Basil the Great

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Our father among the saints Basil the Great (ca. 330 - January 1, 379), was bishop of Caesarea, a leading churchman in the 4th century, known especially for his philanthropic labors and theological works. The Church considers him a saint and one of the Three Holy Hierarchs, together with Saints Gregory the Theologian (Gregory Nazianzus) and John Chrysostom. Basil, Gregory the Theologian, and Basil's brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa are called the Cappadocian Fathers.

Basil's memory is celebrated on January 1; he is also remembered on January 30 with the Three Holy Hierarchs. In Greek tradition, he is supposed to visit children and give presents every January 1. This festival is also marked by the baking of Saint Basil's bread (Gr. Vasilópita), a sweet bread with a coin hidden inside.

He should not be confused with Saint Basil the Blessed, Fool-for-Christ, a Russian saint, after whom St. Basil's Cathedral, on Red Square in Moscow, is named.

He also should not be confused with Saint Basil of Ostrog, a Serbian saint, who built the Ostrog Monastery which is caved in and stands on a very high hill between Danilovgrad and Niksic.


Basil was born about 330 at Caesarea in Cappadocia. He came from a wealthy and pious family which gave a number of saints, including his mother Saint Emily (also styled Emilia or Emmelia), grandmother Saint Macrina the Elder, sister Saint Macrina the Younger and brothers Saints Gregory of Nyssa and Peter of Sebaste. It is also a widely held tradition that Saint Theosebia was his youngest sister, who is also a saint in the Church.

While still a child, the family moved to Pontus; but he soon returned to Cappadocia to live with his mother's relations, and seems to have been brought up by his grandmother Macrina. Eager to learn, he went to Constantinople and spent four or five years there and at Athens, where he had the future emperor Julian for a fellow student and became friends with Gregory the Theologian. Both Basil and Gregory were deeply influenced by Origen and compiled an anthology of uncondemned writings of Origen known as the Philokalia (not to be confused with the later compilation of the same name).

It was at Athens that he seriously began to think of religion, and resolved to seek out the most famous hermit saints in Syria and Arabia, in order to learn from them how to attain enthusiastic piety and how to keep his body under submission by asceticism.

After this we find him at the head of a convent near Arnesi in Pontus, in which his mother Emily, now a widow, his sister Macrina and several other ladies, gave themselves to a pious life of prayer and charitable works. Basil sided with those who overcame the aversion to the homoousios in common opposition to Arianism, thus drawing nearer to Saint Athanasius the Great.

He was ordained presbyter of the Church at Caesarea in 365, and his ordination was probably the result of the entreaties of his ecclesiastical superiors, who wished to use his talents against the Arians, who were numerous in that part of the country and were favoured by the Arian emperor, Valens, who then reigned in Constantinople.

In 370 Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, died, and Basil was chosen to succeed him. It was then that his great powers were called into action. Caesarea was an important diocese, and its bishop was, ex officio, exarch of the great diocese of Pontus. Hot-blooded and somewhat imperious, Basil was also generous and sympathetic. His zeal for orthodoxy did not blind him to what was good in an opponent; and for the sake of peace and charity he was content to waive the use of orthodox terminology when it could be surrendered without a sacrifice of truth.

With all his might he resisted the emperor Valens, who strove to introduce Arianism into his diocese, and impressed the emperor so strongly that, although inclined to banish the intractable bishop, he left him unmolested. To an imperial prefect, astonished at Saint Basil's temerity, he said, "Perhaps you have never before dealt with a proper bishop."

To save the Church from Arianism, Basil entered into connections with the West, and with the help of Athanasius, he tried to overcome its distrustful attitude toward the Homoousians. The difficulties had been enhanced by bringing in the question as to the essence of the Holy Spirit. Although Basil advocated objectively the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son, he belonged to those, who, faithful to Eastern tradition, would not allow the predicate homoousios to the former; for this he was reproached as early as 371 by the Orthodox zealots among the monks, and Athanasius defended him.

His relations also with Eustathius were maintained in spite of dogmatic differences and caused suspicion. On the other hand, Basil was grievously offended by the extreme adherents of Homoousianism, who seemed to him to be reviving the Sabellian heresy.

He did not live to see the end of the unhappy factional disturbances and the complete success of his continued exertions in behalf of Rome and the East. He suffered from liver illness and his excessive asceticism seems to have hastened him to an early death.

Saint Basil had used all his personal wealth and the income from his church for the benefit of the destitute; in every center of his diocese he had a poor-house built. A lasting monument of his episcopal care for the poor was the Basiliad, a great institute he founded before the gates of Caesarea, which functioned as a combination of poorhouse, hospital, and hostel for the homeless.


St. Basil the Great

The principal theological writings of Basil are his Treatise on the Holy Spirit (Lat. De Spiritu Sancto), a lucid and edifying appeal to Scripture and early Christian tradition to prove the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and his Refutation of the Apology of the Impious Eunomius, written in 363 or 364, three books against Eunomius of Cyzicus, the chief exponent of Anomoian Arianism. The first three books of the Refutation are his work; the fourth and fifth books that are usually included to do not belong to Basil, or to Apollinaris of Laodicea, but probably to Didymus The Blind.

He was a famous preacher, and many of his homilies, including a series of Lenten lectures on The Six Days of Creation (Gr. Hexaëmeron), and an exposition of the psalter, have been preserved. Some, like that against usury and that on the famine in 368, are valuable for the history of morals; others illustrate the honor paid to martyrs and relics; the address to young men on the study of classical literature shows that Basil was lastingly influenced by his own education, which taught him to appreciate the importance of the classics as preparatory instruction.

