Life of S Basil (continued), Book 1a
Basil, more than anyone else on earth, led a life of perfect balance. For not only was he adorned with good works, but he was furnished with divine wisdom and he offered it all up to Christ, with all his body and soul. His writings, especially, destroyed the erroneous spider webs of the pagans.
His parents began his education at the age of seven. He studied Mathematics for five years, and being of a teachable nature he derived great profit from this philosophical discipline. After that he left his native land of Cappadocia and went to Athens, the mother of literature, where he lived chastely and developed many other habits of temperance and continence. He sat at the feet of a teacher of Greek wisdom called Eubulus, and applied his disciplines to himself so well that he became a model not only for his fellow students but also for his teachers. Gregory the future great bishop of Nazianzus, who ruled an Apostolic throne for twelve years, was one of his contemporaries, as were Libanius and Julian, at that time a Christian.
Basil had decided not to take part in holy Communion, but there came a time when divine providence ensured that he would penetrate into those secrets of wisdom. For having studied the whole range of pagan philosophy for fifteen years, Astronomy and Geometry and everything that was best, he found that he had not succeeded in discovering in any of them the foundation underlying everything else. But one night as he was keeping vigil, a divine splendour enfolded him, urging him to study the scriptures of our religion.
So he hurried off to Egypt, where he visited a certain Archimandrite named Porphyrius and asked to be given access to the holy books in order to gain a grounding in religious doctrines. As he read he continuously meditated on divine wisdom, while learning to survive on water and a vegetarian diet. He stayed there for a whole year, seeking the truth in faith by examining the word of truth. He then asked to be allowed to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to see the holy places. Permission was granted and he went.
He came back from there to the place where he had been instructed in Greek philosophy, [i.e. Athens] and began to preach Christ to many of the philosophers and other pagans, urging that therein lay the way of salvation. In particular he began to seek out Eubulus among the various schools of study that he had set up, in the hope that by his own pure faith he might lead Eubulus towards the faith. For Eubulus was a great teacher of all who were learning philosophy. Searching for him throughout all the schools he found him at last in the outskirts of the city among a group of philosophers, none of whom were either hearing or speaking anything new. As the dispute went on, Basil stood up and argued against Eubulus.
"Who is this that is arguing with you, O philosopher?" asked one of those present.
"Well, if it isn't God it's Basil," he replied. And he took his leave of the company, and for three days he and Basil fasted and put questions to each other.
"How do you define philosophy, Basil?"
"The first requirement of philosophy is to meditate on death."
"Who then is pure" (mundus)?
"He who is above the world" (mumdum). For the wisdom of the world is very seductive, but this same world becomes very bitter to anyone who shamefully follows it. Bodily pleasure is one thing and pleasure of the spirit is quite another, and there cannot be any equality of commerce between them. For no man can serve two masters (Matthew 6.24). Virtue enables us to break the bread of wisdom with those who thirst for it, and through virtue we restore those who have been cast out by the wickedness of others. If we see the naked we cover him with a cloak and we do not despise those of our own family."
From there he went on by way of a parable to paint a picture of the mercifulness of our Saviour, which he brings us through our penitence.
"Little by little he sets up three warning signs on the outskirts of our minds. The first one is over the gate and carries the virtues, Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance and Justice. On the left hand side sits Seduction, from whence arise Intemperance, Profanity, Argumentativeness and Deceit and a swarm of other like evils. Penitence however stands graciously nearby, fearless, joyful, gentle, brooking no denial, source of every blessing for people, and next to her Abstinence, Sagacity, Clemency, Shamefastness, Modesty, Humanity, and a host of other good things. The meaning of this catalogue to those who see it is that it serves as a warning, and to those who have ears to hear an invitation to a stronger zeal. Eubulus, I was filled with delight when I saw it, and was captivated by it, for they are not imaginary things of uncertain meaning for us, but plain truths guiding us to salvation.
