Tag Archives: love for poor

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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A crucified life: John Chrysostom: fourth century celibate leader

Sunset in Istanbul (once Constantinople)

‘God does not refuse it [the gift of celibacy] to anyone who asks Him for it with fervour … this gift is granted to all those who wish for it and who ask for it.’

‘The root and flower of celibacy is a crucified life.’

To celibates: ‘You have a heavenly bridegroom, indeed for whom it is well worth making any sacrifice here on earth.’

John Chrysostom 344? – 407

Soon after his death this celebrated leader of the eastern church gained the virtue name Chrysostom, meaning ‘golden mouth’, due to his great eloquence and ability to preach the gospel in a way that everyone could understand.

John Chrysostom was born in Antioch, Syria, and his father, Secundus, was chief commander of the imperial troops there. Secundus died young and the care of his young family was left to his wife, Anthusa, who was only twenty. She was a devoted Christian and never remarried. One of John’s pagan tutors, on seeing her courage in widowhood commented, ‘God, what women these Christians have!’

Around the year 374, John retired to the mountains near Antioch and for four years lived with some monks who lived in community there. Describing the experience he says, ‘The cold words mine and thine were banished … no one possessed anything as his own and the quality of life there was as different from the world as the security of a peaceful harbour is from the most tempestuous ocean.’ Later he lived as a hermit in a cave but ill health caused him to return to the city.

In 381 John became a deacon, in 384 he was ordained a priest and in 398 he was appointed, against his will, Archbishop of Constantinople but, from the start, his no-compromise stance and his powerful and controversial preaching made him enemies as well as friends. The previous bishop of Constantinople had lived at great expense but John lived very frugally and gave all excess money to the poor and sick of the city. Not only did he sell the luxurious furniture belonging to his extravagant predecessor, he even smelted down some sacred church vessels and gave the proceeds to the poor. He started many hospitals in the city which were staffed by priests whom, he insisted, had to be not only of holy character but full of tenderness, compassion and wisdom too.

John reformed the priesthood and with his eloquent, fiery, persuasive preaching, fearlessly attacked unholiness in the church. Yet, underlying this, was a tender and passionate love for his flock. He could describe himself as their ‘slave’ and said that same slavery was his delight. Particularly knowing his special care and oversight were a very devoted group of celibate women belonging to his flock led by a certain woman, Nicareta, and in his preaching he never tired of recommending that celibacy chosen for God’s sake was the better way, for those who were called to it. He wrote:

God does not refuse it [the gift of celibacy] to anyone who asks Him for it with fervour … this gift is granted to all those who wish for it and who ask for it.”

John was a man of action, sending missionaries abroad and serving the underprivileged in his home city, Constantinople. Yet, undergirding his powerful ministry and great productiveness was a heart which loved quietness, contemplation and prayer.

John Chrysostom wrote a good deal, and included amongst his writings are three small works, entitled: ‘On Virginity,’ ‘To a Young Widow’ and ‘Single Marriage’. In these he sets out his views on the single life. For him celibacy was not so much about abstinence but about giving oneself wholesale to purity and finding a special consecration to Christ.  It is not an easy way, he writes, for ‘one must walk on burning coals without being

a crucified life

scorched, on a naked sword without being wounded, since lust is as overpowering as fire and steel.’ But these temptations, writes John, can be overcome and the rewards one finds in the celibate call are beyond any price. Indeed, through the power of the Spirit the gift of celibacy can have a transforming effect on human beings. ‘The root and flower of celibacy is a crucified life,’ John writes to celibates and yet, ‘You have a heavenly Bridegroom, indeed for Whom it is well worth making any sacrifice here on earth.’

John’s outspokenness against the city’s vices won him enemies, not least the Empress, Eudoxia, who secured his banishment from Constantinople on two occasions. The second time he was exiled he was dispatched to the far reaches of the empire where the inhospitable climate caused his weakening strength to finally fail. If he had had a thousand lives he would be ready to lay them all down for his flock, he had said at his first banishment and now, on the eve of his death he had a vision of a former martyr standing before him saying: “Be of good courage, brother John; tomorrow we shall be together.”

And so he died, greatly venerated; his remains were eventually taken in honour first to Constantinople and then to Rome.


Posted by on Thu 23rd Aug 2012 in Historical


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