Basil


Basil of Caesarea writes, in the conclusion of his Moral Rules, that the Christian’s specific identity consists in this vigilance directed towards Christ: ‘What is it that defines the Christian? Keeping watch every day and hour and being ready to carry out perfectly what pleases God, in the knowledge that the Lord will come at an hour we do not expect.’

Basil’s emphasis on the temporal dimension of vigilance is significant. A type of the vigilant man or woman is the prophet, who translates the gaze and the Word of God into the ‘today’ of time and history. Vigilance is inner lucidity, intelligence, the ability to think critically, awareness of and involvement in the world in which one lives, and freedom from distraction and dissipation. The vigilant person, who has achieved unification by listening to the Word of God and remaining inwardly attentive to the demands of the Word, becomes responsible – in other words radically not indifferent, aware of the need to pay attention to his or her surroundings, and in particular, capable of watching over others and taking care of them.

Enzo Bianchi, Words of Spirituality. (SPCK, 2002) 11.

That the Christian should not fear nor be distressed in difficult circumstances, and thus be distracted from his trust in God; but should take courage as if the Lord were at hand directing his affairs and strengthening him against all his adversaries and as if the Holy Spirit were instructing him even as to the replies he should make to his foes.

Saint Basil the Great, “The Morals,” 63, in Saint Basil. Ascetical Works. Translated by Sister M. Monica Wagner, C.S.C. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950) 150.

What is the nature or the function of baptism? The changing of the person baptized in thought and word and action and his transformation according to the power bestowed on him into that of which he has been born.

Saint Basil the Great, “The Morals,” 20, in Saint Basil. Ascetical Works. Translated by Sister M. Monica Wagner, C.S.C. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950) 106.

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.

To avoid dissipation of the heart, refrain as much as you can from going abroad at all. …

If, then, it would happen that circumstances force you to leave your cell and go abroad, arm yourself with the breastplate of the fear of God, clasp in your hand the love of Christ, and repulse with all continency the attacks of sensual pleasure. As soon as your business is completed take your departure without delay and return on swift wing like a guileless dove going back to the ark which sent you forth, bearing the mercies of Christ on your lips, thus silencing interior protests and persuading yourself that saving tranquillity cannot be secured in any other place.

Saint Basil the Great, “On Renunciation of the World” in Saint Basil. Ascetical Works. Translated by Sister M. Monica Wagner, C.S.C. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950) 22, 23. 

…with much care and forethought set about finding a man skilled in guiding those who are making their way toward God who will be an unerring director of your life. He should be adorned with virtues, bearing witness by his own works to his love for God, conversant with the Holy Scripture, recollected, free from avarice, a good, quiet man, tranquil, pleasing to God, a lover of the poor, mild, forgiving, laboring hard for the spiritual advancement of his clients, without vainglory or arrogance, impervious to flattery, not given to vacillation, and preferring God to all things else.

Saint Basil the Great, “On Renunciation of the World” in Saint Basil. Ascetical Works. Translated by Sister M. Monica Wagner, C.S.C. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950) 19.

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.

… someone given the ability to perceive the depth of the law’s meaning, who passes through the curtain of literal obscurity and arrives at unutterable truths, is like Moses, who removed his veil when he spoke to God. Such a man has turned from the letter to the Spirit. The veil on Moses’ face is analogous to the obscurity of the instruction offered by the law, just as spiritual contemplation corresponds to Moses speaking to the Lord with face unveiled. He who throws away the letter and turns to the Lord when reading the law (and now the Lord is called Spirit) becomes like Moses, whose face shone with the glory of God’s manifestation. Objects placed near something brilliantly colored themselves become tinted through eflected light; likewise, he who fixes his gaze on the Spirit is transfigured to greater brightness, his heart illumined by the light of the Spirit’s truth. Then the glory of the Spirit is changed into such a person’s own glory, not stingily, or dimly, but with the abundance we would expect to find within someone who had been enlightened by the Spirit. (21, 52 – pp. 82-83)

Saint Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 21, 52 (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press), pp. 82-83.

