Monasticism as a Model of Baptismal Life in Service of Society

Rev. Dr. Ivan Kaszczak

St Basil the Great formulated his thoughts based on both pagan literature and Sacred Scripture. Within Greek literature he finds the following practical directive regarding service: everyone is called to serve and ought to look to others for leadership if initiative and perception are lacking in oneself. This is Hesiod’s thought as quoted by Basil: “Best is the man who sees at once what must be done, and excellent is he who follows what is well indicated by others, but he who is suited for neither is useless in all respects.[1]

In Sacred Scripture, St. Basil, like many before him, would find nourishment in those noble thoughts first planted in Greek literature: “Since, in the divinely inspired Scriptures many directions are set forth which must be strictly observed by all who earnestly wish to please God, I desire to say, necessarily in the form of a brief reminder, a few words based upon the knowledge which I have derived from the divinely inspired Scriptures themselves.”[2]

Sacred Scripture reinforced this vigilance of hand and heart necessary for one who is called to care for the vineyard—the field of the Master. There is but one Bridegroom whom all await with vigilance and enough oil to keep the light burning. Happy the one whom the Master finds at work.

From the first book of Sacred Scripture, we are instructed by both statement and question: “It is not good for man to be alone. And, Am I my brother’s keeper?” Basil would reflect these inspired thoughts in his own paradigms: “If you live alone whose feet will you wash? AND The bread you possess in excess does not belong to you but to the hungry; the clothes you keep in your closets belong only to the naked; the shoes that rot in your cupboards belong to the barefoot; the money you have stored in your cellars belongs to your brother who is in need. Know that you have wronged all those you could have helped.”[3]

From the first few chapters of Genesis, Basil sees that creation itself is an act of charity: “God so loved the world… that he not only created it once but made all things new in Christ (en Christo),” whereby we are a new creation. This primary paradigm of charity reminds us of the love necessary for true charity and that the underlying gift of charity is “the one who gives and is given”  (Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom). The Eucharist calls us to be poured out and to be broken for the salvation of the world. We are to be poured out to refresh and broken to be shared. True charity restores the unity of creation. Orphans are reminded they are family.

Our salvation and life are dependent upon our mutual relationships. Charity is the guide for our relationships with one another: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive” Charity makes me my brother’s keeper. My ability to help is a grace I have received and the help I give is simply the transfer of what was loaned to me as a caretaker or steward: “It is a marvelous thing to love one’s neighbor, to nourish the poor, to aid human misery.”[4] In the deepest sense when I give I simply return what the Master has given to the person who needs it.

The monastic life is a reflection of what the Christian life should be. For Basil, one can say that monastic life and Christian life are synonymous. The monastic is involved in society and is called to be even more vigilant than others “in the world.” “He also emphasizes that all men are equal and that their concern should be to limit the inequality that prevails in the world. As he writes, we must recognize natural equality and consider as our equals even those who seem to be somehow inferior.”[5]

Monastic life in the East has retained the unity between monastic and Christian living. In the East, monasticism has retained a great unity. It did not experience the development of different kinds of apostolic life as in the West. The various expressions of monastic life, from the strictly cenobitic, as conceived by Pachomius or Basil, to the rigorously eremitic, as with Anthony or Macarius of Egypt, correspond more to different stages of the spiritual journey than to the choice between different states of life. In any event, whatever form they take, they are all based on monasticism.           

Moreover, in the East, monasticism was not seen merely as a separate condition, proper to a precise category of Christians, but rather as a reference point for all the baptized, according to the gifts offered to each by the Lord. It was presented as a symbolic synthesis of Christianity.

When God’s call is total, as it is in the monastic life, then the person can reach the highest point that culture and spirituality are able to express. This is even more true for the Eastern churches, for which monasticism was an essential experience and still today flourishes within them. Once the persecution was over, hearts could be freely raised to heaven. The monastery is the prophetic place where creation becomes praise of God and the precept of concretely lived charity becomes the ideal of human coexistence. It is where the human being seeks God without limitation or impediment, becoming a reference point for all people, bearing them in his heart and helping them to seek God.

Pope John Paul continues to speak of the feminine influence in the formulation of Christian service. He emphasizes how necessary it is for women to rejoice in what they have to offer the church and the uniqueness of their gift. Their vigilance and concern for Christian charity provide the world with a joyful witness to the unity of the Christian family. Indeed, the entire church should rejoice in the gift that women are and continue to be for the sake of the kingdom.

