January 1, 2019

The Repentance of Basil the Great

St. Basil the Great received his elementary education at the hands of his father, Basil of Neocaesarea. For his higher education, the talented youth attended schools of rhetoric in Caesarea of Cappadocia, Constantinople, and finally Athens (after 351). St. Basil thus received a first-rate education and this cultivation will tell in his later theological works. While studying at the famous school of Athens, he made the acquaintance and lifelong friendship of St. Gregory, the future Archbishop of Constantinople. Around 356 he returned to his native Caesarea and began a short-lived career as a rhetorician.

St. Basil soon renounced his secular career and sought a life totally dedicated to God. His first step was to be baptized, doing this at a time when adults usually delayed baptism until their deathbed in order to avoid enduring the rigors of a post-baptismal Christian life for a lengthy period. His second step was to journey through the eastern Mediterranean to visit the famous ascetics of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. Their steadfastness in the ascetic life inspired and motivated him to emulate them as his strength allowed. Upon his return, he followed the advice of the Lord to the Rich Man, dividing all his possessions and distributing it to the poor. He then went into solitude near Neocaesarea on the Iris. He was not alone for long. Many soon joined him and shared the cenobitic life with him.

He explains the path of his repentance he undertook in his Letter 223. Below is an excerpt:

Much time had I spent in vanity, and had wasted nearly all my youth in the vain labor which I underwent in acquiring the wisdom made foolish by God. Then once upon a time, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvelous light of the truth of the Gospel, and I perceived the uselessness of "the wisdom of the princes of this world, that come to naught." I wept many tears over my miserable life and I prayed that guidance might be vouchsafed me to admit me to the doctrines of true religion. First of all was I minded to make some mending of my ways, long perverted as they were by my intimacy with wicked men. Then I read the Gospel, and I saw there that a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one’s goods, the sharing them with the poor, the giving up of all care for this life, and the refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy to things of earth. And I prayed that I might find some one of the brethren who had chosen this way of life, that with him I might cross life’s short and troubled strait. And many did I find in Alexandria, and many in the rest of Egypt, and others in Palestine, and in Coele Syria, and in Mesopotamia. I admired their continence in living, and their endurance in toil; I was amazed at their persistency in prayer, and at their triumphing over sleep; subdued by no natural necessity, ever keeping their souls’ purpose high and free, in hunger, in thirst, in cold, in nakedness, they never yielded to the body; they were never willing to waste attention on it; always, as though living in a flesh that was not theirs, they shewed in very deed what it is to sojourn for a while in this life, and what to have one’s citizenship and home in heaven. All this moved my admiration. I called these men’s lives blessed, in that they did in deed shew that they "bear about in their body the dying of Jesus." And I prayed that I, too, as far as in me lay, might imitate them.