Abba Basil The Great - Part 2
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.
On the Spiritual Life
To Abba Basil, the beginning of growth in God was peace in the heart. Without what he calls a “quiet mind” it will be impossible to apprehend God. A distracted mind wanders restlessly and never fixes its gaze upon something steadily.
“Quiet, then, as I have said, is the first step in our sanctification.”
He goes on to say that…
“Soothing hymns compose the mind to a cheerful and calm state.”
The mind (or heart, as he is talking about something far deeper than simply thinking), when not distracted by exterior cares, thoughts, pride, affection, lusts, etc…
“falls back upon itself, and thereby ascends to the contemplation of God. When that beauty shines about it, it even forgets its very nature; it is dragged down no more by thought of food nor anxiety concerning dress; it departs from earthly cares, and devotes all its energies to the acquisition of the good things which are eternal.”
Solitude was one means of entering this deep state of encountering the beauty of God. But solitude did not necessarily mean seclusion, it was more about interior separation.
“Now one way of escaping all this is separation from the whole world; that is, not bodily separation, but the severance of the soul’s sympathy with the body, and to live so without city, home, goods, society, possessions, means of life, business, engagements, human learning, that the heart may readily receive every impress of divine doctrine.”
Solitude, as a spiritual discipline, is about living without worldly identity (city, home, goods, society, possessions, means of life, business, etc…), and embracing heavenly identity.
With incredible clarity, he goes on…
"Preparation of heart is unlearning the prejudices of evil converse. It is smoothing the waxen tablet before attempting to write on it."
This quietness, this solitude, is the preparation of the heart. It is the unlearning of every worldly thing that has been learned, so that the image of God may be impressed upon the “waxen tablet” of the heart.
“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.“
The goal, then, of spiritual discipline, according to Abba Basil, was to reacquire the image and likeness of God by participating in the life of God.
“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 Creator through the quieting of our passions.”
Passionate desires mar the image of God in man. These desires are laid out by Paul in passages like Galatians 5, where he includes idolatry, sorcery, and adultery with envy, wrath, and selfish ambition. These passions and others like it destroy the remembrance of God in the depths of the heart.
Basil offers keen insight on how to destroy these passions and acquire the image of God in the heart of man.
“Now solitude is of the greatest use for this purpose, inasmuch as it stills our passions, and gives room for principle to cut them out of the soul.”
Prayer is effective in this pursuit as it is stirred by love toward God.
“Prayers, too, after reading, find the soul fresher, and more vigorously stirred by love towards God. And that prayer is good which imprints a clear idea of God in the soul; and the having of God established in self by means of memory is God’s indwelling.”
He wrote on becoming practically spiritual.
“What state can be more blessed than to imitate on earth the choruses of angels? To begin the day with prayer, and honour our Maker with hymns and songs? As the day brightens, to betake ourselves, with prayer attending on it throughout, to our labours, and to sweeten our work with hymns, as if with salt?”
As the daily discipline of “casting all your care upon him” (1 Peter 5:7) becomes habit.
”…we become God’s temple, when the continuity of our recollection is not severed by earthly cares; when the mind is harassed by no sudden sensations; when the worshipper flees from all things and retreats to God, drawing away all the feelings that invite him to self-indulgence, and passes his time in the pursuits that lead to virtue.”
One chief end of studying Scripture is the example it puts forth for the spiritual life.
"The study of inspired Scripture is the chief way of finding our duty, for in it we find both instruction about conduct and the lives of blessed men, delivered in writing, as some breathing images of godly living, for the imitation of their good works."
And lastly, when it comes to advancing in the spiritual life.
"It is better to advance a little at a time. Withdraw then by degrees from the pleasures of life, gradually destroying all your wonted habits, lest you bring on yourself a crowd of temptations by irritating all your passions at once. When you have mastered one passion, then begin to wage war against another, and in this manner you will in good time get the better of all. Indulgence, so far as the name goes, is one, but its practical workings are diverse. First then, brother, meet every temptation with patient endurance."
In other words, baby steps are good.
On Living in Community
To Basil, community was of the utmost importance. Without a community around the spiritual person, they would find growth difficult.
