CONSTANTIN C. ȘTEFAN
Vasile Balș Lodge No.370, NGLR
The Life of Saint Basil the Great – bibliographic references
Basil descended from a noble and rich family from the Pontus. His father settled in Caesarea, Cappadocia, and married a young orphan. He was a lawyer and a rhetoric teacher.
Basil the Great was born in 329 or 330. He is one of the most shining figures of the 4th century. “He was a kind of law of virtue for all”, says Gregory of Nazianzus.
As a child, he was educated by Macrina, his grandmother, and Emilia, his mother. Next in line was his father, the rhetoric teacher, who taught him the cycle of sciences; he was trained in devotion or, put more shortly, through elementary teachings he was pushed towards the perfection that was to be.
From Caesarea he want to Constantinople, the capital of the East, famous for the most accomplished orators and philosophers, from whom Basil shortly assimilated the best teachings thanks to his wit and talent.
Driven by his burning thirst for knowledge, he went from Constantinople to Athens. The students that came in Athens from every corner of Greece and the West had the custom of organizing an initiation ceremony for the young men who arrived in Athens to study.
Gregory of Nazianzus knew this custom and knew the young student Basil since before his coming to Athens. Due to the sobriety of the newcomer’s manners and speech, Gregory spoke to the students about Basil even before his arrival in Athens. He spoke so beautifully that Basil received everyone’s respect. And thus almost he alone – says Gregory – of all those who came to study in Athens was exempted from the formalities of entry into the Athenian academic world, enjoying a respect greater than any offered to a newcomer. So began the friendship between Gregory and Basil.
Gregory of Nazianzus tells us about the courses that Basil took: rhetoric, grammar, narrative, poetry and metric, philosophy, dialectics, astronomy, geometry, mathematics and medicine. Their fame went beyond the borders of Greece. They were known in every place where people spoke of Athens.
After a stay of four-five years in Athens, in 356, Basil and Gregory decided to go back to their native country.
Upon his return, Basil of retained in Caesarea because the inhabitants considered him a second founder and protector of the city. He was a professor of rhetoric for two years. After his success as a professor, young Basil became haughty and vain because of his studies abroad, and even regarded the highest positions with disdain and thought himself above even the best clerks. His sister, Macrina, saw the slippery path that her brother was walking on and persuaded him to take the road of true philosophy and wisdom, leading to the truly virtuous life.
Basil left his position as a rhetoric professor in Caesarea and looked for the athletes of the wilderness in Alexandria, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia, driven by the thought of confession.
When he came back from the journey, he gave his fortune to the poor and retreated to the Pontus, on the banks of the river Iris, in a place called Anesi, and founded a monastery for monks.
He again divided his fortune to the poor, a fortune which he inherited from his mother after her death. He didn’t just give his fortune to those in need, he also worked with all his might to ease the suffering of those who suffered, like during the great drought and famine that ravaged Cappadocia in 368. In those times Basil, through his words, managed to open the barns of the wealthy and through his advice turned the teachings of the Holy Book – the Bible – to reality.
He called together all those who were famished, for there were many who could barely stand up, men and women, children and old people, unfortunates of every age, and gathered all manner of food to ease their hunger – pots full of vegetables and all types of greens. Wrapped in an apron, he did not shy away from washing the feet of his disciples. Together with his servants, who were his collaborators, Basil tended to the bodies of those in need of help, but also cared for their souls, offering them the food and respect they deserved, in other words helping them in two ways by also giving them the nourishment of the word, a complete dole and generosity of divine origin.
In 370, the episcopal see of Caesarea Mazaca remained empty after the death of bishop Eusebius. In his place, Basil was chosen as bishop.
The care for the poor, the help given to those in need, the way he eased the sufferings of the sick and improved the lives of those mutilated from birth or in unfortunate circumstances were the permanent focus for Basil during his entire life.
As bishop he gave orders to create permanent charitable establishments, imposing on the rulers the same approach, which was love and generosity towards the unfortunate. In the area close to Caesarea he created a great charitable complex which included a church, hospitals, leper houses, nursing homes, accommodations for foreigners. Alongside them were the buildings necessary for meeting the needs of all these establishments – kitchens, workshops of every kind and other amenities. There were also schools for children who studied and for learning a profession. Gregory of Nazianzus says the Basil founded a new city near Caesarea that the people called by the name of its founder – Basileiad.
Basil is the one who convinced all of us not to disregard these categories of people. He never shied away from honoring the sick with his lips, kissing them as brothers, not – as some might believe – as a sign of false humility. In other words, he encouraged them not only with his words, but also with his actions.
