The Ecclesial Dimension of Monastic Life in the Thought of St. Basil the Great

 

Very Rev. Archimandrite Manel Nin, OSB

 

The subject of this conference, as suggested by its title—“The Ecclesial Dimension of Monastic Life in the Thought of St. Basil the Great”—is broad and, at the same time, slightly misleading, since St. Basil was a man immersed in the life of the Church, but he was not a monastic “legislator” in the same sense that we have been used to from the Middle Ages onwards. In his Rules, Basil sets out “parameters” for the evangelical behavior of celibates living in community, who we call “monks” and “nuns.” Basil does not use the term “monastic,” however, to describe this reality. For him, the recipients of his texts are “Christians” or simply “brethren,” not because Basil believed that only Christians were those who led a “monastic” or “consecrated” life (in the increasingly Imperial Church) but because he considered the Christian vocation to be only one in Christ and the Gospel to be lived within the Church’s communion.[1]

In proposing this topic on St. Basil’s labour within the Church, we cannot help but mention his relation to the ascetical movement centred around Eustathius of Sebaste and Messalianism, from which Basil certainly borrowed elements that were valid, such as the evangelical radicalism that marked this movement, but he also distances himself from the movement’s stress (almost radicalisation) on celibacy and prayer, condemning any type of fuga Ecclesiae, which valued the monastic experience over and above an ecclesial and sacramental life. For Basil, there is no chance of giving way to a Church that does not stand on the criteria of the Nicene Creed, and merely claims to be founded on an all-encompassing spiritual experience that reduces the value of ecclesial life. In a certain manner, Basil expresses—without citation—the canon of the Council of Gangra, which states: “If someone creates a separate church, outside of the Church, despising the Church and performing acts of the Church in the absence of a priest approved by a bishop, may he be anathema!”[2]

The relationship between monasticism and the local church is close, as is the relationship between bishops and monks. By this, I would like to indicate the intrinsic (but not always peaceful) relation that binds the beginning of monasticism to the local church. Anthony was committed in the fight against Arianism, travelling twice to Alexandria in support of Athanasius. Ephrem of Nisibis, although not a monk, was presented to the bishops of Nisibis—whom he served as a deacon—with the virtues that adorned ascetics and monks. In his Cathedral Homilies, Severus of Antioch was descibed as a bishop full of zeal for monastic life and labour. There is also the commitment of the Palestinian monks during the Christological controversies of the V-VI centuries. I can also cite many cases of monks that became bishops and the examples of bishops—not monastics prior to the episcopacy—who composed rules for monks: Athanasius of Alexandria within the Egyptian context, Philoxenus of Mabbug and Severus of Antioch within the Syrian context.

 

Biography

Basil was born around 330 in Pontus. He had a brilliant formation in rhetoric at Caesarea, Constantinople and Athens, where he met Gregory (Nazianzen) and was bound to him in deep friendship. Basil was baptized around 358. In Anessi, along with his mother, his brother Gregory (of Nyssa) and his sister Macrina, he began to lead a monastic life. These were the years in which Basil came to know the more radical ascetic movements such as Messalianism, together with its leader, Eustathius of Sebaste. Although he did not agree with every aspect of these rigorists; nevertheless, he had a great sympathy for them. After journeying through Syria and Egypt in order to discover how monasticism was practised there, he wrote his Moral Rules, a compendium of 1500 verses from the New Testament, by which he sought to illustrate the life and behaviour of Christians.

Together with Gregory of Nazianzus he composed the Philokalia of Origen, a collection of texts from the great Alexandrian father, mainly exegetical in character.

Despite difficulties (jealousy?) with his bishop, around 364/365 he was ordained a priest. During this period, he wrote the anti-Arian treatise Against Eunomius.

The ascetic communities of Cappadocia, which were prior to Basil, he supported them, while they mutually supported him. Often he was asked for explanations and his interpretation of the Gospels. A collection of his responses called the Asketikon was compiled. Two versions, one in Latin and the other in Syrian, have come down to us and are called the Small Asketikon, which is the first draft of these responses. The Latin version was known to St. Benedict. The Greek text was lost. There is a Greek version of the Great Asketikon, which is basically the Small Asketikon with a few chapters less and the addition of some other responses by the author. Within the Great Asketikon are both the Longer and Shorter Rules.

In 370, the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia died. The episcopate and the clergy of the region were in strong opposition to Basil’s nomination as bishop of the city, but he—together with a group of ascetics—gave precedence to his candidacy “with a force so convincing”—Gribomont notes—“that it scandalized his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, who was given more to mysticism and poetry, and not to such intrigues and passion for power.” The theological positions of Basil led to communion with Athanasius of Alexandria and the West.

During his episcopacy, he continued to labour as a preacher, as well as carry out other charitable deeds and social works. His Homilies on the Psalms are from the last period of his priesthood and the early part of his episcopacy. The Homilies on the Hexaemeron are from the last few years of his episcopacy.

