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Basil Letters And Select Works by Basil

VI.--Basil as Archbishop.

The archiepiscopal throne was now technically vacant. But the man who had practically filled it, |the keeper and tamer of the lion,| was still alive in the plenitude of his power. What course was he to follow ? Was he meekly to withdraw, and perhaps be compelled to support the candidature of another and an inferior? The indirect evidence has seemed to some strong enough to compel the conclusion that he determined, if possible, to secure his election to the see. Others, on the contrary, have thought him incapable of scheming for the nomination. The truth probably lies between the two extreme views. No intelligent onlooker of the position at Cæsarea on the death of Eusebius, least of all the highly capable administrator of the province, could be blind to the fact that of all possible competitors for the vacant throne Basil himself was the ablest and most distinguished, and the likeliest to be capable of directing the course of events in the interests of orthodoxy. But it does not follow that Basil's appeal to Gregory to come to him was a deliberate step to secure this end. He craved for the support and counsel of his friend; but no one could have known better that Gregory the younger was not the man to take prompt action or rule events. His invention of a fatal sickness, or exaggeration of a slight one, failed to secure even Gregory's presence at Cæsarea. Gregory burst into tears on receipt of the news of his friend's grave illness, and hastened to obey the summons to his side. But on the road he fell in with bishops hurrying to Cæsarea for the election of a successor to Eusebius, and detected the unreality of Basil's plea. He at once returned to Nazianzus and wrote the oft-quoted letter, on the interpretation given to which depends the estimate formed of Basil's action at the important crisis.

Basil may or may not have taken Gregory's advice not to put himself forward. But Gregory and his father, the bishop, from this time strained every nerve to secure the election of Basil. It was felt that the cause of true religion was at stake. |The Holy Ghost must win.| Opposition had to be encountered from bishops who were in open or secret sympathy with Basil's theological opponents, from men of wealth and position with whom Basil was unpopular on account of his practice and preaching of stern self-denial, and from all the lewd fellows of the baser sort in Cæsarea. Letters were written in the name of Gregory the bishop with an eloquence and literary skill which have led them to be generally regarded as the composition of Gregory the younger. To the people of Cæsarea Basil was represented as a man of saintly life and of unique capacity to stem the surging tide of heresy. To the bishops of the province who had asked him to come to Cæsarea without saying why, in the hope perhaps that so strong a friend of Basil's might be kept away from the election without being afterwards able to contest it on the ground that he had had no summons to attend, he expresses an earnest hope that their choice is not a factious and foregone conclusion, and, anticipating possible objections on the score of Basil's weak health, reminds them that they have to elect not a gladiator, but a primate. To Eusebius of Samosata he sends the letter included among those of Basil in which he urges him to cooperate in securing the appointment of a worthy man. Despite his age and physical infirmity, he was laid in his litter, as his son says like a corpse in a grave, and borne to Cæsarea to rise there with fresh vigour and carry the election by his vote. All resistance was overborne, and Basil was seated on the throne of the great exarchate.

The success of the Catholics roused, as was inevitable, various feelings. Athanasius wrote from Alexandria to congratulate Cappadocia on her privilege in being ruled by so illustrious a primate. Valens prepared to carry out the measures against the Catholic province, which had been interrupted by the revolt of Procopius. The bishops of the province who had been narrowly out-voted, and who had refused to take part in the consecration, abandoned communion with the new primate. But even more distressing to the new archbishop than the disaffection of his suffragans was the refusal of his friend Gregory to come in person to support him on his throne. Gregory pleaded that it was better for Basil's own sake that there should be no suspicion of favour to personal friends, and begged to be excused for staying at Nazianzus. Basil complained that his wishes and interests were disregarded, and was hurt at Gregory's refusing to accept high responsibilities, possibly the coadjutor-bishopric, at Cæsarea. A yet further cause of sorrow and annoyance was the blundering attempt of Gregory of Nyssa to effect a reconciliation between his uncle Gregory, who was in sympathy with the disaffected bishops, and his brother. He even went so far as to send more than one forged letter in their uncle's name. The clumsy counterfeit was naturally found out, and the widened breach not bridged without difficulty. The episcopate thus began with troubles, both public and personal. Basil confidently confronted them. His magnanimity and capacity secured the adhesion of his immediate neighbours and subordinates, and soon his energies took a wider range. He directed the theological campaign all over the East, and was ready alike to meet opponents in hand to hand encounter, and to aim the arrows of his epistolary eloquence far and wide. He invokes the illustrious pope of Alexandria to join him in winning the support of the West for the orthodox cause. He is keenly interested in the unfortunate controversy which distracted the Church of Antioch. He makes an earnest appeal to Damasus for the wonted sympathy of the Church at Rome. At the same time his industry in his see was indefatigable. He is keen to secure the purity of ordination and the fitness of candidates. Crowds of working people come to hear him preach before they go to their work for the day. He travels distances which would be thought noticeable even in our modern days of idolatry of the great goddess Locomotion. He manages vast institutions eleemosynary and collegiate. His correspondence is constant and complicated. He seems the personification of the active, rather than of the literary and scholarly, bishop. Yet all the while he is writing tracts and treatises which are monuments of industrious composition, and indicative of a memory stored with various learning, and of the daily and effective study of Holy Scripture.

