Doctors of the Church: St. Basil the Great

st-basil-the-greatemailNext up on our list is one of the great Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil the Great (not pronounced like the herb, by the way). He was born in Pontus (northern Turkey) around the year 330. Some people love to call their parents or their siblings saints, but in Basil’s case, that wasn’t an exaggeration! His grandfather was a martyr for the faith, both of his parents were saints (St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia), and four other siblings were saints, including St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Macrina.

St. Basil was blessed by the generosity of his parents to give him the best teachers money could buy in Athens and Constantinople, but he didn’t use his education very well in his early life. He spent much of his youth in a life of dissipation, and as St. Basil himself writes, “I wept many tears over my miserable life” before turning to the Gospel. He found conversion of heart through the work of his sister, St. Macrina, and eventually studied to become a priest before being named bishop of Caesarea (in Turkey) in 370.

Before being named a bishop, St. Basil focused much of his life on the ideals of monasticism. At the time, monastic orders tended to be much more closed off (cloistered), in order to focus on their prayer and intercession for the Church. But Basil’s monks were much different in that they served the local Church. They balanced solitude, prayer, and meditation with service to the community, as they ran hospitals, schools, and shelters for the poor. St. Basil wrote extensively on the meaning behind monastic life, and painted a beautiful picture of what it truly means to be both a monk and a Christian.

St. Basil was also very devoted to the liturgy, and gave us a Eucharistic prayer (anaphora in Greek) that is used even today in many Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. One of his major works, On Baptism (not the most original title), articulated the dignity of this great sacrament, as well as its connection to the Eucharist. Basil asserted that we need the Eucharist, which nourishes us and revitalizes what was given at Baptism.

The most important contribution to theology by this Doctor of the Church was his work On the Holy Spirit, written against the Pneumatomachians. These guys had taken a page out of the Arians’ book (except in their name, which is obviously much more difficult to write and say). In the same way that the Arians taught that the Son was a creation, and therefore not divine, the Pneumatomachians taught that the Holy Spirit wasn’t God either! They believed that when Jesus says he will “send the Spirit,” he implies that the Spirit is somehow subservient and lesser than the Father and Son. However, St. Basil argued that the Holy Spirit is totally inseparable and utterly incapable of being divided from the Father and the Son. In everything that they do, the Holy Spirit is there – one in essence, one in power, one in action.

Tune in next week for another Cappadocian Father and Doctor of the Church!

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