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Basilian monks are monks who follow the "Rule" of Saint Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea (330-379). The monastic rules and institutes of St. Basil are important because their reconstruction of monastic life remains the basis for most Eastern Orthodox and some Greek Catholic monasticism. Saint Benedict of Nursia, who fulfilled much the same function in the West, took his Regula Benedicti from the writings of St. Basil and other earlier church fathers. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, monks do not generally call themselves "Basilians", while the Greek Catholics do. Thus the expression "Basilian monk" almost always refers to religious of those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite.
Rule of St. Basil
Under the name of Basilians are included all the religious that follow the Rules of St. Basil. It should be noted that the "Rules" of St. Basil are not intended to be constitutions like the various Western monastic Rules; rather, it is a collection of his responses to questions about the ascetic life—hence the more accurate original name: Asketikon. There were two such collections, the Greater Asketikon and the Lesser Asketicon (the difference between the two being their length).
Eastern monasticism has never possessed the hierarchical organization which ordinarily constitutes the Western religious orders, properly so called. Only a few houses were formerly grouped into congregations or are today so combined. Usually each monastery follows its own traditions, and is either under the local bishop or is "stavropegial" (directly under the Patriarch or a Synod of bishops).
St. Basil drew up his Asketikon for the members of the monastery he founded about 356 on the banks of the Iris River in Cappadocia. St Basil's claim to the authorship of the Rules and other ascetical writings that go under his name has been questioned. But the tendency now is to recognize as his at any rate the two sets of Rules. Probably the truest idea of his monastic system may be derived from a correspondence between him and St. Gregory Nazianzen at the beginning of his monastic life. Before forming this community St. Basil visited Egypt, Coele-Syria, Mesopotamia, and Palestine in order to see for himself the manner of life led by the monks in these countries. In the latter country and in Syria the monastic life tended to become more and more eremitical and to run to great extravagances in the matter of bodily austerities. When Basil formed his monastery in the neighborhood of Neocaesarea in Pontus, he deliberately set himself against these tendencies. He declared that the cenobitical life is superior to the eremitical; that fasting and austerities should not interfere with prayer or work; that work should form an integral part of the monastic life, not merely as an occupation, but for its own sake and in order to do good to others; and therefore that monasteries should be near towns. All this was a new departure in monachism.
The Rule of Basil is divided into two parts: the "Greater Monastic Rules" and the "Lesser Rules". Rufinus who translated them into Latin united the two into a single Rule under the name of Regulae sancti Basilii episcopi Cappadociae ad monachos; this Rule was followed by some Western monasteries. For a long time the Bishop of Caesarea was wrongly held to be the author of a work on monasticism called Constitutiones monasticae In his Rule St. Basil follows a catechetical method; the disciple asks a question to which the master replies. He limits himself to laying down indisputable principles which will guide the superiors and monks in their conduct. He sends his monks to the Sacred Scriptures; in his eyes the Bible is the basis of all monastic legislation, the true Rule. The questions refer generally to the virtues which the monks should practice and the vices they should avoid. The greater number of the replies contain a verse or several verses of the Bible accompanied by a comment which defines the meaning. The most striking qualities of the Basilian Rule are its prudence and its wisdom. It leaves to the superiors the care of settling the many details of local, individual, and daily life; it does not determine the material exercise of the observance or the administrative regulations of the monastery. Poverty, obedience, renunciation, and self-abnegation are the virtues which St. Basil makes the foundation of the monastic life.
As he gave it, the Rule could not suffice for anyone who wished to organize a monastery, for it takes this work as an accomplished fact. The life of the Cappadocian monks could not be reconstructed from his references to the nature and number of the meals and to the garb of the inmates. The superiors had for guide a tradition accepted by all the monks. This tradition was enriched as time went on by the decisions of councils, by the ordinances of the Emperors of Constantinople, and by the regulations of a number of revered abbots. Thus there arose a body of law by which the monasteries were regulated. Some of these laws were accepted by all, others were observed only by the houses of some one country, while there were regulations which applied only to certain communities. In this regard Oriental monasticism bears much resemblance to that of the West; a great variety of observances is noticeable. The existence of the Rule of St. Basil formed a principle of unity.
