14 January 2010

'You Became a Lover of Wisdom'—St Basil the Great

Today, 1 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Hierarch Basil the Great (330-379), Archbishop of Cæsarea (see last year’s post here). Fr John McGuckin points out that he has been given the title ‘father of Eastern monks’ [1] for his impact on cœnobitic monasticism in the East, and also calls him ‘a model for future Eastern bishops’ and one of ‘the most important bishop theologians of the ancient period’. [2] In the words of St Gregory the Theologian, St Basil was ‘An orator among orators, even before the chair of the rhetoricians, a philosopher among philosophers, even before the doctrines of philosophers: highest of all a priest among Christians even before the priesthood.’ [3] Here is the account of St Basil’s life in the Prologue:

St Basil was born in the reign of the Emperor Constantine, in about 330. While still unbaptised, he spent fifteen years in Athens studying philosophy, rhetoric, astronomy and other contemporary secular disciplines. Among his fellow-students were Gregory the Theologian and Julian, later the apostate emperor. When already of mature years, he was in the Jordan together with his former tutor Evulios. He was Bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia for nearly ten years, and died at the age of fifty.

A great champion of Orthodoxy, a great torch of moral purity and zeal for the Faith, a great theological mind, a great builder and pillar of the Church of God, Basil fully deserved his title ‘the Great’. In the Office for his Feast, he is referred to as a bee of the Church of Christ, bringing honey to the faithful but stinging those in heresy. Many of the writings of this Father of the Church have survived—theological, apologetic, on asceticism and on the Canons. There is also the Liturgy that bears his name. This Liturgy is celebrated ten times in the year: on January 1st, on the Eves of Christmas and the Theophany, on every Sunday in the Great Fast with the exception of Palm Sunday, and on the Thursday and Saturday in Great Week.

St Basil departed this life peacefully on January lst, 379, and entered into the Kingdom of ChriSt [4]

St Basil is of course widely renowned for his culture and learning. Vasileios Bilales notes that he had engaged in the study εγκυκλίων μαθημάτων until the age of 15, [5] before going on to higher studies in ‘literature, philosophy, rhetoric, geometry, astronomy, and medicine’. [6] Constantine Cavarnos observes that at the University of Athens, ‘he acquired an extensive knowledge of ancient Greek writers—poets, historians, orators, and philosophers’. [7] Olivier Clément writes, ‘He drew on the scientific knowledge of his time in his Hexameron [sic], studies on the creation of the world’, [8] of which St Gregory has famously said, ‘Whenever I handle his Hexaemeron, and take its words on my lips, I am brought into the presence of the Creator, and understand the words of creation, and admire the Creator more than before, using my teacher as my only means of sight.’ [9] St Gregory notes that when they were students together, he and St Basil knew only two paths: ‘the one leading to our sacred buildings and the teachers there, the other to secular instructors. All others we left to those who would pursue them—to feasts, theatres, meetings, banquets’. [10] The result, St Gregory also tells us:

What branch of learning did he not traverse; and that with unexampled success, passing through all, as no one else passed through any one of them: and attaining such eminence in each, as if it had been his sole study? The two great sources of power in the arts and sciences, ability and application, were in him equally combined. For, because of the pains he took, he had but little need of natural quickness, and his natural quickness made it unnecessary for him to take pains; and such was the cooperation and unity of both, that it was hard to see for which of the two he was more remarkable. Who had such power in Rhetoric, which breathes with the might of fire, different as his disposition was from that of rhetoricians? Who in Grammar, which perfects our tongues in Greek and compiles history, and presides over metres and legislates for poems? Who in Philosophy, that really lofty and high reaching science, whether practical and speculative, or in that part of it whose oppositions and struggles are concerned with logical demonstrations; which is called Dialectic, and in which it was more difficult to elude his verbal toils, if need required, than to escape from the Labyrinths? Of Astronomy, Geometry, and numerical proportion he had such a grasp, that he could not be baffled by those who are clever in such sciences: excessive application to them he despised, as useless to those whose desire is godliness: so that it is possible to admire what he chose more than what he neglected, or what he neglected more than what he chose. Medicine, the result of philosophy and laboriousness, was rendered necessary for him by his physical delicacy, and his care of the sick. From these beginnings he attained to a mastery of the art, not only in its empirical and practical branches, but also in its theory and principles. [11]

