Basil was born about 329 in Caesarea of Cappadocia into a Christian family of wealth and distinction, seven of whose members (including Basil himself) are venerated as saints of the Church: his grandmother, Macrina (the Elder); his father Basil and his mother Emmelia; his older sister Macrina (the Younger); and his younger brothers, Gregory of Nyssa and Peter of Sebaste. Basil enjoyed the best education available, at Caesarea, Constantinople, and Athens. Here he became a close friend of Gregory Nazianzus, with whom Basil and his brother Gregory of Nyssa would later become known as the Cappadocian Fathers for their theological defense of the Nicene faith. Basil might have continued in the academic life, had it not been for the death of a beloved younger brother and the faith of his older sister, Macrina. Basil was baptized at the age of twenty-eight and was ordained a deacon soon after.
Macrina had founded the first monastic order for women at Annesi. Inspired by her example, Basil made a journey to study the life of anchorites in Egypt and Syria, and in 358 he returned to Cappadocia and founded the first monastery for men at Ibora. There he enjoyed the company of Gregory Nazianzus. Together they preached to the people and practiced a life of contemplation. Assisted by Gregory, Basil compiled The Longer and Shorter Rules, which transformed the solitary anchorites into a disciplined community of prayer and work. The Rules became the foundation for all Eastern monastic discipline.
The emperor Julian the Apostate, another friend from university days in Athens, invited Basil to the court, but he declined. Basil did not leave the isolation of the monastic life until 364, when his bishop, Eusebius of Caesarea, called him to defend the Church against the persecution of the Arian emperor Valens. In this same year he was ordained a presbyter. In the conflict with the Arians and semi-Arians, Basil became convinced that he should become bishop of Caesarea, succeeding Eusebius. By a narrow margin he was elected to the see. As bishop of Caesarea, he was also the metropolitan of Cappadocia and exarch of Pontus, with fifty suffragan bishops. Basil was relentless in his efforts to restore the faith and discipline of the clergy and in defense of the Nicene faith. When the emperor Valens sought to undercut Basil’s power by dividing the see of Cappadocia, Basil forced his brother Gregory to become bishop of Nyssa.
In his treatise, On the Holy Spirit, Basil maintained that both the language of Scripture and the faith of the Church require that the same honor, glory, and worship are to be paid to the Spirit as to the Father and to the Son. It was entirely proper, he asserted, to adore God in liturgical prayer, not only with the traditional words, “Glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit”; but also with the formula, “Glory to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit.”
Basil also showed concern for the poor and dispossessed, and when he died, he willed to Caesarea a complete new town, built on his own estate, with housing, a hospital and staff, a church for the poor, and a hospice for travelers.
He died at fifty in 379, just two years before the ecumenical Council of Constantinople, which authoritatively affirmed the Nicene faith for which he and many others (including Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus) had contended against the Arian and Semi-Arian heresies.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
and The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
Almighty God, you have revealed to your Church your eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace that, like your bishop Basil of Caesarea, we may continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; for you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, are published on the Lectionary Page website.