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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : X.--Troubles of the Closing Years.

Basil Letters And Select Works by Basil

X.--Troubles of the Closing Years.

The relief to the Catholic East was brief. The paroxysm of passion which caused Valentinian to break a blood-vessel and ended his life, ended also the force of the imperial rescript. The Arians lifted their heads again. A council was held at Ancyra, in which the homoousion was condemned, and frivolous and vexatious charges were brought against Gregory of Nyssa. At Cyzicus a Semiarian synod blasphemed the Holy Spirit. Similar proceedings characterized a synod of Antioch at about the same time. Gregory of Nyssa having been prevented by illness from appearing before the synod of Ancyra, Eustathius and Demosthenes persisted in their efforts to wound Basil through his brother, and summoned a synod at Nyssa itself, where Gregory was condemned in his absence and deposed. He was not long afterwards banished. On the other hand the Catholic bishops were not inactive. Synods were held on their part, and at Iconium Amphilochius presided over a gathering at which Basil was perhaps present himself, and where his treatise on the Holy Spirit was read and approved. The Illyrian Council was a result incommensurate with Basil's passionate entreaties for the help of the westerns. From the midst of the troubles which beset the Eastern Church Basil appealed, as he had appealed before, for the sympathy and active aid of the other half of the empire. He was bitterly chagrined at the failure of his entreaties for support, and began to suspect that the neglect he complained of was due to coldness and to pride. It has seemed to some that this coldness in the West was largely due to resentment at Basil's non-recognition of the supremacy of the Roman see. In truth the supremacy of the Roman see, as it has been understood in later times, was hardly in the horizon. No bishop of Rome had even been present at Nicæa, or at Sardica, where a certain right of appeal to his see was conceded. A bishop of Rome signed the Sirmian blasphemy. No bishop of Rome was present to save the world' from the lapse of Ariminum. Julian |might seem to have forgotten that there was such a city as Rome.| The great intellectual Arian war was fought out without any claim of Rome to speak. Half a century after Basil's death great orientals were quite unconscious of this supremacy. At Chalcedon the measure of the growing claim is aptly typified by the wish of Paschasinus of Lilybæum, one of the representatives of Leo, to be regarded as presiding, though he did not preside. The supremacy is hardly in view even at the last of the four great Councils.

In fact the appeal of Basil seems to have failed to elicit the response he desired, not so much from the independent tone of his letters, which was only in accordance with the recognised facts of the age, as from occidental suspicions of Basil's orthodoxy, and from the failure of men, who thought and wrote in Latin, to enter fully into the controversies conducted in a more subtle tongue. Basil had taken every precaution to ensure the conveyance of his letters by messengers of tact and discretion. He had deprecated the advocacy of so simple-minded and undiplomatic an ambassador as his brother Gregory. He had poured out his very soul in entreaty. But all was unavailing. He suffered, and he had to suffer unsupported by a human sympathy on which he thought he had a just claim.

It is of a piece with Basil's habitual silence on the general affairs of the empire that he should seem to be insensible of the shock caused by the approach of the Goths in 378. A letter to Eusebius in exile in Thrace does shew at least a consciousness of a disturbed state of the country, and he is afraid of exposing his courier to needless danger by entrusting him with a present for his friend. But this is all. He may have written letters shewing an interest in the fortunes of the empire which have not been preserved. But his whole soul was absorbed in the cause of Catholic truth, and in the fate of the Church. His youth had been steeped in culture, but the work of his ripe manhood left no time for the literary amusement of the dilettante. So it may be that the intense earnestness with which he said to himself, |This one thing I do,| of his work as a shepherd of souls, and a fighter for the truth, and his knowledge that for the doing of this work his time was short, accounts for the absence from his correspondence of many a topic of more than contemporary interest. At all events, it is not difficult to descry that the turn in the stream of civil history was of vital moment to the cause which Basil held dear. The approach of the enemy was fraught with important consequences to the Church. The imperial attention was diverted from persecution of the Catholics to defence of the realm. Then came the disaster of Adrianople, and the terrible end of the unfortunate Valens. Gratian, a sensible lad, of Catholic sympathies, restored the exiled bishops, and Basil, in the few months of life yet left him, may have once more embraced his faithful friend Eusebius. The end drew rapidly near. Basil was only fifty, but he was an old man. Work, sickness, and trouble had worn him out. His health had never been good. A chronic liver complaint was a constant cause of distress and depression.

