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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

“I know I am addressing one who hates insincerity himself, and is especially keen in detecting it in another, though cloaked in ever so artful and subtle a disguise; and indeed, I may say, if you will pardon the impertinence, I am myself averse to it, both by natural disposition and from Christian education. So I write what is uppermost on my mind, and beg you to excuse my freedom. Indeed it would be an injury to me to restrain me and bid me keep my pain to myself, as a sore festering in my heart. Proud as I am of your notice (for I am a man, as some one says before me), and of your invitations to religious consultations and meetings, yet I cannot bear your holiness’s past and present slight of my most honoured brother Basil, whom I selected from the first and still possess as my friend, to live with me and study with me, and search with me into the deepest wisdom. I have no need to be dissatisfied with the opinion I have formed of him, and if I do not say more to his praise, it is lest, in enlarging on his admirable qualities, I should seem to be praising myself. Now, your favour towards me, and discountenance of him, is as if a man should stroke one’s head with one hand, and with the other strike one’s cheek; or decorate a house with paintings and beautify the outside, while he was undermining its foundations. If there is any thing you will grant me, let it be this; and I trust you will, for really it is equitable. He will certainly defer to you, if you do but pay a reasonable deference to him. For myself, I shall come after him as shadows follow bodies, being small, and a lover of quiet. Miserable indeed should we be, if, while we were desirous of wisdom in other matters, and of choosing the better part, we yet thought little of that grace, which is the end of all our doctrine—charity; especially in the case of one who is our bishop, and so eminent, as we well know, in life, in doctrine, and in the government of his diocese; for the truth must be spoken, whatever be our private feelings.”—Ep. 20.

Great men love to be courted, and little men must not mind rebuffs. Gregory did not succeed in this first attempt with Eusebius, who seems to have been offended at his freedom; and he himself was disgusted in turn, at the Bishop’s stiffness. However, the danger of the Church was too great to allow of the continuance of such feelings on either side, and Gregory had, in a little while, the satisfaction of seeing Basil at Cæsarea.


The vigorous talents of Basil soon put to rights the disorders and variances which had been the scandal of the Church of Cæsarea; and with the assistance of Gregory, he completely vanquished the Eunomian disputants, from whose subtlety the peace of the Church had principally suffered. What was of more consequence to its permanent welfare, he was successful in obliterating all the suspicions which his bishop had entertained of him, and at length gained such influence over him, that he had really the government of the see in his own hands. This was the more desirable, as Eusebius had not been regularly educated for the ministerial office, but had been called by the sudden voice of the people, as sometimes happened, to fill the episcopal chair. At length (A.D. 370) Eusebius died; and Basil, as might be expected, though not without a strong opposition, was elected, at the age of forty, to supply his place. This opposition was excited by the governing powers of the country, who might naturally be supposed to fear a man of Basil’s commanding character, and who were joined by some of the bishops of the exarchate, and by an irreligious party in the city itself.

He had not been long in his see when he was brought into open collision with the civil power. The Arian Emperor, Valens, made a progress through the East, from Constantinople to Antioch, in A.D. 371, 372, with the determination of deposing the Catholic bishops in the countries which he traversed; and about the end of the former year he came to Cæsarea. The Prætorian Prefect, Modestus, travelled before him, proposing to the Bishops of the cities, which lay on his road, the alternative of communicating with the Arians, or losing their sees. He summoned Basil into his presence, in his turn, and set before him the arguments which had been already found successful with others,—that it was foolish to resist the times, and to trouble the Church about inconsiderable questions; and he promised him the prince’s favour for him and his friends, if he complied. Failing by soft language, he adopted a higher tone; but he found his match. Gregory has preserved the dialogue which passed between them.

“What is the meaning of this, you Basil (said the Prefect, a bitter Arian, not deigning to style him bishop), that you stand out against so great a prince, and are self-willed when others yield?

“BASIL: What would you? and what is my extravagance? I have not yet learned it.

“MODESTUS: Your not worshipping after the emperor’s manner, when the rest of your party have given way and been overcome.

“BASIL: I have a Sovereign whose will is otherwise, nor can I bring myself to worship any creature—I a creature of God, and commanded to be a god.

“MODESTUS: For whom do you take me?

“BASIL: For a thing of nought, while such are your commands.

“MODESTUS: Is it, then, a mere nothing for one like you to have rank like myself, and to have my fellowship?

“BASIL: You are Prefect, and in noble place: I own it. Yet God’s majesty is greater; and it is much for me to have your fellowship, for we are both God’s creatures. But it is as great a thing to be fellow to any other of my flock, for Christianity lies not in distinction of persons, but in faith.

“The Prefect was angered at this, and rose from his chair, and abruptly asked Basil if he did not fear his power.

“BASIL: Fear what consequences? what sufferings?

“MODESTUS: One of those many pains which a Prefect can inflict.

“BASIL: Let me know them.

