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

 

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

1. Introduction: Some General Principles of Basilian Poverty

Saint Basil is particularly demanding regarding poverty. As was previously noted in my first conference, he is ‘radical’ inasmuch as Christ’s gospel is ‘radical.’ St. Basil’s teaching about poverty (and similarly about the other moral virtues) is fully grounded in Sacred Scripture.

In his evangelical directives, our founder actually does not distinguish between ‘commandment’ and ‘counsel.’ He treats every word of God as an obligatory commandment for each and every Christian.

Consequently, St. Basil’s teaching about poverty does not belong strictly to the realm of monasticism. His teaching about poverty is directed to all the baptized,[1] as is the Word of God.[2]

The tragic social climate of 368-369, marked by a drought and famine that spread throughout all of Cappadocia, certainly influenced St. Basil’s sensitivity to the needs of the poor. In his discourses, he manifests solidarity with those who needed the basics to survive. During this general famine, St. Basil could not accept that a certain few were growing wealthier. He considered this to be a social injustice and therefore severely reprimanded the rich. St. Basil was convinced that the storing and withholding of the necessities of one’s neighbour for personal gain is a great offense against the commandment of the love of God and neighbour.[3]

The concept of detachment from wealth in St. Basil is intimately tied to the concept of mercy and love of neighbour.

In the light of the example of the first Christian community (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37), St. Basil tightly unites the concept of poverty to the concept of community. All possessions should be given for the use of the entire community.

Who is poor in spirit? On the one hand, St. Basil considers all the poor to be ‘poor in spirit,’ regardless if they have become so freely according to our Lord’s teaching or for some other reason: “Those are poor in spirit, who have become that way, for no other reason, than by conformity to the teaching of the Lord, who said: ‘Go and sell whatever you have, give it to the poor, and you will have a reward in heaven’ (Matt. 19:21). One is not far from beatitude, if one accepts poverty —by whatever means it comes— and lives according to God’s will, as did poor Lazarus (Lk 16:20-21).”[4] Nevertheless, everyone must eliminate avarice. When a person has not cleansed his heart of the excess desire for material goods, then material poverty has nothing in common with the evangelical spirit of poverty. In the words of St. Basil: “Poverty is not always desirable, except when it is freely chosen, in accordance with the evangelical counsel. Many are indeed poor, but in spirit some are extremely avaricious and thus they are not saved through their poverty, but are judged according to their vice. Therefore, not every poor person is worthy of praise, but only the one who considers the command of Christ to be of greater value than the treasures of this earth. It is these that the Lord calls happy and blessed, when exclaiming: Blessed are the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3).”[5]

The general principle of St. Basil’s teachings is: “Our entire life has but one goal and only one rule: to observe the commandments of God according to God’s pleasure.”[6] The person who truly loves God above all else and one’s neighbor as oneself is free of any material obstacles in serving God. St. Basil illustrates this very resoluteness, exemplary faith and Christian conduct in his Moral Rules. Rule 2: “It is impossible for a man to serve God when he concerns himself with affairs that are contrary to piety (….). It is impossible for a man to become a disciple of the Lord, when he is attached to any temporal goods or retains something, even in some small way that is opposed to God’s commandment.”[7] These words are supported by the following biblical texts: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24);  “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mat. 10:37); “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life, will lose it…” (Matt. 16:24-25).[8] This is the thread that binds St. Basil’s ascetical works and unifies them into a whole.

2. The Basilian Concept of Possessions

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). The reflection of this text is actually present in all of St. Basil’s discourses concerning poverty. Material goods are not evil in themselves. They are good and necessary for life, they are gifts from God.[9] Nevertheless, material goods are not designed for the individual, but for the common good, that is for all. Therefore, according to the understanding of St. Basil, material wealth has a communal and social nature and role. The proof of this is the Basiliad,[10] which St. Basil established near Caesarea on his own lands for the purpose of helping the poor and all those who find themselves in need. Material goods are good only if they are used for the common good and not privately. This truth was understood by St. Basil in the Word of God, that is in the Scriptures, and he teaches the same in his words and the example of his life.[11]

Keeping all this in mind, St. Basil then compares the finality of temporal goods and the priority of eternal goods. He teaches that temporal goods do not belong to us, and that they are not an essential part of a human being, but rather the soul is what makes us who we are. For example, St. Basil underscores that the soul is more essential to a person than one’s own offspring; hence, one must care more about the salvation of one’s soul, than for the welfare of one’s own children.[12]

In the light of St. Basil’s teachings and life, we can draw the following conclusions in accordance with Sacred Scripture: we may make reasonable use of material goods, in the spirit of the common good, and that there are to be no personal or individual holdings.