Nevertheless, while thus actively engaged in fighting the battle of the faith, and in the conscientious discharge of his high duties, he was not to escape an unjust charge of pusillanimity, if not of questionable orthodoxy, from men who might have known him better. On September 7th, probably in 371, was held the festival of St. Eupsychius. Basil preached the sermon. Among the hearers were many detractors. A few days after the festival there was a dinner-party at Nazianzus, at which Gregory was present, with several persons of distinction, friends of Basil. Of the party was a certain unnamed guest, of religious dress and reputation, who claimed a character for philosophy, and said some very hard things against Basil. He had heard the archbishop at the festival preach admirably on the Father and the Son, but the Spirit, he alleged, Basil defamed. While Gregory boldly called the Spirit God, Basil, from poor motives, refrained from any clear and distinct enunciation of the divinity of the Third Person. The unfavourable view of Basil was the popular one at the dinner-table, and Gregory was annoyed at not being able to convince the party that, while his own utterances were of comparatively little importance, Basil had to weigh every word, and to avoid, if possible, the banishment which was hanging over his head. It was better to use a wise |economy| in preaching the truth than so to proclaim it as to ensure the extinction of the light of true religion. Basil shewed some natural distress and astonishment on hearing that attacks against him were readily received.

It was at the close of this same year 371 that Basil and his diocese suffered most severely from the hostility of the imperial government. Valens had never lost his antipathy to Cappadocia. In 370 he determined on dividing it into two provinces. Podandus, a poor little town at the foot of Mt. Taurus, was to be the chief seat of the new province, and thither half the executive was to be transferred. Basil depicts in lively terms the dismay and dejection of Cæsarea. He even thought of proceeding in person to the court to plead the cause of his people, and his conduct is in itself a censure of those who would confine the sympathies of ecclesiastics within rigidly clerical limits. The division was insisted on. But, eventually, Tyana was substituted for Podandus as the new capital; and it has been conjectured that possibly the act of kindness of the prefect mentioned in Ep. LXXVIII. may have been this transfer, due to the intervention of Basil and his influential friends.

But the imperial Arian was not content with this administrative mutilation. At the close of the year 371, flushed with successes against the barbarians, fresh from the baptism of Endoxius, and eager to impose his creed on his subjects, Valens was travelling leisurely towards Syria. He is said to have shrunk from an encounter with the famous primate of Cæsarea, for he feared lest one strong man's firmness might lead others to resist. Before him went Modestus, Prefect of the Prætorium, the minister of his severities, and before Modestus, like the skirmishers in front of an advancing army, had come a troop of Arian bishops with Euippius, in all probability, at their head. Modestus found on his arrival that Basil was making a firm stand, and summoned the archbishop to his presence with the hope of overawing him. He met with a dignity, if not with a pride, which was more than a match for his own. Modestus claimed submission in the name of the emperor. Basil refused it in the name of God. Modestus threatened impoverishment, exile, torture, death. Basil retorted that none of these threats frightened him: he had nothing to be confiscated except a few rags and a few books; banishment could not send him beyond the lands of God; torture had no terrors for a body already dead; death could only come as a friend to hasten his last journey home. Modestus exclaimed in amazement that he had never been so spoken to before. |Perhaps,| replied Basil, |you never met a bishop before.| The prefect hastened to his master and reported that ordinary means of intimidation appeared unlikely to move this undaunted prelate. The archbishop must be owned victorious, or crushed by more brutal violence. But Valens, like all weak natures, oscillated between compulsion and compliance. He so far abated his pretensions to force heresy on Cappadocia, as to consent to attend the services at the Church on the Festival of the Epiphany. The Church was crowded. A mighty chant thundered over the sea of heads. At the end of the basilica, facing the multitude, stood Basil, statue-like, erect as Samuel among the prophets at Naioth, and quite indifferent to the interruption of the imperial approach. The whole scene seemed rather of heaven than of earth, and the orderly enthusiasm of the worship to be rather of angels than of men. Valens half fainted, and staggered as he advanced to make his offering at God's Table. On the following day Basil admitted him within the curtain of the sanctuary, and conversed with him at length on sacred subjects.

