1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Basilian Monks

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BASILIAN MONKS, those who follow the rule of Basil the Great. The chief importance of the monastic rule and institute of St Basil lies in the fact that to this day his reconstruction of the monastic life is the basis of the monasticism of the Greek and Slavonic Churches, though the monks do not call themselves Basilians. 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, the chief portions whereof are translated by Newman in the Church of the Fathers, “Basil and Gregory,” §§ 4, 5. On leaving Athens Basil visited the monasteries of Egypt and Palestine; 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 (see Monasticism). When (c. 360) Basil formed his monastery in the neighbourhood 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 life St Basil established was strictly cenobitical, with common prayer seven times a day, common work, common meals. It was, in spite of the new ideas, an austere life, of the kind called contemplative, given up to prayer, the reading of the Scriptures and heavy field-work. The so-called Rules (the Longer and the Shorter) are catechisms of the spiritual life rather than a body of regulations for the corporate working of a community, such as is now understood by a monastic rule. Apparently no vows were taken, but obedience, personal poverty, chastity, self-denial, and the other monastic virtues were strongly enforced, and a monk was not free to abandon the monastic life. A novitiate had to be passed, and young boys were to be educated in the monastery, but were not expected to become monks.

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 neighbouring provinces there were no hermits but only cenobites. However, the eastern hankering after the eremitical life long 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 (see Migne, Patrol. Graec. xcix., 1704–1757), 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.

The spirit of Greek monachism, as regenerated by Theodore, may best be gathered from his Letters, Discourses and Testament.[1] Under the abbot were several officials to superintend the various departments; the liturgical services in the church took up a considerable portion of the day, but Theodore seems to have made no attempt to revive the early practice of the Studium in this matter (see Acoemeti); the rest of the time was divided between reading and work; the latter included the chief handicrafts, for the monks, only ten in number, when Theodore became abbot, increased under his rule to over a thousand. One kind of work practised with great zeal and success by the Studite monks, was the copying of manuscripts, so that to them and to the schools that went forth from them we owe a great number of existing Greek MSS. and the preservation of many works of classical and ecclesiastical antiquity. In addition to this, literary and theological studies were pursued, and the mysticism of pseudo-Dionysius was cultivated. The life, though simple and self-denying and hard, was not of extreme austerity. There was a division of the monks into two classes, similar to the division in vogue in later time in the West into choir-monks and lay-brothers. The life of the choir-monks was predominantly contemplative, being taken up with the church services and private prayer and study; the lay-brothers carried on the various trades and external works. There is little or no evidence of works of charity outside the monastery being undertaken by Studite monks. Strict personal poverty was enforced, and all were encouraged to approach confession and communion frequently. Vows had been imposed on monks by the council of Chalcedon (451). The picture of Studite life is the picture of normal Greek and Slavonic monachism to this day.

During the middle ages the centre of Greek monachism shifted from Constantinople to Mount Athos. The first monastery to be founded here was that of St Athanasius (c. 960), and in the course of the next three or four centuries monasteries in great numbers—Greek, Slavonic and one Latin—were established on Mount Athos, some twenty of which still survive.

Basilian monachism spread from Greece to Italy and Russia. Rufinus had translated St Basil’s Rules into Latin (c. 400) and they became the rule of life in certain Italian monasteries. They were known to St Benedict, who refers his monks to “the Rule of our holy Father Basil,”—indeed St Benedict owed more of the ground-ideas of his Rule to St Basil than to any other monastic legislator. In the 6th and 7th centuries there appear to have been Greek monasteries in Rome and south Italy and especially in Sicily. But during the course of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries crowds of fugitives poured into southern Italy from Greece and Sicily, under stress of the Saracenic, Arab and other invasions; and from the middle of the 9th century Basilian monasteries, peopled by Greek-speaking monks, were established in great numbers in Calabria and spread northwards as far as Rome. Some of them existed on into the 18th century, but the only survivor now is the monastery founded by St Nilus (c. 1000) at Grottaferrata in the Alban Hills. Professor Kirsopp Lake has (1903) written four valuable articles (Journal of Theological Studies, iv., v.) on “The Greek monasteries of South Italy”; he deals in detail with their scriptoria and the dispersal of their libraries, a matter of much interest, in that some of the chief collections of Greek MSS. in western Europe—as the Bessarion at Venice and a great number at the Vatican—come from the spoils of these Italian Basilian houses.