In 373 he had been at death's door. Indeed, the news of his death was actually circulated, and bishops arrived at Cæsarea with the probable object of arranging the succession. He had submitted to the treatment of a course of natural hot baths, but with small beneficial result. By 376, as he playfully reminds Amphilochius, he had lost all his teeth. At last the powerful mind and the fiery enthusiasm of duty were no longer able to stimulate the energies of the feeble frame.

The winter of 378-9 dealt the last blow, and with the first day of what, to us, is now the new year, the great spirit fled. Gregory, alas! was not at the bedside. But he has left us a narrative which bears the stamp of truth. For some time the bystanders thought that the dying bishop had ceased to breathe. Then the old strength blazed out at the last. He spoke with vigour, and even ordained some of the faithful who were with him. Then he lay once more feeble and evidently passing away. Crowds surrounded his residence, praying eagerly for his restoration to them, and willing to give their lives for his. With a few final words of advice and exhortation, he said: |Into thy hands I commend my spirit,| and so ended.

The funeral was a scene of intense excitement and rapturous reverence. Crowds filled every open space, and every gallery and window; Jews and Pagans joined with Christians in lamentation, and the cries and groans of the agitated oriental multitude drowned the music of the hymns which were sung. The press was so great that several fatal accidents added to the universal gloom. Basil was buried in the |sepulchre of his fathers| -- a phrase which may possibly mean in the ancestral tomb of his family at Cæsarea.

So passed away a leader of men in whose case the epithet great' is no conventional compliment. He shared with his illustrious brother primate of Alexandria the honour of rallying the Catholic forces in the darkest days of the Arian depression. He was great as foremost champion of a great cause, great in contemporary and posthumous influence, great in industry and self-denial, great as a literary controversialist. The estimate formed of him by his contemporaries is expressed in the generous, if somewhat turgid, eloquence of the laudatory oration of the slighted Gregory of Nazianzus. Yet nothing in Gregory's eulogy goes beyond the expressions of the prelate who has seemed to some to be |the wisest and holiest man in the East in the succeeding century.| Basil is described by the saintly and learned Theodoret in terms that might seem exaggerated when applied to any but his master, as the light not of Cappadocia only, but of the world. To Sophronius he is the |glory of the Church.| To Isidore of Pelusium, he seems to speak as one inspired. To the Council of Chalcedon he is emphatically a minister of grace; to the second council of Nicæa a layer of the foundations of orthodoxy. His death lacks the splendid triumph of the martyrdoms of Polycarp and Cyprian. His life lacks the vivid incidents which make the adventures of Athanasius an enthralling romance. He does not attract the sympathy evoked by the unsophisticated simplicity of Gregory his friend or of Gregory his brother. There does not linger about his memory the close personal interest that binds humanity to Augustine, or the winning loyalty and tenderness that charm far off centuries into affection for Theodoret. Sometimes he seems a hard, almost a sour man. Sometimes there is a jarring reminder of his jealousy for his own dignity. Evidently he was not a man who could be thwarted without a rupture of pleasant relations, or slighted with impunity. In any subordinate position he was not easy to get on with. But a man of strong will, convicted that he is championing a righteous cause, will not hesitate to sacrifice, among other things, the amenities that come of amiable absence of self-assertion. To Basil, to assert himself was to assert the truth of Christ and of His Church. And in the main the identification was a true one. Basil was human, and occasionally, as in the famous dispute with Anthimus, so disastrously fatal to the typical friendship of the earlier manhood, he may have failed to perceive that the Catholic cause would not suffer from the existence of two metropolitans in Cappadocia. But the great archbishop could be an affectionate friend, thirsty for sympathy. And he was right in his estimate of his position. Broadly speaking, Basil, more powerfully than any contemporary official, worker, or writer in the Church, did represent and defend through all the populous provinces of the empire which stretched from the Balkans to the Mediterranean, from the Ægean to the Euphrates, the cause whose failure or success has been discerned, even by thinkers of no favourable predisposition, to have meant death or life to the Church. St. Basil is duly canonized in the grateful memory, no less than in the official bead-roll, of Christendom, and we may be permitted to regret that the existing Kalendar of the Anglican liturgy has not found room for so illustrious a Doctor in its somewhat niggard list. For the omission some amends have lately been made in the erection of a statue of the great archbishop of Cæsarea under the dome of the Cathedral St. Paul in London.

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