The Historical Development of the Rule of St. Basil the Great

Rev. Porfiryj Pidruchnyj, OSBM


Introductory remarks

1. Knowing St. Basil the Great as a man and creator of great works is an obligation – first and foremost for us Basilians, who draw our spirituality from his ascetical writings. A large span of time, however, separates us from him and his era. Fortunately, the numerous letters that he wrote or that were addressed to him by both friend and foe, of which 366 can be found in Migne’s Greek Patrology volume 32, speak volumes about Basil’s life, and his ecclesial and literal activities. Recently, researchers exploring the question of authenticity have determined that many of these letters are not authentic. Among the experts in this field is the well-known Paul Fedyuk, a professor at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, who acquired his theological and patristic education in Rome while living in this very monastery [the Basilian Generalate on the Aventine]. He published a monumental work, consisting of a few volumes, which describes manuscripts of Basil’s works, indicating the various editions and translations. He has also written other books about Saint Basil. Sergei Fedyniak, who also lived and worked in Rome, translated some of St. Basil’s letters into Ukrainian.

2. On the life and work of St. Basil, we know more from two other important sources. The first, is the funerary eulogy in honor of Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea, Cappadocia, by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, also called the Theologian. This work was translated into Ukrainian by Fr. Serhyj Fedyniak. The second valuable source, from which we learn many things about Basil, is in The Life of St. Macrina, written by St. Gregory of Nissa, her brother (published in Ukrainian by S. Fedyniak, New York, 1969). As brief digression,  I personally  knew the late Fr. Fedynyak, who not only translated many of St. Basil’s works (eg. The Homily on the Psalms), but also encouraged many Basilians to write their theses on St. Basil the Great.

3. When it comes to translations, we should mention another famous Basilian, who toiled so that ascetical works of St. Basil the Great would be made known in Ukrainian, the Servant of God Metropolitan Andrej Sheptytsky. Beginning in 1910, Sheptytsky translated the works of St. Basil and completed “The Ascetical Works” (Lviv, 1929), which includes the Moral, the Longer and the Shorter Rules.

St. Basil the Great and His Ascetical Works

St. Basil was born into a very pious Christian family of Basil [the Elder] and Emmelia in Caesarea, Cappadocia, around 329 or 330. His father was a teacher of rhetoric, and his family had considerable political influence in Caesarea. In the family were ten children, five of whom are venerated for their saintly lives and works. Basil and his two brothers were bishops –Gregory (Bishop of Nyssa) and  Peter (Bishop of Sebaste)–, brother Naucratius was an ascetic, and his sister Macrina the Younger also practiced asceticism (at that time the term “asceticism” was understood to be “monastic life”).

Basil attended school in Neo-Caesarea, where his father was his teacher; then, at Caesarea in Cappadocia, Constantinople and Athens, where he studied for five years and where he found a true friend in Gregory, the future bishop of Nazianzus.

In Athens, Basil started looking for the ‘true philosophy;’ i.e., the knowledge of Christ. He completed his studies and returned to Caesarea. According to the then custom, Basil was baptized in 356, at the age of 27. He then  took a long trip to personally experience the lifestyle of the various religious groups in Syria, Mesopotamia, Kelesyria, Palestine and Egypt (Letter 223, 2 – To Eustathius of Sebaste).

After a year of travel, Basil settled in Anessi, near the river Iris, and began to lead an ascetical life. His sister Macrina had chosen to lead this state of life much earlier, along with his mother Emmelia and some servants.


The Influence of Eustathius of Sebaste.

There is no doubt that Basil and his family were under the influence of Eustathius of Sebaste, who founded many monastic communities. (Remember Naucratius, Basil’s brother, who became ascetic. And four of Basil’s family members remained celibate). Eustathius was known for his strict ascetic life and works of mercy. (When Basil became a bishop, he opened a house for the poor and sick, run by Eustathius’s disciples). Basil communicated with Eustathius “from childhood” (Letter 1 – To Eustathius of Sebaste) and this indicates that Basil’s family was indeed influenced by his asceticism. Eustathius, along with his disciples, repeatedly visited Basil and spent “whole nights in prayer, speaking and listening to talks of God” (Letter 223, 5). One can safely say that Eustathius was Basil’s spiritual father.

