Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea and Doctor of the Church

detail of an illustration of Saint Basil the Caesarea, by Francesco Bartolozzi, 19th century; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 379.

Saint Basil, whose name shines with such resplendent lustre after fifteen centuries have passed away, was born in 329 at Caesarea, the capital of the kingdom of Cappadocia. His noble and saintly parents were Saint Basil the Elder and Saint Emmelia, who left behind them a family so illustrious in learning and virtue that one of them is considered the light of his age and is numbered among the great Doctors of the Church, and four have an honored place on the golden list of canonized saints.

Basil’s first teacher in virtue was his grandmother, Saint Macrina the Elder, under whose tender care he passed the early years of childhood at a country-house in Pontus. He assures us that during his whole life he never forgot the impressions ol piety which this venerable lady’s lofty example made upon his infant mind. His father, who was a man of much learning and eloquence, gave the bright boy his first lessons in literature.

The Saint’s early studies were made in the schools of Caesarea, where his progress in piety and learning was the astonishment of his preceptors. He was deemed equal in oratory to the best masters in his native country, when he removed to Constantinople, where Libanus, a pagan, but the most famous rhetorician of his time, gave public lectures. This professor was charmed with his gifted pupil. In his letters he says that he was in raptures as often as he heard Basil speak in public, and ever after he kept up an epistolary correspondence with the future Doctor of the Church.

The love of useful knowledge next carried Basil to Athens. Here he was delighted to meet his young friend and fellow-countryman, Gregory Nazianzcn. Gregory, who had arrived there a little before, had influence enough to procure his friend a welcome reception, and the reputation and dignified manners of Basil happily protected him from the rough treatment which new-comers generally received at the hands of the students.

Harmony of inclinations, an equal enthusiasm for virtue and learning, and a mutual esteem for each other’s worth formed between Basil and Gregory a friendship as lasting as it was beautiful. To these pure young minds this holy affection was a shield from bad company and a great consolation. Everything was in common. They had the same lodging and the same table. Together they cheerfully toiled up the hill of knowledge, and seemed to have but one heart and one soul.

“We knew but two streets,” writes Gregory, “and chiefly the first of these, which led us to the church, and to the saintly teachers and doctors who there attended the service of the altar and with the food of life nourished the flock of Christ. The other street with which we were acquainted – but which we held in much less esteem – was the road to the schools and to our masters in the sciences. To others we left the streets that led to the theatre, spectacles, feastings, and diversions. It was our only great affair, our only aim, and all our glory to be called and to live Christians.”

Saint Basil became a master in the liberal arts and sciences. He excelled in philosophy and literature. It is said that his knowledge of nature was more accurate and comprehensive than that of Aristotle himself. Saint Gregory tells us that his power of reasoning was most remarkable. But he wisely seasoned all his vast acquirements by meditation on the Holy Scriptures, and by carefully reading the precious works of the Fathers. Thus he stored his capacious mind with the riches of knowledge ad majorem Dei gloriam – “to the greater glory of God.”

In the year 355, Basil returned to his native city and opened a school of oratory. He was also induced to plead at the bar. The most brilliant success smiled on his undertakings; and soon the young nobleman found himself on the foremost wave of fame and popularity. On all sides he was greeted with applause. It was, however, a time of danger. Nor is it wonderful to learn that Basil’s heart was assailed by temptations to vainglory and a secret satisfaction in the empty praises of men.

He felt there was some peril, and the timely words of his sister, Saint Macrina, and his friend, Gregory Nazianzen, added to his thoughtfulness. Basil’s was a brave, manly, cultivated nature, ever open to the influence of the good and the beautiful. Besides, he was faithful to the inspirations of grace. The light of celestial wisdom flashed its brightness on his soul, and he triumphed over the obstacles that seemed to crowd that narrow path which leads to the skies, and with heroic greatness he bade adieu to the fleeting joys and glories of a worldly career. He gave nearly all his estate to the poor, and became a monk.

Convinced, however, that the name of a monk would only be his condemnation if he did not strictly fulfill the obligations of the religious state, he traveled over Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt in 357, visiting the most renowned hermits and monasteries in those countries, and thus carefully instructing himself in the duties and exercises of a monastic life.

During the following year he returned to the house of his grandmother on the banks of the river Iris. Here his mother, Saint Emmelia, and his sister, Saint Macrina, had founded a nunnery, which at that time was governed by the latter lady. On the opposite side of the river Basil established a monastery for men, which he ruled five years, resigning the position of abbot in 362 to his brother, Saint Peter of Sebaste.

He founded several other religious houses in different parts of Pontus, which he continued to superintend even after he became archbishop. It was for their direction he drew up his “Longer and Shorter Rules.”

As to Basil himself, his retired life was a model of virtue and rigorous mortification. He never had more than one coat. He lay on the ground, and sometimes passed whole nights in watching. At night he wore a long hair-shirt, but not in the day-time, that it might be unseen by men. He inured himself to the sharp cold of the mountains of Pontus, and never allowed himself to enjoy any other heat than that of the sun. His one meal a day consisted of bread and cold water. But he chiefly studied to practise the interior virtues of purity, meekness, and humility.

Libanus, the pagan philosopher, admired nothing in the Saint so much as his unvarying sweetness towards all: but he tempered this rare and beautiful virtue with an amiable gravity. He was a great lover of chastity, and built several convents for young virgins, to whom he gave a written rule.

During a wide-spread famine in 359 he sold the remainder of his estate for the benefit of the poor, and his friend, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, tells us that ever after he lived in the greatest poverty possible.

