"I Will Tear Down My Barns" - Knowing St. Basil the Great of Caesarea
St. Basil Seen Through His Homily “I Will Pull Down My Barns”
St. Basil the great, a saint of the fourth century in Cappadocia wrote many letters and preached many homilies still available today. One in particular was to his congregation during a time of severe famine, trying to move them to support one another. With the help of background information on St. Basil and context information in examining Homily Six, “I Will Pull Down My Barns,” one can come to know St. Basil in a deeper way. One can come to see his love and skill as a pastor, his teachings on social doctrine and human dignity, his understanding of human nature, and also some insight into his own conversion.
St. Basil and the Fourth Century
First, to properly understand who St. Basil was and to learn more about him through his homily, it is necessary to know some of the background information about his life. St. Basil was born around the year 330AD in Caesarea, a town in Cappodocia, which is an area in the central part of Asia Minor. He was born to a family that had been Christian for many generations on both his father’s and mother’s side. Today, around two thousand years after Christ lived, it is normal for many cultures and families to have a long Christian heritage. But in that day for a family to have heritage like that was probably special. It is also known that their family was very holy. Pope Benedict called them “‘…a true domestic church…’”. One of Basil’s grandfathers was a martyr, his grandmother was St. Macrina the Elder, his uncle was a bishop, both his mother and father were saints, four of his siblings devoted themselves to ascetical living, and at least three of his siblings were saints; including the well know St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Macrina the younger. Their families were also part of the upper class of the society; so they were pretty well off. Because of this, Basil was able to receive the best education of the day.
So Basil went to study under some of the best teachers of the time. He received training in the classical disciplines; philosophy, rhetoric, as well some training in grammar, astronomy, math, and some medicine. St. Gregory Nazianzus says about Basil while he was studying at Caesarea: “He was an orator among orators, even before the lecturer’s chair, a philosopher among philosophers even before advancing doctrines.” After his studying, Basil went back to Caesarea to teach rhetoric. From this it is clear that he must have been extremely smart to have succeeded at these schools; and that he was especially skilled at rhetoric.
Up to this point though, he had not taken his faith so seriously; but not being fulfilled with the pursuits of this world, he gave up his academic and worldly pursuits and was baptized. He then sold all his possessions to support the poor and began to live a radical ascetic life. He next went to study at the major monastic centers. He studied “…in Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt…”. After returning, he settled on one of his family’s lands with his mother, his sister Macrina, and one of his brothers to live an ascetic way of life. Others began to join Basil as well; and it was then that he formed two rules for monastic living.
In the fourth century, controversies over the different beliefs and the correct language of the Trinity were raging. Because the Church was in need of well qualified leaders to deal with these situations, Basil was made a priest by his bishop in Caesarea. Then, even as a priest, Basil played a very important role helping his Bishop with the difficult situations that arose in their diocese. When Bishop Eusebius died, Basil became his successor. Then as Bishop, he continued to protect the faith against the emperor Valens who wanted him to accept his homoean policy. Instead Basil worked to unite eastern homoiousian churches with Rome and the Nicene faith. Basil also promoted monastic living and had a love and pastoral care for the needy and for the poor, which is very evident in this homily “I Will Pull Down My Barns”.
The Context of the Homily
Also, to better understand Homily Six, it is necessary to understand the context surrounding this homily. Basil is preaching on the parable of the rich fool from chapter twelve of the Gospel of Luke. This parable is the about a man who had an abundant harvest and ran out of room for his supplies. So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store everything and be safe for the future to just enjoy himself. But that night, God demanded his life from him. Also, Basil is giving this homily during a time of great famine and hunger. St. Gregory Nazianzus called this famine “the most severe within the memory of man.” He said that there was not help coming from anywhere; and that they could not trade what they did have a surplus of for food because they were inland. There were rich people though, who had an abundance of corn, and instead of helping the poor, they tried to make profit from the situation.
One reason why the rich might have been so attached to their wealth was because at that time there was no welfare system, if someone ran out of food, they were out. If there was a shortage, everyone was in danger to a certain extent. So the poor could have been frowned upon as a threat and burden to society. When this famine happened, Basil was not the Bishop, but was second in command to him; he assisted and helped guide the bishop in a lot of ways. This homily is speculated to have been preached in the spring of the year 369AD. Basil is made Bishop in 370AD.
The purpose of Basil’s homily is essentially to warn and change the hearts of those people in his congregation who had plenty of food and would not help those who were literally starving, but wanted to make a profit off the dire situation. He appeals to the rich in three ways. He says that the rich man becomes obsessed with his money, and instead of it bringing happiness to his life, it brings grief and anxiety which consumes him. Second, he appeals to the hearts of these people; trying to move them by using vivid imagery of how they were committing a grave injustice against their fellow man and causing him to suffer. Thirdly, he warns them that if they do not change that their riches will be their condemnation and they will lose what is most important, eternal life.