I would also like to mention the splendid witness of nuns in the Christian East. This witness has offered an example of giving full value in the Church to what is specifically feminine, even breaking through the mentality of the time. During recent persecutions, especially in Eastern European countries, when many male monasteries were forcibly closed, female monasticism kept the torch of the monastic life burning. The nuns’ charism, with its own specific characteristics, is a visible sign of that motherhood of God to which Sacred Scripture often refers.

Therefore, I will look to monasticism in order to identify those values which I feel are very important today for expressing the contribution of the Christian East to the journey of Christ’s Church towards the Kingdom.[6]

The biblical precept, “Help carry one another’s burdens. In this way you will fulfill the law of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 6.2) reminds us of the link between charity and worship. This also serves to remind us that asceticism/monasticism and the Christian life have charity as its method and its goal. One cannot attain what was called in the past “personal” holiness if charity towards others has grown cold. The ascetic, whether monastic or not, must serve others in order to be Christian. Sometimes even work must be viewed as an impediment if it distracts us from service. “He should not busy himself with excessive work, and thus overstep the bounds of sufficiency, as the apostle says, ‘Having food and wherewith to be covered, with this we are content’ (I Tim. 6:8); because an abundance which goes beyond necessity gives an appearance of avarice, and avarice has the condemnation of idolatry.”[7]

These simple reminders are given by Basil to stave off egotistical manifestations of Christianity that tend to appear as solitary victories rather than communal achievements. The danger can lie in focusing on ourselves and forgetting that our commission is not simply to be saved:“what a man can give in exchange for his soul.” We must focus on others. My brother and sister are not impediments but the road to salvation. “No one goes to heaven by himself” is an ancient Christian maxim that reminds us of the role of Christian charity in salvation.

This care for brothers and sisters is essential for Basilian monasticism. The monastery that is insulated is lost. There is an old song that concludes “I am a rock, I am an island, and a rock feels no pain and an island never cries.” The monastic who flees from tears and pain abandons one of the most fertile fields for salvation and the purpose of monastic existence: “Despite the opposition from civil authorities, St Basil continued steadfastly in his charitable projects, keeping as his ideal that Christian hospitality is an essential duty of the religious life. His monks were instructed to care not only for their own personal perfection, but to embrace the needs of all suffering humanity, thus leading them by the preservation of the body to the salvation of their immortal souls.”[8]

By way of illustration allow me talk about a picture on display in many Christian churches, and in fact in the parish where I now serve. It is a beautiful depiction of Christ the Good Shepherd. It portrays Christ as the shepherd who cares for the lost sheep. The young lamb is often depicted as lost and weak among the thickets of temptation and then cradled in the loving arms of the Lord.

I think there should be by contrast a companion depiction of the lost and angry sheep. It could possibly show Our Lord lovingly attempting to help a lamb that wants to be left alone. Biting and fighting the Lord it only wants to be left alone in its misery. This type of depiction, along with The Good Shepherd would more accuratelyreflect what is often found in the world of charitable actions. There are some who want our help and others who want to be left alone.

The reason I mention this is because Basil had much to overcome in his charitable works. His help was not always desired nor did the government always cooperate with him. “St Basil’s charitable institution developed so rapidly and on such a vast scale that it became the target of much slander, as well as concern with the civil authorities, obliging him to defend himself in a letter to the governor of Cappadocia.”[9]

The difficulties associated with charitable works are meant to be incentives to overcome what damage has been caused by lack of charity. In this manner, although we are hurt, we also walk in the way of the Lord, Who liturgically asks the following question in Matins on Good Friday: “O my people, what have I done to you? Says the Lord, In what way have I grieved you? I have given light to those who were blind; I have cleansed the people with leprosy; and I have made the paralyzed man rise from his pallet. O my people, what have I done to you? And what do you give me in return? For manna you give me gall, and vinegar for water from the rock; for my love you nail me to the Cross.”

