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In the year 359 the Goths were a loosely- knit horde of warrior kingdoms nipping at the heels of a stumbling Roman Empire. The age of Christian persecution was waning, with the Emperor Constantius II himself professing Christian beliefs. A controversy within the Church, which began at the Council of Seleucia, was troubling the Emperor: did the gospel’s assertion that “the Son was like the Father” mean that they were built of the same substance, rather than that they were alike in some other way. He called a Council in Constantinople in 359 to settle the question.
Among those who attended was a thirty-year old priest from Ancyra, Galatia, in what is now Turkey. Dark-skinned, ascetic, and mystical, Basil first took the side of same substance, but at the conference changed his stance. He took the more mystical view that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were a single entity, more unified in His essential nature than simply being three separate things made of the same substance would imply. This central mystery today lies at the heart of many Christian faiths.
Basil went on to work among the sinners and the poor. He preached to a large polyglot congregation every morning and evening, at other times working among thieves and prostitutes. He spoke truth to power, not fearing to chastise public officials who failed their public duty to administer justice. Outside the city of Caesarea, he built a huge humanitarian complex called the Basiliad, which included a hospital, a hospice, a poorhouse, and a soup kitchen, which his contemporaries compared with the Seven Wonders of the World.
Like many of the righteous who came before or followed him, it was probably difficult to get along with Basil face-to-face. He was firm in his faith, and he could be both imperious and hot-blooded in its defense. His orthodoxy, though, did not blind him to both the good and evil in those around him. If it did not compromise the truth, he could shift from liturgical language and converse in the common dialect of the street or the imperious language of the Roman court.
Basil was drawn to an ascetic, communal monasticism. By 358, a band of like-minded monks had gathered around him. He settled them into his family’s Galatian estate along with his brother, sister and widowed mother, to live with him in a life of piety, prayer, and devotion to charitable works.
During the Soviet Era, it was fitting that the Cathedral of Saint Basil stood at the head of Red Square, a symbol of the communistic ideal that was espoused, if not practiced, by the politburo in the Kremlin next door. It descended into irony as the oligarchic kleptocracy of Putin rose to power.
Basil’s writings, and the example of his life, have had profound influence on Christian Orthodox thought in both the East and the West. Nearly two millennia after his death, it is difficult to be sure how much of the text in the many liturgies and prayers which bear his name were actually written by his hand, and how much came later, inspired by his example. Either way, his influence is vast.
When the Emperor Julian ascended to the Roman throne, he blamed Christianity for the flagging of the Empire. He renounced his father’s faith in Christ, and tried to restore the pagan, neoplatonist polytheism that had seen Rome through its days of glory. Entangled in the persecution of Julian the Apostate, an uncompromising Basil was arrested and tortured by Roman soldiers. On June 29, 362, he was executed, a martyr to his Christian faith. Julian himself died in battle a year later, and Rome returned, at least nominally, to Christian rule during its final days.
St. Basil is canonized by both the Western and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Basiliad is gone, but his thought continues to guide the Judeo-Christian world nearly two millenia after his death. He continues to make the world a better place.