Saint Basil the Great
Saint Basil the Great
MAN WAS MADE after the Image and likeness of God; but sin marred the beauty of the image by dragging the soul down to passionate desires. Now, God, who made man, is the true life. Therefore, when man lost his likeness to God, he lost his participation in the true life; separated and estranged from God as he is, it is impossible for him to enjoy the blessedness of the divine life. Let us return then, to the grace [which was ours] in the beginning and from which we have alienated ourselves by sin, and let us again adorn ourselves with the beauty of God’s image, being made like to our Creator through the quieting of our passions. He who, to the best of his ability, copies within himself the tranquility of the divine nature attains to a likeness with the very soul of God; and, being made like to God in the manner aforesaid, he also achieves in full a semblance to the divine life and abides continually in unending blessedness. If, then by overcoming our passions we regain the image of God and if the likeness of God bestows upon us everlasting life, let us devote ourselves to this pursuit in preference to all others, so that our soul may never again be enslaved by any vice, but that our understanding may remain firm and unconquerable under the assaults of temptation, to the end that we may become sharers in the divine beatitude.

Now, an ally to the zeal of those who duly aspire to this gift is virginity. The grace of virginity, however, does not consist solely in abstaining from the procreation of children, but our whole life, conduct and moral character ‘should be virginal, illustrating in every action the integrity required of the virgin. It is possible, indeed, to commit fornication in speech, to be guilty of adultery through the eye, to be corrupted through the hearing, to receive defilement into the heart, and to transgress the bounds of temperance by want of control in partaking of food and drink. But he who keeps himself under restraint in all these matters, according to the rule of virginity, truly exhibits in himself the grace of virginity fully developed and in its perfection.

If, therefore, we desire, by the quelling of our passions to adorn the nature of our soul with the imprint of the beauty of God’s likeness, that everlasting life may also be ours thereby, let us attend to ourselves that we may do nothing unworthy of our promise and thus incur the judgment pronounced upon Ananias. Acts. 5.1-5 It was within the power of Ananias not to dedicate his property to God in the beginning; but he consecrated his possessions to God by vow with a view to human glory, that he might be an object of admiration to men because of his munificence, and he also kept back a part of the price. This provoked the Lord’s displeasure against him (of which Peter was the intermediary) to such a degree that he was not given time for repentance. Accordingly, before making a promise to live the religious life, anyone who wishes may lawfully and licitly follow the way of the world and freely submit to the yoke of wedlock. When, however, by his own consent, a man has been made subject to a prior claim, he should reserve himself for God as a kind of sacred votive offering, in fear of being condemned for sacrilege by defiling again, by an ordinary way of life, the body consecrated to God by vow. And I say this with not only one kind of passion in mind, as some think, who would preserve the integrity of virginity by custody of the body alone, but with reference to every manifestation of a passionate inclination.

One who would reserve himself for God may not be defiled by any emotion savoring of this world. Anger, envy, bearing a grudge, deceit, insolence, arrogance, unseasonable talking, indolence in prayer, desire for goods one does not possess, negligence in observing the commandments, ostentation in dress, vain regard for one’s appearance, meetings and conversations over and above what is necessary and fitting all these must be most carefully avoided by one who has dedicated himself to God by virginity, because yielding to one of them is almost as perilous as falling into an expressly forbidden sin. All that springs from the passions mars in some way the purity of the soul and is an impediment in attaining to the divine life. He who has given up the world, therefore, must keep his attention fixed upon these considerations, so as in no way to defile himself, the vessel of God, by corrupting usage. This fact, moreover, should be especially borne in mind he who has chosen the way of the angels by passing the confines of human nature has taken up a spiritual mode of life. Now, this is the special character of the angelic nature : to be free from the marriage yoke, not to be distracted by any created beauty, but to be constantly intent upon the divine countenance. Consequently, if he who has been raised to the rank of the angelic dignity suffers taint from human passions, he resembles a leopard’s skin, the hair of which is neither entirely white nor wholly black, but because it is spotted with different colors is reckoned with neither black nor white. Let these words, therefore, in a very general way, serve as an exhortation to those who have chosen the life of chastity and discipline.

