The Word of God in the Life and Works of St Basil: Chastity

Very Rev. Basil Koubetch, OSBM—Protoarchimandrite (2004-2012)

Virginity—Chastity

 Introduction

In his ascetical works, Saint Basil does not give separate rules[1] or specific teachings about virginity and monastic chastity. Researchers have reached various conclusions about the causes of his “silence” on this theme of Christian asceticism. Not all of those findings are justifiable, especially when the researcher pays no heed to the weight that Holy Scripture plays in St. Basil’s ascetical writings, nor observes that although he did not answer a single question concerning virginity, nonetheless, he gave valuable lessons about the behavior of persons consecrated to God in the monastic state of life.

One possible reason is that at that time committing oneself to celibacy and monastic chastity was an integral part the conscious and voluntary acceptance of monastic life.[2] In the beginning, there was no clear vow of chastity as there is now, but rather whoever entered the monastery—by that very act— renounced marriage. The consecrated life and the unmarried (¢γαμ…α) state have always been inseparable. In St. Basil’s works purity of body and spirit were derived from the more general principles of mortification, recollection of spirit and the renunciation of oneself.

The historical and ecclesiastical environment could have been another reason for St. Basil’s “silence” on virginity. “There is no doubt that Basil valued virginity—for it was also his state, but rather on account of the Eustachians’s exagerated enthusiasm and over-attention to this matter, he refrained from speaking on this topic.”[3] You cannot help but wonder and take note of the reasons given by this author: “Instead, his married brother and later bishop of Nyssa, Gregory, wrote a separate work On Virginity, sometimes over-praising it, probably because he never experienced all the difficulties that Basil—as a celibate—felt.”[4]. St. Basil—an excellent anthropologist—knew and respected human nature with all of its inclinations. He also knew how to channel those inclinations. Thus, to conclude that his own experience of the difficulties of celibacy was the cause for our Cappadocian teacher’s silence on this subject, in truth is hard to believe. In fact, St. Basil, on the theme of virginity and monastic chastity, is not really silent—as will be shown. For entering the monastic state was also the acceptance of virginity—a type of “vow,” which embraced all the other monastics vows.[5]

Examining Basil’s ascetical doctrine[6]—which is addressed to all Christians, we do not find special rules on virginity mainly because we already have Scripture—the only rule for Christian life. “In relation to virginity and monastic chastity, St. Basil followed Church tradition and Christian custom.”[7] Convinced that man—according to his nature—is able to love God,[8] and that God unites Himself to those who love Him, and that it is possible on earth to live a common life on the model of the first Christian community, St. Basil offers the believer valuable and relevant instruction from Holy Scripture. This includes guidance on relations with persons of the opposite sex (regardless of their state of life), on relations within the community (both older and younger members) and also relations with those who do not belong to the monastic community. Following Church tradition, he did not see the need to repeat the answers provided by the Synod of Gangra on the specific problems that were caused by the Eustachians.[9] St. Basil’s teaching on virginity and monastic chastity is simply based on Scripture, especially God’s Command­ments (Ex. 20, 1-17; Dt. 5,6-21), which include[10] the so-called evangelical coun­sels (Mt 19, 27-29, Luke, 18, 28-30; I Cor. 7, 25-35[11]). Insofar as St. Basil “gave Sacred Scripture as the norm for a formal monastic rule,”[12] then this most especially applies to virginity and monastic chastity. Thus, we can draw out his doctrine on this theme from the following selections:

1. The Reception of Married Persons into the Monastery (WR 12) [13]

To answer this query, St. Basil begins with I Cor. 7, 4: in marriage, neither the wife nor the husband “rules over his/her own body.” Thus, they can be received into monastic life only when it is done by mutual consent. In case of a disagreement on the part of the husband or the wife, he recalls the words of the Apostle Paul: “Godhas called usto livein peace” (I Cor. 7,15) and he commands that the Lord’s words be heeded, “If any one comes tome anddoes not hate his ownfather and mother andwifeand children andbrothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he can not be mydisciple” (Lk 14.26). In this short response, St. Basil twice recalls the obligation to obey God above all else.

