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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : III.--Ascetic.

Basil Letters And Select Works by Basil


(i) Of the works comprised under this head, the first are the three compositions entitled Tractatus Prævii. The first, Prævia Institutio ascetica ('Asketike prodiatuposis ), is an exhortation to enlistment in the sacred warfare; the second, on renunciation of the world and spiritual perfection, is the Sermo asceticus (logos asketikos). The third, Sermo de ascetica disciplina (logos peri askeseos, pos dei kosmheisthai ton monachon), treats of the virtues to be exhibited in the life of the solitary.

The first of the three is a commendation less of monasticism than of general Christian endurance. It has been supposed to have been written in times of special oppression and persecution.

The second discourse is an exhortation to renunciation of the world. Riches are to be abandoned to the poor. The highest life is the monastic. But this is not to be hastily and inconsiderately embraced. To renounce monasticism and return to the world is derogatory to a noble profession. The idea of pleasing God in the world as well as out of it is, for those who have once quitted it, a delusion. God has given mankind the choice of two holy estates, marriage or virginity. The law which bids us love God more than father, mother, or self, more than wife and children, is as binding in wedlock as in celibacy. Marriage indeed demands the greater watchfulness, for it offers the greater temptations. Monks are to be firm against all attempts to shake their resolves. They will do well to put themselves under the guidance of some good man of experience and pious life, learned in the Scriptures, loving the poor more than money, superior to the seductions of flattery, and loving God above all things. Specific directions are given for the monastic life, and monks are urged to retirement, silence, and the study of the Scriptures.

The third discourse, which is brief, is a summary of similar recommendations. The monk ought moreover to labour with his hands, to reflect upon the day of judgment, to succour the sick, to practice hospitality, to read books of recognized genuineness, not to dispute about the doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but to believe in and confess an uncreate and consubstantial Trinity.

(ii) Next in order come the Prooemium de Judicio Dei (prooimion peri krimatos Theou) and the De Fide (peri pisteos). These treatises were prefixed by Basil to the Moralia. He states that, when he enquired into the true causes of the troubles which weighed heavily on the Church, he could only refer them to breaches of the commandments of God. Hence the divine punishment, and the need of observing the Divine Law. The apostle says that what is needed is faith working by love. So St. Basil thought it necessary to append an exposition of the sound faith concerning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and so pass in order to morals. It has, however, been supposed by some that the composition published in the plan as the De Fide is not the original tract so entitled, but a letter on the same subject written, if not during the episcopate, at least in the presbyterate. This view has been supported by the statement |Thus we believe and baptize.|

This, however, might be said generally of the custom obtaining in the Church, without reference to the writer's own practice. Certainly the document appears to have no connexion with those among which it stands, and to be an answer to some particular request for a convenient summary couched in scriptural terms. Hence it does not contain the Homoousion, and the author gives his reason for the omission -- an omission which, he points out, is in contrast with his other writings against heretics. Obviously, therefore, this composition is to be placed in his later life. Yet he describes the De Fideas being anterior to the Moralia.

It will be remembered that this objection to the title and date of the extant De Fide implies nothing against its being the genuine work of the archbishop.

While carefully confining himself to the language of Scripture, the author points out that even with this aid, Faith, which he defines as an impartial assent to what has been revealed to us by the gift of God, must necessarily be dark and incomplete. God can only be clearly known in heaven, when we shall see Him face to face. The statement that has been requested is as follows:

|We believe and confess one true and good God, Father Almighty, of Whom are all things, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: and His one Only-begotten Son, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, only true, through Whom all things were made, both visible and invisible, and by Whom all things consist: Who was in the beginning with God and was God, and, after this, according to the Scriptures, was seen on earth and had His conversation with men: Who being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but emptied Himself, and by means of the birth from a virgin took a servant's form, and was formed in fashion as a man, and fulfilled all things written with reference to Him and about Him, according to His Father's commandment, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross. And on the third day He rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures, and was seen by His holy disciples, and the rest, as it is written: And He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of His Father, whence He is coming at the end of this world, to raise all men, and to give to every man according to his conduct. Then the just shall be taken up into life eternal and the kingdom of heaven, but the sinner shall be condemned to eternal punishment, where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched: And in one Holy Ghost, the Comforter, in Whom we were sealed to the day of redemption: The Spirit of truth, the Spirit of adoption, in Whom we cry, Abba, Father; Who divideth and worketh the gifts that come of God, to each one for our good, as He will; Who teaches and calls to remembrance all things that He has heard from the Son; Who is good; Who guides us into all truth, and confirms all that believe, both in sure knowledge and accurate confession, and in pious service and spiritual and true worship of God the Father, and of His only begotten Son our Lord, and of Himself.|

(iii) The Moralia (ta ethika) is placed in 361, in the earlier days of the Anomoean heresy. Shortly before this time the extreme Arians began to receive this name, and it is on the rise of the Anomoeans that Basil is moved to write. The work comprises eighty Rules of Life, expressed in the words of the New Testament, with special reference to the needs of bishops, priests, and deacons, and of all persons occupied in education.