‘But’, St Gregory concludes, ‘what are these, illustrious though they be, compared with the moral discipline of the man?’ [12] Indeed, St Basil himself scarcely esteems his achievements:

Much time had I spent in vanity, and had wasted nearly all my youth in the vain labour which I underwent in acquiring the wisdom made foolish by God. Then once upon a time, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvellous light of the truth of the Gospel, and I perceived the uselessness of ‘the wisdom of the princes of this world, that come to naught’ (1 Cor ii.6). . . . Then I read the Gospel, and I saw there that a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one’s goods, the sharing them with the poor, the giving up of all care for this life, and the refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy to things of earth. [13]

Thus, for example, in Fr Paul Schroeder’s words, St Basil’s homilies on our duties toward the poor and destitute ‘are characterized by a deliberate attempt to humanize and personalize’ their plight.

Basil brings his powerful gift of rhetoric to bear in order to reveal the face of the neighbor: the emaciated face of the starving person who has gone blind as a result of malnutrition, the agonized face of a parent force to sell a child into slavery in order to save the rest of the family from starvation. He is determined that the faces of those who suffer should not remain hidden. [14]

In light of such considerations, we see that the portrayal of the great Cappadocian Father in Photios Kontoglou’s short story, ‘John the Blessed’, is entirely in keeping with what we know of him:

The Nativity Feast having passed, St Basil took his staff and set off to traverse every town, in order to see who would celebrate his Feast Day with purity of heart. He passed through regions of every sort and through villages of prominence, yet regardless of where he knocked, no door opened to him, since they took him for a beggar. And he would depart embittered, for, though he needed nothing from men, he felt how much pain the heart of every impecunious person must have endured at the insensitivity that these people showed him. One day, as he was leaving such a merciless village, he went by the graveyard, where he saw that the tombs were in ruins, the headstones broken and turned topsy-turvy, and how the newly dug graves had been turned up by jackals. Saint that he was, he could hear the dead speaking and saying: ‘During the time that we were on the earth, we labored, we were heavy-burdened, leaving behind us children and grandchildren to light just a candle, to burn a little incense on our behalf; but we behold nothing, neither a Priest to read over our heads a parastás [a memorial service] nor kóllyva, as though we had left no one behind us.’ Thus, St Basil was once again disquieted, and he said to himself, ‘These villagers give aid neither to the living nor to the deceased,’ departing from the cemetery and setting out alone in the midst of the freezing snow.

On the eve of the New Year, he came upon a certain hamlet, which was the poorest of the poor villages in all of Greece. The freezing wind howled through the scrub bush and the rocky cliffs, and not a living soul was to be found in the pitch-dark night! Then, he beheld in front of him a small knoll, below which there was secreted away a sheepfold. St Basil went into the pen and, knocking on the door of the hut with his staff, called out: ‘Have mercy on me, a poor man, for the sake of your deceased relatives, for even Christ lived as a beggar on this earth.’ Awakening, the dogs lunged at him. But as they drew near him and sniffed him, they became gentle, wagged their tails, and lay down at his feet, whimpering imploringly and with joy. Thereupon, a shepherd, a young man of twenty-five or so, with a curly black beard, opened the door and stepped out: John Barbákos—a demure and rugged man, a sheepman. Before taking a good look at who was knocking, he had already said, ‘Enter, come inside. Good day, Happy New Year!’

