The Cappadocian Father Basil the Great (c. 330-379) was one of the greatest theologians, pastors and spiritual guides of the ancient Church. He is famous for heroically defending Nicene orthodoxy against Arianism. But more than a great intellect, Basil was also a model of practical compassion for the poor, the sick, and the needy. He demonstrated an uncommon understanding of Jesus' symbolically-charged ministry of compassion and mercy. And he understood that our Lord's earthly ministry created a perpetual obligation for the Church to care for the poor, the sick, and the needy in similar ways. Rather than juxtaposing a ministry of proclamation and a ministry of mercy as mutually exclusive--or worse, treating mercy ministry as inimical to proclamation!--the Cappadocian Father understood that each was incomplete without the other.
Basil came from a wealthy and famously pious Christian family in central Asia Minor. His maternal grandfather, in fact, was a martyr at the end of the 3rd century under the Emperor Diocletian. His father was a respected lawyer and teacher of rhetoric. The family provided Basil with the best education the "world" had to offer, including studies in Constantinople and even six years at the Academy in Athens studying philosophy, mathematics, and medicine. It was during his time in Athens, however, that he found himself increasingly drawn, not to the pagan philosophers and literati, but rather to the beauty and wisdom of the Holy Scriptures. After completing his formal education he returned to his hometown of Neocaesaria where he spent a year practicing law and teaching rhetoric. It was at this time that he had a profound spiritual experience that he described as follows:
I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world (Letter 223.2).
After leaving behind his professional career and giving away most of his riches to the poor, Basil traveled extensively through Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Babylonia in order to be acquainted with the best Christian teachers and the men and women most esteemed for holiness and devotion to the Lord. He was impressed by certain aspects of the monastic piety that he saw, but not by the idea of a solitary life. Upon his return to the family home in Neocaesaria he gathered around him a group of family and friends and decided to spend the rest of his life serving the poor, the sick, and the outcasts, and devoting himself to prayer and the study of Scripture. Because of his extraordinary gifts, however, he soon found himself importuned by Bishop Eusebius to be ordained a presbyter and later at Eusebius's death he succeeded him as Bishop of Caesaria. He somehow found time for extensive preaching, teaching, and writing, as well as his original commitment to serving the poor and needy. He became an ardent defender of Nicene orthodoxy and made important contributions to Christology and Trinitarian theology.
One thing that many do not know about Basil is that he established the first Christian hospital. Previously Christians had been active in ministry to the sick and needy. Christians amazed their pagan neighbors when they attended the sick in cities ravaged by the plague. They adopted infants left to die at the garbage dumps; they supported widows and orphans; they purchased the freedom of slaves; they ministered to those condemned to work in the mines; etc. But Basil used his personal wealth, family and empirial connections, and his training in medicine to establish something bigger and more effective than the Church had ever done before. He established the first full-fledged hospital staffed by several doctors, nurses, surgeons, and many others. This foundation at the outskirts of Neocaesaria provided lodging for travelers, compassionate attention to lepers, the aged, and many others. We read something of this in Letter 94 addressed to the governor Elias who had serious misgivings about the institutional structures Basil was creating as well as his growing popularity. Basil defends the project as follows:
What depreciation is suffered by any public interests, be they small or great, by my administration of the Churches? Still, possibly, it might be urged that I have done damage to the government by erecting a magnificently appointed church to God, and round it a dwelling house, one liberally assigned to the bishop, and others underneath, allotted to the officers of the Church in order, the use of both being open to you of the magistracy and your escort. But to whom do we do any harm by building a place of lodging for strangers, both for those who are on a journey and for those who require medical treatment on account of sickness, and so establishing a means of giving these men the comfort they lack, physicians, doctors, means of transportation, and escort? All these men must learn such occupations as are necessary to life and have been found essential to a respectable career; they must also have buildings suitable for their employments, all of which are an honour to the place, and, as their reputation is credited to our governor [Elias], confer glory on him.
Basil explains the growing ministry that he is carrying out on the outskirts of the city. The extensive complex of buildings amounted to what Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa called a "new city" (Funeral Oration 63). It was a beautiful campus; it ministered to every imaginable need, even training the poor in honorable trades. All of this, says Basil, is not only an honor to Neocaesaria, but even to the regional governor Elias who was looking askance at Basil and suspicious of his intentions.
Historian Peter Brown has noted that the poor were invisible in the ancient world. What he meant by that is not simply that they were pushed to the outskirts of the city and excluded from polite society. Even there the huge masses could not be missed. What Brown means, rather, is that the ancient world took no thought of the poor. The wealthy would expend large sums of money for public works projects in the city. They might even buy grain to be distributed generally to average residents. But the idea of a specific concern for widows, orphans, lepers, and the seriously ill was unheard of. God used Basil's tireless ministry to the poor and the sick, however, to create a tremendous change in societal attitudes, especially among the affluent. Through his example and exhortations the "superfluities of their wealth, aye, and even their necessities, are . . . freed from the power of the moth, [and are] no longer gladdening the eyes of the thief" (Funeral Oration 63).