“…a person living in solitary retirement will not readily discern his own defects, since he has no one to admonish and correct him with mildness and compassion.”
Furthermore, no one can take care of themselves alone:
“I consider that life passed in company with a number of persons in the same habitation is more advantageous in many respects. My reasons are, first, that no one of us is self-sufficient as regards corporeal necessities, but we require one another's aid in supplying our needs.”
However, the type of community was important.
”…in addition to all the other obstacles, which are many, the soul in looking at the crowd of other offenders…by comparison with those who are worse, it takes on, besides, a certain deceptive appearance of righteousness.”
The monk could find himself in a community of those that were less than effective in their spiritual life and consider himself far more advanced than he was, because he was used to comparing himself to those who are not advancing. There is the danger of self-righteousness when comparing yourself to those who are worse off than you.
He makes an excellent point regarding the necessity of community as it pertains to spiritual giftedness.
"In addition, since no one has the capacity to receive all spiritual gifts, but the grace of the Spirit is given proportionately to the faith of each, (Rom 12:6) when one is living in association with others, the grace privately bestowed on each individual becomes the common possession of his fellows. 'To one, indeed, is given the word of wisdom; and to another, the word of knowledge; to another, faith, to another, prophecy, to another, the grace of healing,’ (1 Cor 12:8,9) and so on. He who receives any of these gifts does not possess it for his own sake but rather for the sake of others, so that, in the life passed in community, the operation of the Holy Spirit in the individual is at the same time necessarily transmitted to all."
If you lived in solitude and lacked a community, your spiritual gift would fall into disuse.
"He who lives alone, consequently, and has, perhaps, one gift renders it ineffectual by leaving it in disuse, since it lies buried within him…On the other hand, in the case of several persons living together, each enjoys his own gift and enhances it by giving others a share, besides reaping benefit from the gifts of others as if they were his own."
It is only in community that we are able to partake of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. He gifts individuals as He sees fit, in order to benefit the entire community.
That we are to love all equally.
"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…for an excess of affection for one individual bears a strong implication of defect with regard to the others."
Another principle, that, if played out, would change the shape of our churches. In loving all equally, and not allowing an unhealthy affection for certain ones over others, we communicate their value and acceptance. If we develop unhealthy affection for certain people over others, we run the risk of strongly implying that some are more defective than others, and worthy of less care.
He lays out an incredible principle regarding offence.
"The brethren should betray no sign of anger, of unforgiveness, or envy, or contentiousness…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 offence; for evil at whatever point of time it is committed is evil just the same."
Your offence in response to an offence committed towards you is just as evil as the first offence. According to Abba Basil evil is evil regardless of justification.
Regarding a particular one who had fallen into sin, he wrote…
“All are ready to welcome you, all will share your efforts. Do not sink back. Remember the days of old. There is salvation; there is amendment…The doors are not yet shut; the bridegroom hears; sin is not the master. Make another effort, do not hesitate, have pity on yourself and on all of us in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And on the eminence of women in the monastic community.
"But our discourse is not addressed to men only; for members of the female sex are not rejected because of physical weakness, but, chosen for the army of Christ by reason of their virility of spirit, they also battle on the side of Christ and fight no less valiantly than men. Some even win a greater renown."
He recognizes women as every bit the equal of men, even considering some of them to have achieved greater renown. Abba Basil would have needed to turn no further than his own sister (Saint Macrina the Younger), mother (Saint Emmelia), and grandmother (Saint Macrina the Elder) for an incredible example of Godly leadership. They all have left their mark on Christian history.
Lastly, the community was to have a Godly leader.
"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."
The leader was to be the model of every virtue. He was to live a life that others would desire to emulate.
Abba Basil the Great lived this final principle regarding Godly leadership to perfection. Though he is known as one of the most eminent theologians in church history, he is remembered for his humility, love, compassion, care, and concern for the individuals who came to him for guidance in the spiritual life. Thankfully, we can still learn many things from this great man of God today. Basil passed away in 379AD, all too short a life for a man of his stature. His success, however, was not determined by the length of his life, but rather, his devotion to Christ.