I have recently begun reading Saint Basil’s ascetical works (Saint Basil. Ascetical Works) and was struck by what he says about conflict in the Church which is, well, not exactly irrelevant to many situations today. And then I realised that today[i] is what the Dutch call his summer feast, which is the anniversary of his episcopal consecration, and thought that it may be worth writing something on this in his honour.
I observed that the most harmonious relations existed among those trained in the pursuit of each of the arts and sciences; while in the Church of God alone, for which Christ died and upon which He poured out in abundance the Holy Spirit, I noticed that many disagree violently with one another and also in their understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Most alarming of all is the fact that I found the very leaders of the Church themselves at such variance with one another in thought and opinion, showing so much opposition to the commands of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so mercilessly rending asunder the Church of God… (37)
Saint Basil goes on to describe his own perplexity at this state of affairs and his realisation that “the discord and quarrelling” that he saw in the Church was
a consequence of their turning away from the one, great, and true God, only King of the universe. Each man, indeed, abandons the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and arrogates to himself authority in dealing with certain questions, making his own private rules, and preferring to exercise leadership in opposition to the Lord to being led by the Lord. (38)
Such discord is, then, simply a manifestation “of the evil lurking hidden in the soul” (39) and of “the darkening of the eye of their soul.” (40)
Now Saint Basil is, I would argue, one of the more credible teachers on the unity of the Church. He was certainly no fanatic and went out of his way to seek ways of reaching agreement, even with those who did not agree with him in every detail, such as his contacts with Homoiousians make clear. But he was prepared to draw the line when it became absolutely necessary, even when it meant a painful break with his former mentor Eustathius of Sebaste over the latter’s denial of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
What I find significant in Basil’s work, however, is the way he links the dogmatic life the Church with the asceticism necessary of the theologian, which both informs, and is informed by, his work on the Holy Spirit. If Christian division comes as a result of the darkening of the eye of the soul, then unity must come through the purifying work of the Holy Spirit:
Only then after a man is purified from the shame whose stain he took through his wickedness, and has come back again to his natural beauty, and as it were cleaning the Royal Image and restoring its ancient form, only thus is it possible for him to draw near to the Paraclete. And He, like the sun, will by the aid of thy purified eye show thee in Himself the image of the invisible, and in the blessed spectacle of the image thou shalt behold the unspeakable beauty of the archetype. Through His aid hearts are lifted up, the weak are held by the hand, and they who are advancing are brought to perfection. On the Holy Spirit, 9, 23.
[i] On the new calendar. What calendar I end up on depends on what parish I end up in which depends on what town (and country) I end up in. But for the time being I have a new calendar booklet and am somewhat amused by the calendar hopping involved in visiting different parishes or monasteries! There are some things that one just has to smile at and not get worked up about.