‘You have not met with a Bishop [like this]:’ The Sacred Communions of Basil the Great and Colum , the Dove of the Church


”You’ll get yours when you’re good and ready / You’ll get yours….
And when that day comes / You can be good and sure / The day belongs to us”

–Justin Sane. Anti-Flag. “Good and Ready.”

The Prefect glared at the intransigent Bishop who stood before him. “Have you no fear of my authority?” he thundered, “Confiscation, banishment, torture, death.” The bishop continued to madden this leader when he demurred at such threats as he stated this:

“A man who has nothing, is beyond the reach of confiscation; unless you demand my tattered rags, and the few books, which are my only possessions. Banishment is impossible for me, who am confined by no limit of place, counting my own neither the land where I may now dwell, nor all of into which I may be hurled; or rather, counting it all God’s, whose guest and dependent I am. As for tortures, what hold can they have upon one whose body has ceased to be? Unless you mean the first stroke, for this alone is in your power. Death is my benefactor, for it will send me the sooner to God, for Whom I live, and exist, and have all but died, and to Whom I live and exist, and have all but died, and to Whom I have long been hastening.”[1]

Another meeting, another place, fast forward 200 years and travel some 2000 miles. A tired abbot stood at the banks of Loch Ness wanting nothing more than to cross to the other side. However many villagers stood around watching as the body of a man who had just tried the same was being lowered from another boat back on the shore (he had supposedly been attacked by a monster while in the water). The abbot asked if someone could fetch the boat and here is story told of the event:

Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and giving an awful roar rushed after him…. Then the blessed man observing this… formed the sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, ‘Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.’ Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled.”[2]

There have been many that have questioned the validity of these stories (one more than the other); yet, the importance of both stories told by lovers of the men in question has remained. One must ask, like the stunned apostles in the storm-tossed boat, “Just what manner of man is this?”

Both men were high ranking members of the Church. Both men had a love of the ascetic disciplines of the monastic life. Go to an Eastern Orthodox Monastery and one will likely find it run on the Rule written by the first man, Saint Basil the Great. Pick up any book on the ‘Celtic’ way of Christianity (there are plenty on today’s shelves), and one will read of the third member of the Irish trio of great Saints, Saint Colum (also known as Columba or Columcille). Both men represented a new type of Christian, a new type of Christian leader. Their environments and times differed; yet, both men stood as firsts of their kind, men who combined a burning love of God with a desire to bring the truth of the Gospel of the Triune God to their people. Both represented a strain of Christianity that looked at the surprisingly fast merger of Church and State and in their own ways sought to bring heaven to earth. Therefore an examination of the two will serve to reveal the ways in which the changing world of Christianity would affect the faith and prepare it to face the challenges of the coming ‘Middle Age.’

Standing at a Crossroads: The Task at Hand for Basil

To stand with the church of Cappadocia during the middle of the fourth century was to stand at a crossroads. The persecution of the minority faith of Christianity seemed simply a story which Grandmothers such as Macrina told their grandsons such as Basil. Like a Jewish boy in the 1970s, the stories might have seemed like exciting bedtime tales of another age. The Emperor had converted (sort of), and the Empire had become Christian (sort of). All over the Empire the pagans were converting, some out of love for the truth, and some out of love for something else. Paul Fedwick has written that “with the indiscriminately swelled ranks, the church’s awareness of being a sacred community distinct from earthly society was in danger of disappearing. There was hardly any disciplina arcani left to keep church doctrines, rites, and customs out of reach of the unworthy.”[3] Basil, himself, would moan the temptations of his era as he wrote to a fellow monastic that “I have spent many a year in the pursuit of nothingness and I have consumed my youth in the vain attempt to acquire the teaching of a wisdom that is folly in God’s eyes.”[4] In another letter he asked “for what does a man have in the city but ‘wild desires, unruly impulses, and passionate yearnings?’”[5] The new life of the Christian seemed full of unruly temptations and pitfalls.

That is not to say that the area did not have a history with this ‘new’ faith. Peter Brown has stated that “we are dealing with a provincial nobility, whose Christianity reached back to the age of Origen…. For generations, Christian families such as theirs (Basil et al) had dominated the small cities of the region…. Theirs was a stern, ceremonious Christianity, rooted firmly in the continued life of the great households.”[6] Many take Gregory Nanzianzus at his word that it was Basil’s sister, the virgin Macrina, who confronted his inordinately puffed-up brother and called him back to the fold of orthodox Christianity. Yet the temptations of Athens would continually present both Basil and his congregations with the sweet fruit of a philosophical faith which saw no problem with the world, and called no man or woman to account for the lives they lived within it.