Penitence consists not only in ceasing to sin, but in expiating sin by tears and mortification. Sins of ignorance are not free from peril of judgment.

Sins into which we feel ourselves drawn against our will are the results of sins to which we have consented. Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost consists in attributing to the devil the good works which the Spirit of God works in our brethren. We ought carefully to examine whether the doctrine offered us is conformable to Scripture, and if not, to reject it. Nothing must be added to the inspired words of God; all that is outside Scripture is not of faith, but is sin.

(iv) The Regulæ fusius tractatæ (horoi kata platos), 55 in number, and the Regulæ brevius tractatæ (horoi kat' epitomen), in number 313, are a series of precepts for the guidance of religious life put in the form of question and answer. The former are invariably supported by scriptural authority.

Their genuineness is confirmed by strong external evidence. Gregory of Nazianzus (Or. xliii. § 34) speaks of Basil's composing rules for monastic life, and in Ep. vi. intimates that he helped his friend in their composition. Rufinus (H.E. ii.9) mentions Basil's Instituta Monachorum. St. Jerome (De Vir. illust. cxvi.) says that Basil wrote to hasketikon, and Photius (Cod.191) describes the Aschetichum as including the Regulæ. Sozomen (H.E. iii.14) remarks that the Regulæ were sometimes attributed to Eustathius of Sebaste, but speaks of them as generally recognised as St. Basil's.

The monk who relinquishes his status after solemn profession and adoption is to be regarded as guilty of sacrilege, and the faithful are warned against all intercourse with him, with a reference to 2 Thess. iii.14.

Children are not to be received from their parents except with full security for publicity in their reception. They are to be carefully instructed in the Scriptures. They are not to be allowed to make any profession till they come to years of discretion (XV.). Temperance is a virtue, but the servants of God are not to condemn any of God's creatures as unclean, and are to eat what is given them. (XVIII.) Hospitality is to be exercised with the utmost frugality and moderation, and the charge to Martha in Luke x.41, is quoted with the reading oligon de esti chreia e henos and the interpretation |few,| namely for provision, and |one,| namely the object in view, -- enough for necessity. It would be as absurd for monks to change the simplicity of their fare on the arrival of a distinguished guest as it would be for them to change their dress (XX.). Rule XXI. is against unevangelical contention for places at table, and Rule XXII. regulates the monastic habit. The primary object of dress is said to be shewn by the words of Genesis, where God is said to have made Adam and Eve |coats of skins,| or, as in the LXX., chitonas dermatinous, i.e. tunics of hides. This use of tunics was enough for covering what was unseemly. But later another object was added -- that of securing warmth by clothing. So we must keep both ends in view -- decency, and protection against the weather. Among articles of dress some are very serviceable; some are less so. It is better to select what is most useful, so as to observe the rule of poverty, and to avoid a variety of vestments, some for show, others for use; some for day, some for night. A single garment must be devised to serve for all purposes, and for night as well as day. As the soldier is known by his uniform, and the senator by his robe, so the Christian ought to have his own dress. Shoes are to be provided on the same principle, they are to be simple and cheap. The girdle (XXIII.) is regarded as a necessary article of dress, not only because of its practical utility, but because of the example of the Lord Who girded Himself. In Rule XXVI. all secrets are ordered to be confided to the superintendent or bishop. If the superintendent himself is in error (XXVII.) he is to be corrected by other brothers. Vicious brethren (XXVIII.) are to be cut off like rotten limbs. Self-exaltation and discontent are equally to be avoided (XXIX.). XXXVII. orders that devotional exercise is to be no excuse for idleness and shirking work. Work is to be done not only as a chastisement of the body, but for the sake of love to our neighbour and supplying weak and sick brethren with the necessaries of life. The apostle says that if a man will not work he must not eat. Daily work is as necessary as daily bread. The services of the day are thus marked out. The first movements of heart and mind ought to be consecrated to God. Therefore early in the morning nothing ought to be planned or purposed before we have been gladdened by the thought of God; as it is written, |I remembered God, and was gladdened;| the body is not to be set to work before we have obeyed the command, |O Lord, in the morning shalt thou hear my voice; in the morning will I order my prayer unto thee.| Again at the third hour there is to be a rising up to prayer, and the brotherhood is to be called together, even though they happen to have been dispersed to various works. The sixth hour is also to be marked by prayer, in obedience to the words of the Psalmist, |evening, and morning, and at noon will I pray, and cry aloud: and He shall hear my voice.| To ensure deliverance from the demon of noon-day, the XCIst Psalm is to be recited. The ninth hour is consecrated to prayer by the example of the Apostles Peter and John, who at that hour went up into the Temple to pray. Now the day is done. For all the boons of the day, and the good deeds of the day, we must give thanks. For omissions there must be confession. For sins voluntary or involuntary, or unknown, we must appease God in prayer. At nightfall the XCIst Psalm is to be recited again, midnight is to be observed in obedience to the example of Paul and Silas, and the injunction of the Psalmist. Before dawn we should rise and pray again, as it is written, |Mine eyes prevent the night watches.| Here the canonical hours are marked, but no details are given as to the forms of prayer.