2. Relations with Family (WR 32)[14]

Basing himself on the Acts of the Apostles 4, 32 —“the community of those who believed were of one heartand soul, and no onesaid that any of these things which he possessed was his own, but they had everythingin common”—our teacher emphasizes that “the word of God forbids brothers from sayingthis is mineand that is yours.” Christian parents and relatives of a monk belonging to the community, should apply the words of Christ: “For whoeverdoes the will ofmyFather inheaven ismy brother, and sister, andmother” (Mt. 12, 50). St. Basil does not advise accepting relatives ​​who do not adhere to the law of God, because it will not be helpful to them and can spiritually harm the monk. He based this position on the following biblical texts: “Whodoes not love medoes notkeepmy words” (Jn. 14, 24) and “What partnershiphasrighteousness and iniquity? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” (II Cor. 6, 14-15). All conversations with those who do not belong to the monastic community and are an occasion of sin or stir up memories from one’s sinful past should be avoided. St. Basil recommends that conversation with relatives ​​be held only by those monks who can “wisely and constructively converse with them.”[15]

3. Relations with Nuns (WR 32)[16]

St. Basil advises that all relations to one’s neighbour occur “in accord­ance with God’s commandments.” Having renounced marriage, the monk has “even more clearlyrenounced all worldly cares,” to which the Apostle states: “the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife” (I Cor. 7, 33). When helping nuns with a variety of spiritual and material matters, St. Basil advises: appoint the appropriatepersons (who posssess pietyand respectin all mattersand who will be faithfulandseriousfor the task at hand), who will fullfill everything in an orderly andpolite manner, while settinga goodexample for allin presence of witnesses (Mt 18.16) and, thus, avoiding the slightest shadow of suspicion. Our teacher bases his thoughts on Psalm 111, 5, which states that the man who fears God: “manages his affairsin truth,” adding that “this order of action should be obeyed not only in mutual matters between monks and nuns, but also in matters between even two male or two female monasteries.” Hence, based on I Cor. 10, 29 —“Why should my libertybe determined by another man’sscruples?“—he commands that our deeds should “not give anyone an occasionof sin throughsuspicion.”

 

4. A Virgin Who Sinned and St. Basil Converted through God’s Word[17]

St. Basil wrote to a young virgin, who sinned by renouncing her vows and marrying. I will show how his lengthy letter is entirely based on Sacred Scripture. The movement of the entire letter flows from the introductory words: “the Word of God is not fettered” (II Tim. 2, 9), as cited in the opening section. The letter consists of six parts and each of them has its own content, which recalls the words of God addressed to a virgin who has fallen into sin. By the “unfettered” Word of God, St. Basil condemns sin, rebukes the sinner and points out the way to salvation, helping her grasp that God’s infinite mercy is for all whose hearts are contrite.

Part one: a lamentation over the “true death” that girl suffered by falling into such a grievous sin. “Today, they see the bride of the Lord herself, whose head is Christ, boldly committing adultery.” St. Basil quotes the prophet Jeremiah (8, 23) and Isaiah (22, 2), condemning the shameful crime by the words of the Law, “They have pronounced their prohibition of old You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” (Dt. 5, 21) and the Gospel, “Whosoever looks on a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery already with her in his heart” (Mt. 5, 28). He also employs the words of St. John the Baptist concerning Herodias, “It is not lawful for you to have her” (Mt. 14, 4).

Part two: the saint rebukes her, by reminding her of her fall and the neglect of the honor that she once enjoyed, when living in accordance with her monastic profession, which she now denies; and reminding her of everything that she lost on earth and in heaven through her fall into lawlessness.

Part three: represents how shameful a fall it was, hard and malicious, because she betrayed the heavenly Bridegroom by marrying after her profession of vows: “taking the members of Christ and made them the members of a harlot” (cf. I Cor. 6, 15), “she has revolted from God, her Saviour, and yielded her members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity” (cf. Rom. 6, 19). Other biblical texts cited: Jer. 2, 10-13, Os. 2, 13.

Part four: he rebukes her lover, who is particularly guilty in that he took a living body consecrated to God, the body in which dwells the soul, created in the image of God. He not only defiled a virgin consecrated to Christ by her vows, but dishonoured the very spirit of the virgin. Cited texts: Dt. 17, 6, Heb. 10, 29, Mk 14, 21, Mt. 18, 7.

Part five: St. Basil gives the sinner remedies, such as the fear of God, meditation on death, God’s judgment and the eternity of hell for the unrepentant. Cited biblical texts: Jer. 8, 7, 3.7, 8, 22, Ps. 49, 3; Jn. 5, 29; Dan. 7, 9-10; Mk. 9, 44-48; Mt. 8, 12, Lk. 13, 28. It is worth quoting our teacher as he refers to the whole of Scripture, as a hospital for the body and soul: “You might indeed find many remedies for evil in Scripture, many medicines to save you from destruction and lead you to health; the mysteries of death and resurrection, the sentences of terrible judgment and everlasting punishment; the doctrines of repentance and of remission of sins; all the countless illustrations of conversion, the piece of money, the sheep, the son who wasted his substance with harlots, who was lost and was found, who was dead and alive again. Let us not use these remedies for ill; by these means let us heal our soul.” Certainly this passage is a good summary of Basilian biblical spirituality.

