15 January 2010

St Basil the Monk


In his characteristically Williamsian history of the Church, The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams observes:

Egypt had yielded another kind of corn than that which of old had reached the Roman markets. The living ears of that growth had spread over the East, and Basil the Great there made a Rule for their future which, it is said, before he died in 379 had been accepted by eighty thousand monks. [1]

It is a striking reminder. Owing, one supposes, to the preoccupation in the West with St Basil’s controversial and dogmatic writings, and perhaps his usual depiction in iconography as a vested hierarch, even Orthodox seem sometimes to forget that he was an important monastic legislator who wrote with an almost Philokalic depth on the ascetic life. But it seems we are not alone. According to an old post by the much-missed Sr Macrina, St Basil’s ascetic spirituality has been generally neglected in the whole vogue for monastic spirituality of recent decades. She quotes Augustine Holmes, OSB, of Pluscarden Abbey:

A plethora of books have been produced, most notably perhaps those by Esther de Waal, to enable non-monastics to appropriate the spiritual riches of the rule of St Benedict. A similar phenomenon attends the pithy and down-to-earth sayings of the Egyptian Desert Fathers and also, more ambiguously, the strong monastic Celtic spirituality. This is part of a general return to the sources in contemporary Christianity and is a recognition both of the normative nature of sacred tradition and of the essential unity of Christian spirituality. The inadequacy of both modern liberal Christianity and the forms of piety of recent centuries has caused many to seek authentic spiritual teaching in the monastic tradition.…

Parallel to this academic work there is no popular interest in ‘Basilian Spirituality’. This is both strange and regrettable as Basil’s teaching is scriptural, practical and avoids the ascetic extremism of the Egyptians and Syrians. It also has a strong social and community dimension which should appeal to modern concerns. [2]

It is a shame. As Olivier Clément writes, ‘[H]is spiritual texts, beneath a Stoic dress, are deeply evangelical and Pauline’, and ‘all the ascesis has as its magnetic attraction the beauty of Christ’. [3] But it is a particularly odd oversight for those of us who are students of St Benedict, for as I pointed out in last year’s post on St Basil, he is the only patristic author mentioned by name in the Rule (RB 73.5), and St Benedict recommends the Cappadocian’s Asceticon as a tool ‘of virtue for good-living and obedient monks’ (bene viventium et obedientium monachorum). [4] On this recommendation, the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé writes:

This reading list [in RB 73.5], which reflects an open cenobitism, ends with the Rule of Saint Basil, called like the heroes of the apophthegms, ‘our holy Father’ (18:25). [5] By what he said earlier, Benedict does not seem to have adopted the condemnation of solitary life formulated by the great cappadocian legislator in the third Question of his Rule (Reg.3 = LR 7). He nonetheless recommends this distinguished work, from which he borrowed just as he did from Cassian. Rather than being eclectic, his attitude is one of unreserved openness to all of monastic tradition. [6]

Having quoted de Vogüé on St Benedict’s reference to St Basil, it seems fitting that I cite, as an example of the latter’s ascetic writing, a passage on the subject of praying without ceasing. The great French monastic scholar has been accused by his coreligionists of interpreting ‘Pray without ceasing’ in a ‘hesychast’ manner. [7] I am pleased to note, however, that he is just as ‘hesychast’ as St Basil:

For prayer and psalmody, however, as also, indeed, for some other duties, every hour is suitable, that, while our hands are busy at their tasks, we may praise God sometimes with the tongue (when this is possible or, rather, when it is conducive to edification); or, if not, with the heart, at least, in psalms, hymns and spiritual canticles, as it is written [Col. 3:16]. Thus, in the midst of our work can we fulfill the duty of prayer, giving thanks to Him who has granted strength to our hands for performing our tasks and cleverness to our minds for acquiring knowledge, and for having provided the materials, both that which is in the instruments we use and that which forms the matter of the arts in which we may be engaged, praying that the work of our hands may be directed toward its goal, the good pleasure of God.

