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Part 2: Basil the Great: ‘Belonging to the Poor’

basil the great 2 Part 2 of the life of Basil the Great

When a sharp famine arose, Basil provided for the destitute out of offerings the rich gave. He distributed bread in person among them, waited upon them at table with an apron wrapped around him and afterwards, washed their feet.

In AD 370, after being appointed Bishop of Caesarea, Basil founded a large complex of hospitals and hostels known as the Basiliad or Ptochoptopheion (New Town). Here the poor, the ill, orphans and old people were able to receive food, shelter, and medical care free of charge and industrial training for the unskilled was given. Its success resulted in other hospitals in Constantinople and Alexandra being built on similar lines. Basil himself lived in a monastic community at the heart of the Basiliad. The Basiliad itself was run by monks and nuns as well as lay people.

After an earthquake Basil worked for days digging through the rubble in order to save those who were trapped; he urged everyone around to share what food they had and organised food to be planted so people would not starve.

Basil encouraged the poor to help those worse off. “Give your last loaf to the beggar at your door,” he urged,and trust in God’s goodness.”

In AD 378 as he lay dying, the whole city gathered about the door and when he died (on 1 January AD 379, aged 51) huge numbers attended his funeral. Even pagans and Jews wept with the Christians, one commentator noted, lamenting the death of a common father to all.

Basil wrote that choosing the gift of celibacy would greatly help people in their quest to share the very nature of God Himself. Celibacy, he said, is not merely about abstaining from sex. The celibate gifting should shine through the celibate’s “whole life, conduct and moral character.” Their “every action” must display the celibate way they have chosen. He describes it as “the way of angels” that goes beyond the limitations of ordinary human nature … and when free of marriage they may “not to be distracted by any created beauty, but to be constantly intent upon the divine countenance.”

Oriental monks still follow the rule Basil wrote over sixteen hundred years ago and he is known as father of Eastern monastic communities.  He was a man who ‘belonged’ in a unique sense to the poor. If only more of us today would listen to his advice : “If we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.”

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Posted by on Thu 10th Jan 2013 in Historical

 

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Part 1: Basil the Great: ‘Belonging to the Poor’

basil the great We belong to the beggar on the street

To the people that we meet in our town.

We belong to the refugee

The single mother on her knees, we belong.

 

We belong to the gang in the yard

To the woman who is hard up and sad

We belong to the kids without dad

To the one going mad, we belong.

These lines from a song, written by a celibate who lives in London, express a recurring theme  in church history: celibates, having left the possibility of producing natural children, often possess a sense that they belong in a unique way not only to the church but to the disadvantaged and the poor – spiritual orphans – and have received a call to love and serve them.

Basil the Great  who died on 1 January AD 379,  was one of these and his initiative, the Basiliad, a large complex for the poor and disadvantaged in his home town, was considered by some at the time as one of the wonders of the world.

Basil  was one of the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’, a church leadership trio in what is now Turkey in the fourth century.  The trio  included Basil’s  brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and friend, Gregory of Nazianzus. They guided the church through turbulent times and their influence was felt for many years to come.

Basil was born in AD 329 at Caesarea (central Turkey). His parents and grandparents were Christians. His grandmother, Macrina, who played a large part in his upbringing, had spent seven years hidden in a forest fleeing persecution and her faith exerted a huge influence on Basil.

Basil was a student, first in Constantinople and then Athens. At Athens, he met up with an old friend Gregory (of Nazianzus). They became life-long friends, sharing a great zeal to serve God and keep away from anything that would spoil their love for Jesus.  They pooled their possessions and shared what they had, including lodgings and meals, and studied, fasted and prayed together.

A promising career lay ahead for Basil; he was very able but he hated the pride this wrought within him and, encouraged by his friend Gregory and sister Macrina, left aside his career, got baptised, gave his wealth to the poor and dedicated his life to seeking God. Like his friend Gregory, he chose a life of celibacy.

Basil’s mother, Emmelia, and sister, Macrina, had founded a community for women in his hometown. Basil followed their vision, establishing a community of men on the opposite side of the river, which he led for five years until his brother, Peter, took over. Basil founded several other communities in the district, both of men and women, and drew up a rule for them.  He was a great believer in community – believing it was better for celibates to live in such a way rather than the solitary existence that monks often led in those days.

Basil felt that caring for disadvantaged people was integral to his calling, a way of loving commanded by Jesus Himself. In his writings and preaching he drew graphic attention to their plight and used all his persuasive powers to encourage the rich to give away their wealth: “For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love,” he wrote.

For Basil, ‘the poor’ were not impersonal recipients of alms and worldly goods given away to rid the soul from that  which encumbers. ‘The poor’ had a face and his writings vividly personalized their troubles.

“When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

Part 2: Next week.

 
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Posted by on Tue 1st Jan 2013 in Contemporary, Historical

 

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