prudently repressed anything untimely zeal and, for the present, required of weak souls merely what was indispensable in matters of faith; just as under other circumstances, and with equal prudence, he had severely reproved his own brother, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, for suffering himself to be betrayed by simplicity into inconsiderate measures, motived indeed by love of peace.
Peace, yes, this is just what Basil desired as much as anybody: but the peace for which he would give his life could be only that true peace left to the Church by our Lord. What he so vigorously exacted on the grounds of faith proceeded solely from this very love of his for peace. And therefore, as he himself tells us, he absolutely refused to enter into communion with men of just medium, men who dread nothing so much as a clear, close-drawn expression of dogma; in his eyes, their captious formulæ and ungraspable shiftings were but the action of hypocrites, in whose company he would scorn to approach God’s altar. As to those merely misled, “let the faith of our fathers be proposed to them with all tenderness and charity; if they will assent thereunto, let us receive them into our midst; in other cases, let us dwell with ourselves alone, regardless of numbers; and let us keep aloof from equivocating souls, who are not possessed of that simplicity without guile, indispensably required in the early days of the gospel, from all who would approach to the Faith. The believers, so it is written, had but one heart and one soul. Let those, therefore, who would reproach us for not desiring pacification, mark well who are the real authors of the disturbance, and so not point the question of reconciliation on our side any more.”
In another place, he thus continues, “To every specious argument that would seem to counsel silence on our part, we oppose this other, namely, that charity counts as nothing, either her own proper interests, or the difficulties of the times. Even though no man is willing to follow our example, what then? are we ourselves, just for that, to let duty alone? In the fiery furnace, the children of the Babylonish captivity chanted their canticle to the Lord, without making any reckoning of the multitude who set truth on one side: they were quite sufficient for one another, merely three as they were!”
He thus wrote to his monks, likewise pursued and vexed by a government that would fain not own itself a persecutor: “There are many honest men who, though they admit that you are not being treated without a shadow of justice, still will not grant that the sufferings you are enduring can quite deserve to be called confessing the faith; ah! it is by no means necessary to be a pagan in order to make martyrs! The enemies we have nowadays detest us no less than did the idolaters; if they would deceive the crowd as to the motive of their hatred, it is merely because they hope thereby to rob you of the glory that surrounded confessors in bygone days. Be convinced of it: before the face of the just Judge, your confession is every whit as real. So, take heart! under every stroke, renew yourselves in love; let your zeal gain strength every day, knowing that in you are to be preserved the last remains of godliness which the Lord, at His return, may find upon the earth. Trouble not yourselves about treacheries, nor whence they come: was it not the princes among God’s priests, the scribes and the ancients among his own, that plotted the snares wherein our divine Master suffered himself to be caught? Heed not what the crowd may think, for a breath is sufficient to sway the crowd to and fro, like the rippling wave. Even though only one were to be saved, as in the case of Lot out of Sodom, it would not be lawful for him to deviate from the path of rectitude, merely because he finds that he is the only one that is right. No; he must stand alone, unmoved, holding fast his hope on Jesus Christ.”
Basil himself, from his bed of sickness, set an example to all. But what was not the anguish of his soul, when he realized how scant correspondence his efforts received among the leading men in his own diocese! He sadly wondered at seeing such as these, and how their ambition was in no wise quenched by the lamentable state of the Churches; how they still could listen to nothing but their own puny jealous susceptibilities, when the vessel was actually foundering; and could bicker and quarrel about who should command the ship, when she was already sinking. Then there were others, and even those were to be found amongst the better sort, who would hold aloof, hoping to get themselves forgotten in the silence of their own inertia; quite ignoring that when general interests are at stake, egotistic estrangement from the scene of struggle can never save an individual, nor absolve him from the crime of treason. It is curious to hear our saint himself relating the story to his friend Eusebius of Samosata, the future martyr; how once Basi’s death was noised abroad, and consequently all the bishops hurried at once to Cæsarea to choose a successor. “But,” Basil continues, “as it pleased God that they should find me alive, I took this opportunity to speak to them weighty words. Yet vainly; for while in my presence, they feared me and promised everything; but scarce had they turned their backs, than they were just the same again.” In the meanwhile, persecution was pursuing its course, and sooner or later, the moment came for each in turn to choose between either downright heresy or banishment. Many, unfortunately, then consummated their apostasy; others, opening their eyes at last, took the road to exile, where they were able to meditate at leisure upon the advantages of their policy of “keeping quiet,” and “of keeping out of the struggle;” or better still, where they could repair their past weakness, by the heroism wherewith they would henceforth suffer for the faith.