His ascetic tendencies are exhibited in the Moralia and Regulae, ethical manuals for use in the world and the cloister respectively. Of the monastic rules traced to Basil, the shorter is the one most probably his work.

It is in the ethical manuals and moral sermons that the practical aspects of his theoretical theology are illustrated. So, for example, it is in his Sermon to the Lazicans that we find Basil explaining how it is our common nature that obliges us to treat our neighbor's natural needs (e.g., hunger, thirst) as our own, even though he is a separate individual. Later theologians explicitly explain this as an example of how the saints become an image of the one common nature of the persons of the Trinity.

His three hundred letters reveal a rich and observant nature, which, despite the troubles of ill-health and ecclesiastical unrest, remained optimistic, tender and even playful. His principal efforts as a reformer were directed towards the improvement of the liturgy, and the reformation of the monastic orders of the East.

Most of the liturgies bearing the name of Basil, in their present form, are not primarily his work, but they nevertheless preserve the recollection of Basil's activity in this field in formularizing liturgical prayers and promoting church-song. One liturgy attributed to him is The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, a liturgy that is somewhat longer than the more commonly used Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom; it is still used on certain feast days in the Church, such as every Sunday of Great Lent and January 1, on which his memory is celebrated.

All his works, and a few spuriously attributed to him, are available in the Patrologia Graeca, which includes Latin translations of varying quality. No critical edition is yet available.


On Almsgiving and Serving the Poor

“It befits those who possess sound judgment to recognize that they have received wealth as a stewardship, and not for their own enjoyment; thus, when they are parted from it, they rejoice as those who relinquish what is not really theirs, instead of becoming downcast like those who are stripped of their own.” (To the Rich)

“What then will you answer the Judge? You gorgeously array your walls, but do not clothe your fellow human being; you adorn horses, but turn away from the shameful plight of your brother or sister; you allow grain to rot in your barns, but do not feed those who are starving; you hide gold in the earth, but ignore the oppressed!” (To the Rich)

“Consider yourself, who you are, what resources have been entrusted to you, from whom you have received them, and why you have received more than others. You have been made a minister of God’s goodness, a steward of your fellow servants…Resolve to treat the things in your possession as though belonging to others.” (To the Rich)

“[T]hrow open all the gates of your treasury, supplying generous outlets for your wealth. Like a mighty river that is divided into many streams in order to irrigate the fertile soil, so also are those who give their wealth to be divided up and distributed in the houses of the poverty-stricken…[W]ealth left idle is of no use to anyone, but put to use and exchanged it becomes fruitful and beneficial for the public.” (I Will Tear Down My Barns)

“ ‘But whom do I treat unjustly,’ you say, ‘by keeping what is my own?’ Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in common – this is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption. For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need. Did you not come forth naked from the womb, and will you not return naked to the earth? Where then did you obtain your belongings? If you say that you acquired them by chance, then you deny God, since you neither recognize your Creator, nor are you grateful to the One who gave these things to you. But if you acknowledge that they were given to you by God, then tell me, for what purpose did you receive them? Is God unjust, when He distributes to us unequally the things that are necessary for life? Why then are you wealthy while another is poor? Why else, but so that you might receive the reward of benevolence and faithful stewardship, while the poor are honored for patient endurance in their struggles?” (I Will Tear Down My Barns)

“At this very moment, what prevents you from giving? Are not the needy near at hand? Are not your barns already full? Is not your heavenly reward waiting? Is not the commandment crystal clear? The hungry are perishing, the naked are freezing to death, the debtors cannot breathe, and will you put off showing mercy until tomorrow? … Make your brothers and sisters sharers of your [wealth]; give to the needy today what rots away tomorrow.” (I Will Tear Down My Barns)

“The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the money in your vaults is for the needy. All of these you might help and do not—to all these you are doing wrong.” (I Will Tear Down My Barns)

“Are you poor? You know someone even poorer. You have provisions for only ten days, but someone else has enough only for one day. As a good and generous person, redistribute your surplus to the needy. Do not shrink from giving the little that you have; do not prefer your own benefit to remedying the common distress. And if you have only one remaining loaf of bread, and someone comes knocking at your door, bring forth the one loaf from your store, hold it heavenward, and say this prayer, which is not only generous on your part, but also calls forth the Lord’s pity: ‘Lord, you see this one loaf, and you know the threat of starvation is imminent, but I place your commandment before my own well-being, and from the little I have I give to this famished brother. Give, then, in return to me your servant, since I am also in danger of starvation. I know your goodness and am emboldened by your power. You do not delay your grace indefinitely, but distribute your gifts when you will.’ And when you have thus spoken and acted, the bread you have given from your straitened circumstances will become seed for sowing that bears a rich harvest, a promise of food, an envoy of mercy.” (In Time of Famine and Drought)


Troparion (Tone 1)

Your proclamation has gone out into all the earth
Which was divinely taught by hearing your voice
Expounding the nature of creatures,
Ennobling the manners of men.
O holy father of a royal priesthood,
Entreat Christ God that our souls may be saved.

Kontakion (Tone 4)

You were revealed as the sure foundation of the Church,
Granting all men a lordship which cannot be taken away,
Sealing it with your precepts,
O Venerable and Heavenly Father Basil.


  • Holy Apostles Convent, The Lives of the Three Great Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom (Holy Apostles Convent Pubns, 2001) (ISBN 0944359116)
  • On Social Justice: St. Basil the Great (Popular Patristics) edited by C. Paul Schroeder

See also

External links


This article makes use of content from: Wikipedia:Basil of Caesarea