"For we shall all rise again, some to eternal life, some to condemnation and perpetual distress. We must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5.10) as the prophets in their magnificent eloquence have taught, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, David the king, and that surpassingly excellent Paul, not to mention the Lord himself, who calls for penitence and bestows its reward, who seeks out the lost sheep (Matthew 18.12), who welcomes back the son who left his father's house with a rich portion which he wantonly squandered, leaving him perishing with hunger. His father embraces him, clothes him in a brilliant robe and other precious garments, gives him a ring, and urges the good brother not to be angry but to forgive (Luke 14.11-32). This is the Lord who without distinction of persons gives an equal reward to those who come at the eleventh hour (Matthew 20.1-16). To those of us who come to our senses and repent he gives new birth by water and the holy Spirit. Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what the Lord has prepared for them that love him" (1 Corinthians 2.9).
"O Basil," cried Eubulus, who had thoroughly understood what Basil was saying, "you bear witness to the Trinity in heaven. Because of you I believe in one God the Father almighty and all the rest of it, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, amen. And I will demonstrate my faith by what I shall do. Everything I have I place in your hands, and when I have received new birth by the holy water of the Spirit, I shall stay with you for the rest of my life, if that prove pleasing to God."
"Eubulus, blessed be the Lord our God, now and for ever," said Basil, "for he has illuminated your mind with the true light, and brought you from the error of many gods into acknowledging his mercy. Now, if you wish to stay with me, as you say you do, I will show you how to work for our salvation and our liberation from this world. Let us sell everything we have and give to the poor, then go to the holy city to see for ourselves the places where the life-giving miracles were performed, and so increase our faithfulness towards God."
Both of them gave away all their goods, keeping back only enough to buy those things necessary in preparation for holy Baptism, and set out for Jerusalem. And they converted not a few pagans to the Lord on the way.
When they arrived at the city of Antioch, they stopped at a certain guesthouse, where the landlord's son, Philoxenus, was sitting outside, lost in deep thought. He was a disciple of Libanius the sophist, who had given him some verses of Homer to explain in accordance with Rhetoric philosophy. He was sitting there in a state of great mental upheaval, and Basil could see that the strain of it was making him feel quite weak.
"Why are you looking so worried, young man?" Basil asked.
"Would it do me any good if I were to tell you?" he replied.
"I may be able to help you."
"Well, I am struggling with these verses in terms of sophistry."
Basil picked up the verses and began to explain them. The youth was amazed and delighted, and begged Basil to put it all down in writing. Basil wrote out three separate ways of interpreting the verses, which the youth was delighted to receive, and at dawn next day took these explanations of the verses to Libanius. After reading them, Libanius was very surprised.
"Good heavens!" he exclaimed. "There is no wise man of my acquaintance who could have explained them like this. Who is this new person?"
"It is a traveller staying at our guesthouse who has the skill to have provided these explanations."
Libanius lost no time in going to the guesthouse where he was astonished to recognise the unhoped for presence of Basil and Eubulus. He immediately took them back to his own house where he asked them if they would partake of a generous and well prepared meal. But according to their beliefs they would accept only a due measure of bread and water, for which they gave thanks to God the giver of all good things. Libanius began to expound most skilfully the wordy teachings of the Rhetoricians. Basil and Eubulus in return spoke about the faith, and Libanius understood what they were talking about.
"It is not yet the right time for me to act on what you have said," he mused, "but when divine providence speaks to me, who should then be able to resist? However, you have been such a great help to me, Basil, that I would like you to put your arguments to my students as well."
It did not take long for the students to assemble, and Basil spoke to them on cleanliness of soul, bodily endurance, a gentle manner, mild voice, measured speech, disciplined diet, silence in the presence of elders, obedience to superiors, charity unfeigned towards both equals and juniors, saying little but understanding much, not to be offended when rebuked, to be sparing in small talk, not prompt to laughter, practised in modesty, having no converse with shameless women, eyes cast down but soul lifted up, keeping out of quarrels, not seeking after a reputation for learning, nor forever wondering about who would be likely to be of benefit to you, and if you are able to be of benefit to others to look for your reward from God and the enjoyment of the good things of eternity from Jesus Christ our Lord.
Thus spoke Basil to the disciples of Libanius, who all heaped admiring praises upon him. And so with Eubulus he continued his journey.