When we encounter these and other difficulties we know that we are on the correct path. Our goal is to transform the world and our only enemy is sin. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a difficult maxim to accept when the sinner is causing you pain. It appears easier to afflict the sinner than to realize that they suffer from an affliction called sin. This ability to transform individuals and society in the midst of opposition gives vitality to Christian life: “Asceticism and monasticism were one way to transform a wasteland into a civilized urban environment. Charity was another. It is in this sense that Gregory of Nazianzus praised Basil for his foundation of a charitable institution, comprising a multitude of buildings for different purposes, as a ‘new city’, named after its founder, ‘Basileias’. Other family members did the same: during a famine, Peter, the youngest brother of Basil and Gregory, provided food to the needy who had flocked to the region of the family’s ascetic retreat, with the effect that ‘because of the crowds of visitors, the desert seemed to have become a city.’”[10]

One of the gifts for he who performs charitable works is a cultural relevance. They become relevant because they are involved in life. For a monastic community, this is like a new infusion of energy and resolve. St Basil also had this ability to become relevant because of his good deeds: “As a protector of the poor and disenfranchised, the bishop became the advocate of a large segment of the population.”[11]

Charity, in spite of many obstacles, must care about the physical, spiritual and social aspects of humanity. The monastic can never be satisfied, like the rich man who ignored Lazarus. Nor can the example and injunction of the Lord to “wash one another’s feet” be ignored. Basil attempted to do all this yet he was also mistaken about certain social issues. We are all victims of our times and are tied to many assumptions and suppositions. For this reason, a prophetic voice is always necessary to stir reason and warm the heart to action.

As an example of Basil’s inability to look beyond the times and place himself in the shoes, or lack of shoes, of the suffering, let us look at his assessment of slavery. He realizes it is wrong, yet does little to change it. “Basil’s position is, therefore, clear: he is not for slavery, but does not think it is worth the trouble to do anything about abolishing it. He has more important things to worry about.”[12] This may appear harsh but we should be vigilant to the fact that it is not always easy to see expediency as a way to bypass Christian charity. That is where the prophetic voice can speak to us and say “Let he who has ears hear, let he who has eyes see.

In this brief analysis of Christian charity we have observed Basil’s reliance on scripture as a light—as a programme of Christian work. We have also seen the symbiotic relationship between the Christian and Monastic life. Finally, in spite of the many practical difficulties encountered in the works of Christian charity, it is indispensable for salvation and transformation.

St Basil the Great gives abundant witness to the necessity to both think and act as a Christian: “The Christian ought to think thoughts worthy of his heavenly vocation, and conduct himself worthily of the Gospel of Christ.”[13] By necessity this means thinking of others and how society functions both on an individual and a communal level. We need to focus on both individuals and the structures within which individuals live.

Keeping all this in mind we come to the conclusion that the process of divinization happens within the Liturgy and within society. Taking this into account, the monastic reinvigorates the concept that we are all “People of God” bound together by a common Father and a common destiny. We are called to be light, leaven, and yeast. All these elements permeate what they affect and have a positive and sometimes dramatic effect. We are called to abandon evil—to be dead to it. We are also called to be a transformative element in this world and to reclaim it for Christ. This happens most effectively when we love the world as Christ loves us.

“Participation in Trinitarian life takes place through the liturgy and in a special way through the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the glorified body of Christ, the seed of immortality. In divinization, and particularly in the sacraments, Eastern theology attributes a very special role to the Holy Spirit: through the power of the Spirit who dwells in man deification already begins on earth; the creature is transfigured and God’s kingdom inaugurated.

The teaching of the Cappadocian fathers on divinization passed into the tradition of all the Eastern Churches and is part of their common heritage. This can be summarized in the thought already expressed by St Irenaeus at the end of the Second Century: God passed into man so that man might pass over to God. This theology of divinization remains one of the achievements particularly dear to Eastern Christian thought. This sense of the inexpressible divine reality is reflected in liturgical celebration, where the sense of mystery is so strongly felt by all the faithful of the Christian East.”[14]

[1] R. J. Defarri, (Editor) Saint Basil: The Letters Vol IV—Address to Young Men on Reading Greek Literature, (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 381.

[2] Ibid, vol 1, Letter XXII, 129.

[3] I. Karayannopoulos, St Basil’s Social Activity: Principles and Praxis,386.

[4] Sr. M. J. Roman, OSBM The Flaming Pillar of Cappadocian Caeserea,(Rome: 1963), 45.

[5] Karayannopoulos, 384.

[6] Orientale Lumen, n. 9.

[7] Letter XXII, 139.

[8] Roman, 48.

[9] Ibid., 47.

[10] C. Rapp, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity,(University of California Press: Berkeley 2005), 113.

[11] Ibid., 225.

[12] Karayannopoulos, 386.

[13] Letter XXII, 131.

[14] Orientale Lumen, n. 4.


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