In the last part, the author shows sinners the way of repentance and conversion, reminding them that God is infinitely merciful and always forgives those who return to Him through repentance. “There is, then, a way of salvation, if we will… The great Physician of souls, Who is the ready liberator, not of you alone, but of all who are enslaved by sin, is ready to heal your sickness.” Our teacher focuses on the merciful God in two images: the Good Shepherd (Lk. 15, 1-7), Who leaves the sheep in search of the one lost, and the Merciful Father (Lk. 15, 11-32), Who “stands and awaits your return from your wandering. Only come back, and while you are yet afar off, He will run and fall upon your neck, and, now that you are cleansed by repentance, will enwrap you in embraces of love.” Other biblical texts cited: Ps. 94, 6; Mt. 11, 29; Is. 25, 8; Ps. 144, 14; Is. 1, 18, Mt. 9, 12-13.

 

5. The Importance of Temperance (γκρατεία)

Knowing the strength but also the weaknesses and tendencies of human nature, St. Basil clearly teaches: “Nothing gives such a victory and domination over the body as temperance.”[18] This gift of the Holy Spirit (see Gal. 5, 23) is required in various concrete circumstances of life—“beatings, imprisonments, tulmults, labors, watching, hunger, by purity…” (II Cor. 6, 5-6).[19]

St. Basil gives an excellent lesson in a letter to the monk Urbicius[20] concerning temperance, which is the fruit of participating in God’s nature. This virtue is required “not only… for carnal lust, but also for all other things that the soul desires…”[21] He quotes Holy Scripture, but also offers as an example the Son of God, who in His human body “appeared to be continency.”[22]

It can be concluded that the ascetical teachings of St. Basil on temperance covers all the virtues,[23] and thus also the virtue of purity.

6. The Basilian Tradition (An Addition)

Based on various studies which conclude that it is difficult to attribute the authorship of the so-called “ascetical constitutions”[24] to St. Basil, nevertheless, they seem to faithfully convey his teaching in two ways: firstly, by the effort of the author to ground monastic asceticism in Holy Scripture and, secondly, the constitutions do not deviate from the balanced approach of St. Basil’s anthropological writings. It is worth taking into account a few thoughts from them regarding our topic.

6.1. Recollection of Thought

How to fight against distraction? How, in particular, to overcome the thoughts that arise from carnal lusts? According to the teaching of St. Basil,[25] the need to maintain constant mindfulness of God is based on the Lord’s teaching “The eye is the light of the body” (Mt 6, 22), drawing attention to the “eye of the soul.” If the soul focuses on its duties and is concentrated on God and what is pleasing to Him, in this manner it overcomes the passions and calms the body.[26]  Thus, the body in itself is not bad, since it depends upon the guidance provided by the spiritual eye. “When the soul focuses on higher things, the body is not aroused by the passions.”[27] Regardless of the place where a monk lives, his behavior stems from the content of his thoughts.[28]

6.2. Relations with Women[29]

Avoiding any tendency of a Platonic dualism, the author takes into account the nature of both men and women. His ascetical view is based on Prov. 6, 27-28: “Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk upon hot coals and his feet not be scorched?” He knows well that human nature is easily aroused by the passions. “One must flee from conver­sations and the friendship of women, when there is no necessity, and if there is such a need, then one must guard against them as from fire and separate oneself from them as soon as possible.” That a monk “is not hurt by frequent conver­sations with women,” the author simply does not believe and explains that “such a monk possesses not the nature of a man, but rather is a strange creature tottering on edge of both sexes, possessing the nature of a eunuch.” Based on Sirach 20, 4, “Like a eunuch’s desire to violate a maiden,”  he attributes even to eunuchs no “lack of desire.” Even if frequent conversation does not harm them, the author urges them to take into account that it can cause “for many—scandal,”[30] because “is not easy to convince others that it is merely so.” He drew attention to the fact that careless talk or behavior of a man can spiritually damage a woman by “spoiling her internal virginity, the sweetest to the Bridegroom, through immodest thoughts.” At the end of this lessson, he makes a final plea: “We must take care of and pray for all of the opposite sex, especially for those struggling for angelic purity, since they are walking along the same path as us, but careful in conversing with them, so as not to arouse the passions that we have renounced and left behind.”

Conclusions: How Does a Basilian Live Out Chastity?

1. By being faithful to his/her unmarried-monastic state of life and by being chaste according to the rule of Holy Scripture, the teaching of Christ’s Church and the Holy Fathers.

2. By having an ecclesial understanding and respect for married persons, for the married state of life and for families.

3. When cooperating or working with persons of the opposite sex, by being faithful and recollected in performing the task at hand, by trying to do everything in an orderly and polite manner, by setting a good example, preferably by labouring in the presence of witnesses, so as to avoid the slightest suspicion or stain upon one’s reputation (cf. WR 33).

4. Following the example of the Incarnate Son of God by refraining from anything that could damage the purity of one’s body or soul.