3. Luke 12:16-21

This text about the rich man, whose lands brought him enormous harvests, St. Basil applies to the life of Christians in his sixth homily,[13] along with other biblical texts. We can synthesize this exegesis with the following points and texts.

The Lord did not bless the rich man with excessive wealth in order that he gather it in bigger and better granaries, but that he share it with others. “The gracious Lord desired to turn his heart toward generosity and kindness.”[14] For the Lord send the rain and sun upon both the righteous and unrighteous (Mt. 5:45). The Lord tells us to do likewise. St. Basil quotes the ‘commandments’ that the rich man neglected: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due” (Proverbs 3:27); “Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you” (Proverbs 3:3); “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house” (Is 58:7).

The greedy rich man does not wish to share his bread. He is disturbed and does not know what to do. He asks himself: What shall I do? St. Basil describes the tragic state of this rich man and compares it to “the gluttons, who would rather burst from overeating than share the scraps that fall from their tables with the poor.”[15] This man is alone and unhappy, because he thinks only of himself.

In order to avoid such a sorrow, St. Basil draws on the example from the earth itself: “Follow the example of the earth! Bring forth fruits as it does and don’t be worse than inanimate things! The earth brings forth fruits, not for its own use, but for your benefit.”[16] He bases this thought on such biblical texts as: “Sow for yourselves justice” (Hosea 10:12); “A good name is more desirable than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1); “You sent deliverance to your people, ratified your covenant forever” (Psalm 112:9); “He, who monopolizes grain, the people curse” (Proverbs 11:26). In the light of this, it’s worthwhile to keep in mind Basil’s sensitivity to the conditions suffered during hard times which he characterizes with such expressions as: “Don’t wait for hunger as if it were gold. Don’t think of general deficiency as an excuse for your own excess. Don’t trade in human misery so that using it you can gain money for yourself; you would be giving cause for Divine anger. Don’t deepen the wounds of those who have experienced hard times. While your eyes search for gold, you don’t even see your neighbour. You know how to economize and can distinguish a good from a false investment, but your neighbour, who is in dire straits, you don’t even want to know.”[17] There are still other biblical texts that Basil employs as a basis for this homily: “Though wealth increase, do not set your heart upon it” (Ps. 62:11), “store treasures in heaven” (Mt 6:20) and concerning the General Judgment (Mt 25:21-46).[18]

 

4. Mt 19:16-26 (cf. Lk. 18: 18-30)

St. Basil’s seventh homily[19] is not so much dedicated to a commentary on a given text, but rather an application to everyday life. He uses the rhetorical method of a dialogue with the rich young man in the context of the years of famine and hunger, where the need to share one’s goods was impossible to ignore. In reality, St. Basil paints the wealthy youth as one living among those who were desperately poor. This beautiful and clear lesson concerning poverty is totally grounded in the Word of God. I would like to summarize it in a few points.

To begin with, St. Basil describes the qualities of the wealthy young man, whom Scripture on the one hand praises, yet, on the other, presents him as hapless and hopeless. His positive attributes: the young man recognizes the true Teacher and calls Him the only true and good, which is far from the arrogance of the Pharisees; he is especially solicitous about gaining eternal life. His negative attributes: he is a tempter, asking cunning questions; he doesn’t care about the true good, but only about that which is pleasing to others; he doesn’t take to heart the salvific sayings that he has already heard from the true Teacher; blinded by the passion of greed, he goes away sad, since he possesses an unstable character and a divided soul; he contradicts himself, referring to Our Lord as a Teacher, yet refusing to be a disciple; he calls Our Lord good, yet refuses to accept what is offered by Him; he inquires about eternal life, but shows himself to be totally given to the temporary pleasures of this life.

After this description of the youth’s personal traits, St. Basil then turns to him as a prosecutor, handing down a harsh verdict. The man’s observance of the commandments from his youth have been ‘worthless,’ for he refuses to do what is lacking in order to enter God’s Kingdom. Throughout this dialogue, St. Basil is convinced that this youth was all along deceiving himself. In reality, he was far from observing the commandment of loving his neighbour as himself. Here are the reasons behind such a conviction: 1) He goes away sad, when the Teacher commands him to sell his treasure and give to the poor; 2) the very fact that he is rich is proof that he does not love his neighbour and does not care for the poor, because “caring for the poor eats up one’s treasure;” 3) he places his own comfort above that of appeasing the common need of those around him, for money clings tighter to him than the very parts of his body; 4) he pines after temporal goods and transitional wealth (“rocks and dust”) that should be shared with those in need, thus, obtaining eternal life.

In the second part of this homily, St. Basil questions the very goal of wealth. He paints the conduct of the rich, especially their self-perception as insufficiently wealthy, and their spirit of consumerism. They are always seeking to hoard ever more material goods, greater and more beautiful property, while dreaming up new needs for greater consumption. As a result, all these “things designated for simple use transgress all measure of real necessity.” He terms this greed as “artificial and dreamt up by the devil himself.”

