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St. Basil the Great, Bishop and Doctor, Pray For Us

St. Basil the Great, Bishop and Doctor, Pray For Us

Francisco Herrera the Elder, “St. Basil Dictating His Rule,” ca. 1639 (photo: Public Domain)


SAINTS & ART: St. Basil left behind a large body of theological writings, including an influential treatise on the Holy Spirit.

St. Basil is the first saint we encounter in the civil new year. He was one of the greatest saints and theologians of the fourth century, and his impact on the Christian East is enormous. He was born around AD 330 and died around AD 379.

If you ever wondered about the formative influence of a religious family, look to St. Basil’s. He and his brother, Gregory of Nyssa, are saints and doctors of the Church. Both brothers, together with a third (Peter) were bishops. His father, Basil, suffered persecution for being a Christian; his mother, Emmelia, was the daughter of a martyr.

The family were prosperous Cappadocian Greeks, a Hellenic community living in what is today Asian Turkey. Basil was a bright child, who was schooled in Caesarea (now the Turkish city of Kayseri, about 215 miles southeast of Ankara — there were lots of Caesarea’s in the Biblical world, so be careful you know which one). One day, he would be its bishop. He was also schooled in Constantinople and Athens, major intellectual centers of the Eastern world. He spent some time as a teacher before experiencing a deeper religious conversion.

He then fell under influence of his sister, Macrina, who had founded a religious community on the family estate. That deepened his religious commitment, especially to spiritual perfection through poverty, and led to his visit of monasteries in Egypt, Israel, Syria and Mesopotamia. Upon his return, he founded a monastery near his sister’s. Though hermit-like monasticism (eremitism) existed, Basil promoted monastic community life (coenobitism), mirroring the kind of communal monasticism St. Benedict would found in the West. The Rule of St. Basil remains until today a key spiritual model for Eastern religious life.

While he might have preferred monasticism, the needs of the Church pressed in. The fourth century was a tumultuous time in the Church. When the century dawned, Christianity was still a persecuted sect, with the Roman Emperor Diocletian promoted a short-lived but intense persecution. Under Constantine, the world turned upside down and Christianity became legal. But as soon as the Church’s external enemies moved off, she was rent by internal divisions in two central and critical theological areas: Christology and Trinitarian theology. You can’t have a Church confused about whether Jesus is or isn’t God.

That was the heresy of Arianism. It contended that Jesus was more than just a man but less than God. That not only undermines who Jesus is but also the Trinity itself. And while the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 condemned Arianism, Arius had powerful supporters — including in the imperial court if not sometimes the Emperor himself — and so continued, through bishop friends, to continue to divide the Church and make life difficult for faithful Christians until the Council of Constantinople finally stamped the heresy out in AD 381.

The theological controversies of the time eventually led to the replacement in Caesarea of Basil’s childhood mentor, Bishop Dianius, by the more orthodox Bishop Eusebius. Eusebius’s installation was heavily influenced by St. Gregory Nazianzus, whom met in Athens and who remained a fan of Basil’s ever after. (Basil, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus are called the three “Great Cappadocian Fathers” of the Church.) While Eusebius was the bishop, Basil was given an ever-greater role in diocesan administration, at which he succeeded with distinction, perhaps stoking some tensions between the two. For a while, Basil stepped out of the picture, but soon was back, helping Eusebius in the administration of the diocese until, in AD 370, Basil succeeded him.

Caesarea was no insignificant diocese. The see was an archbishopric, so Basil had suffragan bishops beneath him, and its jurisdiction included a broad swath of what is now the eastern and northern parts of Asian Turkey. Basil governed ably. Already beginning under Eusebius, he helped roll back the Arian heresy, which would be clearly condemned two years after Basil’s death. He showed himself a friend of the poor, having established a poorhouse in the city and — using contemporary terminology — organized ministries of outreach to thieves, prostitutes and the hungry. He died in AD 379.

Basil left behind a large body of theological writings, including a treatise on the Holy Spirit. (Next to Jesus, the Holy Spirit’s place in the Trinity was also a point of contention.) But specific mention should be made of the “Liturgy of St. Basil.” While liturgy, by its nature, is rarely a one-man product (simply from the fact that it is the prayer of a community), nevertheless one man can have a formative influence on shaping a liturgy and, in the East, that was St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom. While the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is the more common Sunday liturgy in Byzantine (“Greek”) Catholic churches, i.e., churches in union with Rome, the Liturgy of St. Basil is also employed on special occasions (see here). By my reckoning (and, as I am not a Byzantine Catholic, you should check with a Byzantine parish), the Liturgy of St. Basil will be the evening Eucharistic liturgy on Jan. 5 and the morning Eucharistic liturgies on the Sundays from Feb. 26 through April 2, inclusive. Why not attend the Divine Liturgy at a Byzantine Catholic parish near you on one of those days? (Latin-Rite Catholics fulfill their obligation to participate in the Sunday liturgy if they attend a rite in communion with the Holy See, such as a Byzantine Catholic parish. To find such a parish near you, see hereherehere and here.)

Today’s depiction of St. Basil in art comes from the Spanish painter, Francisco Herrera the Elder (1576-1656). One reason I picked this painting — “St. Basil Dictating His Rule” — is that it is Western. St. Basil is one of the great Doctors of the Church of the Christian East, and so one will find numerous depictions of him in Eastern icons. But his prominence in Western, non-icon art is much more limited. Herrera is an example of the latter.

Herrera worked as a strong Baroque style was becoming dominant in Spain. The painting dates from the latter years of the 1630s. St. Basil is the center of focus. Dressed in black (he is traditionally depicted in Christian iconography by a black beard) the darkness provides a stark color contrast to the in-breaking of heavenly light above him. Basil is in the process of editing his famous monastic rule. He wears the miter of a bishop, as does the figure on his right (the Pope? His brother St. Gregory Nyssa? His friend St. Gregory of Nazianzus?). Numerous monks — a true community — encircle him. Above his head appears the Holy Spirit, symbolically stressing the Spirit’s inspiration of the Basilian rule. The angels all focus on him. The opening of heaven and its influx into the world of the monks stresses the heavenly influence on the rule and the lifestyle it prescribed.

The painting is in the Louvre in Paris.


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