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St. Basil the Great, June 14

Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Biographical selection (from The Golden Legend):

Basil was a venerable Bishop and an eminent Doctor. His life was written by Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium.

St. Basil the Great

St. Basil the Great
Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Basil’s great holiness was made manifest in a vision granted to a hermit named Ephrem, who, being rapt in ecstasy, saw a column of fire the tip of which touched heaven, and heard a voice from above saying: “Basil is as great as the immense column you see before you.”

Ephrem therefore went into the city on the feast of the Epiphany because he wanted to look upon this great man. When he saw the Bishop clothed in shining white vestments moving solemnly in procession with his clergy, he said to himself:

“I know now that I have gone to all this trouble for nothing! This man who lives surrounded by such honors certainly cannot be the great saint I expected to see! How could such a man in such glory be seen by Heaven as a column of fire in preference to us, who bear the burden of the open seasons in our hermitages.”

Basil knew in spirit what was going through Ephrem’s mind and had the hermit brought before him; and when he came to the Bishop’s presence, he saw a tongue of flame coming out of the Bishop’s mouth as the hermit spoke. “Truly Basil is great,” Ephrem exclaimed, “truly Basil is a column of fire, truly the Holy Spirit speaks through his mouth!” And to the Bishop, Ephrem said: “I beg of you, my lord, to obtain for me the ability to speak Greek.” Basil replied: “You have asked for something very strange.” Nevertheless he prayed for the hermit, who at once began to speak Greek.

There was another hermit who, seeing Basil somewhere in procession in his episcopal robes, despised him, thinking in his heart that the Bishop took much pleasure in such pomp. And a voice spoke to him, saying: “You there, you have more delight in stroking yuour cat's back in your hermitage than Basil takes in the apparel of his dignity!”

Emperor Valens, who was partial to the Arians, confiscated a church that belonged to the Catholics and gave it to the heretics. Basil went to the Emperor and said: “Your Majesty, it is written that the honor of the king loves judgment, and the judgment of the king loves justice. Why then has your heart ordered that the Catholics be excluded from their church and it be given to Arians?”

“So there you are, Basil,” the Emperor retorted, “shaming me again! This is unworthy of you!”

Basil replied: “What is worthy of me is to die, if I must, for justice!”

Then Demosthenes, who was in charge of the Emperor’s table and was also a partisan of the Arians, spoke in defense of the heretics and treated the Bishop insolently. “Your business is to cook chicken for the Emperor,” Basil answered, “and not to cook divine dogmas!” The steward, in confusion, had no more to say.

Valens now addressed the Bishop: “Basil, go and give judgment in this case, but do not be swayed by immoderate love of the people.” So Basil went before the Catholics and the Arians and proposed that the doors of the church be closed and sealed with the seal of each party, and that the church would belong to the party at whose prayer the doors opened. This satisfied everybody. The Arians then prayed for three days and three nights, but when they came to the church the next morning, the doors were not opened. Then Basil led a procession to the church, prayed, gave the doors a light blow with his pastoral crook, ordering them to open. The doors flew open at once, all the people went in, thanking God, and the church was returned to the Catholics.

Comments of Prof. Plinio:

These are beautiful stories, each one of which would deserve a special comment.

They are stories lacking historical rigor, since they are semi-legend. The Golden Legend is made up of semi-historical legends. Some of these things happened, others did not. And the true events are not necessarily narrated just as they happened. They were embellished by the imagination of the medieval people. Notwithstanding, they have a great spiritual value because they indicate how the piety of those people so filled with devotion painted the figures of the saints. This cannot simply be dismissed as a lie, because it is not.

St. Basil lived in a time of many heresies. He waged an enormous fight against the Arian heresy and also against the Emperor. In general, the Emperors of Byzantium wanted to control the Church. Since the Catholic Church did not allow them to do this while the Arian bishops permitted it, the Emperors supported Arianism. According to Catholic doctrine, the Church is a perfect society, that is, in the spiritual sphere she is a sovereign society that can be governed only by herself, using her own authority. Following this doctrine the Catholic Church stood as a natural obstacle to the absolutism of the Byzantine Emperors, and they persecuted her.

Subiaco Cave

A hermit's grotto: the Sacro Speco, the sacred cave in Subiaco, Italy, where St. Benedict lived for many years

The heresy of Arianism was devastating the East. The Greek Byzantium spirit was very arrogant and scorned Rome. This arrogant attitude toward Rome was one reason why the Eastern ecclesiastics invented so many sophisticated heresies in contrast with the holy simplicity of Catholic doctrine taught by Rome.

Notwithstanding, that time saw the blossoming in the East of a great grace, the grace of the eremitic state of life. This eremitic life was understood with much greater rigor than it is in modern times. The true hermit is not one who lives in a house with others. When many live together, each one is a cenobite, not a hermit. The hermit lives completely alone. He used to live in places without great beauty, like a cave or a desert, so as not to distract his imagination and senses. When a person lives isolated, entirely alone, conditions are created for his spirit to grow and fly. He is able to concern himself principally with superior things, and doing this he draws near to God.

This eremitic state appeals to the Eastern psychology. The Eastern man knows how to deal with solitude. His state of spirit abounds in imagination and fantasy, in the good sense of the word. He knows how to see the countless marvels of silence, the innumerable attractions of solitude. The Western man, especially if he is contaminated by the spirit of the Revolution, often is blind to these values.

In this East, replete with its bad and good aspects, we see the great figure of St. Basil, and also some hermits who opposed him.

