Basil of Caesarea, also known as Basil the Great to his mum, was born in Cappadocia around 330AD. Cappadocia is a region in the center of what is now Turkey, by all reports its a bit of a moon-scape – an arid bad-lands often covered in snow. He came from an aristocratic family that suddenly became very holy, or was significantly emotionally disturbed: on a rough count there are 7 saints in his immediate family (grandmother, both parents, sister, and two brothers).
Christianity at this time was dominated by Arianism – the denial of the full divinity of Christ. It’s quite likely that the Arian position was held by a majority of people professing to be Christian throughout the Empire, and it was certainly being heavily pushed by the Roman Emperor Valens.
Basil’s folks sent him off for a Big City education, starting in Constantinople (the new Roman Capital), and then heading over to Athens (the Oxford of the day). During this time he met Gregory Nazianzus , aka Gregory the Theologian, or just Greg. Baz and Greg became close mates, studying rhetoric and philosophy with some of the best teachers of their period. Basil also spent some time in Alexandria, the other great city of learning, and by this time he had become particularly interested in pursuing a Christian lifestyle that sought renunciation and withdrawal from the world in order to develop spiritually. In 356 he turned up at home in Caesarea, and although there are reports he started out in a legal practice, before long he took off into the wilderness, with his friend Gregory (and a few others) to spend time with God.
I have to admit to a healthy, protestant, skepticism regarding monasticism. But with Basil I’m not really sure what to think. I deplore the understanding of monastic life as meritorious, therefore gaining salvation, and I’m similarly against the apparent rejection of the goodness of God’s created world. Also, in the face of a perishing world, monasticism can seem horribly indulgent and contrary to the love of God for the lost. I’m not sure any of this thinking lay behind Basil’s asceticism. I think he genuinely wanted to focus himself on God and the life of the age to come. He felt that the structures within which we are enmeshed in daily life continually betray us into thinking and living for this world, rather than Christ. He answer was to toughen himself up, to renounce as much of this world as he could, and to build little communities of people who would anticipate the heavenly existence – being like the angels gathered in worship around God’s throne. He didn’t think this world was altogether evil – he wasn’t a dualist. He preached eloquently on the magnificence of God’s world, and on the beauty of the human body. He just didn’t want to get distracted into thinking that this is all there is. I still think he was a bit wrong-headed (he allowed his Greek Philosophical Theology to cloud his thinking about God’s attributes, and therefore, how to be godly) but I reckon we could all do with a little bit less “friendship with the world” these days.