Mar Baselius of Caesarea
(St. Basil, the Great – Ca. 330-379)
Mar Baselius, one of the towering giants of ancient Christianity, was an Asian by birth. He is one of the Cappodocian fathers. Cappodocia was a province of Asia (present – day Turkey). His parents lived in Caesarea, the capital of the province. It was a remarkable family. Mar Baselius’ father the elder Basil, had five sons and five daughters. Three of the sons became bishops – Mar Baselius in Caesaria, Mar Gregorios in Nyssa and Mar Pethros in Sebaste. The eldest sister of Mar Baselius, Martha Makarina, deserves a chapter to herself, for she was both a saint and a scholar, the founder of monastic communities for women, and the teacher of her brothers who became bishops. Even as a bishop, says Mar Gregorios, he learned from his sister the great mysteries of the faith.
Mar Baselius was educated in the best pagan schools of his time, and was thus one of the most educated of his contemporaries. He studied first from his father and grandmother, who were themselves both great scholars. He then studied in his native Caesarea, then moved to Constantinople, and finally to Athens, the centre of all learning at that time.
After all his studies, which he completed with the greatest honours, he returned to his native Caesarea, proud as a peacock as his own brother says. He began his career as a rhetorician (secular professor) in his own native Caesarea, but as Mar Baselius himself says in his letter (no. 223).
“I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all my youth in vain labours, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God has made foolish. Suddenly I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world that was come to naught. I shed a flood of tears over my wretched life, and I prayed for a guide who might form in me the principles of piety.”
He was soon baptized, after having been duly instructed by his sister Makarina. He then travelled in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia to learn from the many monks who lived in these parts.
When he returned, he distributed his wealth among the poor (he was a very rich man) and went in to solitude for prayer and fasting. Soon others joined him, including his friend and classmate Mar Gregorios of Nazianzus, though only temporarily. The community grew and it became a great spiritual centre of Christianity in Asia. Mar Baselius wrote, in co-operation with Mar Gregorios Nazianzen, the rules for a monastic community. These rules are the basis for all eastern monasticism, and for some forms of western monasticism like that of the Benedictines.
In a short time he founded other monasteries, and his sister Makarina started a convent for women across the river from the men’s monastery.
Together they established hospitals for the sick, nursing homes for lepers, homes for the poor, hotels for travellers and strangers; and the monasteries soon became a spiritual city, where the poor and the destitute praised God for His wonderful ways.
In addition to his great learning and spirituality, St. Basil was, like Mar Athanasius, a man of very great personal courage. He stood up to the Emperor Valens when pressured to support the Arian heresy. When the Emperor sent his Viceroy to threaten Mar Baselius with confiscation of goods, torture and exile, Basil replied that he had nothing to be confiscated except a cloak and a few books, and as for exile, anywhere in the world would be his home. As for torture, he said his body would give up its life at the first blow, and that Modestus the Viceroy would be doing him a favour by sending him off to God so quickly.
“Death would be an act of kindness, for it will bring me nearer to God, for whom I live, and for whom I have been created, … and to whom I hasten.”
The pagan Modestus was surprised by this bold answer and said: “No one has spoken to me with such boldness before.” Mar Baselius replied:
“Perhaps you have never met a Christian bishop before. Fire, swords, beasts and the instruments for tearing the flesh we desire as delights rather than horrors. Afflict us, torture us, threaten, do all you can, enjoy your power, but let the Emperor also know that in no way can you win us over to embrace untruth, though you threaten with the cruellest deeds.”
That was the end of the Emperor’s opposition to Basil. Both the Emperor and the Viceroy were deeply impressed. On another occasion the Viceroy (Prefect) of Pontus threatened St. Basil, by calling him to court and saying, “I will tear out your liver.” St. Basil’s reply: “Please do, it gives me much trouble where it is.”
Mar Baselius bowed to no one. He once appealed to Pope Damasus in Rome to intervene to settle some of the quarrels in the East. Pope Damasus’ reply was, as was often the case with papal letters in those days, a bit superior sounding. Mar Baselius’ reaction is in his epistle no: 239, addressed to a fellow-bishop:
“The news of the West you know already. … Really lofty souls, when they are courted, get haughtier than ever. … If the Lord be propitious to us, what other thing do we need? If the anger of the Lord lasts on, what help can come to us from the arrogance of the west? …”
Mar Baselius’ great theological contributions were three:
(a) Against Arius and his disciples he established the full deity of Christ. He thus completed the work of Mar Athanasius.
(b) He established clearly the deity of the Holy Spirit.
(c) Thus he established a full doctrine of Holy Trinity as three hypostases in one ousia.
He was also a great monk who laid down the basic principles of community monasticism – a balance between prayer, study and work and the need to serve one’s fellowmen by working with one’s own hands. He was a great man, very learned very aristocratic, who lived in simplicity and poverty. His humility was not on the surface. He was regarded as a proud man, but his heart was truly humble.
Mar Baselius died on Jan 1, 379, about six years after Mar Athanasius had died.
Mar Baselius of Caesarea
Mar Baselius of Caesarea