St. Francis & Pope Innocent III

St. Francis of Assisi in his poverty preaches to Pope Innocent III in his glory. An example of the perfect equilibrium between pomp and poverty in the Church

It has always happened in the History of the Church that when the ideal of poverty is raised, some have exaggerated it and arrived at a bad consequence, which is to combat the pomp and richness of the institution of the Church. For example, after St. Francis of Assisi preached his ideal of poverty, some Franciscans initiated the Fraticelli heresy, which was communist, went against the right of private property, and was opposed to any notion of honor, pomp, and brilliance in the Church and Catholic Civilization.

The same thing happened at the time of St. Basil. Some hermits, accustomed to living in complete poverty and solitude, without servants or pomp, made this erroneous reasoning: “If I would live in pomp, I would lose my soul; therefore all those who live in pomp lose their souls.” The first part of this reasoning is true, the second is false. Each person saves his soul by following the road God chose for him. So the hermit saves his soul in the cave, but another can also save his soul serving God amid riches and pomp.

Because of this problem, two hermits saw St. Basil in his Episcopal grandeur and doubted his sanctity. The two episodes were described in the Golden Legend with a great psychological accuracy. The first one, the hermit Ephrem, was a man moved by impressions, not by principles as he should have been. He saw a column of fire, was impressed, and believed in the sanctity of St. Basil. He saw the saint in his ceremonial pomp, had a negative impression and doubted his sanctity. St. Basil had him brought before him to talk with him, and Ephrem immediately had a different impression. After that, to confirm in his mind the sanctity of Basil, he asked for a miracle – yet another impression. By giving the miracle, God was confirming the thesis that one can be a saint and live in Episcopal pomp. It was the right thing to do with a man moved by impressions. This type of psychology was very well pictured in the text.

The second hermit represents the sentimental man turned toward small comforts and affections. He was attached to his cat. One can imagine that for a certain type of person to live outside of life in society can be a relief – no one to bother you, no tragic temptations of sin, a life with all the practical problems resolved and a great deal of tranquility. Instead of striving foremost for a great union with God, he was turned toward enjoying his tranquility. All these bad tendencies were summarized in the enjoyment he took in petting his cat. The Golden Legend discerned the defect of the man and refuted his objection by saying that St. Basil was less attached to his Episcopal position than the hermit was to his cat. Again, it was a subtle way to resolve the problem for the reader and move him toward God.

These two cases are presented in a light and delicate manner that lets the reader understand the solution to a greater problem, the balance between poverty and riches in the Church. So, even if these incidents did not take place historically, the pictures they present give us a good fruit: the understanding that it is normal to have both riches and poverty in the Church.

Byzantine Emperor

A Byzantine Emperor and his attendants

The episode of St. Basil before Emperor Valens is also very well described. From the Emperor’s comment – “So here you are, Basil, shaming me again!” – you can see that St. Basil attacked the Emperor many times.

Then the kitchen chef enters and tries to defend the Arians and impress the Monarch with his knowledge of theology. St. Basil has this response that puts everything in its place: “Your business is to cook food. It’s my business to cook the dogmas. So stop talking about things you don’t understand.”

You can see that this episode follows the same style. One reads it, smiles, and understands. It is a lesson well given.

The last episode with the Arians is also piquant. The Emperor had given a Catholic church to the Arians and the Catholics were upset. He invites St. Basil to find a just solution. The saint proposes a judgment by God. The church doors are duly closed and sealed and both parties, Catholic and Arian, each one in its turn, are asked to approach to ask God to open the doors. The one whose cause is right will be heard by God. The Arians make their futile prayers and nothing happens. Then St. Basil approaches, followed by his clergy in a grandiose procession, and the doors of the church open. The Catholics are the ones in the right, God listens to them.

Even if these things did not happen exactly this way, there is a residual of truth in these stories. What is being affirmed here is that piety should feed the capacity for the marvelous in the human soul. This kind of piety existed in the Middle Ages and was objectively reported by Jacobus de Voragine. It is a type of piety open to the marvelous that exists in the supernatural life, which is a participation of the marvelous that exists in Heaven.

When we read these stories in the Golden Legend we experience a great relief. We feel removed from the monstrosities we are witnessing today that come from the Revolution and the progressivist Church. Reading these texts we are charmed and we marvel. They raise a hymn of admiration in our souls for that spirit which inspired them. When we finish reading and we have to return to normal life, we feel something like a soul who would have just seen Heaven and now had to return to Purgatory.

Let us pray to Our Lady to give us the spirit of admiration that inspired these texts. A disinterested and humble spirit that is able to be moved by this marvelous order of things, which is the most profound aspect of reality and gives us a pre-taste of Heaven. It is an order of things that exists in Heaven, which souls who know how to admire can already begin to appreciate in this life.


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Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
The Saint of the Day features highlights from the lives of saints based on comments made by the late Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. Following the example of St. John Bosco who used to make similar talks for the boys of his College, each evening it was Prof. Plinio’s custom to make a short commentary on the lives of the next day’s saint in a meeting for youth in order to encourage them in the practice of virtue and love for the Catholic Church. TIA thought that its readers could profit from these valuable commentaries.

The texts of both the biographical data and the comments come from personal notes taken by Atila S. Guimarães from 1964 to 1995. Given the fact that the source is a personal notebook, it is possible that at times the biographic notes transcribed here will not rigorously follow the original text read by Prof. Plinio. The commentaries have also been adapted and translated for TIA’s site.

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