But since we ought to discuss particular features as well in this connection, it also is necessary to record briefly the following points.They who are set apart from the ordinary life in the world and follow a regimen more nearly approaching the divine life should not undertake this discipline of their own accord nor as solitaries. It is fitting that such a way of life have a witness, that it may be free from base suspicion. Just as the spiritual law would have no fewer than ten partake of the mystic pasch, so they who practice the spiritual life in common should properly exceed rather than fall short of this number. There should be one leader appointed to command in this admirable way of life, who has been chosen in preference to the rest after a thorough examination of his life and character and consistently good conduct. Age should also be taken into consideration where special honor is to be accorded. It is somehow in keeping with man’s nature that what is more aged is more worthy of respect. Furthermore, this head should exercise such authority, the brethren voluntarily obeying only, in submissiveness and humility, as to prevent anyone in the community from gainsaying his will when he gives any order which would contribute to the honor and perfection of the religious life.

As, according to the Apostle, authority established by God is not to be resisted (for he declares that they who resist the ordinance of God are condemned, Rom. 13.1,2 ) so it is right in this case also for the rest of the community to be persuaded that such power is delegated the superior not accidentally but by the divine will. Thus, with one member recommending all that is useful and profitable to the soul and the others receiving his good counsels with docility, advancement according to God is without impediment. Since it is in every way fitting that the community be obedient and under subjection to a superior, it is therefore of the highest importance that the one chosen as guide in this state of life be such that his life may serve as a model of every virtue to those who look to him, and, as the Apostle says, that he be ‘sober, prudent, of good behaviour, a teacher. I Tim. 3.2 I am, consequently, of the opinion that his manner of life should be investigated, and not only as to whether he has reached old age in a chronological sense (for youthful traits of character can exist along with gray hair and wrinkles). Inquiry should be made, above all, as to whether his character and manners have grown gray through propriety, so that everything said and done by him may represent a law and a standard for the community. It is proper, moreover, for those who lead the monastic life to take thought for their livelihood, as the Apostle prescribes, so that they who work with their hands may eat their bread in honor. 2 Thess. 3.12 And the work should be allotted at the direction of an older member well known for holiness of life, who will turn to account the works of their hands by procuring necessities with these so as to fulfill the command of providing bread with sweat and toil. Gen. 3.19 The reputation of the rest of the brethren should be kept unsullied and blameless by their not being required to go about in public to secure the necessities of life. The best rule and standard for a well-disciplined life is this: to be indifferent to the pleasure or pain of the flesh, but to avoid immoderation in either direction, so that the body may neither be disordered by obesity nor yet rendered sickly and so unable to execute commands. The same injury to the soul, indeed, results from both types of excess: when the flesh is not brought under subjection, natural vigor makes us rush headlong in the wake of our shameful impulses; on the other hand, when the body is relaxed, enfeebled and torpid, it is under constraint from pain. With the body in such a condition, the soul is not free to raise its glance upward, weighed down as it is in companionship with the body’s malady, but is, perforce, wholly occupied with the sensation of pain and intent upon itself.