For many the answer was to pull away, entirely, to simply walk away from it all and live simply. No one has been able to say who or when this started but in the time of Basil this ‘monastic’ existence was a distinct possibility. The deserts of Egypt can be seen both as the birthplace and the ideal of spiritual martyrdom reached its highest levels of articulation and sophistication. Yet it was Syria that provided the “great province of ascetic stars.”[7] In Egypt there was a stark antithesis between eremos (desert) and oikoumene (settlement). The conditions of Egypt forced “an inward-looking and earnest attention to the hard business of survival,”[8] whereas the conditions of Syria with its forests and plentiful water supply provided an experience in which the dichotomy was not as severe.[9]

The import of this for Brown then was that the Egyptian experience entailed the monastic strictly building a new community in the desert (where one had not previously been thought possible); whereas, because survival was not so important the Syrian monastic could build an entirely new kind of life that was unattached to the community. At the same time the Egyptian monastic was further away in terms of space; whereas the Syrian monastic was often just over the hill from the settlement. This created tension between the ‘person of the desert’ and the ‘person of the settlement.’ Brown remarked that “the hermit, an unattached stranger on the edge of the village, had an uphill task to allay the hostility and suspicion: he could be framed for murder; he was often held responsible for pregnancies among the village girls; he had the evil eye.”[10] One may be tempted to think of the hermit having a similar relationship to the town that a Boo Radley had in the sleepy Alabama town of To Kill a Mockingbird; or the relationship of the quiet Muslim neighbor on the Fox TV series 24.

This was true not just of the monk and the villager; but often times between monk and bishop as well. No truer picture of this is found than in the life of the monk Eustathius with whom both Basil and Gregory Nazianzus spent some time. Together they spent their days reading scripture and excerpting the works of Origen while spending their nights in prayer always speaking about God.[11] Yet to the sorry of both Cappadocians the good Bishop Eustathius had his problems and issues (they would come to disagree most forcefully on the issue of the separation of natures in Christ). Furthermore in the middle of the century a council would be called at Gangrae which claimed that the disciples of this bishop had “endangered the institutions of slavery and of private wealth, and denied the subjection of women. They were accused of expunging all social distinctions beneath common dress.”[12] One does not need to be an expert judge of character to know which dispute (the person of Christ versus the role of women in society) caused the most fuss.

‘Solitude in Community’: The Brotherhoods of Basil

There could be considerable movement between the two as can be seen in lives of Basil, his brother Gregory (of Nyssa), and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, all of whom at various times fled to the ‘desert’ of their country manors. The ability to slide between these varied existences presented both a challenge and a tremendous opportunity for the ambitious and industrious Basil. In fact the two could be used together in ways that negated the disadvantages of the both. For Walter Nigg the combination could be described thusly:

“Never should society be sacrificed to the individual, or the individual to the collectivity; the individual needs society, and conversely, a true community can be formed only through the union of individuals grounded in God. The proper relation between individual and community is mutual fulfillment, and the solitude in community and the community in solitude that Basil the Great called forth was predicated on the individual who was prepared to incorporate himself in the spirit of service, into a whole higher than himself.”[13]

This spirit of service had other uses, too. While in the past Caesarea had been an important manufacturing and business center, the recent years had not been good. Too many famines, too many disasters, too much political turmoil had left many in the area vulnerable and frightened. Basil, himself remarked that “no ship at sea, overwhelmed by violent winds, has disappeared from sight so suddenly… as our city, swallowed up by this new administration.”[14] The good bishop’s first step had been to literally follow the words of Christ and give large amounts of his rather large inheritance to the poor.[15] Later on he would take the inheritance given by his mother and establish a complex of institutions- a hospital, orphanage, home for old and infirm, and various buildings for travelers, visitors, and the homeless.[16] An overview of the collected letters of Basil show a Bishop who took an active role in the lives of his people and city. In Georges Barrios’ collection The Fathers Speak, one can read as Basil urges a provincial governor to withhold punishment for late payment of taxes; begs another to go easy on the clergy; begs another to spare punishment from a group of runaway slaves; and advises another bishop on what to do about men who took wives by rape.[17]