When Julian the Apostate ascended the imperial throne in 361, he wrote to Saint Basil – whom he had known at Athens – and invited him to his court. The man of God answered that the state of life upon which he had entered rendered it impossible to comply with the emperor’s request. This aroused the anger of Julian, and, some time after, he wrote to the Saint, ordering him to pay five thousand dollars in gold into his exchequer. In case of refusal he even threatened to level the city of Caesarea with the ground.

Saint Basil calmly replied that far from being able to raise so large a sum of money, he had scarcely enough to purchase subsistence for one day. He boldly added in his letter that he was surprised to see Julian neglect the exalted duties of his position, and provoke the just anger of the Almighty by openly opposing His worship. The emperor was enraged at this pointed rebuke, and he marked out Basil as a victim for severe punishment as soon as he should return from his Persian expedition. But the hand of God was already raised against the profane tryranny. He perished in the summer of 363.

It was with great reluctance that some time after this Saint Basil permitted himself to be ordained priest by Eusebius, Archbishop of Caesarea; and when that prelate died, in 370, our Saint was chosen and consecrated archbishop. Placed in that high dignity he seemed to surpass himself as much as he had before surpassed others. Even on working days he preached to the people both morning and evening; and such was the touching beauty of his discourses that multitudes eagerly thronged to hear his burning words. He established many pious practices. We learn from his letters that the good people of Caesarea received Holy Communion every Sunday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

He was the guardian of the poor and the unfortunate. Besides other countless charities, he founded a vast hospital, which Gregory Nazianzen calls a new city, and one of “the wonders of the world.” It continued long after his time, and was called from him Basiliades. The illustrious Saint often passed through its wards, comforting the patients, instructing them, and ministering to their spiritual miseries.

Saint Basil was a fortress of the faith, and such was his fame, the power of his learning, and the holiness of his life, that his name awed even the imperial heretics of his time. Of this we have a glorious proof in the remarkable triumph which he gained over the Arian emperor, Valens.

With his hands reeking in the martyr blood of Catholics, Valens passed rapidly through the provinces of Asia Minor. On his arrival in Cappadocia he stood ready to dart the thunder of his power on the great Archbishop of Caesarea. He took the precaution, however, of sending before him the prefect, Modestus, with orders to induce Basil, either by threats or promises, to communicate with the Arians.

Modestus summoned the archbishop to appear before him The Saint came. The prefect, seated on his tribunal, gave him a courteous reception. He tried smooth words and great promises, but all to no purpose. Seeing, however, the failure of this method, the hypocritical Modestus assumed an insolent air.

“Basil, he exclaimed in an angry tone, “what do you mean by opposing a great emperor that all obey? Fear you not the effects of the power with which we are armed?”

“To what does this power extend?” said the Saint.

“To the confiscation of goods, banishment, tortures, and even death,” returned the prefect.

“Perhaps you can threaten me with some greater punishment,” observed Basil. “None of all these things give me the least uneasiness.”

“How so?” demanded Modestus.

“He that has nothing to lose,” said the noble archbishop, “is secure against confiscation. I am master of nothing but a few books and the rags I wear – for neither of which, I presume, you have any pressing necessity. As to banishment, I do not see what you could do. Heaven alone is my country. I as little fear your torments. The first stroke would despatch my frail body, and thus put an end both to my life and pain. Death I dread not; I regard it as a favor. It would bring me sooner to that Almighty Father for whom alone I live.”

“Never did any man,” exclaimed the astonished prefect, “talk at this rate of freedom to Modestus.”

“Perhaps,” said Basil, “this is the first time you have had to do with a bishop.”

“I give you till to-morrow,” shouted the annoyed Modestus, “to deliberate upon the matter.”

“I shall be the same man to-morrow,” quietly observed the Saint, “that I am to-day.”

Valens was enraged at the prefect’s want of success, and cited the archbishop to appear before himself. But he the better understood his own littleness after coming in contact with Basil’s majestic virtue and dauntless character. The prefect ventured upon a third attack; but it only added to the Saint’s greater glory. “We are overcome,” said Modestus to the emperor. “This man is above our threats.”

Valens, however, daily importuned by the Arians, resolved to banish the intrepid archbishop. The order was drawn up and only remained to be signed. He seized one of those reeds which the ancients used as a pen, and was about to put his signature to the document, when lo! the reed broke. The second and third reed broke in the like manner; and as he was taking up a fourth, he found his hand tremble and the tendons of his arm began to slacken. In a fright he tore up the paper and Basil remained unmolested.

The Saint had, indeed, fought the good fight; but not many years rolled away when he fell sick. He knew the happy end had come. For him death had no terrors. “Into Thy hands, O Lord! I commend my spirit,” were the last words whispered by the eloquent lips of this illustrious Doctor of the Church. He died at the age of fifty-one years, on the 1st of January, A. D. 379.

The writings of Saint Basil are of the very highest order. “When I read his treatise ‘On the Creation,'” says the great Doctor, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, “I seem to behold my Creator striking all things out of nothing. When I run over his writings against the heretics, the fire of Sodom sparkles in my view, flashing upon the enemies of the faith and consuming their criminal tongues to ashes. When I consider his work ‘On the Holy Ghost,’ I feel God working within me, and I am no longer afraid of publishing the truth aloud. When I look into the ‘Explanations of the Holy Scripture,’ I dive into the most profound abyss of mysteries. His panegyrics on the martyrs make me despise my body, and I seem to be animated with the same noble ardor of battle. His moral discourses assist me to purify my body and soul, that I may become a worthy temple of God, and an instrument of his praises to make known His glory and His power.”

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea and Doctor of the Church”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 24 September 2018. Web. 14 November 2018. <>