Why Saint Basil the Great Was the Greatest
St. Basil the Great was a saint who bridged East and West, contemplation and action, good works and unshakable faith.
The few saints surnamed “The Great” make up possibly the penultimate group of smallest saints-within-saints (the smallest being the number of the four Evangelists, and excepting the Holy Family). And of this rarefied collection—which includes St. Albert the Great, St. Gertrude the Great, and a clutch of popes (Sts. Leo, Gregory, Nicolas, Innocent, and most recently John Paul II) one could reasonably argue that among them today’s saint, Basil, who even while alive was known as “The Great,” is perhaps The Greatest.
This is, of course, entirely subjective, and to an extent, absurd: all of these saints were incredibly humble and, ironically, it is for his humility (among many other virtues) that St. Basil was renowned as “The Great.” Also, Our Lord Himself warns that “whoever is greatest among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)
St. Basil came from a huge home of holiness: born into a family of sanctity in Caesarea in Cappadocia in 330, his brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and his sister, Macrina, are also saints—as was his learned grandmother, St. Macrina The Elder. His best friend in his youth was St. Gregory of Nazianzen. These form a couple of other groupings of “Holy-Among-Holies”: the four great Eastern Fathers: St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, and, of course, Basil, counterbalance the four great Latin Doctors, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory.
And then there is the triad known as “The Cappadocian Fathers”: Basil, and the two Gregorys above, since they were all from Cappadocia, and, at the Council of Constantinople in 381 were instrumental in the final defeat of the heresy of Arianism.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there are no second acts in American life, but in fourth century Asia minor, this was certainly not the case for St. Basil, who seemed to have the power to reinvent himself to the times and climes when and where he was most needed. After giving every indication that he would have a brilliant academic career in some ivory tower—he’d studied under the best philosophers and teachers in Constantinople—Basil suddenly forsook the world and decided to become a hermit in the desert. He was in turn baptized, and after visiting the monasteries of Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, finally settled by the Iris River in Pontus in 358. It was here that, much to his chagrin, he attracted so many followers that he founded the very first monastery in Asia Minor. And though he had no formal training of the sort, he composed a Rule of his monks—known, to nobody’s surprise as “The Rule of Saint Basil.”
The Rule of St. Basil was unique in that it was written in a catechetical format (that is, question-and-answer), and unlike St. Pachomius, who claimed his monastic rule was delivered to him from Heaven by an angel, Basil was much more grounded on getting groups of men to live together in harmony based on his own answers rather than a decretal from on high. In this he was highly successful and his Rule is followed in the East to this very day, with its balance of hard, practical work and long periods of contemplation.
Basil might have spent the rest of his relatively short life as a hermit, but in 365 his friend, Gregory of Nyssa, implored his help in combating the Arian Heresy, which was ravaging Christendom, especially in the East, with its denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Basil joined his friend in the fight, leaving behind his monks in the process.
Basil showed himself to be one of the great collaborators of his day, and with St. Gregory of Nazianzen he compiled the Philocalia, an anthology of Origen’s writings that added greatly to our knowledge of early Christianity. And Basil had actually followed his sister’s example in terms of founding a contemplative community, as St. Macrina had started a monastic life for women years before Basil had done so for men.
In one of those “no-good-deeds-goes-unpunished” moments, Basil was elected Bishop of Caesarea upon the death of the local ordinary Eusebius. Like almost everything else in his life, this, too was a success—despite the fact that Eusebius had always eyed Basil with doubt. Initially, his flock wasn’t very welcoming. However, Basil—who had no training in building—immediately commissioned a colossal hospital which, at the time of it’s opening, was considered a wonder of the world. He also started a hospice, a homeless shelter, and began and ran a “hunger relief center”—working in the soup kitchen himself—and vigorously fought the prostitution trade, which was little less than a form of female slavery (then and now).
However, his episcopate was not one only of social justice concerns. He was perhaps best known as an orator (not for nothing is he paired with St. John Chrysostom “The Honey-Tongued”), and St. Gregory of Nyssa (known simply as “The Theologian”). And in addition to his Rule for Monks, and the Philocalia he’d penned with Gregory of Nazianzen, Basil left behind a vast wealth of writings on everything from how the young students of his day could benefit from studying Greek literature to an enormous number of letters (over 400) on reconciliation with Rome, to many sermons and, perhaps most importantly, the Liturgy of Saint Basil, still in effect today in the East.
In addition to his contributions to the contemplative life, the liturgy, active good works to the poor and reformation of the clergy, Basil was further kicked up the ecclesiastical ladder to become the Metropolitan of Cappodocia—meaning he had power over all the other bishops in the surrounding area who, ironically had opposed his elevation to the episcopate in the first place. However, Basil appears to have been the rarest kind of saint: one whom even his adversaries couldn’t withstand very long. (Compare this with the inimitable translator of the Bible, St. Jerome, whose friends even had difficulty dealing with, or St. Teresa of Avila, who had a knack for making as many enemies as friends.) As Walter Nigg once wrote, “Basil was the kind of person who cultivated friendship and he wrote of himself that he always had many good friends. His personality radiated a kindness that warmed his companions like the rays of the sun. ‘There is not enough charity’ he used to say. And he was entitled to say so, because he himself possessed love to a rate degree.”
Basil was a man of rare practical ability, as is seen from the administration and the practical care of his flock. But above all he was a man who cultivated both learning and love—and a love of learning so that the two were almost inseparable. (The teacher’s union could take a cue from him here.)
However much he seemed to be one of the Church’s greatest doctors, he himself saw himself as an abject failure—and this was no false modesty. He once said of himself: “For my sins I seem to be unsuccessful in everything.”
The key word in that self-deprecating statement is “seem.” Basil was, of course, not only not a failure, but an unparalleled success, by any and every standard, and as noted above, even during his life he was termed “The Great.”
When Basil died on Jan. 1 or 2 of 379 (he was not even 60 years old), funeral orations poured in from both Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzen, extolling him to be “The Great.” He certainly was, and is, a saint who bridged East and West, contemplation and action, social good works and unshakable faith, sound education and doctrine, and the ability to get things done.
(And on a personal note: “Basil” is the name my late great aunt, Sr. RoseMarie Basil Di Camillo, O.S.F. took as her name in religion when she entered the Franciscan life. She died in 2003, and I dedicate this to her memory and her own good works and examples she showed during her lifetime.)