Basil's example of self-sacrifice inspired many others to follow suit. According to his brother Gregory of Nyssa, in spite of how busy Basil was as a theologian, preacher, teacher, and administrator of a very large diocese (he preached expository sermons every day of the week!), Basil "attained to a mastery of the art [of medicine], not only in its empirical and practical branches, but also in its theory and principles" (Funeral Oration 23), and armed with this knowledge he took "the lead in approaching [the sick] to tend them" (Funeral Oration 63). Ancient paintings depict the hospital as a large oblong building surrounded by an arched stoa. Through this walkway the image of Basil and his friend Gregory Nazianzen is visible, tending their patients. "Others have had their cooks, and splendid tables, and the devices and dainties of confectioners, and exquisite carriages, and soft, flowing robes; Basil's care was for the sick, and the relief of their wounds, and the imitation of Christ, by cleansing leprosy, not by a word, but in deed" (Funeral Oration 63). A key moment early in his ministry occurred during a severe famine. His brother confesses that Basil was no Moses or Elijah, miraculously providing food for the hungry, but he did preach, plead, cajole, and threaten the wealthy and powerful to fulfill their duty to those on the verge of starvation (Funeral Oration 35).
Like Joseph in Egypt he organized and administered projects that saved thousands from starvation and practiced what he preached by first giving away all that remained of the family fortune to buy grain. It might not have been a miracle in the strict sense but he did devise and execute with the same faith things which correspond to them, and tend in the same direction. For by his word and advice he opened the stores of those who possessed them, and so, according to the Scripture dealt food to the hungry, Isaiah 58:7 and satisfied the poor with bread, and fed them in the time of dearth, and filled the hungry souls with good things. And in what way? For this is no slight addition to his praise. He gathered together the victims of the famine with some who were but slightly recovering from it, men and women, infants, old men, every age which was in distress, and obtaining contributions of all sorts of food which can relieve famine, set before them basins of soup and such meat as was found preserved among us, on which the poor live. Then, imitating the ministry of Christ, Who, girded with a towel, did not disdain to wash the disciples' feet, using for this purpose the aid of his own servants, and also of his fellow servants, he attended to the bodies and souls of those who needed it, combining personal respect with the supply of their necessity, and so giving them a double relief (Funeral Oration 35).
The church already had a history of compassion and mercy long before Basil arrived on the scene, but nobody had done more than Basil at great personal cost, to alleviate the suffering of those in need. And nobody had a keener sense than Basil of the call upon all Christians of serving those in need at personal cost. This last quotation gives us a hint to Basil's understanding of the church's ministry of mercy. For Basil, the things he did were done in imitation of Christ's own ministry. The Church lives and ministers in union with Christ. We take up our cross and give our lives with Him. He washed dirty feet, and we also wash dirty feet. He came to proclaim good news to the poor, to announce freedom to captives, to open blind eyes, a give liberty to the oppressed. And because that was his mission, it is also ours. Basil was no proponent of the so-called "social gospel." But he is a good model for the Church today because of how passionately he engaged in both aspects of the Christian mission.
The social gospel movement set out to do good to the poor and needy, but forgot about calling sinners to repentance and personal faith in Christ. Modern evangelicals call sinners to repentance and faith but do little in the way of organized, strategic ministry of mercy. Both have lost their way. Jesus healed the sick and tended to the needy out of compassion, but he also did this to dramatically symbolize the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Demon possession, blindness, lameness, hunger and all of the other conditions he treated are covenant curses that God's world suffers while under the power of the evil one. Reversing those covenant curses is a symbolic way of demonstrating that Satan is no longer in charge. His regime is making a fast retreat. Our efforts at showing mercy may not have the miraculous flare that Jesus' did, but they still carry the same symbolic power. The Gospel derives much of its power from the Spiritual context in which it is proclaimed. Jesus performed the symbolic acts and preached the explanatory Word. A social gospel with no explanatory Word is virtually powerless. The explanatory Word divorced from the symbolic acts designed to accompany it is similarly stripped of much of its power.
The Church grew so rapidly in the first few centuries because she was a moral voice that shamed the pagan world by revealing its inhumanity. The Church today is too busy being shrill and defensive, crying about why the world no longer listens to her. Recapturing the moral highground will not happen by being angry at losing elections, or shrill over being ignored or disrespected. Basil the Great shows us exactly how the Church can rejuvenate her witness in this world: by engaging in both halves of the mission Jesus gave us.