“MODESTUS: Confiscation, exile, tortures, death.

“BASIL: Think of some other threat. These have no influence upon me. He runs no risk of confiscation, who has nothing to lose, except these mean garments and a few books. Nor does he care for exile, who is not circumscribed by place, who does not make a home of the spot he dwells in, but everywhere a home whithersoever he be cast, or rather everywhere God’s home, whose pilgrim he is and wanderer. Nor can tortures harm a frame so frail as to break under the first blow. You could but strike once, and death would be gain. It would but send me the sooner to Him for whom I live and labour, for whom I am dead rather than alive, to whom I have long been journeying.

“MODESTUS: No one yet ever spoke to Modestus with such freedom.

“BASIL: Peradventure Modestus never yet fell in with a bishop; or surely in a like trial you would have heard like language. O Prefect, in other things we are gentle, and more humble than all men living, for such is the commandment; so as not to raise our brow, I say not against ‘so great a prince,’ but even against one of least account. But when God’s honour is at stake, we think of nothing else, looking simply to Him. Fire and the sword, beasts of prey, irons to rend the flesh, are an indulgence rather than a terror to a Christian. Therefore insult, threaten, do your worst, make the most of your power. Let the emperor be informed of my purpose. Me you gain not, you persuade not, to an impious creed, by menaces even more frightful.”—Greg. Orat. 43.

Modestus parted with him with the respect which firmness necessarily inspires in those who witness it; and, going to the emperor, repeated the failure of his attempt. A second conversation between the bishop and the great officers of the court took place in the presence, as some suppose, of Valens himself, who had generosity enough to admire his high spirit, and to dismiss him without punishment. Indeed, his admiration of Basil occasioned a fresh trial of the archbishop’s constancy, more distressing, perhaps, than any which he had hitherto undergone. On the feast of the Epiphany, he attended, with all his court, the church where Basil offered the Holy Sacrifice, and heard his sermon. The collected air of the Bishop, the devotion of the clergy, the numbers and the attention of the congregation, and the power of their voices, fairly overcame him, and he almost fainted away. At the Offertory he made an effort to approach the altar to present his oblation; but none of the ministers of the church presenting themselves to receive it from him, his limbs again gave way, and it was only by the assistance of one of them that he was kept from falling.

It would be a satisfaction to be able to indulge a hope that the good feelings of the emperor were more than the excitement of the moment; but his persevering persecution of the Catholics for years afterwards forbids the favourable supposition. However, for the time Basil gained him. Modestus even became the saint’s friend; Cappadocia was secured, in great measure, from the sufferings with which the Catholics elsewhere were visited, and some of the best of the imperial lands in the neighbourhood were made over for the endowment of an hospital which Basil had founded for lepers. He seems in the event to have succeeded in introducing such institutions throughout his province.


Basil, from his multiplied trials, may be called the Jeremiah or Job of the fourth century, though occupying the honoured place of a ruler in the Church at a time when heathen violence was over. He had a sickly constitution, to which he added the rigour of an ascetic life. He was surrounded by jealousies and dissensions at home; he was accused of heterodoxy abroad; he was insulted and roughly treated by great men; and he laboured, apparently without fruit, in the endeavour to restore unity to Christendom and stability to its Churches. If temporal afflictions work out for the saints “an exceeding weight of glory,” who is higher in the kingdom of heaven than Basil?

As to his austerities, we know something of them from his own picture what a monk’s life should be, and from Gregory’s description of them. In a letter to the latter (Ep. 2), Basil limits the food of his recluses to bread, water, herbs, with but one meal a day, and allows of sleep only till midnight, when they were to rise for prayer. And he says to the emperor Julian, “Cookery with us is idle; no knife is familiar with blood; our daintiest meal is vegetables with coarsest bread and vapid wine.”—Ep. 41. Gregory, in like manner, when expecting a visit from Basil, writes to Amphilochius to send him “some fine pot-herbs, if he did not wish to find Basil hungry and cross.”—Ep. 12. And in his account of him, after his death, he says, that “he had but one inner and one outer garment; his bed was the ground; little sleep, no bath; his food bread and salt, his drink the running stream.”—Orat. 20. He slept in a hair-shirt, or other rough garment; the sun was his fire; and he braved the severest frosts in the severe climate of Cappadocia. Even when Bishop he was supported by the continual charity of his friends. He kept nothing.

His constitution was naturally weak, or rather sickly. What his principal malady was, is told us in the following passage of his history, which furnishes at the same time another instance of the collisions in which he was involved with the civil power. A widow of rank being importuned with a proposal of marriage from a powerful quarter, fled for refuge to the altar. St. Basil received her. This brought him into trouble with the Vicar of Pontus, whose jurisdiction extended over Cappadocia, and who in extreme indignation summoned him. When he had presented himself, the magistrate gave orders to pull off his outer garment. His inner garment; which remained, did not conceal his emaciated body. The brutal persecutor threatened to tear out his liver. Basil smiled and answered, “Thanks for your intention: where it is at present, it has been no slight annoyance.” However, though it is hardly to the point here to mention it, the Vicar got the worst of it. The city rose,—Cæsarea, I suppose; the people swarmed about the Court, says Gregory, as bees smoked out of their home. The armourers, for whom the place was famous, the weavers, nay the women, with any weapon which came to hand, with clubs, stones, firebrands, spindles, besieged the Vicar, who was only saved from immediate death by the interposition of his prisoner.