Using as his foundation the Lord’s words, “Where your treasure is there is your heart” (Mt. 6:21) and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Lk. 18:25), St. Basil —in the third part of this Homily— very forcefully condemns the hoarding of earthly wealth, and hiding it as though saying to oneself “we don’t know what’s ahead of us! There could easily arise unexpected incidents.” To the wealthy youth, he answers: “I believe that in burying your treasures, you have also buried your heart!”

Although he does not cite the text concerning the General Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46), nevertheless, in the fourth part of this homily, St. Basil dedicates special attention to Divine Judgment that awaits those who possess excess and unnecessary wealth, and have ignored or forgotten their neighbour in need of the essentials for life.

In the fifth part of the homily, St. Basil addresses avarice. In the greedy, he envisages misery and distress in the present, not only in the future. The reason for this he ascribes to “insatiable human passion.” The greedy are not happy with the goods they have, nor do they really take pleasure in them. Rather they worry about that which they think they are still lacking. Whatever the eye of the avaricious sees, it longs to have. The words of the prophet Isaiah, thus, become a reality: “Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field! Thus there will be no more room for you who remain alone in the land” (Is. 5:8).

In the sixth part of the homily, he underlines the future fate of the greedy. The hoarded, unnecessary things, useless to life itself, he calls “material for eternal fire.” Here he once again bases his teachings on the General Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46) for no other reason than simply to remind us of that day, when “God’s wrath will be revealed from the heavens” (Rm. 1:18), when “those who have done good will rise to the resurrection of life. Those who have done evil will rise to judgment” (Jn. 5:29), when there will come “flaming revenge, which will devour the rebellious” (Heb. 10:27).

The seventh part of this homily actually unites the preceding two parts (5th and 6th) with certain conclusions. When treating the nature of wealth, St. Basil underlines its inability to prolong our life or even to help us avoid illness. On the basis of the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a great evil that I found under the sun, the rich man who kept his wealth unto his own harm” and “I will leave it to my successor. Who knows whether he will be foolish or wise?” (5:12, 2:18-19). The practice of leaving an inheritance for our children, St. Basil calls a “trick of the greedy” and instead underlines the question of the salvation of the individual soul: “Is your immortal soul not more important to you than all of your children put together (…); who will have mercy on your soul if you neglect it?”

However, in the eighth part of the homily, St. Basil takes into consideration “those who have no children” and accumulate wealth for themselves, resolving to leave behind a ‘testament’ for the poor and needy as the inheritors of their wealth. Convinced that “once life is over, this is not the time and place for good deeds,” St. Basil not only rejects such an argument, he outright condemns it.

Finally, St. Basil grounds his conclusions on the following biblical texts: “Remember my son that in your lifetime you were well off” (Lk. 16:25); “Do not fool yourselves! God cannot be deceived! You reap what you sow!” (Gal. 6:7). He is convinced, that the rich young man of the gospels—as well as all those who commit the above mentioned blunders—fool only themselves. In place of this selfishness, he calls for an imitation of Christ, especially keeping in mind that He “for our sake though He was rich made Himself poor to make you rich through His poverty” (II Cor. 8:9) and “He gave His very life for the redemption of all” (I Tim. 2:6).

5. Poverty – Gathering Treasures in Heaven

On the basis of God’s Word, St. Basil is convinced that “our greatest happiness does not consist in transitory and fleeting goods. We are called to share in true and eternal goods. For this reason the rich man should not be considered as wealthy on account of his wealth alone…”[20]

The commandment of love of God is the measure according to which we must regulate our lives. This is why St. Basil writes: “Heavenly treasure is the only treasure to which we can entrust our whole heart because where is your treasure, there will be also your heart (Mt. 6:21). If in this world we amass for ourselves any possessions or perishable wealth, our mind will inevitably be buried in them as if in mud. In this way, our soul will not be able to see God. A soul in this state is insensitive toward the eternal goods and the promised reward in heaven. The way that leads to these eternal goods is a strong and free desire that makes our hard work necessary for their attainment much easier.”[21]

It is important for us to consistently approach our work out of love for God. “We should not lose ourselves in unnecessary work and overstep the boundaries of self-sufficiency, according to the words of the Apostle: “We should be content with having food and clothing” (I Tim. 6:8). To desire more than we need becomes greed and avarice can bring judgment against us as idolaters. Therefore, it does us no good to be greedy for money, nor to store up riches for unnecessary things. For whoever comes to God should maintain poverty and be filled with the fear of God in keeping with the words of psalmist: “For my body trembles in fear before you, for I fear your judgment” (Ps. 119:120).”[22]

