In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God is one. Amen.
We celebrate today the lives of two great fourth-century Church leaders, St Basil the Great and his close friend, St Gregory of Nazianzus. Let’s try to understand what they were teaching.
St Gregory of Nazianzus wrote to St Basil of how the Lord had assigned different roles to each of them—to plant and to grow many tasks. “Praying for all this is easy,” wrote St Gregory, “but to realize it is difficult… God [gives the growth]” [See First Corinthians 3:6]. St Gregory urged St Basil to “stand by me, [so] that together … whatever we harvest, may we preserve it through prayer.” [St Greogry of Nazianzus, Letter 6 to St Basil, in Georges Barrois, The Fathers Speak, SVSP]. It is the same for us today. We each start many tasks, different work, in our families, in our friendships, in our jobs, in the Church, but it is “God who gives the growth.” We can preserve that growth through continuing to pray. Just like these two friends, we have a partnership with the Lord.
In the year 329, Gregory became Bishop of the small town of Nazianzus. He served there as bishop for 45 years and also strongly supported the election of St Basil as Metropolitan of Caesarea in Palestine in 370. St Basil was a remarkable bishop, facing theological controversy, famine and threats of exile. He told those that persecuted him and threatened to exile him that he was “not attached to any place [on earth] … and would consider myself at home whatever my place of exile [because] I regard the whole earth as belonging to God and consider myself a sojourner [that is, only here for a short stay] wherever I happen to be” [The Synaxarion, January 1].
During St Basil’s “short stay” on earth of no more than 50 years, he achieved a great deal. Consider two things that were of central importance to St Basil—his wish that everyone should know about and receive the Holy Spirit and his commitment to social justice. Once we understand St Basil’s teachings about the Holy Spirit, we can appreciate his commitment to social justice and practical charity. Writing On the Holy Spirit to his friend Amphilochius, St Basil was impressed that his friend consistently asked questions “with the honest desire to arrive at the actual truth” [Chapter 1]. Now, all of us can admit today that we do not understand fully how and when the Holy Spirit works in our lives, but we can seek to learn “the actual truth.” St Basil saw and communicated to others that the Holy Spirit is “Supplier of life … [an] illumination to every faculty in the search for truth … filling all things with Its power but communicating only to the worthy [who wish to know Him], … distributing Its energy [that is, the energy of the Holy Spirit] according to ‘the proportion of faith’ [held by each person].” Thus St Basil focuses not on the remarkable power of the Holy Spirit but on the manner in which the Holy Spirit “sends forth grace [and love] sufficient and full for all mankind, [to be] enjoyed by all who share [a belief in the Holy Spirit], according to the capacity … [and] nature [of those who believe in the Holy Spirit]” [Chapter 9]. In other words, St Basil sees the Holy Spirit both as an equal member of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and as a friendly guide who draws each of us closer to the Father and to the Son [Chapter 9].
This power of the Holy Spirit to deepen our understanding of God happens as we are purified of our own sins. As St Basil phrases it, we “come back again to [our] natural beauty … [cleaned and restored] to the Royal Image [in which God created each of us].” Then, and only then, through this steady process of being purified of sin, as St Basil insists, “hearts are lifted up, the weak are held by the hand, and [we] who are advancing are brought to perfection.” St Basil is speaking not only to his friend Amphilochius, but to each of us. We too can experience our hearts being “lifted up” and our weaknesses being healed by the presence of God in our lives. We too can learn that within ourselves—sinners that we are—we are already “advancing” toward a deeper understanding of God and of purpose in our lives.
For St Basil, the Holy Spirit becomes “the sun—s-u-n—that shines “upon those who are cleansed from every spot [of sin] and makes them spiritual by fellowship with Himself [that is, fellowship with the Holy Spirit].” Then “just as when a sunbeam falls on bright and transparent [things],” wrote St Basil, “[those things] themselves become brilliant too, and shed forth brightness from themselves, so [persons] wherein the [Holy] Spirit dwells [are] illuminated by the [Holy] Spirit, [and] themselves become spiritual and send forth their grace [and love] to others” [Chapter 9].
St Basil believed that the Holy Spirit could inspire everyone to live a life of practical charity—poor and rich, young and old, disabled and able. He created in Caesarea a great work of philanthropy—the New City—later known as the Basiliad—where anyone in need “could receive food, shelter and medical care free of charge from monks and nuns who lived out their monastic vocation through a life of service.” As Paul Schroeder explains, the New City sought “to bring together the involuntary poor and the voluntary poor ([that is,] monastics) in order to create a new kind of community. Basil’s vision is radical because it represents both a reform of monasticism, calling monks and nuns to return to the world and embrace its cares and sorrows as their own, [as well as] a reform of society, advocating the creation of a social order based upon simplicity and sharing rather than competition and private ownership.” Remarkably, “the first characteristic of the New City … is what might be called the ethic of sustainability. In essence, this means that the law of love requires us to adopt a way of life that is supportable across the entire population [of the world]. Basil’s social vision is characterized by a commitment to simplicity as a means of ensuring this sustainable way of life for everyone…. [Furthermore,] Basil states that the fair distribution of resources requires that each person take a ‘small portion’ so that there might be enough for all. He emphasizes simplicity in food, dress and housing as a way of [living] that allows for resources to be fairly distributed” [See the website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, In Communion, at: https://incommunion.org/previous-issues/contents/; then search for “Building the New City”].
The challenge facing all of us today is to understand and live out St Basil’s guidelines on keeping close to the Holy Spirit. This enables us to implement his vision of the New City, helping those in need.
Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, One in essence and undivided. Amen.