Today is the annual memorial of St. Basil the Great: Bishop, Monk, Theologian. His life was truly multi-faceted, and he used every facet in the service of the Kingdom of God.
Born into a privileged family (descended from a martyr) and deciding early for the Christian life, he seems to have followed the course of his mother (St. Emmelia) and sister (St. Macrina) in an assured clarity of action, rather than struggling with the anxieties that plagued his younger brother (St. Gregory Nyssa) and close friend (St. Gregory Nazianzus). (This remarkable family also produced two other saints: Basil’s remaining siblings, St. Peter of Sebaste and St. Naucratius the Hermit!) Basil was resolute, brilliant, at turns deeply compassionate and fiercely demanding.
It is largely as a result of St. Basil the Great’s efforts (together with the two Gregorys) that the Faith proclaimed at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325) was upheld and bolstered at the Second Council in Constantinople (381). This led to the eventual triumph of Christian Orthodoxy over Arianism and Apollinarianism, two of the most destructive heresies in Christian history (and, to some degree, the two that remain with us in one form or another still as a temptation and snare to take our eyes off the Christ revealed by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the sacred tradition of Holy Church).
Basil’s efforts also led to the clear enunciation of the doctrine of the Divinity of the Holy Spirit, and all true Christian Pneumatology must ultimately be in concord with his thought, expressed so effectively in On the Holy Spirit.
But St. Basil was much more than even this. He was an extraordinarily tough negotiator. Threats of death from the then-heretic Emperor made no impression on him. He risked even his closest relationships in order to bolster the Faith in the face of heresy. He remained in office and did not betray his vows even when most of those around him in leadership did the convenient thing and sided with the Imperial culture on matters of faith and morals. His rule for monks (developed after a tour of desert monastic communities and his sister's founding of a community for nuns) became the source text for all Eastern Christian monasticism today. He labored to renew the zeal and quality of ordained ministry in the dioceses he served and worked tirelessly for the poor. At his death he gave a vast amount of money so that an entirely new city could be founded for the poor in the region.
St. Basil was also a profound realist, in the sense that he didn’t believe in the sort of “progressive fantasy” that grips the Church from time-to-time, a mistaken hope that through continuous education (and cultural accommodation) we can make anything we want happen. This is essentially a form of atheism, in that God is not the source of all things…we are the initiators. St. Basil, in his rule for monastics, reaffirms the centrality of God’s initiation in faith and then sets about developing a school for the cultivation and nurture of that faith.
In North American Christianity one notices a persistent tendency to try to “go it alone” or to “make things happen,” occasionally clothed in the garb of prayer, but in practice more about identifying some set of “spiritual goals” and then developing elaborate, measurable, and iron-clad programs, techniques, and ideologies to “achieve” these man-made goals. The result is one trend, fad, or “renewal movement” after another—each subject to the usual dynamics of cultural fads—rather than the deeply-formed development of a stable, rooted, Christian community.
The passage below speaks of the proper way to approach spiritual growth. It is based on the recognition of the Image and Likeness of God residing within us, and the grace that is given for us to do the spiritual work (askesis) that will lead to a rich harvest of holiness. It also has a clear-eyed notion of what sin is: the misuse of the powers given to us by God for good.
Thus, sin is really a non-Eucharistic way of living on the merely biological level—ignoring the purpose of our bodies, minds, souls, wills—and using these precious and holy gifts for a life of pseudo-independence leading to eternal death. True Christian life receives the gifts of God (in all their forms) with gratitude and then uses them as an offering to God in their right way and their revealed purpose. It is a life of deep communion with God the Holy Trinity, whose being is expressed in communion.
This is shown forth, par excellence, in the Holy Eucharist, where the baptized People of God receive in deep gratitude the Word made Flesh from Christ the Great High Priest under the forms of the Sacred Scriptures and the Holy Mysteries—and then in the power of these gifts offer the creation and their lives to God for sanctification, that they may reveal the Kingdom of God radiantly.
All of this is based on what St. Basil calls “the spark of divine love,” which is implanted in us at our conception. Our culture works to curtail all sensitivity to this divine spark and the relationship it means between God and humans. In its place we are cultivating a kind of pseudo-humanity, one essentially physical, without the dynamic of the spiritual, Eucharistic, priestly, and communal character that is our true self. It is a society increasingly based on fear, hate, control, hedonism, materialism, violence, and death.
This denial is making us sick in many ways, gradually building a society with ills for which it has no cure, nor even a language to describe its sickness. It is this form of poverty and corruption that we in the Church must address as well as the traditional forms of want. Without the nourishment of the soul, even clothed, fed, and employed bodies will only turn their search for wholeness in directions leading to destruction.
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Love of God is not something that can be taught. We did not learn from someone else how to rejoice in light or want to live, or to love our parents or guardians. It is the same – perhaps even more so – with our love for God: it does not come by another’s teaching. As soon as the living creature (that is, man) comes to be, a power of reason is implanted in us like a seed, containing within it the ability and the need to love. When the school of God’s law admits this power of reason, it cultivates it diligently, skillfully nurtures it, and with God’s help brings it to perfection.
For this reason, as by God’s gift, I find you with the zeal necessary to attain this end, and you on your part help me with your prayers. I will try to fan into flame the spark of divine love that is hidden within you, as far as I am able through the power of the Holy Spirit.
First, let me say that we have already received from God the ability to fulfill all his commands. We have then no reason to resent them, as if something beyond our capacity were being asked of us. We have no reason either to be angry, as if we had to pay back more than we had received. When we use this ability in a right and fitting way, we lead a life of virtue and holiness. But if we misuse it, we fall into sin.
This is the definition of sin: the misuse of powers given us by God for doing good, a use contrary to God’s commands. On the other hand, the virtue that God asks of us is the use of the same powers based on a good conscience in accordance with God’s command.
Since this is so, we can say the same about love. Since we received a command to love God, we possess from the first moment of our existence an innate power and ability to love. The proof of this is not to be sought outside ourselves, but each one can learn this from himself and in himself. It is natural for us to want things that are good and pleasing to the eye, even though at first different things seem beautiful and good to different people. In the same way, we love what is related to us or near to us, though we have not been taught to do so, and we spontaneously feel well disposed to our benefactors.
What, I ask, is more wonderful than the beauty of God? What thought is more pleasing and wonderful than God’s majesty? What desire is as urgent and overpowering as the desire implanted by God in a soul that is completely purified of sin and cries out in its love: I am wounded by love? The radiance of divine beauty is altogether beyond the power of words to describe.
-- From the Asketikon of St. Basil the Great