Taking inspiration from the epitaph written by Gregory of Nazianzus I will now try to outline the spiritual and intellectual profile of the Great Basil.
Basil was a sort of law of virtue for all who knew him and he transcended the body even before moving from this life. He celebrated virtue and chastised vice, he had a talent for storytelling and knew how to educate others even when he was joking. He rebuked others gently, but his gentleness did not degenerate into wilderness, nor did his tolerance turn to weakness. His intelligence and eloquence were above those of everyone else.
In a words, Basil’s beauty was virtue, as he proved to be a perfect man leading a perfect life.
How beautiful and true did Gregory write about Basil’s works: “When I pick up his Hexameron and read it out loud I feel close to the Maker, I begin to understand the foundations of creation, I admire the Maker much more than before. When I read his polemic writings it is as if the fires of Sodom are right before my eyes, as if the Tower of Babel rises right in front of me, so evil a building so rightly brought down by Basil. When I read the other interpretations I convince myself not to look only to the letter, nor see things only on their surface, but to go deeper – for the deep, says the Scripture, calls for deep –, to pass from light to light, until I reach the peak.”
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”
But before weighing the justice of these remarks, before examining all the sense contained in these few words, let us see who addresses them to us.
It is Moses who has composed this history, Moses, that famous man, of whom the Bible testifies that “he was beautiful in God’s sight” (Exodus 2:2; Acts 7:20).
Do not then imagine, O man! That the visible world is without a beginning; and because the celestial bodies move in a circular course, and it is difficult for our senses to define the point where the circle begins, do not believe that bodies impelled by a circular movement are, from their nature, without a beginning. Even if the beginning and the end of the circle is beyond our perception, it really begins at some point where the draughtsman has begun to draw it at a certain radius from the centre.
“In the beginning God created” – That which was begun in time is condemned to come to an end in time.
These men who measure the distances of the stars and describe them, both those of the North, always shining brilliantly in our view, and those of the southern pole visible to the inhabitants of the South, but unknown to us; who divide the Northern zone and the circle of the Zodiac into an infinity of parts, who observe with exactitude the course of the stars, their fixed places, their declensions, their return and the time that each takes to make its revolution; these men, I say, have discovered all except one thing: the fact that God is the Creator of the universe.
Since the beginning naturally precedes that which is derived from it, the writer, of necessity, when speaking to us of things which had their origin in time, puts at the head of his narrative these words— In the beginning God created.
By naming the two extremes, he suggests the substance of the whole world, according to heaven the privilege of seniority, and putting earth in the second rank. All intermediate beings were created at the same time as the extremities. Thus, although there is no mention of the elements, fire, water and air, imagine that they were all compounded together, and you will find water, air and fire, in the earth. For fire leaps out from stones; iron which is dug from the earth produces under friction fire in plentiful measure. A marvellous fact! Fire shut up in bodies lurks there hidden without harming them, but no sooner is it released than it consumes that which has hitherto preserved it. The earth contains water, as diggers of wells teach us. It contains air too, as is shown by the vapours that it exhales under the sun’s warmth when it is damp.
“The Earth was Invisible and Unfinished”
The Bible says that the earth was “invisible” because man, the spectator, did not yet exist, or because being submerged under the waters which over-flowed the surface, it could not be seen, since the waters had not yet been gathered together into their own places, where God afterwards collected them, and gave them the name of seas.
What is invisible?
First of all that which our fleshly eye cannot perceive; our mind, for example; then that which, visible in its nature, is hidden by some body which conceals it, like iron in the depths of the earth.
Each of our crafts is exercised upon some special matter— the art of the smith upon iron, that of the carpenter on wood. In all, there is the subject, the form and the work which results from the form. Matter is taken from without— art gives the form— and the work is composed at the same time of form and of matter. Here below arts are subsequent to matter— introduced into life by the indispensable need of them.
But God, before all those things which now attract our notice existed, after casting about in His mind and determining to bring into being time which had no being, imagined the world such as it ought to be, and created matter in harmony with the form which He wished to give it.
The fertility of the earth is its perfect finishing; growth of all kinds of plants, the upspringing of tall trees, both productive and sterile, flowers’ sweet scents and fair colours, and all that which, a little later, at the voice of God came forth from the earth to beautify her, their universal Mother. As nothing of all this yet existed, Scripture is right in calling the earth without form.
“Darkness was upon the face of the deep”
Darkness is space not illumined, or the place covered in the shadow produced by the interposition of a body, or in short, a place for some reason deprived of light.
The mind tries to find out if darkness was created with the world or if it is older than light.
Some say that darkness is the personification of evil. From this what perverse and impious dogmas have been imagined!