Basil’s virtue held even his persecutors at bay, and God preserved him in such wondrous ways that at last he was almost the only one that remained at the head of his Church, although he had really exposed himself far more than anyone else to the brunt of every attack and to every peril. He profited hereby, to the benefit of his favored flock, upon whom he lavished the boon of highest teaching and wisest administration. This he did with such marvelous success that so much could scarcely have been attainable by another bishop in times of peace, when exclusive attention could be devoted to those employments. Cæsarea responded splendidly to his pastoral care. His word excited such avidity amongst all classes that the populace would hang upon his lips and await his arrival the live-long day, in the ever more and more closely thronged edifice. We learn this from his remarks. For instance, once, when his insatiable auditory would allow him no repose, in spite of his extreme fatigue, he tenderly compares himself to a worn-out mother who gives her babe the breast, not so much to feed it as to stay its cries. The mutual understanding of pastor and flock in these meetings is quite delicious! When the great orator would chance by inadvertence to leave some verse of Scripture unexplained, with all decorum, yet eagerly, would these sons of his by, signs and half suppressed mutterings, recall the attention of the venerable father to the passage of the text before him, from the explaining of which they were not going to let him off free. On such occasions, Basil would pour himself out in charming excuses for his mistake, and then give what was asked of him, but in such a way as to show he really was proud of his flock! When he was explaining, for example, the magnificence of the great ocean amongst other wonders of the works of the six days, he suddenly paused and, casting a glance of ineffable pleasure over the vast crowd closely pressing around his episcopal chair, he thus continued: “If the sea is beauteous, and in God’s sight worthy of goodly praise, how far more beautiful is this immense assembly, whereof better than the waves that swell and roll and die away against the coast, the mingled voices of men, women, and children bear unto God our swelling prayer. O thou tranquil ocean, peaceful in thy mighty deep, because evil winds of heresy are impotent to rouse thy waves!”
Happy people, thus formed by Basil to the understanding of the Scriptures, especially of the Psalms, whereof he inspired the Faithful with so great love that it was quite the custom for all to repair at night to the house of God, there, in the solemn accents of alternate psalmody to pour out their souls in one united homage. Prayer in common was one of those fruits of his ministry which Basil (like a true monk) valued the most; the importance he attached to it has made him to be one of the principal Fathers of the Greek Liturgy. “Talk not to me,” he cries put, “of private homes, of private assemblies: Adore the Lord in His Holy Court, saith the Psalmist; the adoration here called for is that which is paid not outside the church, but in the court the one only court of the Lord.”
Time and space would fail us were we to attempt to follow our saint through all the details of this grand family life which he so thoroughly lived with his whole people, and which formed his one consolation in the midst of his otherwise stormy career. It would behoove us to show how he made himself all to all, in gladness and in sorrow, with a simplicity which is so admirably blended in him with lofty greatness; how he would reply to the humblest consultations, just as though he had nothing more urgent on hand than to satisfy the demands of the least among his sons; how he would cry out against every touch of injustice offered to one of his flock, and cease not till full compensation was made; and finally, how, with the aid of his Faithful of Cæsarea rising up as one man to defend their bishop, he would oppose himself as a strong rampart to protect virgins and widows against the brutal oppression of men in power. Though himself poor and stripped of all things, since the day when about to enter the monastic state, he had distributed the whole of his rich paternal inheritance among the poor, he nevertheless found the secret of how to raise, in his episcopal city, an immense establishment, destined as an assured refuge for pilgrims and the poor, an asylum ever open and admirably organized to meet the requirements of every kind of suffering and the needs of all ages; or rather, a new city, built beside the great Cæsarea, and named by the gratitude of the people after its sainted founder. Ever ready for any combat, Basil intrepidly maintained his rights as exarch, which he possessed by reason of his See, over the eleven provinces composing the vast administrative division, known to the Romans by the generic name of the diocese of Pontus. Indefatigable in his zeal for the sacred canons, he both defended his clergy against all attempts aimed at their immunities, and reformed such abuses as had crept in during times less troubled than his own. Even in the very vortex of the storm, he knew how to bring back ecclesiastical discipline to the perfection of its best days.
