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Basil Letters And Select Works by Basil

III.--Life at Cæsarea; Baptism; and Adoption of Monastic Life.

When Basil overcame the efforts of his companions to detain him at Athens, Gregory was prevailed on to remain for a while longer. Basil therefore made his rapid journey homeward alone. His Letter to Eustathius alleges as the chief reason for his hurried departure the desire to profit by the instruction of that teacher. This may be the language of compliment. In the same letter he speaks of his fortitude in resisting all temptation to stop at the city on the Hellespont. This city I hesitate to recognise, with Maran, as Constantinople. There may have been inducements to Basil to stop at Lampsacus and it is more probably Lampsacus that he avoided. At Cæsarea he was welcomed as one of the most distinguished of her sons, and there for a time taught rhetoric with conspicuous success. A deputation came from Neocæsarea to request him to undertake educational work at that city, and in vain endeavoured to detain him by lavish promises. According to his friend Gregory, Basil had already determined to renounce the world, in the sense of devoting himself to an ascetic and philosophic life. His brother Gregory, however, represents him as at this period still under more mundane influences, and as shewing something of the self-confidence and conceit which are occasionally to be observed in young men who have just successfully completed an university career, and as being largely indebted to the persuasion and example of his sister Macrina for the resolution, with which he now carried out the determination to devote himself to a life of self-denial. To the same period may probably be referred Basil's baptism. The sacrament was administered by Dianius. It would be quite consonant with the feelings of the times that pious parents like the elder Basil and Emmelia should shrink from admitting their boy to holy baptism before his encountering the temptations of school and university life. The assigned date, 357, may be reasonably accepted, and shortly after his baptism he was ordained Reader. It was about this that he visited monastic settlements in Palestine, Mesopotamia, Coele Syria, and Egypt, though he was not so fortunate as to encounter the great pope Athanasius. Probably during this tour he began the friendship with Eusebius of Samosata which lasted so long.

To the same period we may also refer his renunciation of his share of the family property. Maran would appear to date this before the Syrian and Egyptian tour, a journey which can hardly have been accomplished without considerable expense. But, in truth, with every desire to do justice to the self-denial and unworldliness of St. Basil and of other like-minded and like-lived champions of the Faith, it cannot but be observed that, at all events in Basil's case, the renunciation must be understood with some reasonable reservation. The great archbishop has been claimed as a |socialist,| whatever may be meant in these days by the term. But St. Basil did not renounce all property himself, and had a keen sense of its rights in the case of his friends. From his letter on behalf of his foster-brother, placed by Maran during his presbyterate, it would appear that this foster-brother, Dorotheus, was allowed a life tenancy of a house and farm on the family estate, with a certain number of slaves, on condition that Basil should be supported out of the profits. Here we have landlord, tenant, rent, and unearned increment. St. Basil can scarcely be fairly cited as a practical apostle of some of the chapters of the socialist evangel of the end of the nineteenth century. But ancient eulogists of the great archbishop, anxious to represent him as a good monk, have not failed to foresee that this might be urged in objection to the completeness of his renunciation of the world, in their sense, and to counterbalance it, have cited an anecdote related by Cassian. One day a senator named Syncletius came to Basil to be admitted to his monastery, with the statement that he had renounced his property, excepting only a pittance to save him from manual labour. |You have spoilt a senator,| said Basil, |without making a monk.| Basil's own letter represents him as practically following the example of, or setting an example to, Syncletius.

Stimulated to carry out his purpose of embracing the ascetic life by what he saw of the monks and solitaries during his travels, Basil first of all thought of establishing a monastery in the district of Tiberina. Here he would have been in the near neighbourhood of Arianzus, the home of his friend Gregory. But the attractions of Tiberina were ultimately postponed to those of Ibora, and Basil's place of retreat was fixed in the glen not far from the old home, and only separated from Annesi by the Iris, of which we have Basil's own picturesque description. Gregory declined to do more than pay a visit to Pontus, and so is said to have caused Basil much disappointment. It is a little characteristic of the imperious nature of the man of stronger will, that while he would not give up the society of his own mother and sister in order to be near his friend, he complained of his friend's not making a similar sacrifice in order to be near him. Gregory good-humouredly replies to Basil's depreciation of Tiberina by a counter attack on Cæsarea and Annesi.

At the Pontic retreat Basil now began that system of hard ascetic discipline which eventually contributed to the enfeeblement of his health and the shortening of his life. He complains again and again in his letters of the deplorable physical condition to which he is reduced, and he died at the age of fifty. It is a question whether a constitution better capable of sustaining the fatigue of long journeys, and a life prolonged beyond the Council of Constantinople, would or would not have left a larger mark upon the history of the Church. There can be no doubt, that in Basil's personal conflict with the decadent empire represented by Valens, his own cause was strengthened by his obvious superiority to the hopes and fears of vulgar ambitions. He ate no more than was actually necessary for daily sustenance, and his fare was of the poorest. Even when he was archbishop, no flesh meat was dressed in his kitchens. His wardrobe consisted of one under and one over garment. By night he wore haircloth; not by day, lest he should seem ostentatious. He treated his body, says his brother, with a possible reference to St. Paul, as an angry owner treats a runaway slave. A consistent celibate, he was yet almost morbidly conscious of his unchastity, mindful of the Lord's words as to the adultery of the impure thought. St. Basil relates in strong terms his admiration for the ascetic character of Eustathius of Sebaste, and at this time was closely associated with him. Indeed, Eustathius was probably the first to introduce the monastic system into Pontus, his part in the work being comparatively ignored in later days when his tergiversation had brought him into disrepute. Thus the credit of introducing monasticism into Asia Minor was given to Basil alone. A novel feature of this monasticism was the Coenobium, for hitherto ascetics had lived in absolute solitude, or in groups of only two or three. Thus it was partly relieved from the discredit of selfish isolation and unprofitable idleness.

The example set by Basil and his companions spread. Companies of hard-working ascetics of both sexes were established in every part of Pontus, every one of them an active centre for the preaching of the Nicene doctrines, and their defence against Arian opposition and misconstruction. Probably about this time, in conjunction with his friend Gregory, Basil compiled the collection of the beauties of Origen which was entitled Philocalia. Origen's authority stood high, and both of the main divisions of Christian thought, the Nicene and the Arian, endeavoured to support their respective views from his writings. Basil and Gregory were successful in vindicating his orthodoxy and using his aid in strengthening the Catholic position.

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