The surroundings and the personal appearance of the interlocutors were significant. The apse of the basilica was as a holy of holies secluded from the hum and turmoil of the vast city. It was typical of what the Church was to the world. The health and strength of the Church were personified in Basil. He was now in the ripe prime of life but bore marks of premature age. Upright in carriage, of commanding stature, thin, with brown hair and eyes, and long beard, slightly bald, with bent brow, high cheek bones, and smooth skin, he would shew in every tone and gesture at once his high birth and breeding, the supreme culture that comes of intercourse with the noblest of books and of men, and the dignity of a mind made up and of a heart of single purpose. The sovereign presented a marked contrast to the prelate. Valens was of swarthy complexion, and by those who approached him nearly it was seen that one eye was defective. He was strongly built, and of middle height, but his person was obese, and his legs were crooked. He was hesitating and unready in speech and action. It is on the occasion of this interview that Theodoret places the incident of Basil's humorous retort to Demosthenes, the chief of the imperial kitchen, the Nebuzaradan, as the Gregories style him, of the petty fourth century Nebuchadnezzar. This Demosthenes had already threatened the archbishop with the knife, and been bidden to go back to his fire. Now he ventured to join in the imperial conversation, and made some blunder in Greek. |An illiterate Demosthenes!| exclaimed Basil; |better leave theology alone, and go back to your soups.| The emperor was amused at the discomfiture of his satellite, and for a while seemed inclined to be friendly. He gave Basil lands, possibly part of the neighbouring estate of Macellum, to endow his hospital.

But the reconciliation between the sovereign and the primate was only on the surface. Basil would not admit the Arians to communion, and Valens could not brook the refusal. The decree of exile was to be enforced, though the pens had refused to form the letters of the imperial signature. Valens, however, was in distress at the dangerous illness of Galates, his infant son. and, on the very night of the threatened expatriation, summoned Basil to pray over him. A brief rally was followed by relapse and death, which were afterwards thought to have been caused by the young prince's Arian baptism. Rudeness was from time to time shewn to the archbishop by discourteous and unsympathetic magistrates, as in the case of the Pontic Vicar, who tried to force an unwelcome marriage on a noble widow. The lady took refuge at the altar, and appealed to Basil for protection. The magistrate descended to contemptible insinuation, and subjected the archbishop to gross rudeness. His ragged upper garment was dragged from his shoulder, and his emaciated frame was threatened with torture. He remarked that to remove his liver would relieve him of a great inconvenience.

Nevertheless, so far as the civil power was concerned, Basil, after the famous visit of Valens, was left at peace. He had triumphed. Was it a triumph for the nobler principles of the Gospel? Had he exhibited a pride and an irritation unworthy of the Christian name? Jerome, in a passage of doubtful genuineness and application, is reported to have regarded his good qualities as marred by the one bane of pride, a |leaven| of which sin is admitted by Milman to have been exhibited by Basil, as well as uncompromising firmness. The temper of Basil in the encounter with Valens would probably have been somewhat differently regarded had it not been for the reputation of a hard and overbearing spirit which he has won from his part in transactions to be shortly touched on. His attitude before Valens seems to have been dignified without personal haughtiness, and to have shewn sparks of that quiet humour which is rarely exhibited in great emergencies except by men who are conscious of right and careless of consequences to self.

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