It was to this type of life to which all were to aspire; and this insight led to the central premise of his Rule. For the seeker of “happiness and fulfillment” had only one recourse and that was to fulfill the dual law of God: love him with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. This life of Koinonia was the penultimate existence and showed true perfection.[18] Basil’s Asceticons, his work on the ascetic life, then can be read as his instructions for the church to live as “a community of baptized people trying to live a perfect life not only in monastic seclusion but also in the middle of the world.”[19]

Standing in the Thundering Surf: The Task at Hand for Colum

To stand with the church of Dalriada, Ulster, or Tara during the middle of the sixth century was to stand in the pounding surf of the restless sea and wonder just where the waves might take one today. The shores of modern-day Ireland had been breached with the Gospel just a short 50 years after Basil passed on to his reward. The conversion had been as quick within one generation. The quickness of this conversion has left many a scholar questioning both the validity and sincerity of the change. Yet no has doubted the importance Christianity played in the hearts of many Irish, and the importance that played for the rest of Christian Europe. Perhaps more than any other country Ireland was best known by its individual believers: “figures sometimes comic, or fanatic, or rumbustious, or humble.”[20] Some have praised this ferocity of spirit, others have chosen to view it with the accustomed wit of the Irish bard. Of this grouping one may quote G.K. Chesterton who once quipped that:

The Great Gaels of Ireland

Were the men God made mad;

For all their wars were merry,

And all their songs were sad.[21]

Whatever else one may say; these were men and women “searching compulsively for something unworldly, for their own idea of God, for a refuge from earthly things, for the Promised Land, for perfection. The quest drives each one outwards, far from his home and people, to bring his gifts, oddities, and aspirations to other countries and races.”[22]

Irish society had always been set up as a family thing. The basic unit of society was the clan. A grouping of clans came together in a tuath. Overseeing the tuath was the Ri, a provincial King, and overseeing the entire island was the Ard Ri or High King. This was a Ri who was voted by all to oversee the fairness and dissensions of the always fighting clans. When Patrick brought the Roman system of bishops and dioceses to Ireland, it disappeared in a generation; yet, the idea of the monastery and abbot that took off. Monasteries sprung up among all the clans; and soon varied monasteries came together in familias or parouchias, that is groups put together by the same founder or disciples of a common founder. True to form these monks were not the pacifists one would imagine. Brendan Lahane has reported that “inter-monastic skirmishes were as common as competitive sports” between Christian colleges would be in modern society.[23] So as Europe and the ‘civilized’ world stood in shock at the fall of Roman law, the tuathes of Ireland stood ready to get in the game.

In this stew of fiery emotions, and developing fidelity, a royal family welcomed a new child. Upon news of this event an angel was said to have proclaimed that “thou shalt bring forth a son so beautiful of character, that he shall be reckoned among his people as one of the prophets of God, and hath been predestined by God to be a leader of innumerable souls to the heavenly country.”[24] So went the birth of Colum, a direct descendant of the Great High King Niall, whose marauders had long ago captured a Briton named Patrick and brought him to the shores of Ireland as a slave. If all the tales of angelic visits and miracles were not enough to convince his audience of this ‘blessed man’s’ life, one might be put over the top by this description of Colum as a child: “preserving by God’s favor integrity of body and purity of soul, he showed himself, though placed on earth, ready for life of heaven; for he was angelic in aspect.”[25]

A Leader of Souls: The Parachoia of Colum

However like many of the Old Testament saints to whom he was compared, this angel was not always so angelic. It seemed that some sort of misbehavior caused the saint to become excommunicated from the church he loved (though quickly reinstated).[26] To show his sorrow, or perhaps just because he recognized a good opportunity when hew saw it, this saint volunteered to leave hearth and home to go into the world with the Gospel. This voluntary exile was not necessarily a new idea, the stories of Ireland are filled with men and women who left to go wandering and were never heard from again (yet have elaborate voyage tales known to all). Yet in Colum one finds the dominant example of the peregrinari pro Christi or pro amore Dei defined as the willingness “to leave one’s family and country in order to go and live in unknown, more or less hostile surroundings and to place this exile at Christ’s service… to work at spreading the Gospel among foreigners.”[27] In a country and people that so valued family and relationship, it should not be surprising that the highest ideal of sacrifice would be to leave, not knowing if the waves will one day bring him or her back.