In Anessi, no doubt, Basil had friends, who shared his ideal. His friend from student days, Gregory, lived with him and they studied that ‘true philosophy,’ the science of Christ. Some scholars attribute to them the collection based on the writings of Origen called the “Philokalia”, but others deny it (Harl, see Morescini, 18). All the same, Basil had already had a common project of monastic life: the renunciation of the world, a life of poverty and prayer, and the frequent reading of Sacred Scripture (Letter 2 – To Gregory (Bose), 21). Then, of course, he wrote the first edition of Moral Rules (Cremaschi Lisa, 29).

The Moral Rules (MR) were intended for a wide Christian audience. When Gregory Nazianzus referred to the rules and regulations of life under which they endeavored to live (Oratio 43,34), it was probably an extract from a first edition of the MR. In this work, Basil shows what a Christian should avoid and what he/she should do to initiate eternal life already here on earth. Thus, he speaks in detail about the responsibilities of each and everyone. MR is a mere collection of texts, arranged thematically. The themes were not invented by Basil, rather, they were based on 1500 citations taken from the New Testament and divided by a title and an introductory summary. According to his own words, Basil did this in order to better understand Scripture. In brief, the MR is an anthology of biblical texts.

At first glance, the MR seems to be a formless piece (without a clear outline), but upon it Basil builds all his other writings, revealing its originality and the continuity of his thought. The MR is at the heart of his ascetical works. It is the core (the most important part) of his ascetical thinking. Basil grants to the MR the highest value, because it is the only true “rule.” From these selected biblical texts arises his own order of thoughts. First of all, the service of God and, then the authority and exegesis of Sacred Scripture, the spirit of obedience to the Commandments, the Christian sacraments, the virtues and main sins… Basil says that superiors should know and understand the whole of Sacred Scripture, and those subject to him should know their responsibilities and fulfill them. Later, perhaps on initiating his ascetical life, Basil included at the beginning of the MR two homilies: On God’s Judgment and On Faith.

Although Basil endeavored to lead an ascetical life in seclusion he nonetheless took part in the life of the Church. He was ordained a lector and assisted in the pastoral service in Pontus. In 359, he accompanied Bishop Basil of Ankyra to the Synod of Seleucia, and, in January 360, he attended the Synod in Constantinople. In 362, the Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, searching for a fellow-labourer and advisor, called Basil to himself and ordained him a priest. But that same year, owing to some misunderstanding with the bishop, Basil left Caesarea and returned to Pontus, and there became the leader of Christian monastic communities (Gregory Naz., Or. 43,29 – Cremaschi Lisa, 29).


The Small Asketikon

In that time, Basil visited the communities of Eustathius, who lived chaotically in various places in Pontus, without any guidance. It was then he published his first edition of the Small Asketikon, extant only in the Latin translation of Rufinus Aquitaine in 397. It survived only in the Syrian language. It consists in 200 questions and answers. The answers are short and one can see that the questions were formed by Eustathius’s disciples. Basil expanded this Small Asketikon and, subsequently, published the Great Asketikon.

In 365, Bishop Eusebius once again called Basil to Cappadocia and gave him freedom for action. In 369, when the great drought caused unprecedented famine in all Cappadocia, Basil called upon the rich to help the poor and he himself organized assistance for the starving. At this time, he composed his homilies: God is Not the Cause ofEvil, Against theRich (two sermons) and During times of Starvation and Drought.

In 370, when Bishop Eusebius died, Basil, not without difficulty, became bishop of Caesarea. In less than ten years, although not in good health, he carried out extensive activity. However, we will focus primarily on his ascetical communities, which he often visited, talked with and instructed to strictly observe all things that the Scriptures require of a Christian; then, we will examine the Wider Rules (WR)and the ShorterRules (SR). During Basil’s life, they were called the Asketikon; only after his death, an unknown compiler renamed them the Greater Rules and the SmallerRules. Basil stated that he was very happy to reply to any question, touching on matters of faith and morals in accordance with the Gospel (Introduction to SR). He had never called them rules, since the Christian has only one rule – Scripture. He never composed any rules for monastic communities, or formed an Order in today’s understanding, but merely explained the Scriptures to those who wish to live a truly ascetical life. He did not even want to be considered a teacher, but an instrument given by God to explain the Scriptures.


