Tuesday, August 02, 2005

St. Basil the Blessed, Fool for the sake of Christ.

Saint Basil was one of a particular category of saints in the Orthodox Christian Church, called a "Fool for the Sake of Christ" or in Russian: yurodivy. These Saints like the prophets of the Old Testament were characterized by their strange prophetic utterings and cryptic deeds. St. Basil is perhaps one of the most "famous" in modern times because of the Cathedral in Moscow that bears his name.

Saint Basil died in 1552. What was going on in the world at that time? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1552

St Basil was wandering the streets of Moscow sometimes naked, except for heavy chains, even in the bitter cold of winter, throughout the reign of all of the following Russian Monarchs:

Grand Princes of Moscow
• Vasili III (1505-1533)
• Ivan IV "the Terrible" (1533-1547) - first Tsar
Tsars of Russia, 1547-1721
• Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) (1547-1584)

Like the prophets of the Old Testament, the yurodivy frequently interacted with the Kings and Princes of Moscow. St. Basil's most notable interactions were with Ivan Grozni (generally called Ivan the Terrible, actually Grozni in Russian means Thunderous). Ivan IV (also sometimes known as John the IV, since Ivan is Russian for the English John) was a ruthless and despotic ruler. He also happened to have united Russia as kingdom for the very first time in its history (it was previously a conglomeration of independent city-states, many of whom considered themselves enemies.) He was the first Russian monarch to call himself Tsar, a Russian pronunciation of Caesar. By so doing he was proclaiming himself ruler of the New Rome, and all the Christian kingdom of New Byzantium.

One of my favorite stories about St. Basil and his interactions with Ivan Grozni goes as follows:

On one day St. Basil was invited to the palace by the Tsar. When Basil was given his drink, he poured it out the window. The Tsar, being amused, ordered Basil to be given a second drink, which he also poured out the window. When a third drink was poured out the window the Tsar became angry with Basil. Basil said to him: "Quench your anger and know that by pouring out this drink I have extinguished the fire which is now consuming the whole city of Novgorod." With this Basil hurriedly fled the palace.

The Tsar quickly sent someone to Novgorod to check on that great city. Novgorod was at this time the Second great city in Russia, and had been the first great city in Russia before the rise of Moscow. When the Tsars messengers returned from Novgorod they reported that the city had indeed been consumed by fire, and that the townspeople had seen a mysterious stranger, a naked man with a pail of water putting out the flames. The Tsar confirmed the day and the hour of this great fire, and it was indeed at the very time St. Basil was with him in his palace.

In another story, Ivan was coming out of Church one day when he met St. Basil. He asked the saint: "Where have you been? Why were you not in Church?"

St. Basil replied: "I was with you at the Holy Liturgy."

The Tsar answered: "How is it I did not see you?"

"Ah, but I saw you," the saint replied. "You were not really in Church."

The Tsar got angry. "I have been in Church all along, and you were not even there."

The saint replied, "Your words are not true, O Tsar, for I saw you walking in thought on Sparrow Hills and building your palace."

The Tsar was smitten with compunction, for he had in fact been day-dreaming on his new palace he was currently building at Sparrow Hills.

The following story, I've always confused with St. Basil, but it actually involved St. Nicholas Salos of Pskov.

In another of my favorite stories of the holy fools is a story of St. Nicholas of Pskov, shortly after the death of St. Basil. The wrath of Tsar Ivan was quenched and put to shame by the saint as he threatened to invade the city. In Feb of 1570 the Tsar was encamped outside the city of Pskov threatening to invade. The people of the city were weeping and praying for God's deliverance from the Tsar. They held vigil late into the night interceding with God that their city be spared.

When at last they saw the Tsar approaching the city, they rang all the bells from the Churches and sent out a delegation to welcome the Tsar with bread and salt and low bows. (The traditional Russian greeting to a welcome visitor, used to this day in the Churches to welcome a visiting bishop.) But the Tsar lashed out and anger and the people fled before him.

Suddenly where the crowd had been there appeared Saint Nicholas the holy fool, riding on a child's play stick-horse. The fool cried out: "Ivanushka, Ivanushka, eat some bread and salt instead of human blood." The Tsar was furious and ordered his Oprichniki to seize him. But the saint slipped away. (Ivanuska is how a mother would address her small child if the child's name was Ivan.)

The Tsar then turned toward the cathedral, and was met on its steps by the Fr. Kornili Abbot of the Monastery of the Pskov Caves. The Tsar entered and stood through Moleiben for his health. Then when he turned to leave he was met again by St. Nicholas the fool. St Nicholas invited the Tsar to dine with him in his cell, and the Tsar consented. When he entered the tiny cell of St. Nicholas he was presented with a fat juicy-red steak. (This was in the middle of Great Lent, mind you, when no meat was eaten.) The Saint said to him: "Eat, Ivanushka, Eat!"

"I am a Christian and do not eat meat during the fast," the Tsar answered.

"You are doing worse," the saint answered. "You are feeding on human flesh and blood, forgetting not only the fast, but God as well!"

The tsar ignored him and ordered his solders to begin their sack of the city.

The holy fool spook up: "If your warriors dare to touch a single hair of the least child in this city, a fiery cloud will overshadow you and you will not escape the judgment of God." As the saint spoke lightning flashed and thunder roared. Ivan suddenly trembled with fear, and ordered his soldiers to stop. He fled the city in haste.

When St. Basil died in1552, the Tsar ordered him to be buried beneath a porch of his great Cathedral of the Pokhrov (the protection of the Theotokos) that was nearing completion. The Cathedral was to be the greatest in all Russia, and was elaborately constructed with a central Cathedral dedicated to the Pokhrov, and eight other small churches in two sets of four around the outside of the inner Cathedral. Each Church was dedicated to the Saint on whose day a great battle was won against the Tartars, and was crowned with an elaborate onion dome.

In 1588 when St. Basil was proclaimed a saint, the new Tsar Theodore Ivanovich ordered a chapel to be constructed in honor of the Saint on the porch where his body reposed. The perfect symmetry of the Cathedral was broken, when this small chapel was constructed, giving the famous Cathedral that is now known through-out the world as St. Basil's its tenth onion dome.

There's a great movie about Ivan Grozni http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037824/ written by the famous Soviet film maker Sergei Einstein. I highly recommend the movie.

About Ivan Grozni:
Ivan was crowned tsar with Monomakh's Cap at the Cathedral of the Dormition at age sixteen on January 16, 1547.
He also annexed the Kazan and Astrakhan Khanates to the east, thus transforming Russia into a multinational and multiconfessional state. He had St. Basil's Cathedral constructed in Moscow to commemorate the seizure of Kazan.

Eventually, with his enemies multiplied, his only son murdered (possibly by himself) the reign of Ivan turned bloody. He started the first Russian secret police (called the Oprichniki) that were basically a bunch of thugs that worked for him personally. He murdered many people, including St. Philip Metropolitan of Moscow. Saint Philip II of Moscow (1507-December 12, 1569) was one of a few Metropolitans of Moscow who dared openly contradict lay authorities. Yet Ivan always had a health fear or Saint Basil and wouldn't touch him.

More on St. Basil:


List of Russian Rullers:

Holy St. Basil the Blessed, Pray to God for me a sinner!

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