Abba Basil The Great - Part 1
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Abba Basil the Great?
Abba Basil the Great, one of the few counted as a Doctor of the Church (a title given to those who significantly influenced theology and doctrine), was known as…
“the minister of grace who has expounded the truth to the whole earth.”
He was a defender of orthodox theology, remembered as an incredible theologian, an influential church father, and was known as a man who took care of the poor. During one famine,
“he also organized a great system of relief with a soup kitchen in which he could be seen, girt with an apron, dealing out food to the hungry.”
He was known as an incredible speaker, a sharp mind, and a scholar. Educated in the best universities of Greece and born into a wealthy Christian family, he chose to give away his inheritance when…
“he felt his heart secretly assaulted by a temptation to vain-glory, and a lurking satisfaction in the empty esteem of men.”
Basil traveled to Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia in order to learn from the fathers and mothers of the desert. He was born in 329 AD, the movement in the desert was in full swing when he reached adulthood, and the influence of the men and women of the Egyptian desert in particular left an incredible mark upon his life.
After spending time at the epicentre of the Desert Fathers, he returned to Cappadocia (modern day Turkey) and retired to solitude to seek God in prayer, fasting, and study. Over time, men and women gathered around his influence, and he began planting monasteries and establishing order within the communities of those seeking God in the solitary life.
One of the marks of his writings was his insatiable desire to know God, especially in Christ. The majority of his works consist of theological treatises on the Divine nature of Christ, a major topic of the day in the face of the Arian heresy (the belief that Jesus was created by God and therefore less than God). The man comes across as humble, sincere, and deeply spiritual.
Basil the Great has been numbered with Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus as the three Cappadocian Fathers that defended the theology of God in their age. Gregory of Nyssa was his brother, and nearly every member of his family is noted for the mark they left on Christian history.
Though Abba Basil did not spend his entire spiritual life dedicated to monasticism, he left his indelible mark upon the movement by his influence. The sheer volume of the works attributed to him make it difficult to narrow down what to share about him. However, he wrote a number of letters and documents to the monasteries he had founded in order to teach the rule of the monastic life, and intimacy with God. There is an incredible amount of practical spiritual wealth in these works. His writing regarding the monastic life became the most influential works in the Eastern Church, and has played a part in establishing the running of monasteries and convents up through our modern age.
On the Love of God
When asked by some disciples of his to teach them how to love God, Abba Basil began by responding,
“The love of God is not something that is taught, for we do not learn from another to rejoice in the light or to desire life, nor has anyone taught us to love our parents or nurses. In the same way and even to a far greater degree is it true that instruction in divine law is not from without, but…a kind of rational force was implanted in us like a seed, which…impels us toward love.”
Love is not learned, love is intrinsic.
That love is not learned, but is natural can be seen in our desire for beauty:
“We are by nature desirous of the beautiful, even though individual conceptions of the beautiful differ widely. Furthermore, we possess without being taught a love for those who are near and dear to us, and we spontaneously render to our benefactors a full measure of good will.”
It is by nature that we love and grow in love, and to those who are “near and dear to us” we respond to with love and affection.
And again, broadly speaking:
”Men are by nature, then, desirous of the beautiful. But, that which is truly beautiful and desirable is the good. Now, the good is God, and, since all creatures desire good, therefore, all creatures desire God.”
Mankind, by nature, desires that which is beautiful, and there is nothing more beautiful and desirable than those things that we call good. Since God is the greatest good, and source of everything good, it can be shown that our desire for that which is good is, in actuality, the desire for God. Hence, mankind, by his natural desire for good, can be seen to have the natural inclination towards love for God.
He goes on to say that those who have ascended the heights of prayer come to the realization that the love of God is the entire end.
“Indeed, by reason of their insatiable eagerness to enjoy the vision of Divine Beauty, they prayed that contemplation of the joy of the Lord would last as long as the whole of eternal life.”
In other words, their purpose was to gaze at God and His Divine Beauty. That is the chief end of creation, to experience the love of God.
He noted three dispositions to serving God: that of slave, that of hireling, and that of son. The attitude of the slave is one of avoiding punishment. A slave does what is right for fear of punishment. The hireling does what is right in order to gain something. His service is towards the reward he is promised, so he is obedient for what he can get, not for who he is serving. The one who serves as a son serves out of love, for the sake of Him who is loved. He says,
“we rejoice to be deemed worthy to serve a God so good and so glorious and we are thus in the dispositions of sons.”
Regarding the love a son has for his father:
"Now, what son, having in view his father's good pleasure and giving joy to his heart in the more important matters, will wish to cause him pain as regards even the most insignificant ones?"
The love of the son towards the father will consider how his actions concern his father. The love of God will cause the who has received the Spirit of Adoption towards sonship to consider each action through the lens of, “How does this action affect my love for the Father?”
Abba Basil goes on to say that the commandments of God give us the parameters for the love of God. Regarding the two greatest commandments (love of God and love of neighbor):
Love of God ought to lead us to compassion.
"The Christian ought not to grudge another’s reputation, nor rejoice over any man’s faults; he ought in Christ’s love to grieve and be afflicted at his brother’s faults, and rejoice over his brother’s good deeds."
How different would our churches be if we grasped this concept! Rejoicing over the good deeds of our fellow Christians and weeping over their faults. Perhaps we would depart from one-upmanship and false humility?
He speaks with incredible insight on fear and love.
“...according to the counsel of Solomon, wisest of men: 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.' But, for you who have, as it were, passed through your infancy in Christ and no longer require milk but are able to be perfected according to the inner man by the solid nourishment of doctrine, loftier precepts are needed whereby the whole truth of the love which is in Christ is brought to fulfillment.”
Love was the higher way. If fear is the beginning of wisdom, love is its culmination.
In this way, he echoes the words of the great Abba Anthony.
“I no longer fear God, but I love him. For love casts out fear.”