5. By nurturing an evangelical love for God and neighbour (to the community and the Church); by avoiding overly-emotional ties to individual persons; by avoiding “cliques” within the community and an over-attachment to one’s own family and relatives.


[1] One must remember that the so called “Wider Rules” and “Shorter Rules” of St. Basil in reality do not bear the title of “Rules” in the canonical and technical meaning of religious legislation. Cf. M. G. Murphy, St. Basil and Monasticism, Patristic studies, vol XXV, (Washington: The Catholic University of America, 1930), 97.

[2] Cf. Murphy, 31.

[3] P. J. Fediuk, Святий Василій Великий і християнське аскетичне життя (St. Basil the Great and the Christian Ascetical Life), Записки ЧСВВ, серія ІІ, секція І, (Рим-Торонто, 1978), 114. The Eustachians were mistaken especially in their condemnation of the married state of life. They broke up many a marriage and, thus, increased the number of adulteries. They rejected married priests and lived as virgins only because of their contempt of marriage and thought themselves above those who live in marriage. These and other errors were condemned at the Synod of Gangra in 342.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cf. Murphy, 99: “…St. Basil may be said to have constituted chastity the primary and all-inclusive vow of the monastic life.”

[6] His doctrine is defined by the teaching of God’s Word and directs the faithful to a better understanding of God’s Will in Sacred Scripture. Cf.. ed. U. Neri, Regole Morali, catechesi evangelica della vita cristiana (Roma: Città Nuova, 1996), 21; in the Introduction, he draws the following conclusion: the Word, which comes from God’s mouth, i.e., Sacred Scripture, became the single source of his thoughts—“unica fonte del suo pensiero è diventata la parola che „procede dalla  bocca di Dio”, la Scrittura.” Cf. also U. NERI, Il Battesimo (Brescia: Ed. Paideia, 1976), Libro secondo, cap. IV, 324-337.

[7] A. Пекар (Pekar), Досконалий християнин, чернечий ідеал св. Василія Великого (The Perfect Christian: The Monastic Ideal of St. Basil) (Ню Йорк: Видавництво Отців Василіян, 1968), 123.

[8] Cf. WR (The Wider Rules) 2, 1 (АТВ), 148.

[9] Cf. footnote 3.

[10] In St. Basil, all of God’s teaching is a “commandment,” a word given to be fulfilled.

[11] І Cor. 7, 25-27 given in the Moral Rules (LXX, 8).

[12] Cf. Murphy, 97: “he gave to the Divine Scriptures the sanction ordinarily accorded to a formal monastic Rule.”

[13] Cf. WR 12 (АТВ), 167-168.

[14] Cf. WR 32 (АТВ), 191-192.

[15]St. Basil is convinced by the arguments in І Cor. 12,8  and Тitus 1,9.

[16] Cf. WR 33 (АТВ), 192-194.

[17] Cf. Letter 46; C. ФЕДИНЯК (Fedyniak) (translation into Ukrainian), Вибрані листи Св. Василія Великого (Нью Йорк: Видавництво Отців Василіян, 1964), 77-86.

[18] WR 16 (АТВ), 172.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Cf. Letter 366, ФЕДИНЯК (Fedyniak), 209-211.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Cf. Murphy, 99.

[24] For commentary on the question about the authorship, including ed. L. Cremaschi, Nella tradizione basiliana, (Bose, Magnano: ed. Qiqajon, 1997), 13-39

[25] Cf. WR 5 (АТВ), 154. This forms part of modern pedagogy: man is not able “not to think on” that which someone commands him “not to think on,” but rather focuses his attention on the chosen subject.

[26] Cf. L. Cremaschi, 59-62. See also Ukrainian translation in АТВ, 386-388.

[27] Ibid., ІІІ Аскетичне Правило (Ascetical Constitutions).

[28] Cf. ibid., V Аскетичне Правило (Ascetical Constitutions). This is in accord with St. Basil’s doctrine: WR 5 і 6; SR 21, 201, 306 and other, especially in «Уважай на себе» (Know Thyself) (cf. Науки Св. Василія до народу (Ґлен Ков: 1954), 32-43).

[29] Cf. L. Cremaschi, 63-65. See also Ukrainian translation in АТВ, 388-389.

[30] St. Basil is very sensitive to the danger of scandal (cf. SR 101, 107, 155, 183). Based on “what our Saviour says in the Gospel that he “did not trust himself to them” (Jn 2, 24), St. Basil especially stresses that “ordinary people believe that if a person changed his way of life…  he changed the nature of his life, … a life estranged from the passions, … even from the necessity of food…». They can be scandalized by even the normal behaviour of the monks. Cf. L. Cremaschi, 79-83. See also Ukrainian translation in АТВ, 396-398.

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