The Word of God in the Life and Works of St. Basil the Great: The Evangelical Counsels

 

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

Introduction

            Since only monks and nuns profess religious vows and not all Christians, one thing must be made clear, namely, St. Basil did not intend to compose a special treatise on religious vows the way we understand them today. His asceticism is interwoven within his ecclesiology. St. Basil consistently combined moral norms with the social and practical dimensions of Christianity.[1] The works of St. Basil comprise a great number of documents that call everyone to a disciplined way of  Christian life, pointing towards a spiritual and moral ideal of the highest level. As a result, his Homilies also were not addressed merely to the laity, since they resemble very closely the ‘ascetical writings’[2] addressed to the monks. The writings of St. Basil directed to all Christians “cannot be understood as a form of an ordered and complete monastic system under the guidance of the bishop himself.”[3] His teaching about the evangelical counsels (vows), therefore, is a compilation of many fragments from different works and responses concerning the Christian life.

To understand correctly the essence of St. Basil the Great’s teachings about the evangelical counsels it is important, first of all, to define his key spiritual insights. As we have already seen, he attempts to answer every question with Sacred Scripture. Even when explicting in his own words, St. Basil wants to make sure that he does not contradict the Word of God in any way.

What and how does St. Basil teach about the evangelical counsels (the vows)? He is very careful to make clear that it is the words and teachings of the Lord God. Every question about obedience, chastity and poverty, he tries to answer with the Word of God. St. Basil is convinced that Holy Scripture has given him the “knowledge of truth.”[4] His ascetical teaching, therefore, is neither less nor more radical than the Word of God. This is the first key.[5]

The second key: it is important to learn not to let our thoughts wander aimlessly.[6]We need to concentrate our thoughts on God in a radical way in order to love Him more than anyone and anything, and not to be attached to any worldly good. St. Basil underlines that to attain any goal, we need to choose the exact means and an appropriate form of execution. A life that is pleasing to God, according to the Gospel of Christ, is gained by breaking all attachments to worldly aspirations.[7]

 

Main Biblical Texts:

1 Cor. 7, 32-33:“…The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife…

John 15, 19:“If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (The underlined words are the ones quoted by St. Basil in the text).

The third key: constantly keeping God in mind. This constitutes the content of our recollection. Just as one who is lost cannot find the way to his destination, so also the one who is not concentrated on God, since —on account of worldly cares— he is unable to follow Christ.

 

Main Biblical Texts:

Philippians 3, 20: “But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Luke 13, 33: “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

The fourth key: to please God in all things by fulfilling His commandments.[8]Our entire life has only one goal and one rule: to fulfill the commandments of God according to His will.[9] St. Basil encourages us here to follow the example of Christ Himself, who did not come to do His own will but the will of His Father. It is important to remember that for St. Basil the place where it is best to completely fulfill all God’s commandments is in community.[10] Religious vows, therefore, are closely tied with the theme of community life.

 

Main Biblical Texts:

John 6, 38: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.

Psalm 16 (15), 8: “I keep the Lord always before me; with the Lord at my right, I shall never be shaken.

1 Cor. 10, 31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

The fifth key: the love of God engenders a spirit of self-renunciation and the renunciation of all worldly things. The spirit by which a monk or a nun is guided, when he or she professes religious vows and tries to live by them is, first of all, a positive turning to God “with his or her undivided heart.”[11] The love of God is not only a human action or virtue, but a gift[12] of God Himself. This gift develops and becomes the virtue of charity, which by its power encompasses the fulfillment of all God’s commandments.[13] St. Basil also lists the following things that we should renounce: property, vainglory, human customs,[14] attachment to unnecessary things connected to this life and family love, when it is opposed to God’s love.[15]

 

Main Biblical Texts:

Mt. 16, 24:“…If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.[16]

Luke 14, 33:“So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot by my disciple.