Inside the hut, a lamp was suspended overhead from a cradle that was attached to two beams. Next to the hearth was their bedding, and John’s wife was sleeping. As soon as St Basil went inside, John, seeing that the old man was a clergyman, took his hand and kissed it, saying, ‘Your blessing, Elder,’ as though he had known him previously and as though he were his father. And the Saint said to him: ‘May you and all of your household be blessed, together with your sheep, and may the peace of God be upon you.’ The wife then arose, and she, too, reverenced the Elder and kissed his hand, and he blessed her. St Basil looked like a mendicant monk, with an old skoúphia, his rása worn and patched, and his tsaroúchia [a traditional leather slipper, usually adorned with a pompom at the end of the shoe] full of holes; as well, he had an old empty-looking satchel. John the blessed put wood on the fire. Straightway the hut began to glisten, as though seemingly a palace. The rafters seemed to be gilded with gold, while the hanging cheesecloth bags [filled with curing cheese] looked like vigil lamps, and the wooden containers, cheese presses, and all of the accessories used by John in making cheese became like silver, as though decorated by diamonds, as did all of the other humble things that John the blessed had in his hut. The wood burning in the hearth crackled and sang like the birds that sing in Paradise, giving off a fragrance wholly delightful. The couple placed St Basil near the fire, where he sat, and the wife put down pillows on which he could lean. Then the Elder took the satchel from around his neck, placing it next to him, and removed his old ráson [outside cassock], remaining in his zostikó [inner cassock].

Together with his farmhand, John the blessed went out to milk the sheep and to place the newborn lambs in the lambing pen, and afterwards he separated the ewes that were ready to birth and confined them within the enclosure, while his helper put the other sheep out to graze. His flock was sparse and John was poor; yet, he was blessed. And he was possessed of great joy at all times, day and night, for he was a good man and he had a good wife. Anyone who happened to pass by their hut they cared for as though he were a brother. And it is thus that St Basil found lodging in their home and settled in, as if it were his own, blessing it from top to bottom. On that night, he was awaited—in all of the cities and villages of the realm—by rulers, Hierarchs, and officials; but he went to none of these. Instead, he went to lodge in the hut of John the blessed.

So, John, after pasturing the sheep, came back in and said to the Saint, ‘Elder, I am greatly joyful. I wish to have you read to us the writings about St Basil [i.e., the appointed hymns to the Saint]. I am an illiterate man, but I like all of the writings of our religion [once again, the hymns and services of the Church]. In fact, I have a small book from an Hagiorite Abbot [i.e., an Abbot from Mt. Athos], and whenever someone who can read and write happens to pass by, I get him to read out of the booklet, since we have no Church near us.’

In the East, it was dimly dawning. St Basil rose and stood, facing eastward, making his Cross. He then bent down, took a booklet from his satchel, and said, ‘Blessed is our God, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.’ John the blessed went and stood behind him, and his wife, having nursed their baby, also went to stand near him, with her arms crossed [over her chest]. St Basil then said the hymn, ‘God is the Lord...’ and the Apolytikion of the Feast of the Circumcision, ‘Without change, Thou hast assumed human form,’ omitting his own Apolytikion, which states, ‘Thy sound is gone forth unto all the earth.’ His voice was sweet and humble, and John and his wife felt great contrition, even though they did not understand all of the words. St Basil now said the whole of Matins and the Canon of the Feast, ‘Come, O ye peoples, and let us chant a song unto Christ God,’ without reciting his own canon, which goes, ‘O Basil, we would that thy voice were present....’ Thereafter, he said aloud the entire Liturgy, pronounced the dismissal, and blessed the household. As they sat at the table, having eaten and finished their food, the wife brought the Vasilopeta [a sweet bread or cake baked in honor of St Basil on the New Year] and placed it on the serving table. Then St Basil took a knife and with it traced the sign of the Cross on the Vasilopeta, saying, ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ He cut a first piece, saying, ‘for Christ’, a second, afterwards, saying, ‘for the Panagia [the Theotokos or Mother of God]’, and then ‘for the master of the house, John the blessed’. John exclaimed, ‘Elder, you forgot St Basil!’ The Saint replied, ‘Yes, indeed’, and thus said, ‘And for the servant of God, Basil.’ After this, he resumed: ‘...and for the master of the house’, ‘for the mistress of the house’, ‘for the child’, ‘for the farmhand’, ‘for the animals’, and ‘for the poor’. Thereupon, John the blessed said, ‘Elder, why did you not cut a piece for your reverendship?’ And the Saint said, ‘But I did, O blessed one!’ But John, this blissful man, did not understand.

