A long time ago an extraordinary family lived in Cappadocia. They were orthodox Christians during a period when it could be hard to be a Christian at all, because of official prohibitions and persecutions sponsored by the Roman emperor; later, when the emperor was a Christian but an Arian, they maintained Trinitarian orthodoxy against him. When the Emperor of the eastern half of the Empire came to one of them, Basil, the bishop of Caesarea, to remonstrate with him and order him to support the Arian position, he was bluntly refused. When the emperor expressed incredulity, Basil replied, “Maybe you’ve never met a real bishop before.”

Basil and his brothers and sister built what may have been the first hospital, and opened it to the poor of Cappadocia. They took in women who had been abandoned by their husbands or ignored by their families after being widowed; they took in abandoned children. They offered to take and raise children who otherwise would have been aborted or killed soon after birth. They comforted the dying who otherwise would have died alone.

When there was a great famine in Cappadocia, Basil sold much of his land and used the proceeds to feed the hungry. He excoriated the rich of his congregation for failing to do likewise. When the people of his congregation professed skepticism that they could do anything to avert the famine, Basil told them what they should say: “Offhand, I would say, ‘I shall fill the souls of the hungry. I shall open my barns and I shall send for all who are in want. I shall be like Joseph in proclaiming the love of my fellow human being.’”

One of his brothers, a monk, devoted himself for years to hunting, not for sport, but in order to provide food for the elderly poor. Another brother, a bishop, joined Basil in repudiating the rich who were willing to provide help to their fellow Christians but refused it to the Cappadocian Jews. The food was to go to all in need. In times of particular stress, Basil was known to set aside his bishop’s robes, put on an apron, and work in the kitchens.

These people followed Jesus. To them, true doctrine and faithful obedience were one; there was no need to choose between them, and indeed no option to do so. They loved life, because life is God’s first and greatest gift, and they sought to nurture it everywhere they found it. They were friends to the unborn and the prisoner, the widow and the orphan, the Gentile and the Jew. They were what I want to be.