A Loving and Skilled Pastor
Now having examined the background of Basil’s life, and the context and purpose of this homily, one can better understand who Basil was through his own words. First, it can be seen through his homily that he was truly a loving and skilled pastor of souls. In being a good pastor, he is concerned first and foremost with the need of both the rich and the poor of ultimately obtaining Heaven. So he cares about the poor peoples’ need for food and their welfare; but he does not just care about the poor, he also cares about the rich; he wants them to be free from their attachment to their wealth. He encourages the rich by telling them that the food they sow with the poor will be a great blessing for them because they will be storing up treasure in heaven for themselves by doing this.
Basil also, as a pastor, is not afraid to preach the truth and let the rich know that they are being unjust. Talking about sharing with the poor, Basil says: “You do not do this. Rather you are so in fear lest other men should have a share in the fruits you possess, that you take thought within you unworthy soul, not as to how you will give the poor what they hunger for, but how you, taking everything, may deprive all others of the help of them.” He then also gives the example of how a poor man and his family were starving to death because they could not get any food to eat. So the father was finally forced to sell one of his children into servitude to one of the rich for some money. But the rich man then even tried to haggle the price to get the best deal on the child. “At length with tears the father goes, to sell the dearest loved among his children. … He offers as the price of food his heart’s blood. … but with them you haggle over the price. …Tears do not move you to pity; nor his groans of anguish soften your heart. You are immovable and implacable. Money fills your mind.” He also is so strong with them because hording, to the eyes of the fathers, was seen as a form of stealing. This is because when one amasses food that one does not need, and cannot use, to the point that it goes rotten, one is taking away from others what should be theirs by the virtue of justice.
Basil is not afraid to say what is necessary to help these people. This must not have been an easy or comfortable thing to do; but it shows his great courage and care for his people to be willing to speak so bluntly. Also one sees, through the great imagery and forcefulness he employed, Basil the great rhetorician.
Basil's Views of Social Doctrine
The second aspect of Basil that his homily reveals is his views on social doctrine. Firstly, social work, for Basil, is ultimately to lead people to heaven. Basil is not just striving to get food for the hungry, or to do purely social justice work. Many times Basil goes further than that, connecting the rich peoples’ duty to help the poor with their salvation. “What more senseless than so to labor without end; diligently building, and diligently destroying again? You have barns ready if you want them: the houses of the poor. Lay up treasures for yourself in heaven (Mt. vi. 20). What you store there the moth will never consume, nor rust devour, nor thieves break in and steal.”
The second part of Basil’s social doctrine one can see is his view on the dignity of every person. Basil says how if the rich neglect the poor that they do not even surpass the earth, which at least bears fruit for another. By doing this the rich also reduce the dignity of the poor, like in the instance above; forcing that man to sell his own child into slavery to survive. Talking about the idea of the rich man who says to himself to eat drink and be merry, Basil says are just as bad as the beasts, who only think of their stomachs and their passions and do not think about their soul or of the life to come. They are not living up to their real dignity, but like animals. Also everyone is made in the image and likeness of God, so one cannot treat another as if they were an animal; but rather everyone has an inherent dignity being made with a spiritual soul. And Benedict mentions that in some of his others works, Basil says that to see mans’ dignity, one only has to look to the Cross and see the price Christ paid for man.
But Basil also sees this connection with his orthodox view of the Trinity. He connects the equality and unity of persons of the Trinity to the equality and unity of the people. Basil says that riches should be viewed as a gift from God, in that this is some peoples’ way to heaven. The rich have received their riches from God as benefactors and stewards for others and as a means to learn compassion and love for others. The poor, on the other hand, are not bad either. They are not given wealth, so that like Job, they may attain heaven through suffering and patience. So, the rich are called to give to the poor, and the poor in return to show thanksgiving and praise to the rich on earth, and testify for them in heaven. This view on how the rich and poor should relate to each other, as was said before, can be likened to Basil’s orthodox beliefs of the Trinity. Both the rich and the poor are equal in dignity and essence as persons, just like the father and the son are equal in dignity and essence as God. The rich could represent the father, who first loved the Son, because the rich first give in love to the poor. The poor could represent the son, who receives that love and returns it back to the father, because the poor return praise and thanksgiving to the rich as well as testify for them in heaven. Also the mutual love between them could represent the Holy Spirit. So in using Basil’s orthodox model for the Trinity, they can see how they are called to live in love and unity because they are equals in dignity and essence or personhood. If the Arian model for God was used in this analogy, it would not work because the son was subordinate to the father in Arius’ beliefs. So this would mean that the poor are subordinate in dignity and essence to the rich. Pope Benedict affirms how Basil’s ideas were influential to the development of social doctrine in saying “We see that Saint Basil is truly one of the Fathers of the Church’s social doctrine.”