 

1. Obedience

1.1. Obedience to God’s Commandments

Faith, hope and love of God, which enable the Christian to hear to God’s Word and perfectly fulfill it, is the basis for obedience in St. Basil. Without a doubt, God’s Word is the main rule to be observed in the spirit of obedience. “Everything that the Lord has handed down through the Gospel and His Apostles should be observed without exception.”[17] Superiors should pay a special attention not to command anything that would oppose the Word of God. Both they and those under their guidance should avoid anything that might lead to negligence in fulfilling God’s Word.[18] Instead of his or her own will the Christian has to strive with all his or her powers to do God’s will.[19] Doing this, he or she will live and act in the spirit of self-renunciation and gradually will be freed from “evil vices.”[20] God’s commandments should be fulfilled in the way the Lord has decreed.[21]

 

1.2. Following the Obedient Christ

St. Basil, being an expert and devotee of the Holy Scripture, concentrates his attention in a special way on the example of Jesus Christ, who is obedient to His Heavenly Father. In addition to this, he also focuses his attention on the obedience to the Holy Spirit.

 

Main Biblical Texts: 

John 6, 38: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.

John 8, 28: “I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me.

John 12, 49: “The Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak.

John 16, 13: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

Philippians 2, 8: “And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.[22]

 

1.3. Following the First Christian Community

Very often St. Basil emphasizes the necessity of obedience to superiors in order to maintain unity in a community. One of the best examples of this unity and order he sees in the first Christian community.[23] The exemplar of this unity, however, is the Holy Trinity. In this first Christian community “nobody was seeking to do his own will, but all together in the one Holy Spirit were trying to do the will of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[24] It is impossible to be in a community without obedience to the superior because all together should make “one body in Christ” (Rom. 12. 5).[25] The Head of this Body is Christ.

 

Main Biblical Texts:

Acts 4, 32:“Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul.

Eph. 4, 3:“Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.[26]

1 Cor. 14, 40:“But all things should be done decently and in order.


[1] Claudio Moreschini, Introduzione a Basilio il Grande, ed. Morcelliana, Brescia, 2005, p. 61.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Moreschini, p. 61 (“non possono essere intese come le forme di un sistema monastico ordinato e completo, presieduto dal vescovo stesso”).

[4] St. Basil the Great, On God’s Judgment, part 1.

[5] The main Biblical texts are provided below for each evangelical counsel.

[6] See the Longer Rules (LR), part 1 in The Ascetical Works of St. Basil the Great.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See LR, 5, part 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See LR, 7, 1.

[11] Letter to St. Gregory, 2, 4.

[12] Meaning “natural gift” or “intrinsic desire,” see LR, 2, 1.

[13] See LR, 2, 1.

[14] Renunciation also means conversion: “to put off the old nature with its practices” (Col. 3, 9), which is “corrupt through deceitful lusts” (Eph. 4, 22). Let us, therefore, leave behind all worldly passions that can be an obstacle to reaching the goal of a pious life (LR, 8, 1).

[15] See LR, 8, 1-2.

[16] St. Basil explains the meaning of these words in the following way: “To deny oneself means to forget about the past and to leave behind one’s own practices… To take up one’s cross means to be ready even to die for Christ; to mortify the body and the passions; to endure the dangers for Christ’s name and  not to be attached to one’s own life” (LR, 6, 1).

[17] The Moral Rule, 12, 3.

[18] See LR, 24.

[19] LR, 34, 3; On God’s Judgment, 4; The Moral Rule, 9.

[20] LR, 41, 1. Here St. Basil shows different expressions of our passions and lack of self-renunciation, which refers in a special way to our ministry. The choice of work according to our will is based on seeking oneself and leads to pleasing oneself instead of doing that which is ‘useful’ according to the will of the superior.

[21] See The Moral Rule, 12 and 18 in Basilio di Cesarea – Regole Morali, catechesi evangelica della vita cristiana, Artioli, Maria Benedetta, ed. Città Nuova, 1996, pp. 109 and 113.

[22] LR, 28, 2.

[23] See LR, 24, 1.

[24] On God’s Judgment, 4.

[25] In LR, 24. St. Basil does not quote Rom. 12, 4-8, but paraphrases it. In this Longer Rule 24, he quotes Rom. 12, 11 “Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.”

[26] On God’s Judgment, 4

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