At last the time came when the main interests of the faith, the perils of which seemed, up to this, to have suspended, in his worn-out body, the law of all flesh, now no longer demanded his presence so absolutely as before. On the Ninth of August 378, the arrow of the Goth exercised justice on Valens; soon afterwards, Gratian’s Edict recalled the exiled confessors, and Theodosius appeared in the East. On the First of January 379, Basil, at last set free, slept in the Lord.
The Greek Church celebrates the memory of this great Bishop on the day of his death, conjointly with the Circumcision of the Word made Flesh; a second time, on the Thirtieth of the same month of January, uniting therewith two other of her doctors, namely, Saints Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom, bringing all the magnificence of her gorgeous Liturgy to give splendour to this grand solemnity of January 30th, illumined as it is by a “triple sun beaming glory concordantly to the Holy Trinity.” The Latin Church has chosen for her celebration of Saint Basil the day of his Ordination, namely, June 14th.
The following is the notice she gives of his holy life:
To give thus a list of thine admirable works is in itself to sing thy praises, O mighty Pontiff! Would that nowadays thou hadst imitators; for history teaches us that Saints of a build like thine are those who cause an epoch to be really great and who save society. No matter how tried, how abandoned even, a people may apparently, be if only blessed with a ruler docile in all things, docile unto heroism, to the inspirations of the Holy Ghost ever abiding in holy Church, this people will assuredly weather the storm, and conquer at last; whereas, if the salt lose its savour, society necessarily falls away, without the need of any Julian or of any Valens to bring about its ruin. O Basil, do thou then obtain for this our waning society, leaders such as thou wert; may the astonishment of Modestus be justly renewed in these days of ours; let prefects, Valens successors, meet at the head of every church, a Bishop in the full sense of the term as used by thee; then will their astonishment be for us a signal of victory; for a Bishop is never vanquished, even should he be exiled or put to death!
While keeping up the pastors of the Church to the high standard of the state of perfection in which the sacred unction supposes them to be, lead the flock, likewise, to higher paths of sanctity, such as Christianity gives scope for. Not to monks alone is that word spoken; the kingdom of God is within you. Thou hast taught us that the kingdom of heaven, that beatitude that can be ours already, is the contemplation, accessible to us here below, of eternal realities, not indeed by clear and direct vision, but in that mirror whereof the Apostle speaks. How foolish is it to cultivate and feed in man naught but the senses that crave for the material alone, and to refuse to the spirit its own proper food and bent. Does not the spirit urge of its own nature towards intellectual regions, for the which it is created? If its flight be slow and heavy, the reason is that the senses, by prevailing, impede its ascent. Teach us, therefore, to furnish it more and more with increased faith and love, whereby it may become light and agile as the hart, to leap unto loftiest heights. Tell in our age, as thou didst formerly in thine, that forgotten truth, namely, how earnestness in maintaining an upright faith is no less necessary for this end than rectitude of life. Alas! how far have thy sons, for the greater part, forgotten that every true monk as well as every true Christian detests heresy, and all that savors thereof. Wherefore, dear Saint, bless all the more particularly those few whom such a continuity of trials has, as yet, failed to shake in their constancy; multiply conversions; hasten the happy day when the East, casting off the yoke of schism and Islamism, may resume her former glorious place in the one fold of the one Shepherd.
O doctor of the Holy Ghost, O defender of the Word Consubstantial to the Father, grant that we, now prostrate at thy feet, may ever live to the glory of the Holy Trinity. These are the words of thine own admirable formulary: “To be baptized in the Trinity, to hold one’s belief conformable to one’s baptism, to glorify God according to our faith,”—such was the essential basis set down by thee, for the being a Monk; but is it not that also of the being a Christian? Would that all might thoroughly understand this! Vouchsafe, dear Saint, to bless us all.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.