But to return: on one occasion he gives the following account of his maladies to Eusebius, Bishop of Samosata.

“What was my state of mind, think you, when I received your piety’s letter? When I thought of the feelings which its language expressed, I was eager to fly straight to Syria; but when I thought of the bodily illness, under which I lay bound, I saw myself unequal, not only to flying, but to turning even on my bed. This is the fiftieth day of my illness, on which our beloved and excellent brother and deacon Elpidius has arrived. I am much reduced by the fever, which, failing what it might feed on, lingers in this dry flesh as in an expiring wick, and so has brought on a wasting and tedious illness. Next, my old plague, the liver, coming upon it, has kept me from taking nourishment, prevented sleep, and held me on the confines of life and death, granting just life enough to feel its inflictions. In consequence I have had recourse to the hot springs, and have availed myself of aid from medical men.”—Ep. 138.

The fever here mentioned seems to have been an epidemic, and so far unusual; but his ordinary state of health will be understood from the following letter, written to the same friend in the beginning of his illness, in which he describes the fever as almost a change for the better.

“In what state the good Isaaces has found me, he himself will best explain to you; though his tongue cannot be tragic enough to describe my sufferings, so great was my illness. Yet any one who knows me ever so little, will be able to conjecture what it was. For, if when I am called well, I am weaker even than persons who are given over, you may fancy what I was when I was thus ill. However, since disease is my natural state, it would follow (let a fever have its jest) that in this change of habit, my health became especially flourishing. But it is the scourge of the Lord which goes on increasing my pain according to my deserts; therefore I have received illness upon illness, so that now even a child may see that this shell of mine must for certain fail, unless perchance God’s mercy, vouchsafing to me in His long-suffering time for repentance, now, as often before, extricate me from evils beyond human cure. This shall be as it is pleasing to Him and good for myself.”—Ep. 136.

Eusebius seems to have been especially the confidant of his bodily sufferings. Five years before, he writes to him a similar description in answer to a similar call. “When,” he says, “by God’s grace and the aid of your prayers, I seemed to be somewhat recovering from my illness, and had rallied my strength, then the winter came upon me, keeping me in-doors and confining me where I was. It was, indeed, much milder than usual, yet enough to prevent, not only my travelling during it, but even my putting out my head even a little from my room.”—Ep. 27. And nine years later than this, and three years before his death, he says, that for a time “all remaining hope of life had left him.” “I cannot number,” he adds, “the various affections which have befallen me, my weakness, the violence of the fever, and the bad state of my constitution.”—Ep. 198. One especial effect of his complaints was to hinder his travelling, which, as his presence was continually needed, accounts for his frequently insisting on them. To Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, he writes in the same year: “The remains of my illness are sufficient to keep me from the least motion. I went in a carriage as far as the Martyrs, and had very nearly a relapse; so I am obliged to beg you to excuse me. If the matter could be put off for a few days, then, by God’s grace, I will be with you, and share your counsels.”—Ep. 202. To a friend, whom at an earlier date he was urging to visit him in his retreat, he says, “You must not answer with Diogenes to Alexander, It is no farther from you to me, than from me to you. For my sickness almost makes me like a plant, confined ever to one spot; besides, to pass life in hiding I account among the first of goods.”—Ep. 9. He elsewhere speaks of his state of health as “bodily weakness, natural to him from childhood to age, and chastening him according to the just judgment of an Allwise Governor.”—Ep. 203. At forty-five he calls himself an old man; and by the next year he had lost his teeth. He died at the age of fifty.

Yet, in spite of his infirmities, he does not seem at all to have spared himself the fatigue of travelling. He writes to Meletius, bishop of Antioch,—

“Many other journeys from my own country have engaged me. I crossed over to Pisidia, to arrange, in conjunction with the bishops there, the affairs of our Isaurian brethren. The journey to Pontus followed, Eustathius having put Dazimon into sufficient confusion, and persuaded many there to separate from my church. I went as far as my brother Peter’s cottage near Neocæsarea. On my return, when I was very ill from the rains and from despondency, letters arrived forthwith from the East,” etc.—Ep. 216.


Something of St. Basil’s tone of mind is seen in the above extracts; it will be seen more fully in three letters of expostulation to friends, written under very different circumstances.

The first is a familiar letter to one who, having congratulated him on his elevation to the see of Cæsarea, was disappointed at not receiving a reply.

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