He wrought first in the heavenly and angelic powers, and such as are first after God and around God.  For from no other source flows their perfection and their brightness, and the difficulty or impossibility of moving them to sin, but from the Holy Ghost.  And next, in the Patriarchs and Prophets, of whom the former saw Visions of God, or knew Him, and the latter also foreknew the future, having their master part moulded by the Spirit, and being associated with events that were yet future as if present, for such is the power of the Spirit.  And next in the Disciples of Christ (for I omit to mention Christ Himself, in Whom He dwelt, not as energizing, but as accompanying His Equal), and that in three ways, as they were able to receive Him, and on three occasions; before Christ was glorified by the Passion, and after He was glorified by the Resurrection; and after His Ascension, or Restoration, or whatever we ought to call it, to Heaven.  Now the first of these manifests Him—the healing of the sick and casting out of evil spirits, which could not be apart from the Spirit; and so does that breathing upon them after the Resurrection, which was clearly a divine inspiration; and so too the present distribution of the fiery tongues, which we are now commemorating.  But the first manifested Him indistinctly, the second more expressly, this present one more perfectly, since He is no longer present only in energy, but as we may say, substantially, associating with us, and dwelling in us.  For it was fitting that as the Son had lived with us in bodily form—so the Spirit too should appear in bodily form; and that after Christ had returned to His own place, He should have come down to us—Coming because He is the Lord; Sent, because He is not a rival God.  For such words no less manifest the Unanimity than they mark the separate Individuality.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 41, On Pentecost.

Now the Spirit is not brought into intimate association with the soul by local approximation.  How indeed could there be a corporeal approach to the incorporeal?  This association results from the withdrawal of the passions which, coming afterwards gradually on the soul from its friendship to the flesh, have alienated it from its close relationship with God.  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. Shining upon those that are cleansed from every spot, He makes them spiritual by fellowship with Himself.  Just as when a sunbeam falls on bright and transparent bodies, they themselves become brilliant too, and shed forth a fresh brightness from themselves, so souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual, and send forth their grace to others. Hence comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God.

Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, IX, 23.

When I think of all this – let me speak freely of my personal feelings – I fall into a fearful shuddering and terror, lest perhaps through carelessness of mind or absorption in vain things I should fall from the love of God and become a reproach to Christ. For he that now deceives us and is eager to make us forget our Benefactor, using every trick and worldly enticements, jumping on us and attacking us to destroy our souls, he will one day offer our carelessness as a reproach to the Lord and will boast of our disobedience and apostasy. He neither created us nor died for us, but despite this he kept us following his disobedience and neglect of God’s commandments. This reproach against the Lord and this boasting of the enemy seem to me harder to bear than the punishment of hell, namely that we should become to the enemy of Christ a subject of boasting and an opportunity for pride against him who died for us and rose again, to whom for this reason we are more abundantly debtors as is written.

Saint Basil, Longer Rule, 2 as quoted in Augustine Holmes OSB. A Life Pleasing to God. The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil. London, DLT, 2000. 81

In comparison with other early ascetic literature, the Asceticon gives much less attention to the threat from Satan and the demons in the spiritual life. Compared with the ‘Life of Antony’ it is partly a question of genre, but in general Basil does tend to situate the movement to evil solely in one’s own will (idion thelêma), possibly a consequence of his high view of human nature. In his sermon That God is not the Author of Evils he teaches that evil comes from our own perverted wills which turn away from God through lack of interest in him. The word he uses is koros, the same as used by Origen in his account of the primal fall. Again we see Basil using the ideas of the great Alexandrian, but separated from his controversial cosmology. In addition to his dominant interest in human nature, the relative lack of interest in evil spirits may also have been a reaction to the excessive views of demonic influence current among the enthusiasts.

The presence of the Devil here is significant, though, as it situates the ascetic life, as part of Basil’s re-telling of Salvation History, in the context of the cosmic drama of war between good and evil. The Devil was disobedient and neglected God’s commandments and he encourages us to do the same. The ascetics work is contrary to that of Satan in that it is one of obedience to the commandments. Despite all the positive anthropology mentioned above, the presence of the the Evil One means that our salvation is not assured.

Augustine Holmes OSB. A Life Pleasing to God. The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil. London, DLT, 2000. 84-85.

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