If then evil is neither uncreate nor created by God, from whence comes its nature? Certainly that evil exists, no one living in the world will deny. What shall we say then?
Evil is not a living animated essence; it is the condition of the soul opposed to virtue, developed in the careless on account of their falling away from good.
Do not then go beyond yourself to seek for evil, and imagine that there is an original nature of wickedness. Each of us, let us acknowledge it, is the first author of his own vice.
Among the ordinary events of life, some come naturally, like old age and sickness, others by chance like unforeseen occurrences, of which the origin is beyond ourselves, often sad, sometimes fortunate, others depend upon ourselves, such as ruling one’s passions, or not putting a bridle on one’s pleasures, to be master of our anger, or to raise the hand against him who irritates us, to tell the truth, or to lie, to have a sweet and well-regulated disposition, or to be fierce and swollen and exalted with pride. Here you are the master of your actions. Do not look for the guiding cause beyond yourself, but recognise that evil, rightly so called, has no other origin than our voluntary falls. If it were involuntary, and did not depend upon ourselves, the laws would not have so much terror for the guilty, and the tribunals would not be so without pity when they condemn wretches according to the measure of their crimes.
“And God said: «Let there be light»”
The first word of God created the nature of light; it made darkness vanish, dispelled gloom, illuminated the world, and gave to all beings at the same time a sweet and gracious aspect. The heavens, until then enveloped in darkness, appeared.
“And God saw the light, that it was good”
How can we worthily praise light after the testimony given by the Creator to its goodness? The word, even among us, refers the judgment to the eyes, incapable of raising itself to the idea that the senses have already received. But, if beauty in bodies results from symmetry of parts, and the harmonious appearance of colours, how in a simple and homogeneous essence like light, can this idea of beauty be preserved?
When God proclaimed the goodness of light, it was not in regard to the charm of the eye but as a provision for future advantage, because at that time there were as yet no eyes to judge of its beauty.
“And the evening and the morning were the first day”
Evening is then the boundary common to day and night; and in the same way morning constitutes the approach of night to day. Before the creation of light, the world was not in night, but in darkness. It was called Night when God separated the darkness from the day.
“And God made two great lights”
The word “great”, may have an absolute sense, but ordinarily it has only a relative meaning. What idea shall we ourselves form here of “greatness”?
We must not then measure the moon with the eye, but with the reason. Reason, for the discovery of truth, is much surer than the eye.
The Creator has given us intelligence to recognise in the smallest objects of creation the great wisdom of the Contriver make us find in great bodies a still higher idea of their Creator. However, compared with their Author, the sun and moon are but a fly and an ant. The whole universe cannot give us a right idea of the greatness of God; and it is only by signs, weak and slight in themselves, often by the help of the smallest insects and of the least plants, that we raise ourselves to Him.
“So God created man”
I is not: “They made”. Here Scripture avoids the plurality of the Persons. After having enlightened the Jew, it dissipates the error of the Gentiles in putting itself under the shelter of unity, to make you understand that the Son is with the Father, and guarding you from the danger of polytheism.
“He created him in the image of God”
We will say later in what way man was created in the image of God and how he shares this resemblance.
But evening, which long ago sent the sun to the west, imposes silence upon me. Here, then, let me be content with what I have said, and put my discourse to bed. I have told you enough up to this point to excite your zeal [interest];. I will make for you a deeper investigation into the truths which follow.
Retire, then, I beg you, with joy, O Christ-loving congregation, and, instead of sumptuous dishes of various delicacies, adorn and sanctify your tables with the remembrance of my words.
Important works by Saint Basil the Great
A part of Basil the Great’s works was printed for the first time in Basel in 1532.
In English: On the Holy Spirit, Homilies: On the Hexaemeron and Letters, New York, 1985
In German, the complete works of St Basil were published in the collection: Sämtliche Werke der Kirchenväter (Homilies: On the Hexaemeron, 21 Homilies and Sermons, selections from the Ascetic Writings and the Letters).
In French: Homilies, Panegyrics, Letters, Homilies: On the Hexaemeron, Paris, 1968.In Romanian, St Basil’s works were translated by:
– hieromonk and teacher Ilarion in the holy Monastery of Neamț, BAR (Library of the Romanian Academy), Ms. 3094, f. 1-279 v, from the year 1782;
– Raphael the humble monk from the synod of the abbot Paisie, BAR, Ms. 1458, f. 1-230, from the year 1805;
– Samuil Micu-Klein, BARC, Ms. 415, f. 23-24 – only one fragment remains;
– fragments from the Hexaemeron were published by Archimandrite Benedict Ghiuș;