Saint Basil the Great
Saint Basil the Great

THE ASCETICAL LIFE has one aim, the soul’s salvation and all that can contribute to this end must be observed with as much fear as a divine command. The commandments of God themselves, indeed, have no other end in view than the salvation of him who obeys them. It therefore behooves those undertaking the ascetical life to enter upon the way of philosophy, stripped of all worldly and material things in the same manner as they who enter the bath take off all their clothing. The most important thing, consequently, and the chief concern for the Christian ought to be the stripping himself of the varied and diverse movements of the passions toward evil whereby the soul is defiled. Secondly, the renunciation of worldly possessions is of obligation for him who aspires to this sublime way of life, in as much as anxiety and solicitude for material interests engender much distraction for the soul. Whenever, therefore, a group of persons aiming at the same goal of salvation adopt the life in common, this principle above all others must prevail among them that there be in all one heart, one will, one desire, and that the entire community be, as the Apostle enjoins, one body consisting of divers members. 1 Cor. 12.12 Now this cannot be realized in any other way than by the enforcement of the rule that nothing is to be appropriated to anyone’s exclusive use neither cloak, nor vessel, nor anything else which is of use to the common life, so that each of these articles may be assigned to a need and not to an owner. Just as a garment which is too small is unsuitable for a large person or one that is too ample for a slighter figure, but what is properly adapted to the individual is useful and appropriate, so everything else bed, covering, warm clothing, footwear should belong to the one who is strictly in need of these things, and not to an owner. As he who is wounded uses medicaments and not one who is sound, so also he who is in need of the things designed for bodily ease should enjoy them and not one who is living in luxury.

Furthermore, since the ways of men are varied and all are not in agreement as to what is useful, so, to avoid confusion resulting from each person’s conducting himself according to his private whim, there should be someone placed in authority over the others who has been declared in the judgment of all eminent in intelligence, stability, and strictness of life, that his good qualities may be the common possession of all who follow his example. If several painters should depict the lineaments of one face, all the pictures would be alike, because they would be likenesses of one and the same individual; similarly, if many types of character are intent upon the imitation of one model, all alike will bear the good impress of his life. Consequently, when a superior has been chosen, all private volition will give place and all, without exception, will follow the example of their head in obedience to the apostolic precept bidding every soul to be subject to higher powers and warning that ‘they that resist purchase to themselves damnation.’ Rom. 13.1,2 True and perfect obedience of subjects to their superior is shown not only by their refraining from every untoward action in accordance with his advice, but also by their not doing even what is approved without his consent. Now, continency and all corporal mortification are of some value, but, if a man following his private caprice do what is pleasing to himself and heed not the advice of his superior, his fault will be greater than the good he does; ‘for he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. Rom. 13.1,2 A greater reward, moreover, is accorded to obedience than to the virtue of continency. Thus, also, all should have the same mutual charity, equal in degree, for one another, as a man naturally feels for the members of his body in desiring an equal soundness in all the parts of it, since the pain of each member brings a like discomfort to the whole body. In the case of our bodies, however, although the pain of each afflicted member touches in equal measure the whole body, some members are regarded as more important than others (for we do not feel the same with respect to our eye and our toe, even if the pain is equally great in both). Even so, a like sympathy and love should be accorded all who live together in community on the part of each of the members; but there will be a higher esteem, and fittingly so, for those who contribute the greater service.

Since it is a matter of obligation that they love one another with absolutely equal affection, exclusive groups and factions are a detriment to the community ; for he who loves one more than the others betrays his want of perfect love for those others. Unseemly quarreling, therefore, and particular affection alike, should be banished from the monastery, for enmity is engendered by wrangling and from the particular friendship and the faction arise suspicions and jealousies. In every instance, the loss of equality is the origin and foundation of envy and hatred on the part of those who are slighted thereby. On this account we have received a command from the Lord to imitate the goodness of Him who maketh the sun to rise upon just and unjust. Matt. 5.45 As, therefore, God grants a share of light impartially to all, so His followers should send forth a ray of charity equally brilliant for all alike; for, wherever love falls short, hatred entirely supplants it. But if, as John says, ‘God is charity,’ 1 John 4.16 the Devil is necessarily hatred. As he who has love consequently has God, so he who has hate nurtures the Devil within himself.

The love of all toward all, therefore, should be equal and impartial, and each individual should be given his appropriate measure of honor. For those who are thus united, moreover, blood relationship will in no way claim a greater degree of love and not even the tie of blood in the case of a brother, son, or daughter according to the flesh will arouse a warmer affection for this blood relative than for the rest. He who follows nature in these matters makes it evident that he is not yet wholly withdrawn from nature, but is still subject to the rule of the flesh. Idle talking, also, and unseasonable distractions resulting from discoursing with one another should be forbidden. If, however, something conducive to spiritual advancement is involved, this only should be said and even that which is useful should be expressed in an orderly fashion at a suitable time by such persons as are entitled to speak. If it be an inferior, he should wait for the direction of his superior; but whisperings, a word in the ear, signs made by a nod of the head all these should be outlawed, because whispering begets suspicion of slander and signs made by a nod are evidence to a brother of something secret and mischievous, and such things become the basis of hatred and suspicion. Whenever conversation is necessary, however, let the requirements of the situation determine the volume of the voice, so that we converse with one near at hand in a low tone and speak more loudly to one farther away. Whoever in giving advice or an order uses a very loud, piercing tone gives an impression of arrogance thereby and should not be in a religious community. Departure from the monastery, furthermore, is not permitted except for a duty or an emergency.

Since there are convents not only for men but for women who also profess virginity, all that has been said applies to both sexes alike. It is necessary to keep one thing in mind, however: This way of life demands on the part of women a greater and a more signal decorum in the observance of poverty, silence, obedience, and fraternal charity, a greater strictness with regard to going about in public, more caution in the matter of acquaintances, greater care in preserving mutual affection and avoiding factional groups; for in all these respects the lives of women who profess virginity should exhibit a more excellent zeal. She who is charged with the maintenance of discipline should not seek for what may be agreeable to her sisters, nor should she be eager for their gratitude for what is to their liking, but she should ever be grave, severe, dignified. She should bear in mind that she is to render an account to God for undue breaches of discipline in the common life. Nor should the individual sister seek to receive from her superior what is sweet and agreeable, but what is useful and beneficial. She should not dispute the orders given her (for such a practice becomes habitual and leads to rebellion), but as we receive the commands of the Lord without question, knowing that all of the Scripture is divinely inspired and of benefit to us, so also the members of the sisterhood should accept without distinction the commauds of the superior. They should perform all that Is directed, not in a spirit of sadness and compulsion, but with alacrity, that their obedience may obtain a reward. It is their duty to accept not only what is prescribed in the way of strict discipline, but, if their directress should forbid fasting or urge them to take nourishment to restore their strength or if she should prescribe any other relaxation demanded by necessity, they should fulfill all alike, convinced that her words are law. Whenever speech is required for reasons of necessity, whether with a man or with someone holding a position of authority or with another person who is able to be of service regarding a matter under question, the superior should be the one to speak, in the presence of one or two of the sisters whose manner of life and age now make it safe for them to appear and to speak in public. If any useful idea occur to someone privately, however, she should refer it to her superior and through the latter will be said all that needs to be said.