St Basil's influence, and the greater suitability of his institute to European ideas, ensured the propagation of Basilian monachism; and Sozomen says that in Cappadocia and the neighboring provinces there were no hermits hut only cenobites. However, the eastern hankering after the eremitical lifelong survived, and it was only by dint of legislation, both ecclesiastical (council of Chalcedon) and civil (Justinian Code), that the Basilian cenobitic form of monasticism came to prevail throughout the Greek-speaking lands, though the eremitical forms have always maintained themselves.
Greek monachism underwent no development or change for four centuries, except the vicissitudes inevitable in all things human, which in monasticism assume the form of alternations of relaxation and revival. The second half of the 8th century seems to have been a time of very general decadence; but about the year 800 Theodore, destined to be the only other creative name in Greek monachism, became abbot of the monastery of the Studium in Constantinople. He set himself to reform his monastery and restore St. Basil's spirit in its primitive vigour. But to effect this, and to give permanence to the reformation, he saw that there was need of a more practical code of laws to regulate the details of the daily life, as a supplement to St Basil's Rules. He therefore drew up constitutions, afterwards codified, which became the norm of the life at the Studium monastery, and gradually spread thence to the monasteries of the rest of the Greek empire. Thus to this day the Rules of Basil and the Constitutions of Theodore the Studite, along with the canons of the Councils, constitute the chief part of Greek and Russian monastic law.
Monasteries in the Middle East and Anatolia
The monasteries of Cappadocia were the first to accept the Rule of St. Basil; it afterwards spread gradually to all the monasteries of the East. Those of Armenia, Chaldea, and of the Syrian countries in general preferred instead of the Rule of St. Basil those observances which were known among them as the Rule of St. Anthony. Neither the ecclesiastical nor the imperial authority was exerted to make conformity to the Basilian Rule universal. It is therefore impossible to tell the epoch at which it acquired the supremacy in the religious communities of the Greek world; but the date is probably an early one. The development of monasticism was, in short, the cause of its diffusion. Protected by the emperors and patriarchs the monasteries increased rapidly in number. In 536 the Diocese of Constantinople contained no less than sixty-eight, that of Chalcedon forty, and these numbers continually increased. Although monasticism was not able to spread in all parts of the empire with equal rapidity, yet what it probably must have been may be inferred from these figures. These monks took an active part in the ecclesiastical life of their time; they had a share in all the quarrels, both theological and other, and were associated with all the works of charity. Their monasteries were places of refuge for studious men. Many of the bishops and patriarchs were chosen from their ranks. Their history is interwoven, therefore, with that of the Oriental Churches. They gave to the preaching of the Gospel its greatest apostles. As a result, monastic life gained a footing at the same time as Christianity among all the races won to the Faith. The position of the monks in the empire was one of great power, and their wealth helped to increase their influence. Thus their development ran a course parallel to that of their Western brethren. The monks, as a rule, followed the theological vicissitudes of the emperors and patriarchs, and they showed no notable independence except during the iconoclastic persecution; the stand they took in this aroused the anger of the imperial controversialists. The Faith had its martyrs among them; many of them were condemned to exile, and some took advantage of this condemnation to reorganize their religious life in Italy.
