Prescriptions from the Doctors of the Church: Saint Basil the Great (c. 330–January 1, 379)

Saint Basil the Great is one of the thirty-six saints who are Doctors of the Church. The Doctors of the Church are renowned for their holiness and also for their important teachings. Using the doctor metaphor, we can say that in a sense each Doctor of the Church gives us a “prescription” for spiritual growth. Saint Basil’s particular prescription for holiness will help you create and keep a simple plan of holiness for your life.

Basil came from a family of saints. His parents are Saint Basil the Elder and Saint Emmelia of Caesarea. Four of their ten children also became saints—Basil, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter. Basil studied in Athens, where he became close friends with Saint Gregory Nazianzen. After this, Basil had a spiritual awakening that led him to focus on his interior life. He visited various monasteries and later established his own. He wrote a Rule for monks that became the foundation of monastic life in the East. His Rule influenced Saint Benedict who wrote the Rule that would influence the West.

Basil eventually left the monastery to become a hermit. However, Archbishop Eusebius of Caesarea soon summoned him to refute Arius’s teachings that Christ was not divine. Basil had much success in refuting Arianism and in 370 became a bishop himself. Basil also wrote important works that helped the Church articulate the dogma of the Trinity. Basil had a great influence on the Eastern liturgy, composing many prayers and hymns. As bishop, Basil was known for his tireless work for the sick and the poor, for whom he built many soup kitchens and a huge hospital. He was so beloved by Christians and non-Christians alike that upon his death, the entire city mourned.

Basil’s prescription: Have a balanced plan for your spiritual life.

Saint Basil’s rule for monks is essentially a very balanced plan for growing in the spiritual life. But if it’s for monks, what does that have to do with the lives of busy people today?

It doesn’t mean adopting his particular plan, also called a rule of life. The first responsibility each of us has is to faithfully fulfill the duties of our state in life. Most people are called to marriage, so their plan will have a lot to do with loving one’s spouse and children, while pursuing a career to support their family.

Basil’s rule is known for balance and moderations. He did away with any extreme ascetical practices (like excessive fasting or sleep deprivation). So any plan we develop for our own lives should also be balanced. Lay people can’t live as if they were monks. They can love their family in practical ways and be Christ for each other.

Write down your own personalized plan of life.

You can include some spiritual practices that you can take on. Sunday Mass should be a given, because it is an obligation for all Catholics. But could you attend Mass on another day too? Or put in some prayer time such as the rosary and reading the Bible? If you are a parent you can help your children to learn about and practice their faith.

Some practical things to do:

  • Write your own spiritual plan of life. For help with this consult the book Plan of Life by Fr. Roger Landry.
  • Don’t overwhelm yourself. It’s better to do a few things you can follow through on, rather than trying to do so many things you’ll give up.
  • Is there some area of life where you need better balance? For example, people often have trouble finding balance in regard to food. If you find yourself eating too much junk food, learn how to cook simple, healthful meals and don’t buy the junk food. Focus on the area that will make the most difference in your life.

Prayer

Saint Basil, you knew how to lead a balanced life centered on God. Pray for us as we too strive to give our whole lives to God day by day, practicing virtue and loving God and our neighbor day by day.

Feast: January 2 (with Saint Gregory Nazianzen)
Patron: Russia, monks, tailors

Selection from Saint Basil:

On Charity toward One’s Neighbor

We have already said that the law [of God] develops and maintains the powers existing in germ within us. And since we are directed to love our neighbor as ourselves, let us consider whether we have received from the Lord the power to fulfill this commandment also. Who does not know that man is a civilized and gregarious animal, neither savage nor a lover of solitude? Nothing, indeed, is so compatible with our nature as living in society and in dependence upon one another and as loving our own kind. Now, the Lord himself gave to us the seeds of these qualities in anticipation of his requiring in due time their fruits, for he says: “A new commandment I give you: that you love one another” (Jn 13:34). Moreover, wishing to animate our soul to the observance of this commandment, he did not require signs of wonders as the means of recognizing his disciples (although he gave the power of working these also in the Holy Spirit), but he says: “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Further, he establishes so close a connection between the two great commandments that benefit conferred upon the neighbor is transferred to himself: “For I was hungry,” he says, “and you gave me to eat” (Mt 25:35). . . .

It is, accordingly, possible to keep the second commandment by observing the first, and by means of the second we are led back to the first. He who loves the Lord loves his neighbor in consequence. “If anyone love me,” said the Lord, “he will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:23); and again, he says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). On the other hand, he who loves his neighbor fulfills the love he owes to God, for he accepts this favor as shown to himself. Wherefore Moses, that faithful servant of God, manifested such great love for his brethren as to wish his name to be struck off the book of God in which it was inscribed, if the sin of his people were not pardoned (see Ex 32:32). Paul, also, desiring to be, like Christ, an exchange for the salvation of all, dared to pray that he might be an anathema from Christ for the sake of his brethren who were his kinsmen according to the flesh (see Rom 9:3).Yet, at the same time he knew that it was impossible for him to be estranged from God through his having rejected his favor for love of him and for the sake of that great commandment; moreover, he knew that he would receive in return much more than he gave.

From the Long Rules for monks

By Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouvé, FSP

St Basil, On the Long Rules part I, Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1950, page 25-26.

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