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Basil of Caesarea: Faith Enacted

By Marybeth Davis Baggett

“[E]very man is divided against himself who does not make his life conform to his words.” – Basil the Great, Address on Greek Literature

Church history is replete with exemplars of the Christian faith, people whose lives—as much as their words—have provided later generations precepts by which we live and inspiration for doing so. Basil of Caesarea, whose feast day is today, is such a figure. His writings range from dogmatic to exegetical, from homiletical to liturgical, and their significance positioned him as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs of the Eastern Church.

But the beauty of Basil’s life emanates from its marriage of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. By any definition, the man was a saint. Living during the fourth century, a period marked by theological conflicts and growing tensions between the eastern and western branches of Christianity, Basil was committed to truth, unity, and service. As the contemporary church faces its own doctrinal conflicts and political pressures, we would do well to reflect on how a luminary like Basil remained faithful while navigating the treacherous spiritual waters of his day.

Basil’s father and mother were devout Christians. Both had come from families accustomed to martyrdom, and they ensured that their ten children were grounded in the church throughout their childhood. As he matured, Basil turned toward secular education, leaving his youthful faith behind him. Through his training in Constantinople and later in Athens, Basil became well-versed in rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, astronomy, geometry, and medicine. So well prepared in the education of the time was he that on returning home to Caesarea Basil was offered charge of the education of the youth there.

Faith is obedient action; obedient action in turn builds faith. Such is the lesson of Basil’s life.
But returning home also resurrected for Basil the memories of his religious upbringing and brought him to a turning point in which he surrendered his life to God in service for others. This turning point determined the shape of the rest of his life and made possible the rich legacy he left for the church today.

In explaining his conversion, Basil credited a renewed relationship with the Bishop of Caesarea and the ministry of his sister Macrina who had organized a religious community devoted to serving the poor. Through their examples, Basil learned the dynamic relationship between faith and practice, that each informs the other. This truth was reinforced by the scriptures he read as a means to understand better the heart of the gospel. There he saw that “a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one’s goods, the sharing of them with the poor, the giving up of all care for this life, and the refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy towards things of earth” (Epistle 223, Against Eustathius of Sebasteia). Faith is obedient action; obedient action in turn builds faith. Such is the lesson of Basil’s life.

As his words testify, the bishop took literally Christ’s directions to the rich young ruler of Mark 10, that eternal, abundant life comes not merely through the law but through abnegation of one’s privilege, absolute submission to God and others: “One thing you lack,” [Jesus] said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” And so, following his sister’s lead and inspired by his travels throughout Egypt and Asia Minor, Basil founded a monastery in Cappadocia (modern-day central Turkey) and is known now as the father of eastern monasticism. Basil’s form of monasticism was an engaged one, as there, too, he transformed faith to practice—particularly as he developed in spiritual maturity.

Six years after his conversion, theological controversies and political challenges increased, and Basil took a more active role in the church, becoming ordained and participating in a number of highly public discussions and writing in defense of orthodoxy. He ascended to the bishopric of Caesarea in 370, and in this role, he became even more active resisting Arianism, tirelessly writing against it and rebuking the unorthodox face-to-face (including the Emperor Valens who was reportedly much annoyed with Basil’s indifference to his office and his opinions).

So firm in his convictions was Basil that, despite the many frays he entered, he remained unflappable—calmly, persistently, and confidently defending sound doctrine and, consequently, winning both arguments and people. The Catholic Encyclopedia, drawing on Gregory of Nazanzius’s description, offers him as a model for civil disagreement: “By years of tactful conduct, however, ‘blending his correction with consideration and his gentleness with firmness,’ he finally overcame most of his opponents.” Or, in the parlance of today, for Basil truth need not be sacrificed for love.

It seems that Basil could emerge from these contentious debates with his reputation as a servant unscathed because he did not envision those with whom he disagreed as enemies. Paul Schroeder, in overviewing Basil’s social vision, explains that his anthropology governed all his engagements with others—that we are social creatures who have obligations to one another and that living in proper relation with others is both virtuous and spiritually formative. This theologically robust social vision fully manifested itself in the Basiliad, the creation of which was one of Basil’s most notable achievements. An institution that embodied the Bishop’s philanthropic vision, at the Basiliad the poor and sick were housed and fed, orphans were cared for, and the unskilled were trained.

Reflection on Basil’s life and writings shows that this mission of justice was not at odds with his defense of orthodoxy but part and parcel of it. Truth, rightly understood, leads to love, rightly practiced. Basil reminds us of how deeply consistent and resonant the two in fact are. The matchless Christian life is one that seamlessly marries them.

Image: Icon of St. Basil the Great from the St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

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