Click to see our Guide to the Cappadocian Fathers Homepage where you will find all of our posts on this subject.
The Emperor Valens caused quite a commotion when he visited Caesarea (present day Kayseri) for a Christian festival one winter.
Up until this time Valens had been exiling and deposing Nicene-supporting bishops *(see footnote at bottom regarding their position on the deity of Jesus) all over the empire. He had been successful even in removing the leading proponent of Nicene theology, Athanasius the Great.
One of the few still standing was Basil of Caesarea, a stalwart and vocal defender of Nicene theology, and it just so happened that he was to be leading the liturgical service on the particular Sunday that the emperor came a-calling.
The stage was set for a showdown: the people’s favorite, dissonant, rebel bishop against the cruel, unbending sovereign. What would happen when the proverbial unstoppable force met the immovable object?
Basil’s friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, in his eulogy for the Caesarean’s funeral, records that as Valens entered the sanctuary with his entourage “he was struck by the thundering roll of the Psalms, by the sea of heads of the congregation, and by the angelic rather than human order which pervaded the sanctuary and its precincts: while Basil presided over his people, standing erect, as the Scripture says of Samuel (1 Samuel 19:20) with body and eyes and mind undisturbed, as if nothing new had happened, but fixed upon God and the sanctuary, as if, so to say, he had been a statue, while his ministers stood around him in fear and reverence. At this sight, and it was indeed a sight unparalleled, overcome by human weakness, [Valens'] eyes were affected with dimness and giddiness, his mind with dread…he was staggering, and had not someone in the sanctuary reached out a hand to steady his tottering steps, he would have sunk to the ground in a lamentable fall.” (Oration 43.52)
It seems as though the immovable object won this time.
One might think from his upbringing that the great saint from modern-day Kayseri was groomed for such a power struggle. Born into a Christian family (329/330 AD) with a rhetoric teaching father, Basil was preparing for a life of learning in Constantinople and Athens (where he met his friend Gregory of Nazianzus). He was brother to 9 siblings, 4 of which have been canonized in the Church, including his elder sister, Macrina. He eventually left his studies in search of a happiness which he found to be “empty” in Athens. (Oration 43.18)
Thus, he began a year and a half tour in the eastern Mediterranean, following the highly self-disciplined religious devotees, or ascetics, of the area. In the end he returned to his family retreat home on the Iris River (in present-day Sivas). Far from wanting to engage in ecclesiastical affairs, his search was more private.
It was at this time spent with his sister at her make-shift monastery that his life decidedly changed, according to his brother, Gregory of Nyssa. Basil saw his coming to faith as an awakening.
“Much time had I spent in vanity, and had wasted nearly all my youth in the vain labour 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 came to naught. (1 Corinthians 2:6) 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.” (Letter 223.2)
BIRTH OF CAPPADOCIAN 4TH CENTURY MONASTICISM
During this retreat time what he was pursuing was not to be found in a life of being physically cut off from the world, which is what he saw in the ascetics in Egypt. Instead, he diagnosed himself in this way: “I carry my own troubles with me, and so everywhere I am in the midst of similar discomforts.” (Letter 2.1) He couldn’t escape himself, so there was no considerable benefit from sequestering himself from society.
Out of this was born Basil’s vision for a community of believers who sought after a “quiet mind” in the midst of a community of like-minded persons. This was his great contribution to the development of the monastic movement: communal living, on which he wrote extensively, later becoming known as Basil’s Longer Rules. This was his call to the ascetics who had been wandering the Cappadocia valleys, such as those you might hear about during your trip to Cappadocia, who sat atop fairy chimneys (monks similar to St. Simon of Paşa Bağı of the 5th century) in order to commune with God.
This was Basil’s “conversion”: from the pursuit of worldly wisdom, personified by the academy in Athens, to the life of a “quiet mind”, where one can put himself in an atmosphere where he can see the “light of the Gospel” and thus be transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Excursus: So, did Basil found the monastery at the Open Air Museum in Goreme?
As Basil later became Bishop of Caesarea his teachings and influence began to spread, thus, his call for communal living in all probability influenced people who were already living in the valley. So, in an indirect way he did “found” it, but I personally doubt that he came out to Goreme in order to physically set up the monastery. His teachings however, without a doubt, governed the communal setting.