Settling on the small and particularly, politically favorable location of Hy (or Iona) Colum founded a monastery dedicated to the love of God and to worship. There monks found a life of prayer, work, reading, and copying scripture and other works. Within two years the monks, including Colum began to pour out unto the mainland of Scotland where they have been credited with re-converting the Picts and several other communities within Scotland. Soon the monks would gain the nickname Island Soldiers, and even change the European connotation of Scot from “pirate” to “wandering missionary of island origin.”[28] In doing so Colum and his disciples created a widespread web of monasteries who considered themselves the Parouchia Chaluimchille. So widespread was his authority that this simple priest[29] became the foremost representative of the Irish and Scottish Christians even presiding over the coronation of the Pict King Aidan where he gave one of his few remaining addresses. At that time he urged the crowd “to live in loving concord and content with your possessions, never to invade the property of others; being mindful of how great the benefits of God…. You shall properly perform the things that it is your part to do, never turning away from the cultivation of true piety, but always giving good heed to those who urge you righteousness.”[30] He would return to Ireland from time to time a hero to visit his monasteries as well as to argue before conventions of Kings for the rights of the Scots. His body was said to be buried under a highly celebrated monument with the bodies of Saints Patrick and Brigid.

A New Kind of Christian?

Surveying the Christian Church in the generations just after the death of Christ, Peter Brown wrote that:

“Just sixty years after the death of Jesus, little was clear about the profile of the Christian groups in Palastine and Syria. It was far from certain who would take the lead in preaching the Kingdom and who would effectively represent the ‘churches of Christ…. On the one hand, there were those who had ‘followed’ Jesus. His more radical sayings provided them with a clear charter for their own breach with the settled world…. On the other hand, the silent majority of those who awaited the coming of the kingdom were careworn and decent homeholders…. Secure in their moral horizons, they were in no position to allow the painfully assembled fabric of their social person… to evaporate at the call of the wandering few. Christian communities where such men came to the fore would look at the worls around them in a different manner from those who imagined that, on the open road, they already breathed the heady air of the kingdom.” [31]

Some 400 pages and 500 years later, Brown would report the words of Saint Patrick that “in Ireland which never had any knowledge of God… the sons and daughters of the chieftains are now seen to be monks and virgins of Christ.”[32] At this point one would have to set aside almost 80 days to travel from Lyons in the West to Dura Europos in the East leaving “variants of Christianity that now lie so neatly, side by side, in books on the shelves of a modern library [which] were often unknown to each other at the time.”[33]

In light of this it may seem strange that one can look at the lives and ministries of two men separated by 2,000 miles and 200 years and find amazing similarities. The angelic announcements of their birth, aside, both these men were determined to see a thriving faith which could both stand on its own apart from the world; while at the same time exist within the world as a challenge to the status quo. Andrea Sterk has argued that a tremendous paradox was at work in this period of time: how could it be that men ‘removed from the world’ would be pursued as leaders; or better how a movement of enthusiasm disdained by the authority and looked on suspiciously by regular folk would take on so much clout, and yes, respect.[34] She argued that Basil has remained the central figure, the paradigm, of this strange new Christendom. “If in Athanasius’ famous description of Egyptian monasticism the desert became a city, one might affirm that for many… the city became a desert.”[35] In these cities and villages a crisis of leadership enveloped the area, as Peter Brown noted, “villagers needed a hinge-man, a man who belonged to the outside world and yet could place his dunamis, his know-how, and (let us not forget) his culture and values at the disposal of the villagers.”[36]

In discussing Basil’s view of the church, Fedwick wrote that one could not parse out any separate meanings for the term ekklesia as Basil saw no differentiation between the church local and the church universal. Every local body existed as “a universal reality- the reality of being reached and grasped at a certain point of time by the saving action of God the Father acting for man’s sake through the Son in the Holy Spirit.”[37] Historians may have trouble explaining how groupings of monks on the shores of both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean would came to seemingly similar[38] calls to forsake all and make the city a desert or if that cannot be done make the sea itself a desert. Yet one might suspect that neither Basil nor Colum would find this odd. Both would probably urge the believer on in the words of Basil to a fellow bishop:

“Act like a man and be strong; march in front of the people the right hand of the Most High entrusted to you. Steer your ship prudently, stand above the tempests raised by heretical winds, keep your vessel from sinking in the briny and bitter waves of perverse doctrine, and wait for the stillness, which the Lord shall give when a voice is found worthy to wake him up, that he rebukes the wind and the sea.”[39]


[1] St Gregory Nazianzus. “The Panegyric of St Basil.” The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers. 2nd Series. Volume VII: Cyril and Gregory Nanzianas. (New York: Christian Literature Co.; 1894), 411 (Paragraph 49).