As a result, we should embrace poverty in the spirit of gathering treasures in heaven and the Christian receives other blessings as well as forgiveness of sins. “In reality, a balanced and wise approach to money and its use in keeping with the commandment is beneficial for us in many instances and under many circumstances. This helps us to free ourselves of personal sins.”[23]

6. Poverty– The Common Good

Saint Basil’s understanding of the communal aspect of poverty is based on the example of the early Christian community (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37). The early Christians were “of one heart” – this means that they lived for love of God and as a result they had a mutual love for each other; “they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area” (2:47) and were of “one mind” (4:32) and each of them lived according to the teachings of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:26 & 14:12),[24] Who reminded them of everything that Jesus Christ commanded them during His earthly ministry. This is the foundation of Basilian asceticism.

For this reason, St. Basil teaches that in communal living nothing should be considered as personal property, but rather that all things serve the needs of the community rather than the needs of the individual. “To consider something as personal property goes against the testimony of the Acts of the Apostles, where it is written: “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they held everything in common” (Acts 4:32). For anyone, who claims something as his own separates himself from God’s Church and from the love of Christ, who taught us by His word and example to give up our lives for our friends (cf. John 15:13). If we are asked to sacrifice our lives, how much more are we to sacrifice our material things.”[25]

As a synthesis and conclusion for this part of my work, I recommend the work by Fr. Stefan Batruch, who gives a clear presentation of poverty as a Christian moral virtue.[26]


[1] Cf. Basilio di Cesarea, Il Battesimo, text, translation, Introduction and Comments by ed. U. Neri (Brescia: Ed. Paideia, 1976), 77-80. «I sacramenti esigono dunque una vita evangelica pura e integrale: senza ostacoli che vi si frappongano, senza sconti o interpretazioni di comodo» (ibid., 77).

[2] Cf. for example Homily VI (On the words of Luke: 12, 16-21) : VI. Гомілія до слів Луки «розберу мої стодоли, більші побудую» (Лк 12,16-21), and also about avarice, Homily VII (On the Rich Man); Гомілія до багатих; in НАУКИ СВ. ВАСИЛІЯ ДЛЯ НАРОДУ, (Ґлен Ков, Н.Й., 1954), 70-94.

[3] Cf. VII. Гомілія до багатих (On the Rich Man); ibid.

[4] The Shorter Rules – Question 205 in A. Šeptyckyj, Аскетичні твори Св. Отця нашого Василія Великого (АТВ),  (Рим: Видавництво ОО. Василіян, 1989), 321.

[5] Гомілія на Псалом 33, 5 (Homily on Psalm 33, 5), in Св. Василій Великий – Гомілії на Псалми (ВГП), Українська Духовна Бібліотека – ч-53, (Нью Йорк: Видавництво ОО. Василіян, 1979), 128.

[6] The Wider Rules – Question 5, 3 (АТВ), 155.

[7] АТВ, 44-45. Cf. Basilio di Cesarea, Regole Morali: Catechesi evangelica della vita cristiana, ed. U. Neri, (Roma: Ed. Città Nuova, 1996), 98-99.

[8] Ibid.

[9] In his work On Baptism, St. Basil quotes І Tm 4, 4: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” Cf. Basilio di Cesarea, IlBattesimo, 80.

[10] P. FEDIUK, Святий Василій Великий і християнське аскетичне життя, in ANALECTA OSBM, (Roma-Toronto 1978), 162.

[11] Про природу речей (On the Nature of Things); cf. The Shorter Rules – Question 92 (АТВ), 275.

[12] Cf. VII. Гомілія до багатих, 91 (Homily VII – On the Rich Man).

[13] Ibid. 70-79.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 72.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 73-74.

[18] Ibid., 75-79.

[19] Ibid., 80-94.

[20] ХІ. Про заздрість (Homily XIOn Envy), in НАУКИ СВ. ВАСИЛІЯ ДЛЯ НАРОДУ, 142.

[21] The Wider Rules – Question 8, 1, 3 (АТВ), 163.

[22] Лист 9, 3 (22), Про досконалість чернечого життя (Letter 9On the Perfection of Monastic Life), in Вибрані листи св. Василія Великого (ВЛВ), Українська Духовна Бібліотека, (Нью Йорк: Видавництво ОО. Василіян, 1964), 44.

[23] The Shorter Rules – Question 92 (АТВ), 275.

[24] Cited in The Shorter Rules – Question 205 (АТВ), 321.

[25] The Shorter Rules – Question 85 (АТВ), 273.

[26] Cf. BATRUCH, Stefan – БАТРУХ, о. Стефан, Модель християнського життя у творах св. Василія Великого, (Львів: Вид. „Свічадо,” 2007), 74-77.

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