Around 367/368 AD a severe famine broke out in the Cappadocia region. Basil summed up the dire situation very succinctly: “The hungry are dying.” (Homily 6.6) How did he respond? Basil addressed the rich to open their stores of food (quite possibly referring to the naturally refrigerated caves near Ortahisar and other villages) to the poor by delivering a series of sermons and writings on the subject, as well as personally becoming involved. Below is Gregory of Nazianzus’ account of Basil’s actions:
“For by his word and advice he opened the stores of those who possessed them, and so, according to the Scripture dealt food to the hungry, and satisfied the poor with bread, and fed them in the time of dearth, and filled the hungry souls with good things. And in what way? for this is no slight addition to his praise. He gathered together the victims of the famine with some who were but slightly recovering from it, men and women, infants, old men, every age which was in distress, and obtaining contributions of all sorts of food which can relieve famine, set before them basins of soup and such meat as was found preserved among us, on which the poor live. Then, imitating the ministry of Christ, Who, girded with a towel, did not disdain to wash the disciples’ feet, using for this purpose the aid of his own servants, and also of his fellow servants, he attended to the bodies and souls of those who needed it, combining personal respect with the supply of their necessity, and so giving them a double relief.” (Oration 43.35)
A few years later (372 AD) Basil opened a hospice for those still recovering from the famine a little ways outside of Caesarea, known as the Basileias, where they cared for the leper and the poor. They also supplied those who were able with employment and training in various trades. Basil called it a ptochotropheion, “a place to feed, nurture and patronize the destitute poor”. The complex included apartments for the bishop, his guests, needy travelers and of course, the poor. (Letter 94)
The Cappadocian Fathers filled a unique place in the history of the church. Those who were before them hammered out the orthodox Nicene Creed, which in its original form, and/or slightly amended form, is accepted by all three major expressions of the Christian faith: Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. How the divine and human natures of Jesus of Nazareth co-existed and what their relationship was to God the Father was of primary focus at the Council of Nicea (325 AD),which was instigated by the heretical teachings of Arius, a presbyter at Alexandria.
The fact that this man was exonerated 10 years later is proof that the debate was still far from over. Not only was Basil continuing to defend and uphold the “of one essence” Nicene teaching, but a new front was forming: the Holy Spirit. What was it? How did he/it relate to God the Father, and God the Son?
In my reading of church history no other time was more pivotal in the orthodox recognition and explanation of the Triune nature of God as revealed in the Old and New Testaments than during the living years of St Basil.
So, what did Basil have to say about the Holy Spirit? He began this debate in response to Eunomius (born in the small village of Dacora, near Mt. Argeus in Cappadocia), bishop of Cyzicus, culminating in his opus, On The Holy Spirit, a few years later. Essentially, Basil says that because the Spirit is so closely tied with the Father and the Son in worship, liturgy and hymns, the Spirit too must share in a common nature with the others. The text he loved to quote to uphold this belief was Matthew 28:19:
“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
It was in one name that believers were to be baptized, not three different names.
Interestingly, even though Basil goes to great lengths to point out that the Holy Spirit is equal in rank and deserving of the same glory as the Father and the Son, he never fully comes out and declares that the Holy Spirit shares in the same “essence/consubstantiation” with God in any of his writings. Because of this he was criticized by others in his day, as they must have interpreted this omission as being an indicator that he didn’t believe in the deity of the Spirit.
Even Gregory of Nazianzus called him out to be clear about this, to which Basil replied, “but now I am sick of the subject, and will say no more about it.” (Letter 71) There is debate among some church historians as to why this reticence, but most suppose that Basil was leery of introducing yet another controversy to the greater church. Let the divinity of the Son, as espoused in the Creed of Nicea, become firmly established in the realm before tackling another huge doctrine. [Personally, I find this a bit confusing because if you read for yourself what Basil writes about the Spirit, especially Letter 236, it seems very clear that he attributes to the Spirit full deity, even if he doesn't use the formula, the Holy Spirit is God.]
Outside of St Augustine, there is no one in early church history that we know more about than Basil of Caesarea. This post only scratches the surface in conveying all that we know of this man through the historical record. Rather, my meager attempts at hand are only to give you a bird’s eye view that might serve you as you visit Cappadocia. Basil’s fingerprints on this area are indelible, even in the present time when there are few active Christian communities in the region. His influence can be seen in the frescoes that grace the walls of ancient caves, preserving the story of when the Triune God visited humanity through His Son, and presently testifies through the work of the Holy Spirit as he illuminates our minds to the Scriptures.
* [Nicene Creed and the bishops that supported it held to what is the orthodox position of the Christian church that Jesus the Son was "of one essence", or "of one substance"[homoousios] with God the Father , as opposed to him being “unlike the Father”: a separate, subordinate, created being.]
What gives a person the courage to stand against an Emperor that has exiled all his colleagues?
Did you enjoy this post? If so, here’s what you can do. Please share this post with your friends by clicking on one of the buttons below or to the side. Also, you may want to subscribe to these posts. Click here and follow the instructions. One of my goals is to help people who will visit Cappadocia. This is your way to help me meet this goal. Thank you, I am grateful.