Basil's Views on Human Nature
The third quality one can see about St. Basil from his homily is that he truly knows human nature. St. Basil it seems knows human nature and its temptations very well. He knows the temptations that the rich go through; how money can consume them and cause them to horde their wealth for themselves. It takes them over and causes them to neglect their brother and sisters. “Money fills your mind. You dream of it; sleeping and waking you hunger for it. Just as the insane see no reality, only the vision that torments them, so your soul, obsessed by avarice, sees all things as gold, all things as silver, You look more readily at gold than at the sun. You would change everything into gold, and this you try to do with all you power.” He knows that there is only one way to happiness, and that the rich must let go of their wealth and embrace the Gospel to be free and to be truly happy.
Basil's Own Conversion
The fourth quality one can see through his homily is that it seems that throughout this work, that Basil is saying these points that have been mentioned in this paper so eloquently and powerfully because he knows them from his own personal experience. Many times he urges the rich to let go of the things of this world and turn to the Gospel; or to be stewards with what they have been given. This, it seems, reflects his own life. Basil grew up rich, received a first class education, but then faltered in his faith some. So it seems from the way he turned out, that he must have had a profound conversion and come to realize that the things of this world are passing and that true freedom is found in Jesus Christ. This was why he let go of his secular career and was baptized; why he sold all he had to help the poor and began to live a life of asceticism, just like he was telling the rich to let go of the attachment to their wealth. And also one can see that Basil wanted to be a steward of his great knowledge and skills. The very skills he had been given with knowledge and rhetoric, he realizes were given to him to be his way to get to heaven through using them. This is why he goes to the different monastic centers of the east to study and learn their ways. And also this is why he allows himself to be made a priest and a Bishop, to serve others with his skills. This is why he urges his people to be stewards of what they have; it is their way to heaven. In a sense, all the things that Basil is telling the congregation can be applied to his own life in some way. So Basil is not just speaking pious words, he knows them to be true through experience. Basil comments on his conversion:
"After I had wasted much time in vanity and had spent nearly all my youth in the vain labor in which I was engaged, occupying myself in acquiring a knowledge made foolish by God, when at length, as if aroused from a deep sleep, I looked upon the wondrous light of the truth of the Gospel and saw the futility of the wisdom ‘of the rulers of this world who are passing away,’…Accordingly, having read the Gospel and having seen clearly there that the greatest means for perfection is the selling of one’s possessions, the sharing with needy brethren, the complete renouncing of solicitude for this life, and the refusing of the soul to be led astray by any affection for things of earth…"
St. Gregory Nazianzus, in his work on Basil, writes about this particular situation of famine. He said that while Basil could not create a miracle to multiply food like those miracles from the Bible, such as the multiplication of the loaves by Jesus, but he did with an equal amount of faith, preach and exhort the people. By this, he was actually successful in moving the rich to share what they had with the poor. So after receiving the food from the rich, Basil gathered together all the poor, and provided them with pea soup and salted meats. But that was not it, he also then washed their feet; and St. Greg says fed their souls with the Word of God as well. St. Gregory’s phrase, talking about Basil’s work in during the famine,: “After these and similar deeds, for there is no need to spend time in recounting them all… ” indeed shows the amazing character of the Cappodocian father St. Basil the Great.
Basil, through his powerful homily, “I Will Tear Down My Barns,” allows one to see into his life and beliefs as a great pastor, a promoter of true social justice and dignity of the person, to see someone deeply knowledgeable of human nature, and to get a glimpse into his own conversion experience.
Drobner, Hubertus. The Fathers of The Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2007.
Holman, Susan. The Hungry are Dieing: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001.
Nazianzan, St. Gregory. “On St. Basil The Great.” In The Fathers of the Church, ed. Roy J. Deferrari (and others), pages. New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953.
Pope Benedict XVI. Church Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Augustine. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008.
St. Basil. “I Will Pull Down My Barns.” In The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, vol. 3, pages. Chicago: Regnery, 1959.
St. Basil. “Letter 223.” In The Fathers of the Church, ed. Roy J. Deferrari (and others), pages. New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1955.
Toal, M.F.. The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, vol. 3. Chicago: Regnery, 1959.