[2] Adamnan. Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy (Iona). Ed. William Reeves. (Edmonstan: Historians of Scotland, 1874). Facsimile Reprint by Llanerch Enterprises; 1988, 88-9.

[3] Paul Johnson Fedwick. The Church and Charisma of Leadership in Basil of Caesarea. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1979), 18.

[4] Basil to Eustathios of Sebastaea, Letter 223 (375). Reproduced in The Fathers Speak. St Basil the Great, St Gregory Nazianzus, St Gregory of Nyssa. Trans and Ed. Georges Barrois. (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press; 1986), 39.

[5] Basil as quoted in Walter Nigg. Warriors of God: The Greek Religious Orders and Their Founders. Trans. Mary Iford. (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1959), 72.

[6] Peter Brown. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. (New York: Columbia UP; 1988), 285.

[7] Peter Brown. Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity. (Los Angles: California-Berkeley UP, 1982), 104.

[8] Ibid, 110.

[9] Ibid, 111.

[10] Ibid, 113.

[11] Peter Brown, Body, 287-8.

[12] Ibid, 288.

[13] Walter Nigg, 76.

[14] Paulo Siepierski. “Poverty and Spirituality: St Basil and Liberation Theology.” Greek Orthodox Theological Review. 33-3 (1988), 320.

[15] Ibid, 321.

[16] Ibid, 325.

[17] These and other examples can be found in Chapter 6 entitled “Pastors and Hierarchs: Shepherds of Sheep” within the mentioned book.

[18] Fedwick, 17.

[19] Ibid, 18.

[20] Brendan Lahane. The Three Abbots: Pioneers of Ireland’s Golden Age. (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 3.

[21] As quoted by Lehane, 119.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid, 117.

[24] Adamnan, 112.

[25] Lahane, 113.

[26] This is a matter of huge debate with not surprisingly several good stories. The most popular story told is that Colum made an illegal copy of a manuscript owned by another abbot. Tempers fared, and the varied families rambled (a la The Outsiders or West Side Story), except that as many as 3,000 men (a mythological number meaning more than anyone could count) were killed. Because of this St Molaisse demanded that the abbot undertake a penance to convert to Christ an equal number of souls as killed in body (i.e. more than anyone could count).

[27] Henri Marrou. “Part Two: The Great Persecution to the Emergence of Medieval Christianity.” The Christian Century. Volume One: The First 600 Years. Jean Danielou and Henri Marrou,ed. Trans. Vincent Cronin. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.; 1964), 456.

[28] Marrou, 456.

[29] Another excellent story. It was said that Colum was supposed to be consecrated as a Bishop, but the presiding Bishop got ‘confused’ during the ceremony and ordained the young man as a priest annoying everyone including the abbot that had sent Colum to the bishop. Colum was said to have proclaimed this a sign that he was not called to be a bishop and refused to have the ‘mistake’ corrected.

[30] Saint Columba. “Speech at the Coronation of Aidan, King of Scots.” Saint Columba : a record and a tribute to which are added the Altus and some other remains. 2nd Ed. Duncan MacGregor. (Aberdeen : W Jolly & Sons, 1898), 108-109.

[31] Brown, Body, 44-45.

[32] Ibid, 430.

[33] Ibid, 64.

[34] Andrea Sterk. Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church: The Monk-Bishop in Late Antiquity. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2004), 5.

[35] Ibid, 25.

[36] Brown, Society, 118.

[37] Fedwick, 1.

[38] In our defense there may have been some interworkings that we are unaware of. One can prove that the Ionian monks of Adamnan’s day had a copy of Basil; so one can suspect that there was more interplay between the continent and Ireland than its lack of inclusion in the Empire might suggest.

[39] Basil to Amphilochios. Letter 161 (374). Fathers Speak, 76.

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