The Wider Rules (55 rules) 

This work is an expansion of the Small Asketikon. The rules are so systematically structured that some authors even call the WR  “a systematic catechism.” First, they explain the Commandments of God and their order; then they speak of love of God and neighbor, and the fear of God; further, they warn against the illusions and affairs of this world that are a major obstacle to the Christian and ascetical life; finally, they speak of renunciation, and the various categories of people who wish to consecrate themselves to the Lord, the virtues and the diverse problems associated with the cenobitic-communal life.


The Shorter Rules (313 rules) 

Although we call them “shorter,” they are in fact longer. They are not in a systematic order though there is an association between them. St. Basil’s disciples were quite familiar with Scripture and desired to deepen their knowledge of it, and to clarify some queries, even exegetical ones. Many questions are of a practical nature.

In addition to the MR, WR and SR, which are all related to the ascetic-monastic life, Basil wrote several letters that outlined the principles of monastic life, such as Letter 22 (we even included it in the Rule of our Constitutions) and Letter 173 (to the nuns) that talks of monastic profession and gives a brief list of responsibilities for those who desire to unconditionally obey the Gospel (eg. Letter374).


What Lasting Service Did St. Basil the Great Do for Monastic Life?

As we know, St. Basil was not the ‘creator’ nor the ‘proto-patriarch’ of Eastern monasticism. Before him there were various attempts and examples of monastic life. His genius and merit, however, is that he wisely perfected what already existed.

From the 5th century Eastern monasticism generally modelled itself almost exclusively on the Rules of St. Basil the Great, although neither he nor other monastic legislators established in the East a religious Order in the present sense of the term, nor did they leave a summary of disciplinary rules, as St. Benedict of Norcia, St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi did in the West. However, without a doubt, the Rules of St. Basil strongly influenced cenobitic life, that is the communal system of monastic life, though Byzantine typikons rarely quote Basil’s Rules.

The great merit of St. Basil’s ascetical works are their incontestability—they are grounded in Scripture. But even more to his credit is his conception of monastic life.

St. Basil was a creator of a particular monastic ideal, which can be represented in several areas:

1) Communal life is better than the anchoretic-hermitical life. It corresponds better to human nature, for love of neighbor is best lived out in communal life, allowing one to more easily fulfill the commandment of Christ, since each individual gift is employed in service of the common good, and, thus, in service to Christ Himself… The ascetical ideals of the community should be the same as the first Christian community, where all were of one heart and one soul. Everything was held in common: prayer, work, meals…

2) The superior (proestos) is to be a spiritual father, a leader of the community. He shall be responsible for the monks’ souls and for their progress in perfection. He must know everyone; hence, the monastery shouldn’t not be too large. He should have control over everything that ascetics do, including fasting and other penitential practices…

3) The purpose of the monastic life is to be like God in love. And not only to practice love on one’s own in prayer and work, but towards others by word and deed. St. Basil exhorts his monks to have spiritual fervor, gained by living in the presence of God and  dedicating his knowledge and work to the service of his neighbor – the Church. Basil exemplified and proved this in his own life. The program of his ascetics included social and educational work.


How did the East receive Basil’s Ideal of Monastic Life?

We know that the cenobitic form of monastic life was poorly received in the East. Eremitical life was considered the highest form of monastic life. In the following centuries great lavras of hermits were established under one or more founders (Sts. Euthymius + 473, Theodosius the Great + 519 and  Sabas the Sanctified + 532 ).
The program of cenobitic-monastic life as proposed by Basil, did not eliminate the tendency in the East towards extreme forms of the eremetical-solitary life. In The Lives of the Saints,we read about monks who never slept or who never spoke, reclusives, stylites, forest-dwellers, wanderers, beggars, hesychasts (lovers of peace) and other forms of independent life… Complete subordination of oneself under obedience to a superior was always difficult for the delicate, pensive and freedom-loving souls of the East.