Thus we acquire a recollected spirit—when in every action we beg from God the success of our labors and satisfy our debt of gratitude to Him who gave us the power to do the work, and when, as has been said, we keep before our minds the aim of pleasing Him. If this is not the case, how can there be consistency in the words of the Apostle bidding us to ‘pray without ceasing’ [I Thess. 5:17], with those others, ‘we worked night and day’ [2 Thess. 3:8]. [8]

But to better illustrate Clément’s words, and as a tribute to some of Sr Macrina’s particular concerns in studying St Basil’s ascetic spirituality, here is one of the passages the latter once posted:

Speak to us first then of love towards God. For we have heard that one ought to love, but we seek to learn how this may successfully be done.

Love of God cannot be taught. For we have neither learnt from another person to rejoice in the light and to cling to life, nor did anyone else teach us to love our parents or those who brought us up. In the same way, or much more so, the learning of the divine loving desire (pothos) does not come from outside; but when the creature was made, I mean man, a certain seminal word (logos spermatikos) was implanted in us, having within itself the beginnings of the inclination to love. The pupils in the school of God’s commandments having received this word are by God’s grace enabled to exercise it with care, to nourish it with knowledge, and to bring it to perfection. Therefore we also, welcoming your zeal (spoudê) as necessary for attaining our end (skopos), by God’s gift and your assistance of us with your prayers will strive (spoudazô) to stir up the spark of divine loving desire (pothos) hidden within you according to the power given us by the Spirit. You must know that this virtue, though only one, yet as regards power accomplishes and comprehends every commandment. For, ‘the one loving me,’ the Lord says, ‘will keep my commandments’ and again, ‘on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’. [9]

I close with a few verses illustrative of his monastic life from the Canon for St Basil composed by St John of Damascus:

From Ode 1

You disciplined the passionate surging of the tyrannous flesh by your love of the philosophic life; and so you dwell in undefiled palaces, Father Basil.

You walked the rough way of the virtues and so you attained the smooth and undisturbed floor of heaven, and have been revealed, Basil, as a model for all.

Effectively you circumcised the passions of both the soul and body with the sword of the Spirit; while you offered yourself as a sacrifice to the Master.

From Ode 3

When you had become filled with all learning, no only that which is below and well-worn, but even more that which better, you were revealed, Basil, as a light for the world.

Grounded in the fear of the Lord; for this is the beginning of wisdom; you were given wings by the love of the better wisdom, O Basil.

Basil you wisely you took the path of practice and showed practice to the path to more divine contemplation, and you were clearly initiated into the knowledge of things that are.

Your commemoration, Father, coincided and shone out together with the Christ’s nativity; the ineffable mystery of which you made manifest by your teachings. [10]


[1] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), p. 90.

[2] Augustine Holmes, OSB, A Life Pleasing to God: The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 2000), pp. xvi-xvii.

[3] Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Text & Commentary, 3rd ed., trans. Theodore Berkeley, OCSO, rev. Jeremy Hummerstone (London: New City, 1995), p. 316.

[4] The Rule of Saint Benedict in English & Latin, trans. Abbot Justin McCann, OSB (Ft Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, n.d.), p. 161, Latin text on p.160.

[5] De Vogüé’s particular attention to this phrase—a common one in Orthodoxy—calls to mind one occasion on which I was rather viciously chastised by a Roman Catholic for referring to the Fathers of the Church as ‘Holy Fathers’—‘There is only one “Holy Father”: the Pope of Rome!’ It is vindicating to see an acknowledgement here that it is a patristic phrase, and one used, no less, by the ‘Father of Western monasticism’!

[6] Adalbert de Vogüé, Reading Saint Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, trans. Colette Friedlander, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994), p. 336.

[7] Adalbert de Vogüé, The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal & Spiritual Commentary, trans. John Baptist Hasbrouck (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1983), p. 150.

[8] St Basil the Great, Ascetical Works, trans. Sr M. Monica Wagner, CSC, Vol. 9 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (NY: Fathers of the Church, 1950), p. 308.

[9] St Basil, Longer Rule 2, as quoted in Holmes, p. 68.

[10] From the translation by Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), here.

2 comments:

protov said...

Just an ideea. St. Basil is "sidelined" as the father of monasticism because he is the father of that monasticism that finally condemned Origen, Evagrius, Didimus, that the "West" annointed as the fathers of "Christian mysticism and ascetics".

aaronandbrighid said...

Point well taken, though I think that may be simplifying it a bit much.