St. Basil was a brilliant student born of a Christian family in Cæsarea, Cappadocia (modern Turkey). For some years, he followed the monastic way of life. He vigorously fought the Arian heresy, and became Bishop of Cæsarea in 370. The monks of the Eastern Church today still follow the monastic rules which he set down.
He was born about 330, the oldest of four sons; three of his brothers became bishops, one of whom was St. Gregory of Nyssa. His pious grandmother Macrina exercised a great influence upon his religious education: “Never shall I forget the deep impression that the words and example of this venerable woman made upon my soul.” Between St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nazianzen an intimate friendship existed from youth to old age. St. Benedict was the founder of Western monasticism; of Eastern monasticism, St. Basil.
As bishop, Basil was a courageous and heroic champion of the Catholic faith against the Arian heresy. In 372, Emperor Valens sent Modestus, the prefect, to Cappadocia to introduce Arianism as the state religion. Modestus approached the holy bishop, upbraided him for his teaching, and threatened despoliation, exile, martyrdom, and death. To these words of the Byzantine despot, Basil replied: “Is that all? Nothing of what you mentioned touches me. He who has nothing to lose need not dread loss of goods; you cannot exile me, for the whole earth is my home; as for death, it would be the greatest kindness you could bestow upon me; torments cannot harm me: one blow would end my frail life and my sufferings together.” Astonished, the prefect remarked: “Never has any one dared to address me thus.” “Perhaps,” suggested Basil, “you never before measured your strength with a Christian bishop.” Modestus hastened back to Valens. “Emperor,” he said, “we are bested by this leader of the Church. He is too strong for threats, too firm for words, too clever for persuasion.”
Basil was a strong character, a burning lamp during his time. But as the fire from this lamp illumined and warmed the world, it consumed itself; as the saint’s spiritual stature grew, his body wasted away, and at the early age of forty-nine his appearance was that of an old man. In every phase of ecclesiastical activity he showed superior talent and zeal. He was a great theologian, a powerful preacher, a gifted writer, the author of two rules for monastic life, a reformer of the Oriental liturgy. He died in 379, hardly forty-nine years old, yet so emaciated that only skin and bones remained, as though he had stayed alive in soul alone.
His dire observations of the Church of his time seem almost eerily prescient today: “The ears of the simple are led astray, and they have become accustomed to heretical profaneness. The infants of the Church are fed on the words of impiety. The evil of heresy spreads itself. The doctrines of Godliness are overturned; the rules of the Church are in confusion; the ambition of the unprincipled seizes upon places of authority; and the chief seat is now openly proposed as a reward for impiety; so that he who blasphemes are the more shocking, is more eligible for the oversight of the people. Priestly gravity has perished; there are none left to feed the Lord’s flock with knowledge; ambitious men are ever spending, in purposes of self-indulgence and bribery, possessions which they hold in trust for the poor. The accurate observation of the canons are no more; there is no restraint upon sin. Unbelievers laugh at what they see, and the weak are unsettled; faith is doubtful, ignorance is poured over their souls, because the adulterators of the word in wickedness imitate the truth. Religious people keep silence, but every blaspheming tongue is let loose. Sacred things are profaned; those of the laity who are sound in faith avoid places of worship as schools of impiety, and raise their hands in solitude with groans and tears to the Lord in Heaven.”