Although the Ecumenical Councils (eg. VII Nicene) and even the Emperor Justinian (+ 565), in his Corpus iuris civilis, cite the Rule of cenobitic-monastic life, Basil was not nearly “Eastern” enough to be popular and exciting. Even in the Dobrotolubije (Philocalia), there was no place for a mere quotation from Basil, while texts of little-known Eastern writers, some even apocryphal, are given.

One of the most faithful followers of the Basilian ideal of the superiority of the cenobitic (communal) life over the eremitcial was Theodore Studite (760-826). For him, the monk is not only a servant of the Church, but the slave of the entire human race, because his goal is to serve all people (Fediuk, 176). Studite monasteries were centres of spiritual education, culture and bastions against heresies (iconoclasm and caesaropapism). However, without knowing it, Theodore Studite ordered his spirituality not only from the authentic works of Basil, but also on the Ascetical Constitutions, which appeared later and whose terminology, content and style were quite alien to Basil, praising and recommending the eremitical (solitary) life (Metrop. Sheptytsky printed them in The Ascetical Works, under the title: “Ascetical Knowledge,” 378-429).

In the mid-ninth century, monastic life began on Athos. The main legislator of Mount Athos was St. Athanasius of Athos (+ 1000). He composed the Rule of the Holy Mountain, modelled on the typicon of St. Theodore Studite. On Athos, there co-existed three types of monasticism: the cenobitic (communal), the eremetic (solitary) and the idiorythmitic (where the monks retain private property and are not subject to any Superior).


Monasticism in Rus’ (the Rus’-Ukrainian Lands)

Monks brought with them to Rus’ the two most common typikons in Byzantium and Bulgaria: the Studite and the Athonite. This does not mean, however, they were established constitutions, which could not be altered. In fact, we know that Studite typicons often differed among themselves.

When St. Theodosius of the Caves († 1074) received from St. Anthony of the Caves († 1073) direction over the Caves, near the princely city of Kyiv, he tried to implement the Constantinople version of the “Studite Typicon.” In time, he reworked it in a way that the first part, that is the liturgical, was unchanged, while the second, that is the internal and external points of monastic life, changed according to the circumstance, the place, the time and the spirit of the people.

The Rule of St. Theodosius spread to the whole of Rus’ and many monaster­ies were founded according to its form of monastic life. But after the Tartar invasion (1240), each monastery produced its own statutes or borrowed from other typicons. Then, the initial zeal, which burned in the holy founders of monasti­cism in Rus’, began to cool in subsequent generations.

The most prevalent cause of neglect in monastic discipline was the excessive intervention of the princes, benefactors and bishops into the internal life of the monasteries. We know that in the very early history of monasticism in Rus’, princes of their own will changed the rule and discipline of monasteries. When establishing monasteries, they laid out their statutes and kept certain privileges for themselves, such as appointing the superiors, controlling the monastery’s finances, accepting monks into the monastery, etc.


The Founding of the Basilian Order

After the Union of Brest, in 1607, St. Josaphat Kuntsevych and Joseph Veljamyn Ruts’kyj gathered a small number of young men in the monastery of the Blessed Trinity in Vilnius, and began to live a strict monastic life. Later, in 1617, when the monastic community grew to about sixty monks and five monasteries, Ruts’kyj, who in 1613 had become the Metropolitan, called the first Basilian Chapter and during the first session said to his monks: “Over a long period of time, I gathered (the rule of life) from the various writings of our saintly Father (Basil), and divided them into several main sections for easy understanding and memorization.” And then, in the same report, he explained to the monks that he had adapted the Rule of St. Basil “to our present life… which requires that we not only save our own souls, but also the souls of the laity of our rite, who are perishing… So we had to write some rules, which those past times did not require, but are necessary at present. But in this we did not depart from the holy doctrine of our saintly Father.”