Basil’s ecclesiology gives space to the great ascetic ideal, without falling into the extremes of the Messalians. In his correspondence, Basil appears as a person engaged in seeking full communion between churches. Even at the dogmatic level, Basil tried to always create communion, without imposing any positions that were not deemed essential. Around 373, he wrote the tractate On the Holy Spirit.

He died on 1 January 379, at the age of fifty.

 

St. Basil the Great and Monastic Life

We should ask ourselves whether, for Basil, the monastic life existed as something special within the life of the Christian churches and what was its essence. A complete answer to these questions are not found in Basil’s works, although in the Rules, written for the Christian brotherhood, there are purely monastic aspects and, in some of his letters (to Gregory of Nazianzus and to the nun Theodora), we find a true forma vitae monasticae.

For Basil, the foundation of Christian life in a monastic brotherhood is virginity; celibacy (parthenia, agamìa)[3] and a stable life together in a fraternal community (koinonia)[4], sealed by a profession to be faithful. Another important theme in Basilian monastic literature is renunciation (apotaghè), which allows the brother/monk to enter a life according to God, by renouncing the devil, worldly goods and eventually even himself,[5] and, thus, becoming like unto Christ, who being rich became poor. Configuration to Christ, by embracing a life according to His Gospel, is a theme that is very present in Basil’s works.[6]

Another Basilian theme is that of vigilance (he created a new word—ameteoriston or a state of non-distraction). With an inner state of disipation one cannot live in the presence of God and obtain the union of a heart dwelling in the constant mindfulness of God.[7] Through this vigilance a Christian and, therefore, the monk, becomes a temple of God, abiding in Him, through the constant memory of God. The monk firmly fixed in meditation and contemplation of God, wastes no time in distractions[8] and progresses with perseverance in the Lord. This is the setting for a life of celibacy.

Basil’s “monastic” way was born and developed in Annesi. In that place, Basil tried to coinvolve his friend, Gregory Nazianzus, who preferred, however, only “part time” monasticism.[9] The Basilian community was located in a solitary place, not easy to find. For Basil it was the only place in the world isolated enough to protect the community from prying visitors.[10]

Did Basil guide or merely inspire the monastic communities? Normally, it was a double community: brothers and sisters.[11] Basil welcomed members who came from the Eustathian movement, correcting their excesses and emphasizing community life—in full ecclesial communion—opposed to any individualistic tendencies. The brothers led a life of work, prayer and service to the poor in fellowship with one another and in accord with the Gospel. There was manual labour[12] in the community and communal moments of prayer.[13] The community was headed by a superior. The model of his community is that of the early church in Jerusalem, with which Basil was almost obsessed. The members of the community were not called monks, but brothers. For Basil, the vocation to celibacy and communal life were the sole purposes of evangelical life. In fact, only the Moral Rules (a collection of New Testament texts) have the name of the Rule and the rule for a Christian is the Word of God, which shapes his life. The Ascetikon was the result of fraternal visits Basil made— while still a priest—to various monastic communities.

Basil proposes to the brothers and sisters of his community the imitation of Christ—the one Lord. Love of God and neighbour are lived out in the Basilian community. The communal dimension is essential to help one another in the imitation of Christ. There is also the aspect of obedience to God, which becomes concrete in the obedience of the brothers to one another and to the superior of the brotherhood.

 

St. Basil the Great and Prayer[14]

One aspect that deserves to be emphasized is Basil’s conception of Christian prayer. For the Bishop of Caesarea it is an attitude of Christian joy and  thanksgiving, in a life subject to the will of God. In the Wider Rules, Basil consecrated to prayer question 37, and—one can say— he does so in a polemical context as a response to a query on work and prayer. Basil gives us a presentation of the Byzantine Divine Office, especially during the daylight hours. Starting from the Pauline text of 1 Thess.  5, 17, the choice of certain hours are linked to a theme of the gospel of Christ:

– morning prayer in praise of God’s gifts;

– prayer at the third hour in rememberance of the gift of the Holy Spirit;

– prayer at the sixth hour is based on Psalm 54:18;

– prayer at the ninth hour is based on Peter and John in Acts 3: 1;

– evening prayer in thanksgiving for the day;

– at the beginning of the night, Psalm 90;

– at dawn, at the start of a new day.

Basil has a predilection for common prayer. This is marked by the presence and use of the psalms. His employment of the psalms is “thematic.” It is not a lectio continua as in the monastic psalter.

 

St. Basil the Great and the Church of His Time

The Church in the East, during Basil’s time, can be understood as beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325. During the fourth century, the acceptance or rejection of this council defines the various Christian churches. Basil was a Christian bishop faithful to Nicaea; but also a man who sought unity.