Of all the monasteries of this period the most celebrated was that of St. John the Baptist of Studium, founded at Constantinople in the fifth century. It acquired its fame in the time of the iconoclastic persecution while it was under the government of the saintly Hegumenos (abbot) Theodore, called the Studite. Nowhere did the heretical emperors meet with more courageous resistance. At the same time the monastery was an active center of intellectual and artistic life and a model which exercised considerable influence on monastic observances in the East. Further details may be found in "Prescriptio constitutionis monasterii Studii" (Migne, P.G., XCIX, 1703–20), and the monastery's "Canones de confessione et pro peccatis satisfactione " (ibid., 1721–30). Theodore attributed the observances followed by his monks to his uncle, the saintly Abbot Plato, who first introduced them in his monastery of Saccudium. The other monasteries, one after another adopted them, and they are still followed by the monks of Mount Athos. The monastery of Mount Athos was founded towards the close of the 10th century through the aid of the Emperor Basil the Macedonian and became the largest and most celebrated of all the monasteries of the Orient; it is in reality a monastic province. The monastery of Mount Olympus in Bithynia should also be mentioned, although it was never as important as the other. The monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, which goes back to the early days of monasticism, had a great fame and is still occupied by monks. Reference to Oriental monks must here be limited to those who have left a mark upon ecclesiastical literature: Leontius of Byzantium (d. 543), author of a treatise against the Nestorians and Eutychians; St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, one of the most vigorous adversaries of the Monothelite heresy (P.G., LXXXVII, 3147-4014); St. Maximus the Confessor, Abbot of Chrysopolis (d. 662), the most brilliant representative of Byzantine monasticism in the seventh century; in his writings and letters St. Maximus steadily combated the partisans of the erroneous doctrines of Monothelitism (ibid., XC and XCI); St. John Damascene, who may perhaps be included among the Basilians; St Theodore the Studite (d. 829), the defender of the veneration of sacred images; his works include theological, ascetic, hagiographical, liturgical, and historical writings (P.G., XCIX). The Byzantine monasteries furnish a long line of historians who were also monks: John Malalas, whose " hronographia" (P.G., XCVII, 9-190) served as a model for Eastern chroniclers; Georgius Syncellus, who wrote a "Selected Chronographia"; his friend and disciple Theophanes (d. 817), Abbot of the "Great Field" near Cyzicus, the author of another "Chronographia" (P.G., CVIII); the Patriarch Nikephoros, who wrote (815-829) an historical "Breviarium" (a Byzantine history), and an "Abridged Chronographia" (P.G., C, 879-991); George the Monk, whose Chronicle stops at A. D. 842 (P.G. CX). There were, besides, a large number of monks, hagiographers, hymnologists, and poets who had a large share in the development of the Greek Liturgy. Among the authors of hymns may be mentioned: St. Maximus the Confessor; St. Theodore the Studite; St. Romanus the Melodist; St. Andrew of Crete; St. John Damascene; Cosmas of Jerusalem, and St. Joseph the Hymnographer. Fine penmanship and the copying of manuscripts were held in honor among the Basilians. Among the monasteries which excelled in the art of copying were the Studium, Mount Athos, the monastery of the Isle of Patmos and that of Rossano in Sicily; the tradition was continued later by the monastery of Grottaferrata near Rome. These monasteries, and others as well, were studios of religious art where the monks toiled to produce miniatures in the manuscripts, paintings, and goldsmith work. The triumph of orthodoxy over the iconoclastic heresy infused an extraordinary enthusiasm into this branch of their labors.
From the beginning the Oriental Churches often took their patriarchs and bishops from the monasteries. Later, when the secular clergy was recruited largely from among married men, this custom became almost universal, for, as the episcopal office could not be conferred upon men who were married, it developed, in a way, into a privilege of the religious who had taken the vow of celibacy. Owing to this the monks formed a class apart, corresponding to the upper clergy of the Western Churches; this gave and still gives a preponderating influence to the monasteries themselves. In some of them theological instruction is given both to clerics and to laymen. As long as the spirit of proselytism existed in the East the monasteries furnished the Church with all its missionaries. The names of two have been inscribed by Rome in its calendar of annual feasts, namely, St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the Apostles of the Slavs. The Byzantine schism did not change sensibly the position of the Basilian monks and monasteries. Their sufferings arose through the Muslim conquest. To a large number of them this conquest brought complete ruin, especially to those monasteries in what is now Turkey in Asia and the region around Constantinople. In the East the convents for women adopted the Rule of St. Basil and had constitutions copied from those of the Basilian monks.
