Basil can justly be viewed as the real legislator of the religious state, even though we find monasteries and monastic rules before his time. Until then it had been a matter of searching and feeling one’s way. But with Basil we see the end of this period and the beginning of the era of classic development. This legislative act, like his further activities in the area of dogma and ecclesial politics, bears witness to his hegemonic superiority, peace and certainty, would in itself already be enough reason to accord him the title “the Great.”
What remains most notable in his rules is the way in which religious life is totally derived from the spirit and the text of the Holy Scriptures. We see this especially in the “longer rules” in which he strives to locate the life of the monk in the deepest reality of the Gospel, in the commandments of love for God and the neighbour and in the consequences that flow from this of the enduring orientation of the soul to God, total self-denial in obedience, the rejection of possession and property, inner and outer asceticism, prayer and disinterested work. The theological foundation of the common life of the monks is extremely important and through this Basil gives the monasteries their definitive cenobitical character.
Immediately after leaving Athens, where he had studied together with his friend, the orator and poet Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil took up his abode in the desert on the Iris in Pontus. His legislative work clearly shows the hand of a humanist, and despite its strictness and Christian fervour, all of its details convey the superior intellectual climate of its founder. Nevertheless, in contrast to the meticulous and elegant formulations of Gregory of Nazianzus, who was not unfamiliar with work on the rules, Basil used all his forming and culture in order to provide an unassailable thoroughness to his foundation, an irrefutable consistency that could withstand any reproach. This legislator was not so concerned with legislating the details of monastic life. He appeared to deliberately leave many details unanswered, such as the qualifications of a superior, the length of the noviciate, the arrangements concerning ownership and so on. He left the details over to the relevant superiors, too much so according to later judgements. He is concerned with the spirit, a spirit that is at once inwardly without compromise and outwardly measured and which in this present the best of the Hellenistic world.
Saint Basil’s rules fall into two groups. Both appear in the form of question and answer. The first group, that of the “longer rules,” contains fifty five chapters and forms the real systematic body of the rule. The questions are simply a literary form and could thus be left out in this edition. The second group, that of the “short rules,” contains three hundred and thirteen answers to all sorts of questions about ethics, asceticism and casuistry and about the interpretation of special expressions and phrases in the Holy Scriptures. Here it is clear from the formulation that the questions have been posed by monks for Basil to answer. Many of these simply provide solutions to particular cases of doubt, and only a minority provide answers that complete or clarify the fundamental provisions of the “longer rules.”
Hans-Urs von Balthasar. Vijf Bronnen van Chrsistelijke Geest (Harlem: N.V. Drukkerij de Spaarnestad, 1957. (Dutch translation of Die Grossen Ordensregeln). pp. 24-25.
While this has does reflect something of a western approach, and while it is a translation of a translation, I still find it a valuable reflection on a figure whom I hope to concentrate more on and so thought it worth translating.