I would like to divide this section into two interconnected points. The first is the movement of Eustathius of Sebaste and his relationship with Basil and his asceticism. The second an analysis of the Church at the time of Basil.[15]

First, as regards Eustathius, who was the founder of the monastic movement in the region of Armenia and Pontus. His rigorous and evangelical radicalism attracted Basil and his family as disciples. As bishop of Sebaste, Eustathius organized centers for the poor and sick under the direction of his disciples (monks!), and even sent to Basil—when the latter became bishop of Caesarea—some of his monks to help run the center that Basil opened in his diocese. Eustathius was a spiritual father to Basil. Moreover, the monasticism of Eustathius was marked, on the one hand, by a rigorism and, on the other, an ecclesial form of “social work,” aiding the sick and needy. What were the excesses of the Eustathian rigorists? The synod of Gangra, as we mentioned above: “forbids wives to leave her family and children under the pretense of asceticism; prohibits slaves from running away from their masters [under the same pretext]; requires the observance of the Church’s terms as regards fasting; forbids the celebration of the Eucharist in private homes (hence, the liturgical celebration is always something of the Church, never private); condemns those who rejected the celebrations performed by married priests.”[16] Basil appreciated the thirst for an evangelical radicalism as he witnessed in Eustathius. Basil’s mother, his sister Macrina and his brother Naucrautus founded in Pontus two ascetic groups, male and female, who followed many of the principles (rules) of Eustathius, concerning poverty, a life of prayer, community and charity to the poor. Not far from his mother’s place, Basil founded his community in Annesi. Basil, however, is not uncritical of Eustathius. He balances the thirst for evangelical radicalism in Eustathius with a desire for a church that is more faithful to the Gospel, refusing any kind of sectarianism, that is a fuga ecclesiae and an over-ascetical enthusiasm.[17] Basil will always be for the Church a man of peace and communion, sympathetic to Eustathian enthusiasm, but always seeking ecclesial communion.

Secondly, as regards the institutional Church during Basil’s time; i.e., around the year 360, in which various councils debated the question of fidelity to Nicaea I, Basil suffered from the behaviour of many bishops who were not always clear about the rule of evangelical faith. These were the years in which Basil as a priest preached charity in his church and solidarity of the rich towards the poor.

In 370, Basil was elected bishop of Caesarea, an election that was contested precisely because of his fidelity to the Word of God and his life based upon the Gospel.[18] As bishop, Basil was a true father to the poor, as he was already during his presbyterate in Caesarea. He condemned all usurious activities that were very common in his time. In his episcopal see, he founded a center of assistance, where over and above the charity it offered, it also provided education and culture. Basil showed a solicitude for all the churches. He was a man of theological erudition, of pastoral experience, of moral and spiritual authority. Basil was a bastion in defense of the Nicene Creed. His model was the church in Jerusalem as exemplified in the Word of God.

 

 Bibliography

Amand de Mendieta, E. L’ascèse monastique de saint Basile, Maredsous 1949.

Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, Qiqajon, Bose 1993.

Clarke, W.K.L., The Ascetic Wotrks of St. Basil, London 1925.

Courtone, Y. Un témoin du IV siècle. Saint Basile et son temps d’après sa correspondence, París 1973.

Cremaschi, L., (a cura di), Nella tradizione basiliana. Costituzioni ascetiche. Ammonizione a un figlio spirituale, Qiqajon, Bose 1997.

Fedwick, P.J., The Church and the Charisma ofr Leadership in Basil of Caesarea, Toronto 1979.

Fedwick, P.J., (ed. by) Basil of Caesarea: Christian, Humanist, Ascetic. A Sixteen-Hundredth Anniversary Symposium, I-II, Toronto 1981.

Gain, B., L’église de Cappadoce au IVe siècle d’après la correspondance de Basile de Césarée (330-379), OCA 225, Roma 1985.

Gribomont, J. Saint Basile, Evangile et Eglise. Spiritualité Orientale 36 (2 vol), Bellefontaine 1984.

Pouchet, J.R., Basile le Grand et son univers d’amis d’après sa correspondence, Roma 1992.

Wagner, M., St. Basil. Ascetical Works, New York 1950.

Zizioulas, I.,  L’essere ecclesiale, Qiqajon, Bose 2007.


[1] E. Bianchi (presentation) in Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, (Bose: Qiqajon, 1993), 10.

[2] Ibid., 11.

[3] Wider Rules (WR) 15; Cf., Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, 129.

[4] WR 14; Cf., Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, 123-124.

[5] WR 8; Cf., Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, 107ff.

[6] WR 8; Cf., Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, 112-113; also WR 43, 143ff.

[7] WR 5; Cf., Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, 88ff.

[8] Shorter Rules (SR) 306; Cf., Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, 414-415.

[9] Cf., L. Cremaschi, (Introduction) in Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, 15.

[10] Cf., L. Cremaschi, (Introduction) in Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, 18.

[11] WR 33, n. 496; Cf., Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole.

[12] WR 38; Cf., Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole.

[13] WR 37; Cf., Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole.

[14] Cf., J. gribomont, La prière selon saint Basile,  in J. Gribomont, Saint Basile, Evangile et Eglise, vol. II, 426ff.

[15] Cf., L. Cremaschi, (Introduction) in Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, 23ff.

[16] Cf., L. Cremaschi, (Introduction) in Basilio di Cesarea, Le regole, 26.

[17] Cf., Ibid., 27.

[18] Cf., Ibid., 36.

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