The monastery of Rossano, founded by St. Nilus the Younger, remained for a long time faithful to the best literary traditions of Constantinople. The monasteries of San Salvatore of Messina and San Salvatore of Otranto may be mentioned; the monastery of Grottaferrata was also celebrated. The emigration of the Greeks to the West after the fall of Constantinople and the union with Rome, concluded at the Council of Florence, gave a certain prestige to these communities. Cardinal Bessarion, who was Abbot of Grottaferrata, sought to stimulate the intellectual life of the Basilians by means of the literary treasures which their libraries contained.
A number of Roman Catholic communities continued to exist in the East. The Holy See caused them to be united into congregations, namely: the Congregation of St. Savior founded in 1715, which includes 8 monasteries and 21 hospices with about 250 monks; the Congregation of Aleppo with 4 monasteries and 2 hospices; the Congregation of the Baladites (Valadites) with 4 monasteries and 3 hospices. These last two congregations have their houses in the district of Mount Lebanon. Saint Josaphat Kuntsevych and Father Rutski, who labored to bring back the Ruthenian Churches into Catholic unity, reformed the Ruthenian Basilians forming the Order of Saint Basil the Great.
In the sixteenth century the Italian monasteries of the Basilian Order were in the last stages of decay. Urged by Cardinal Sirleto, Pope Gregory XIII ordained (1573) their union in a congregation under the control of a superior general. Use was made of the opportunity to separate the revenues of the abbeys from those of the monasteries. The houses of the Italian Basilians were divided into the three provinces of Sicily, Calabria, and Rome.
Although the monks remained faithful in principle to the Greek Liturgy they showed an inclination towards the use of the Latin Liturgy; some monasteries have adopted the latter altogether. In Spain there was a Basilian congregation which had no traditional connection with Oriental Basilians; the members followed the Latin Liturgy. Father Bernardo de la Cruz and the hermits of Santa Maria de Oviedo in the Diocese of Jaen formed the nucleus of the congregation.
Pope Pius VI added them to the followers of St. Basil and they were affiliated with the monastery of Grottaferrata (1561). The monasteries of Tardón and of San Antonio del Valle de Galleguillos, founded by Father Mateo de la Fuente, were for a time united with this congregation but they withdrew later in order to form a separate congregation (1603) which increased very little, having only four monasteries and a hospice at Seville.
The other Basilians, who followed a less rigorous observance, showed more growth; their monasteries were formed into the two provinces of Castile and Andalusia. They were governed by a vicar general and were under the control, at least nominally, of a superior general of the order. Each of their provinces had its college or scholasticate at Salamanca and Seville.
They did not abstain from wine. Like their brethren in Italy they wore a cowl similar to that of the Benedictines; this led to recriminations and processes, but they were authorized by Rome to continue the use of this attire.
Several writers are to be found among them, as: Alfonso Clavel, the historiographer of the order; Diego Niceno, who has left sermons and ascetic writings; Luis de los Angelos, who issued a work on, "Instructions for Novices" (Seville, 1615), and also translated into Spanish Cardinal Bessarion's exposition of the Rule of St. Basil; Felipe de la Cruz, who wrote a treatise on money loaned at interest, that was published at Madrid in 1637, and one on tithes, published at Madrid in 1634. The Spanish Basilians were suppressed with the other orders in 1835 and have not been re-established.
- Congregation of St. Basil
- Order of Saint Basil the Great
- Eastern Christian Monasticism
- Order of Saint Benedict (Orthodox)
References and sources
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Basilian Monks". Encyclopædia Britannica 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Regulae fusius tractatae, Migne, Patrologia Graecae (P.G.), XXXI, 889-1052
- Regulae brevius tractatae, ibid., 1051-1306