Our use [of material goods], therefore, should be regulated by need. Wine, also, should not be held in abomination if it is taken for curative purposes and is not craved beyond necessity. So, likewise, everything else should minister to the needs and not to the cupidities of those who lead the ascetical life. Prayer time should cover the whole of life, but since there is absolute need at certain intervals to interrupt the bending of the knee and the chanting of psalms, the hours appointed for prayer by the saints should be observed. The mighty David says: ‘I rose at midnight to give praise to thee for the judgments of thy justification’; Ps. 119.62 and we find Paul and Silas following his example, for they praised God in prison at midnight. Acts 16.25 Then too, the same Prophet says: ‘Evening and morning and at noon. Ps. 55.18 Moreover, the coming of the Holy Spirit took place at the third hour, as we learn in the Acts when, in answer to the Pharisees who were jeering at the disciples because of the diversity of tongues, Peter said that they were not drunk who were speaking these words: ‘seeing that it is but the third hour.’ Acts 2.15 Again, the ninth hour recalls the Lord’s Passion, which took place that we might live. Matt. 27.45; Mark 15.33,34 But, since David says: ‘Seven times a day I have given praise to thee for the judgments of thy justice,’ Ps. 119.164 and the times for prayer which have been mentioned do not make up this seven-fold apportionment, the mid-day prayer should be divided, one part being recited before the noon repast and the other afterward. In this way, the daily seven-fold praise of God distributed throughout the whole period of the day may become a pattern for us also. The entrances to the monasteries should be barred to women and not even all men should enter in, but only such as are permitted by the superior. Often, a want of discrimination regarding visitors introduces into the heart a succession of untimely conversations and fruitless tales, and from idle talk comes the further descent to idle and useless thought. This, therefore, should be the rule for all: The superior alone is to be asked and he alone is to give the response with regard to matters requiring speech; but the others are not to answer those prattlers who waste their time in vain discourses, so as to avoid being drawn along with them into a succession of idle words.

There should be a common supply room for all and nothing should be called private or personal to any individual neither cloak, nor shoe, nor anything else required for the body. The use of these items should be under the authority of the superior, so that the articles from the common store may be allotted to each according to his need at the superior’s direction.

The law of charity does not allow particular friendship or exclusive groups in community life, for particular affection inevitably works great harm to communal union. Consequently, all should regard one another with equal affection and one and the same degree of charity should prevail in the entire group. If any be found for any reason whatsoever to have an inordinate affection for a fellow religious, be he brother or kinsman or anyone else, he should be chastised as one who works detriment to the common good; for an excess of affection for one individual bears a strong implication of defect with regard to the others. The penalties imposed upon one found guilty of any fault ought to be proportioned to the offense, [e.g.], forbidding the offender to join in psalmody with his brethren, prohibiting him from taking part in common prayer, or ostracizing him from the common table. In this matter, the one in charge of general discipline will determine the penalty of the offender according to the gravity of his fault. The ministration to the community as a whole should be performed by two monks taking turns successively by the week in assuming full charge of necessary business, so that the reward of humility may belong to all in common and that it may be impossible for any one to outdo the rest of his brethren in giving service; also, that all may have a respite on equal terms, for the interchange of labor and intervals of rest prevents weariness from afflicting the laborers. The superior of the community is authorized to assign whom he will to make necessary journeys abroad and to appoint those who will remain at home and see to domestic concerns. Often, the fair flower of youth blooms forth somehow in the bodies of the young, even though they have been very markedly zealous in afflicting themselves in the practice of continency, and becomes the occasion of unruly desire for those whom they chance to meet. If, then, a brother is young as regards the vigor of his body, he should keep its charm and grace hidden until he reach a time of life when he may decorously show himself.

The brethren should betray no sign of anger, of unforgivingness, or envy, or contentiousness, whether in bearing, gesture, word, glance of the eye, expression of countenance, or by anything calculated to arouse a companion’s ire. If anyone should commit one of these faults, even if he has first suffered an annoyance of this sort, he is not thereby sufficiently justified for involving himself in the offense; for evil at whatever point of time it is committed is evil just the same. Oaths of all kinds should be banished from the monastic company. Let a nod of the head or verbal assent take the place of an oath on the part of both speaker and hearer. If anyone should not trust a bare affirmation, he makes accusation against his own conscience as one who is insincere in speech, and for this reason he should be brought to account for his misdemeanor by the superior and be chastened by a salutary penalty. When the day is over and all labor of body and mind has come to an end, each one, before retiring, should examine his conscience in the intimacy of his own heart. And if anything untoward has occurred a forbidden thought or an idle word, negligence in prayer or inattention in psalmody or desire of the ordinary life of the world the fault should not be concealed, but confessed publicly, so that through the prayers of the community the malady of the one who has fallen prey to such an evil may be cured.