28 April 2009

'His Humility & Love Have Covered Him With Glory'—St Basil of Poiana Mărului

Today, 15 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Basil (1692-1767),
Abbot of Poiana Mărului Skete and elder of St Paisius Velichkovsky. I apologise that it's so late that many of my readers will likely be reading this the next day, by the clock as well as the liturgical calendar. I'm afraid my time is fairly occupied this week by a project with a deadline. Forgive me.

In his autobiography, St Paisius Velichkovsky calls St Basil ‘our common teacher and instructor, the most pious and holy elder and schemamonk Vasylij’ (J.M.E. Featherstone, trans., The Life of Paisij Velyčkovs’kyj [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1989], p. 75). According to St Paisius (pp. 75-6):

This pious servant of God far surpassed everyone in his understanding of divine Scripture and the teaching of the holy fathers, in spiritual discernment, and in his thorough knowledge of the sacred canons of the holy Church and interpretation of them in accordance with the commentaries of Zonaras, Theodore Balsamon, and others. The fame of his teaching and pious direction toward the path of salvation went out everywhere. When I saw him, I glorified God because He had deemed me worthy to see such a holy man.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid the elder is not nearly so well known as his spiritual son (who warranted an immortalising nod from Dostoevsky, no less), so I shall post the brief Life by Archimandrite Ioanichie (Bălan) in full, as well as an excerpt from this great elder’s writings. Here is Fr Ioanichie’s account (Romanian Patericon, Vol. I [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996], pp. 422, 424-5):

The holy Hieroschemamonk Basil was the spiritual father of Elder Paisius Velichkovsky, and one of the most renowned teachers and workers of the Jesus Prayer in the eighteenth century.

Taking up the cross of Christ from his youth, in 1705 or 1706 he became a schemamonk at Dălhăuţi-Focşani Skete, where he labored in asceticism as a hesychast with great zeal and fear of God. There he studied the depths of the Holy Scriptures and read many writings of the Holy Fathers. By the grace of Christ he became a great worker of divine prayer and a spiritual counselor of the fathers in the community.

Being ordained to the priesthood, in 1715 he became abbot of Dălhăuţi Monastery and a famous guide of souls, so that his name became known everywhere, even to the Prince of the Romanian Land, Constantine Mavrocordat. In the period of twenty years that he was abbot of Dălhăuţi, St Basil gathered around him a community of over forty monk-hesychasts, whom he taught obedience, humility, silence, and the secret work of the Jesus Prayer. Thus Abbot Basil made his community a true spiritual school of hesychastic life according to the teaching of the Holy Fathers that was renowned in the Romanian Land. His disciples—Muntenians, Moldavians, Ardeleans, and Russians—lived in perfect love and good order. When there was no longer room for them at Dălhăuţi, some of them settled in nearby sketes: Trestieni, Ciolanu, Cîrnu, Răteşti, Rogoz, Bontăşti, Valea Neagra in Vrancea, and others.

About the years 1730-1733, Abbot Basil renovated Poiana Mărului Skete and moved there with twelve disciples. As Abbot at Poiana Mărului, St Basil spiritually directed all the sketes in the Buzău Mountains, regularly visiting them either personally or through letters. One of his disciples was St Paisius Velichkovsky, whom he received in Trestieni Skete for some years, and whom he tonsured on Mt Athos in 1750.

The rule of Abbot Basil called for a harmonious coenobitic life, daily reading of the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers, the practice of the Jesus Prayer, pure guarding of the mind, one meal a day, and weekly Communion.

As a teacher of prayer, the great abbot also wrote some Homilies about the guarding of the mind, prayer, and spiritual training, which are short introductions to the philokalic writings of St Nilus of Sora, Philotheus, Hesychius, and Gregory the Sinaite. His introductory Homilies are true philokalic texts, and a guide on how to approach Christ through divine prayer.

Attaining the measure of the great hesychasts, St Basil gave his soul into the hands of the Lord in 1767, leaving behind many disciples.

Many more details have been furnished in the Life of St Basil published as part of a translation of his works by one of the monks of the former ROCOR brotherhood of Prophet Elias Skete on Mt Athos (a kind schemamonk whom I had the great honour to meet). See Elder Basil of Poiana Mărului (1692-1767), His Life and Writings, trans. A Monk of the Brotherhood of Prophet Elias Skete, Mt Athos (Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt, 1996), pp. 9-29. Despite, however, a rather thorough fleshing out of the elder’s biography in comparison with the Patericon account, the author concludes:

In this account of the known witnesses concerning the life of the Elder Basil, we find him overshadowed by his great disciple St Paisy Velichkovsky and only elusively present in the accounts by his other disciples. This is somehow appropriate. Elder Basil’s genuinely monastic humility and love for his children in Christ has covered him with their glory. This must be one of the finest tributes for anyone who follows the Divine Teacher Who said to His disciples, ‘Amen, Amen, I say unto you. He that believeth on Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto My Father’ (John 14:12). (p. 29)

But while the biography is great, the translation of St Basil’s writings is the more important contribution. Our author and translator is typically self-deprecating when he writes:

Having not known any better than to be born in America, I am deprived of a native command of any language, beginning with English and certainly including Russo-Slavonic and Romanian. I can therefore only beg the reader’s forbearance for all the many ways in which my efforts here have fallen short, in particular wherever the English is unnecessarily rough or obscure or wherever the meaning of the original text is not faithfully rendered. (p. 39)

Here, though, is a passage of this translation, taken from St Basil’s ‘Letter to the Most Reverend Priest-Monk Alexy, My Spiritual Son in Christ’ (Elder Basil, p. 129):

I am sending you a covenant and a pact for peace in the Lord, established between us, of whom the Lord said, ‘If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their transgressions, neither will your Father forgive you your transgressions.’ (Matthew 6:14-15) And ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise’ (Luke 6:31). So my friend, being a weak person, I also desire that anyone I sin against forgive me. And so I am forcing myself, even though my heart is unwilling, to forgive my brother’s sins against me and to what extent? The Lord did not say seventy times, but seventy times seven, if he sins and repents, to forgive him (Matt. 18:22; Luke 17:4).

This, then, is our criterion and our rule. Were we to observe it, no one could separate us from dwelling together with one another in love. But our self-justification, which someone called the devil’s throat, does not permit us to put the blame on ourselves in keeping with the commandment. Instead we blame our brother and think that we are innocent, which is an obvious lie. My brother may be guilty of offending me, but I am also guilty of sin, because I did not endure it patiently. So both of us violate the commandments of Christ when we blame each other, as Adam did to Eve and Eve to the serpent (Genesis 3:12-13).

We also perish or fall under condemnation in the same way as they did because of self-justification alone, and not because of sin, for there is no man without sin (Job 14:4-5), even if he be a saint, if he has lived a single day in this world.

This is a wonderful book, though I’m afraid I have little right to own it. As the now-Metropolitan Jonah wrote in his review in Divine Ascent, ‘This is not a book for the casual student of spirituality, but for the serious practitioner of the tradition of the Fathers’ (Divine Ascent: A Journal of Orthodox Faith, The Entry into Jerusalem 1999, Vol. 1, Nos. 3/4, p. 152).

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