XL. deals with the abuse of holy places and solemn assemblies. Christians ought not to appear in places sacred to martyrs or in their neighbourhood for any other reason than to pray and commemorate the sacred dead. Anything like a worldly festival or common-mart at such times is like the sacrilege of the money changers in the Temple precincts.

LI. gives directions for monastic discipline. |Let the superintendent exert discipline after the manner of a physician treating his patients. He is not angry with the sick, but fights with the disease, and sets himself to combat their bad symptoms. If need be, he must heal the sickness of the soul by severer treatment; for example, love of vain glory by the imposition of lowly tasks; foolish talking, by silence; immoderate sleep, by watching and prayer; idleness, by toil; gluttony, by fasting; murmuring, by seclusion, so that no brothers may work with the offender, nor admit him to participation in their works, till by his penitence that needeth not to be ashamed he appear to be rid of his complaint.|

LV. expounds at some length the doctrine of original sin, to which disease and death are traced.

The 313 Regulæ brevius tractatæ are, like the Regulæ fusius tractatæ, in the form of questions and answers. Fessler singles out as a striking specimen XXXIV.

Q. |How is any one to avoid the sin of man-pleasing, and looking to the praises of men?|

A. |There must be a full conviction of the presence of God, an earnest intention to please Him, and a burning desire for the blessings promised by the Lord. No one before his Master's very eyes is excited into dishonouring his Master and bringing condemnation on himself, to please a fellow servant.|

XLVII. points out that it is a grave error to be silent when a brother sins.

XLIX. tells us that vain gloriousness (to perpereuesthai. Cf.1 Cor. xiii.4) consists in taking things not for use, but for ostentation; and L. illustrates this principle in the case of dress.

Q. |When a man has abandoned all more expensive clothing, does he sin, and, if so, how, if he wishes his cheap upper garment or shoes to be becoming to him?|

A. |If he so wishes in order to gratify men, he is obviously guilty of the sin of man-pleasing. He is alienated from God, and is guilty of vain glory even in these cheap belongings.|

LXIV. is a somewhat lengthy comment on Matt. xvii.6. To |make to offend,| or |to scandalize,| is to induce another to break the law, as the serpent Eve, and Eve Adam.

LXXXIII. is pithy.

Q. |If a man is generally in the right, and falls into one sin, how are we to treat him?

A. |As the Lord treated Peter.|

CXXVIII. is on fasting.

Q. |Ought any one to be allowed to exercise abstinence beyond his strength, so that he is hindered in the performance of his duty?|

A. |This question does not seem to me to be properly worded. Temperance does not consist in abstinence from earthly food, wherein lies the neglecting of the body' condemned by the Apostles, but in complete departure from one's own wishes. And how great is the danger of our falling away from the Lord's commandment on account of our own wishes is clear from the words of the Apostle, fulfilling the desires of the flesh, and of the mind, and were by nature the children of wrath.'| The numbers in the Coenobium are not to fall below ten, the number of the eaters of the Paschal supper. Nothing is to be considered individual and personal property. Even a man's thoughts are not his own. Private friendships are harmful to the general interests of the community. At meals there is to be a reading, which is to be thought more of than mere material food. The cultivation of the ground is the most suitable occupation for the ascetic life. No fees are to be taken for the charge of children entrusted to the monks. Such children are not to be pledged to join the community till they are old enough to understand what they are about.

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