When they arrived at Jerusalem they made a pilgrimage to all the holy places with faith and love, in each of which they worshipped God who is over all. They then made themselves known to Maximinus, the bishop of the city, and asked to be given new birth in the waters of the river Jordan. The holy man of God looked upon them and gave thanks, and hastened to fulfil their request. Along with some of the faithful they all approached the river Jordan, where Basil threw himself on the ground and with tears and a loud cry begged to be given the sign of faith. In fear and trembling he rose and put off his garments, and without doubt the old man along with them, before going down into the river. He prayed, and the priest [[sacerdos i.e the bishop] baptised him. And behold, a shining light surrounded him, and a dove flew out of it into the water. It stirred up the water and flew back to heaven. And those who were present trembled with fear and glorified God as the newly baptised Basil came up out of the water. Maximinus was overawed by the love which Basil was showing towards God, and poured out prayer over him as he clothed him in the robes symbolising the resurrection of Christ.
He also baptised Eubulus and anointed them both with the holy chrism. He administered the lifegiving Communion to them. And as the priest of God prayed and offered this food to Basil he took it and said; "Lord Jesus Christ, our God, I believe in what you say in the Gospel, and put my hope in your goodwill towards us, that through this food and this drink I shall overcome our adversary the devil by the help of your holy Spirit."
Overawed by the faith of this man, the priest of God went back with them into the holy city.
They stayed there for a year and then agreed to go to Antioch, where Basil was ordained deacon by Meletius, the bishop of that city. It was here that he wrote his treatise on Proverbs, which was received with much acclaim.
Not very long after this, he went with Eubulus to Cappadocia, and when he was about to enter Caesarea, bishop Eusebius of that city was told of his imminent arrival in a vision of the night, and that Basil was to be his future successor. Without delay he summoned his chief ecclesiastical administrator, and several others of the venerable clergy, told them of his vision and sent them to the East gate of the city to meet the visitors as they entered, and invite them to visit the bishop immediately. As soon as they came in that most holy bishop was amazed to recognise them as being the very people he had seen in his vision, and gave thanks to God. He asked them what they were and where they were from, and where had they just come from, and having satisfied his curiosity he bade his deacons see to their needs. They took them to a very pleasant little cottage and did everything they could to see to their comfort.
In the meantime that most holy bishop called a meeting of the leaders both of clergy and of state, and told them all that had been revealed to him by God.
"In truth it is a tribute to the purity of your life", they unanimously agreed, "that you have been found worthy of a divine revelation as to who shall occupy the pontifical throne after you. So, therefore, don't hesitate. Do what you think best."
The bishop called Basil and Eubulus and questioned them on their knowledge of the sacred Scriptures. He soon realised in wonder that fountains of wisdom flowed from them. He set them up in a suitable establishment, and not long after, he died. The bishops gathered together in Synod, and by the guidance of the holy Spirit they chose Basil for the episcopal throne. He was duly consecrated, and became governor of the Church by the providence of God.
Shortly afterwards he asked God to give him such a gift of wisdom and knowledge that he might be able to offer the bloodless sacrifice to God in his own words and to come into the presence of the holy Spirit. For six days the holy Spirit kept his mind in a state of trance, until on the seventh day he began making the offering to God daily, and after some time spent in much faithful prayer he began to write down the mysteries of the Mass. At nighttime the Lord appeared to him along with the Apostles. Placing the bread upon the holy altar, he raised Basil up and said,
"Let your mouth be filled with praise, even as you have asked, and let your offering of the bloodless sacrifice be made in your own words."
Almost blinded by this vision, in fear and trembling he went up to the holy altar and began to speak aloud the following words, writing them down as he did so.
"Fill my mouth with your praise that I may praise your glory, O Lord God, who have created us and given us life…" and the rest of the prayers of the holy Mass.
At the end of the prayers he lifted up the bread, praying freely and saying,
"Look down upon us, O Lord Jesus Christ our God from your holy habitation where you sit on high with the Father, and come and make us holy. Be present with us, though hid from our eyes, and by the power of your hand grant to us, and through us to all the people, holy things for the holy."
"One alone is holy," responded the people, "the one Lord Jesus Christ with the holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen."
He divided the bread into three portions; one portion he consumed, one portion he set aside to be buried with him [An early practice which was discontinued by the Third General Council of Constantinople, 680.] and the third portion he placed on the golden dove suspended above the altar.