Afterwards, St Basil stood up and said the prayer, ‘O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy that Thou shouldest enter under the roof of the house of my soul.’ John the Blessed then said: ‘I wonder if you can tell me, Elder, since you know many things, to what palaces St Basil went this evening? And the rulers and monarchs—what sins do they have? We poor people are sinners, since our poverty leads us into sin.’ With tears, St Basil said the same prayer once more, but changing it: ‘O Lord my God, I have seen that Thy servant John the simple is worthy and that it is meet that Thou shouldest enter into his shelter. He is a babe, and it is to babes that Thy Mysteries are revealed.’ And again John the blissful, John the blessed, grasped nothing....

(Translator’s note) This well-known and charming short story by Phótios Kóntoglou has appeared in several versions, both in Greek and in what are, unfortunately, largely poor English translations. Kontoglou’s Greek is quite difficult to translate, since he uses many words common to the dialect of Greeks in Asia Minor. Though some of these words are derived from ancient Greek, in general they are part of a dialect spoken today by Greeks not always familiar with the more literary form of modern Greek. Thus, there is a tendency to render them in English slang, which detracts from the power of Kontoglou’s Greek and his writing and imagery. At other times, translators fail at finding the middle ground between stilted literal translations and translations which add so much to Kontglou’s original Greek texts that his characteristic literary style is lost. I have used, here, the Greek text published by Harmos Publications (Athens, Greece, 1994) in its collection Diegémata ton Christougénnon, and have tried to capture in my rendering the style, simple eloquence, and sensitivity of the author’s story as it reads in Greek—Archbishop Chrysostomos. [15]

I shall close with the doxasticon at ‘Lord, I have cried’ from Vespers for the Saint:

You became a lover of wisdom, Venerable Father, and, preferring a life lived in companionship with God to all existing things, you abandoned concern for death, as befitted your life; for having destroyed for yourself the passions of the flesh by labours of self-mastery and by care for the Law of God, having kept dignity of your soul unenslaved by an abundance of virtue, you subdued all fleshly thought by the spirit; and so, having hated the flesh and the world and ruler of the world, as you stand before Christ, ask for our souls his great mercy. [16]

[1] Fr John A. McGuckin, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology (London: SCM, 2005) 46.

[2] Ibid., p. 47.

[3] St Gregory the Theologian, ‘Funeral Oration on the Great S. Basil, Bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia’, Oration XLIII.13 (here).

[4] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), pp. 15-6.

[5] Vasileios Bilales, ‘Introduction’, ΠΡΟΣ ΤΟΥΣ ΝΕΟΥΣ ΟΠΩΣ ΑΝ ΕΞ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΩΝ ΩΦΕΛΟΙΝΤΟ ΛΟΓΩΝ, 2nd ed., by St Basil the Great, ed. Vasileios Bilales (Athens: Gregores, 1966), p. xix.

[6] Ibid., p. xx.

[7] Constantine Cavarnos, Orthodoxy & Philosophy (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 2003), p. 31.

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

[9] St Gregory, Oration XLIII.67.

[10] Ibid., Oration XLIII.21.

[11] Ibid., Oration XLIII.23.

[12] Ibid., Oration XLIII.23.

[13] St Basil the Great, ‘Against Eutstathius of Sebasteia’, Letter CCXXIII.2 (here).

[14] Fr Paul Schroeder, ‘Introduction’, On Social Justice, by St Basil the Great, trans. Fr Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2009), p. 25.

[15] Photios Kontoglou, ‘John the Blessed’, trans. Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, Orthodox Tradition XXVII.1 (2010), pp. 40-3. A slightly different draft can also be read here and (in PDF) here.

[16] From the translation of Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), here.

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