Saint Basil (c.330 – 379) was born in Cappadocia to wealthy parents, one of five children, all of whom are considered saints. Among them is Saint Gregory of Nissa. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a Christian martyr, killed prior to Constantine’s conversion.
St Basil received an excellent education, initially being taught at home by his grandmother, Saint Macrina the Elder, wife of his martyred grandfather, and then at school in Caesarea, where he met Saint Gregory Nazienzen with whom he forged a lifelong friendship. The two friends then studied in Constantinople and later in Athens.
When St Basil returned home, around the year 356, he first worked as an attorney and teacher of rhetoric. Soon thereafter, he underwent a conversion, was baptized, gave most of his wealth to the poor and retired from public life. Some friends joined him and together they settled to live as monks in his family’s estate. During this period, he wrote guidelines for the monastic life where he recommended a balance between work and prayer. Saint Benedict, the father of western monasticism, would later refer to these writings in his instructions to his followers. After the year 362, Basil was called back into the world by the bishop of Caesarea, who needed his assistance in managing his see. In 365, the saint was ordained a priest.
At that time, Arianism, a heresy which denies the divinity of Christ, was at its height. Valens, the Eastern Roman Emperor, himself adhered to it. Many Arians went so far as to resort to violence to impose their beliefs. St Basil, however, was undaunted by the severe opposition and fought against it through his writing and preaching. He also engaged in and won a series of debates with the Arians. The saint likewise obtained a victory when Emperor Valens, who initially persecuted St Basil to the point of ordering his banishment, relented after attending a Mass celebrated by him. The emperor was so impressed by the saint that he donated land for the building of the Basiliad – a complex with a hospital, hospice and poor house which St Gregory Nazianzen would later call a wonder of the world. Although burdened with many responsibilities, and the struggle with Arianism, St Basil found time to preach twice a day to the faithful and to visit the sick and poor.
In 370, St Basil was consecrated Bishop and Metropolitan of the region of Caesarea. His letters show that in this post he worked actively in the reform of thieves and prostitutes, was unafraid of criticizing public official who failed in their duties of administering public justice, and personally selected those whom he thought would be worthy of the priesthood. He also kept up his practice of preaching twice a day.
Saint Basil died in 379, before he had turned 50, after having accomplished much in the service of his master, Our Lord Jesus Christ. He is a Doctor of the Church and is a patron saint of Monks.