Of much greater importance was the importation of Basilian monachism into Russia, for it thereby became the norm of monachism for all the Slavonic lands. Greek monks played a considerable part in the evangelization of the Slavs, and the first Russian monastery was founded at Kiev (c. 1050) by a monk from Mount Athos. The monastic institute had a great development in Russia, and at the present day there are in the Russian empire some 400 monasteries of men and 100 of women, many of which support hospitals, almshouses and schools. In the other Slavonic lands there are a considerable number of monasteries, as also in Greece itself, while in the Turkish dominions there are no fewer than 100 Greek monasteries. The monasteries are of three kinds: cenobia proper, wherein full monastic common life, with personal poverty, is observed; others called idiorrhythmic, wherein the monks are allowed the use of their private means and lead a generally mitigated and free kind of monastic life; and the lauras, wherein the life is semi-eremitical. Greek and Slavonic monks wear a black habit. The visits of Western scholars in modern times to Greek monasteries in search of MSS.—notably to St Catherine’s on Mount Sinai, and to Mount Athos—has directed much attention to contemporary Greek monachism, and the accounts of these expeditions commonly contain descriptions, more or less sympathetic and intelligent, of the present-day life of Greek monks. The first such account was Robert Curzon’s in parts iii. (1834) and iv. (1837) of the Monasteries of the Levant; the most recent in English is Athelstan Riley’s Athos (1887). The life is mainly given up to devotional contemplative exercises; the church services are of extreme length; intellectual study is little cultivated; manual labour has almost disappeared; there are many hermits on Athos (q.v.).

The ecclesiastical importance of the monks in the various branches of the Orthodox Church lies in this, that as bishops must be celibate, whereas the parochial clergy must be married, the bishops are all recruited from the monks. But besides this they have been a strong spiritual and religious influence, as is recognized even by those who have scant sympathy with monastic ideals (see Harnack, What is Christianity? Lect. xiii., end).

Outside the Orthodox Church are some small congregations of Uniat Basilians. Besides Grottaferrata, there are Catholic Basilian monasteries in Poland, Hungary, Galicia, Rumania; and among the Melchites or Uniat Syrians.

There have been Basilian nuns from the beginning, St Macrina, St Basil’s sister, having established a nunnery which was under his direction. The nuns are devoted to a purely contemplative life, and in Russia, where there are about a hundred nunneries, they are not allowed to take final vows until the age of sixty. They are very numerous throughout the East.

Authorities.—In addition to the authorities for different portions of the subject-matter named in the course of this article, may be mentioned, on St Basil and his Rules, Montalembert, Monks of the West, second part of bk. ii., and the chapter on St Basil in James O. Hannay’s Spirit and Origin of Christian Monasticism (1903). On the history and spirit of Basilian Monachism, Helyot, Hist. des Ordres Religieux, i. (1714); Heimbucher, Orden und Kongregationen (1907), i., § 11; Abbé Marin, Les Moines de Constantinople (1897); Karl Holl, Enthusiasmus und Bussgewalt beim griechischen Mönchtum (1898); Otto Zöckler, Askese und Mönchtum, pp. 285-309 (1897). For general information see Wetzer und Welte, Kirchenlexicon (ed. ii.), art. “Basilianer,” and Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (ed. iii.), in articles “Mönchtum,” “Orientalische Kirche,” and “Athosberg,” where copious references will be found.  (E. C. B.) 

  1. Specimen passages, and also a general picture of the life, will be found in Miss Alice Gardner’s Theodore of Studium, ch. v.