14 January 2009

'A Light of True Religion & Trumpet of Theology'—St Basil the Great

Today is the feastday of the Circumcision of the Lord, about which I’ll limit myself to noting that Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) points out it ‘suggests to us the circumcision of the heart’ (The feasts of the Lord: An introduction to the twelve feasts and Orthodox Christology, trans. Esther Williams [Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2003], p. 74). But we also commemorate one of the greatest Fathers of the Orthodox Church, St Basil the Great, whom Jaroslav Pelikan, quoting Joseph Lebon, has called ‘incontestably the master and the head’ of that trio of God-inspired 4th-c. theologians, the Cappadocians (Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter With Hellenism [New Haven, CT: Yale U, 1993], p. 8). St Basil is the only patristic author mentioned by name in St Benedict's Rule (RB 73), where the latter recommends the former's Rule as a tool 'of virtue for right-living and obedient monks' (St Benedict's Rule for Monasteries, trans. Leonard J. Doyle [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1948], pp. 100-1). I will not rehash the details of St Basil’s life, for one can find those well-told here and, even better, here, and in the Akolouthia in his honour here (although I haven’t read it through yet myself, I also look forward to this article on St Basil’s influence on—particularly Benedictine—monastic mission). I will allow myself to quote, however, this choice excerpt from the Funeral Oration on the Great St Basil (§ 65) by his friend, St Gregory the Theologian:

But what are these to his renown for eloquence, and his powers of instruction, which have won the favour of the ends of the world? As yet we have been compassing the foot of the mountain, to the neglect of its summit, as yet we have been crossing a strait, paying no heed to the mighty and deep ocean. For I think that if any one ever has become, or can become, a trumpet, in his far sounding resonance, or a voice of God, embracing the universe, or an earthquake of the world, by some unheard of miracle, it is his voice and intellect which deserve these titles, for surpassing and excelling all men as much as we surpass the irrational creatures. Who, more than he, cleansed himself by the Spirit, and made himself worthy to set forth divine things? Who was more enlightened by the light of knowledge, and had a closer insight into the depths of the Spirit, and by the aid of God beheld the things of God? Whose language could better express intellectual truth, without, as most men do, limping on one foot, by either failing to express his ideas, or allowing his eloquence to outstrip his reasoning powers?

One of the constant frustrations for me of being an Orthodox American in Greece was seeing Greek people every day selling out their spiritual and even cultural heritage for the proverbial ‘mess of pottage’ of Western pop culture. In an interview with Divine Ascent on the subject of the artist and writer, Photios Kontoglou (Vol. I, Nos. ¾, Entry Into Jerusalem 1999, p. 40), Constantine Cavarnos pointed out—

One of the pervasive evils [Kontoglou criticised] was Xenomania: excessive and indiscriminate love of things of foreign origin and the uncritical acceptance of them. . . . Xenomania is still a widespread disease of the Greeks. It is one of the reasons that they disparaged the Byzantine heritage and the Orthodox tradition.

Sadly, the most notable example of this xenomania to the visitor around this time of year is the very recent wholesale adoption of ‘Santa Claus’ in all his obese, kitschy glory. But because, in Greece, St Basil has a much stronger connection with gift-giving traditions than St Nicholas of Myra, the aggressive marketers of Santa to the Greeks have very craftily named their product ‘Άϊ-Βασίλη’, a very colloquial ‘St Basil’. I will comment no further as I may well lapse into profane language. But happily, someone has responded by producing the unusual, but more Orthodox icon I’ve posted above (available from Uncut Mountain Supply). As a xenos, even if a little paraxenos, I exhort all Orthodox Greeks to acquire a copy of this icon for your children, attend the divine services and make a Vasilopita on St Basil’s feast (even if you must do it on the New Calendar!), sing the Kalanta, and for heaven’s sake, leave ‘Santa’ out of your Nativity celebrations!


Anonymous said...

Kali Xronia,

Xenomania is a widespread disease among Serbs as well. I don't know what it is. I was there a year or so ago and brought my relatives football jerseys (I don't know what else to take). They were ecstatic!

Later, when we were talking they told me how they have lost interest in America after the bombing in '99. There used to always be a big thing about going to America - the "big dream", and so on. When I asked why they still get excited about things from America he looked at me and said, "because we're idiots".

aaronandbrighid said...

Wow! Well at least they were able, literally, to criticise themselves! It's easy to say, 'My fellow countrymen are idiots', but to say, 'Yeah, I'M an idiot' takes real guts and honesty.