Eubulus and the chief cleric were standing outside the church and they saw a light shining out of it, and people clothed in shining white garments, and heard the voice of the people glorifying God as Basil stood at the altar. They fell in fear on their faces, glorifying God in tears. And when Basil came out of the church, they fell at his feet.
"What are you doing here?" asked Basil, "and why are you worshipping me?"
"We have seen the miracle of glory enfolding the church."
Basil gave profuse thanks to God and told them the details of the glorious miracle. He called for a goldsmith and instructed him to make a dove of the purest gold, in which he placed the third portion, and hung it over the holy table. It commemorated the holy dove which appeared when the Lord was baptised in Jordan. When this had been done he decided to preach a celebratory sermon to the people, and gathered a great crowd of them into the church. Among them was Ephraem, a worshipper of God who also had seen the divine vision, which we shall say more about later on [see Chapter XI, below].
Once while he was celebrating divine service a certain Jew, wanting to find out what the service and gift of Communion was all about, joined in the congregation as if he were a Christian, and saw a little infant being torn limb from limb in Basil's hands. He went up with everyone else to communicate and was given real flesh, and when he came to the chalice it was full of blood and he partook of it. He managed to conceal a part of it and took it home to show it to his wife, telling her that he had seen with his own eyes what he had been told by others, and so believed that the Christian mysteries were truly tremendous and glorious. Next morning he went to Basil and asked that he be signed without delay with the cross of Christ. Basil was nothing loth, and giving thanks to him who wills all people to be saved, baptised him and all his household into the household of the Lord.
Helladius of holy memory was another who witnessed and shared in the miracles brought about by Basil. It was he who was found worthy after Basil's death to occupy the see of that memorable Apostle. He was a marvellous, brilliant man, adorned with all the virtues, and he told me about a certain faithful senator called Proterius, who took his daughter to a holy and much cherished place, intending she should be tonsured and given over to one of the venerable monasteries, as a sacrifice offered to God. The devil, who has been a murderer from the beginning, was annoyed by her religious purpose, and inspired a slave of Proterius to fall in love with the girl. He had scant respect for her intentions, but since he did not dare himself to put her off from her intentions, he approached one of those repulsive magicians, and promised him a great quantity of gold if he were able to subvert her.
"I don't have that power, my friend," he replied, "but if you like I will put you in touch with my power supply, the devil, and he will do what you want, as long as you promise to obey him."
"I will do whatever he says."
"Would you renounce Christ, and put it into writing?"
"Yes, I would."
"If you are ready then, I will help you."
"I am quite ready, if only I can get what I want."
And that evil-doing servant of the devil wrote out something to send to his master, as follows:
"Whereas it behoves me to further the purposes of my lord and master in taking care that those who forsake the Christian religion are effectively joined to your company, that your portion may be filled, I send to you the bearer of this letter who is wounded by love for a girl. And I pray that you will fulfil his desires, and give me due credit for my overflowing desire to gather all your lovers together."
"Take this letter," he said, "and go at midnight to stand upon some pagan statue. Throw this writing into the air, and someone will appear who will lead you to the devil."
He did this with all eagerness, lifting up his miserable voice and calling on the devil to help him. Immediately he was surrounded by the princes of the power of darkness, spirits of wickedness, who with great rejoicing led this deceived wretch away and showed him the devil sitting on a high throne. The devil took those poisonous writings into his hands and spoke thus to that unfortunate person;
"Do you believe in me?"
"I do believe."
"You Christians are liars. You only come to me when you want something, and when you have got it you deny me and go back to your Christ, who forgives you because he is good and merciful. So let me see you put into writing that you renounce of your own free will both your Christ and your Baptism, and give yourself into my power for ever, and that you will stay with me till the day of judgement, when together we will enjoy the eternal punishments which are being prepared for me."
And he wrote this all out in his own hand as asked. At once he sent out the demons of fornication, who made the girl burn with desire for the slave. With a great cry she threw herself on the floor in front of her father.
"Have mercy on me!" she cried. "I am suffering desperate torture for the love of our slave. Find some compassion in your heart. Show some pity for your only daughter, and marry me to this slave. He it is that I choose. If you don't, you will see me die a painful death in a few days, and it will be you who have to account for it before God in the day of judgement."
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