These rules Ruts’kyj entitled: The Common Rules of Our Holy Father Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia.

These Common Rules were in the form of a short statute, in which the goal of monastic life was stated to be: becoming similar to God through love. And not only is it necessary to grow in love of God through prayer and labour, but also by word and example, drawing one’s neighbor towards God. To attain this goal, it is necessary to renounce the devil, the world and oneself, take up one’s cross and follow Christ through poverty, chastity and obedience, while living a life in common. All this is laid out in four short chapters.

Introducing the Common Rules, Metr. Rutskyj’ said: “Over a long period of time, I gathered (the rule of life) from the various writings of our saintly Father (Basil) and divided them into several main sections for easier understanding and memorization.” Some of the rules, he composed himself, not finding in St. Basil what was necessary for his day and age.

It is interesting to note that in the title of these Common Rules, Metr. Ruts’kyj hid behind the authority of St. Basil. He ascribes his Common Rules to St. Basil, because he was totally convinced everything was according to the Eastern monastic tradition. He ascribes the constitutions to St. Basil and calls him “our saintly Father,” “patriarch and founder of the Order.” Together with his monks, he celebrated the feast of St. Basil the Great in a special manner and desired to return to the zeal that prevailed at the time of St. Basil.

Until now, it was believed that these Rules had no Western influence. But when I compared them with the Jesuit constitutions (of 1606, which he employed), it proved that of the 68 rules Rutskyj had borrowed 10 from the Jesuits. In some other rules, there are some similarities, but it should remembered that St. Ignatius Loyola also modelled his work on St. Basil’s, and Jesuit novice masters were directly ordered to read the Rule of St. Basil the Great.

Later Basilians, who published the Common Rules, cited the writings of St. Basil beneath each rule. The peculiar attachment to St. Basil and the citing of his works remains with the Basilians to this day.

Some boldly assert that “no Eastern monks have even the right to call themselves Basilians” (so wrote the famous scholar, Jean Gribomont, New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 48), but many orders and congregations, who today call themselves Basilian, draw their spirituality from the writings of St. Basil and consider him as their spiritual Father. There are five Basilian Orders in the Eastern Church (plus one Latin).

Metropolitan Ruts’kyj in some way adapted these Common Rules for Basilian nuns in the Kyivan Metropolia. Those Rules were first published in 1771 in Polish, under the title: The Statutes of our Father St. Basil the Great and the Spiritual Lessons of the Blessed Memory Joseph Veljamyn Ruts’kyj, Metropolitan of all Rus’, printed in the Basilian Fathers’ Press in Minsk for the greater benefits of the Nuns of the same Order. The second edition of the Statutes, under the same title, appeared in Polotsk in 1807, and the third edition in 1854 in Rome, under the same title, for the monastery Macrina Myecheslavska, in Italian.

In 1897, when Metropolitan Sylvester Sembratovych appointed Hieromonk Andrew Sheptytsky as visitator for the nun’s convents, a kind of reform began. The number of Basilian nuns began to grow when Basilians monks were appointed as their masters of novices, confessors, and spiritual directors. There were various proposals to give them other Rules, such as those from different Eastern Orders or adapted from Latin Orders. In 1909, Metropolitan Sheptytsky translated our Statutes into Ukrainian, dividing them into sections, adding quotations from St. Basil to those rules of Metropolitan Ruts’kyj and printing it under the title: “Extract from the Rules of St. Basil the Great Father compiled by Veljamyn Rutsk’ij, Metropolitan of Rus’. Constitutions of the female OSBM monasteries of the Galician Province” (Zhovkva: Basilian Fathers’ Edition, 1909).

Metropolitan Andrew wrote about these rules:

At each step, I marveled at his (Ruts’kyj’s) great spirit and extraordinary talent. He knows St. Basil so well that certainly every day for many years he must have taken into his hands the works of this Great Patriarch… Of all the monastic writers I would say that perhaps only our Saintly Father Theodore Studite is greater than him… In a word the “Extract” (Ruts’kyj’s Rules) are a true gem… of Basilian literature from the 16th century to this day…


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