Skip to comments.St Basil: On Detachment
Posted on 09/22/2013 3:58:15 AM PDT by markomalley
On Detachment from Worldly Goods and Concerning the Conflagration Which Occurred in the Environs of the Church
THOUGHT, well-beloved, that, Inasmuch as I had so vigorously plied you with the goad of my words on every and all occasions, you regarded me as a troublesome fellow, overbold for a stranger and for a man who is himself guilty on similar charges. Yet, by my rebukes you were moved to kindliness and the blows of my tongue you transformed into incentives to greater zeal. This, of course, is not a matter for surprise, since you are wise in the things of the spirit. Solomon says somewhere in his writings: 'Rebuke a wise man and he will love thee.1 Therefore, my brethren, I now again employ the same kind of exhortation in my desire to rescue you, insofar as I am able, from the snares of the Devil. Dearly beloved, it is a long and varied warfare which the Enemy of truth daily wages against us. He attacks us, as you know, by turning our own desires as arrows against our- selves and ever draws from our own selves the power to do us harm. Since, however, the Lord greatly limited his power by inviolable laws and did not permit him to destroy our race at once by his attacks, the malicious demon, taking advantage of our folly, wins his victories by stealth. Wicked and avaricious men whose business and deliberate policy It is to become rich at others' expense, but who have not the power to make use of open violence, are wont to lie in wait along the highways, and, if they espy any region nearby that Is either cleft by deep ravines or shaded by a thick growth of bushes, they hide therein and, screened by such coverts from the traveler's range of vision, they suddenly leap upon him. Thus, no one is able to see the perilous traps before he falls into them. In the same way, our Enemy, hostile to us from the beginning, sneaks into the shadows of worldly pleasures which grow thickly enough about the road of life to hide the Brigand while he plots against us. There he lurks in secret and spreads his nets for our destruction. If, then, we would safely traverse the road of life lying before us, and offer to Christ our body and soul alike free from the shame of wounds, and receive the crown for this victory, we must always and everywhere keep the eyes of our soul wide open, holding in suspicion everything that gives pleasure. We must unhesitatingly pass by such things, without allowing our thoughts to rest in them, even if we think that we see gold lying before us in heaps, ready to be picked up by any who so desire. ('If riches abound,' says the Scripture, 'set not your heart upon them.'2) We must pay no heed, even if the earth bud forth every kind of delicacy and offer luxurious dwellings to our gaze ( for 'our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ')3; nor should we take notice when dancing and merry-making and reveling and banquets ringing with the sound of the flute are offered for our enjoyment (for the Scripture says: 'Vanity of vanities and all is vanity.'4). Pay no attention, either, if there be placed before you beautiful bodies wherein dwell wicked souls ('Flee from the face of a woman as from the face of a serpent,' says the Wise Man.5) Heed it not even if you are offered powers and sovereignties, throngs of attendants and flatterers, or a high and splendid throne which holds cities and nations in voluntary servitude (for 'all flesh is grass and all the glory of man as the flower of the field. The grass Is withered and the flower is fallen.'6 ). Beneath all these pleasures which are so delightful lurks our common Enemy, waiting to see whether we will swerve from the straight path and fall into his lair, captivated by the enticements our eyes behold. Indeed, it is greatly to be feared that, by running recklessly after these delights and regarding the pleasure derived from their enjoyment as not harmful in the least, we may swallow the hook of treachery concealed in the first taste. Then, drawn on by this first experience, half willing and half reluctant, we become attached to these pleasures and are dragged without our realizing it into the Brigand's awful den, that is, to death.
Therefore, brethren, it is necessary and beneficial for us all to gird ourselves up like wayfarers or runners and, by ensuring our souls complete ease and lightness for this journey, to push straight on to the road's end. Nor should anyone think that I am a coiner of words because I have been calling human life a road [or a way] ; for David, the Prophet, also applied this word to life. He says in one place: 'Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord,'7 and in another passage, he cries out to his Lord: 'Remove from me the way of iniquity; and out of thy law have mercy on me.'8 Again, praising to the sweet accompaniment of his lyre the swift aid of God afforded him against those who treated him despitefully, he said: 'And who is God but our God? God who hath girt me with strength, and made my way blameless.'9 Rightly he considered that the sojourn of men on earth, whether illustrious or ignoble, should in all in- stances be so named. As they who are hastening to complete a strenuous journey easily reach the end of the road by taking one step forward and then another, one foot being placed upon the ground in rapid alternation with the other, as if their feet were vying with each other to complete the course, so they who have been introduced into this life by the Creator, advancing from the very beginning by moments of time in perpetual succession, arrive at the end of their life. Does not our life in this world seem to you also to stretch before us like a long road, a journey broken at intervals by the periods of life as by stages in a journey? It has its beginning for each of us in the travail of our mothers and the end of its course in the shelter of the grave. All men it conducts thither, some rapidly, others more slowly; the latter passing through all the intervals of time, the former not even tarrying for the first stages of life. Now, in the case of other roads, those leading from city to city, it is possible if one so desires to turn aside and not travel at all. This road, however, draws those who travel it by main force toward the end which has been appointed by the Lord, even if we should prefer to prolong our course. And it is not possible, dearly beloved, for one who has once passed through the gate which leads toward this life and has set out upon this road not to arrive at the end of it. Each of us, after leaving the maternal womb, is straightway seized and borne along by the flow of time, ever leaving behind the day already lived and never able to return to yesterday, however much we may desire to do so. Yet, we rejoice in being borne onward and, as if we were receiving some gain, we are glad to pass from one period of life to the next. We consider it a happy event when manhood succeeds boyhood and when old age follows upon man's estate. We do not think of the fact that as much of time as we have used up at each stage of our life is so much of life already lived; nor do we realize that our life time is being spent, although we always measure it according to what has passed by and flowed away. Moreover, we do not reflect how uncertain is the length of time He who has sent us on this journey wills we should have to finish our course. We know not when He will unbar the gates of entrance to each runner, nor do we bear in mind that we must prepare ourselves daily for our departure hence and keep our eyes fixed upon the Lord awaiting His nod. For He says: 'Let your loins be girt and lamps burning in your hands; and you yourselves like to men who wait for their lord when he shall return from the wed- ding; that when he cometh and knocketh they may open to him immediately.'10
Furthermore, we are unwilling to take into careful consideration which kind of burdens will be light for the course we must run, which can help on their way those who have gathered them together, and what sort will make the life hereafter very happy for us by reason of their being adapted to the nature of those who carried them. Neither are we willing to ascertain which are the heavy, uncomfortable ones that drag on the ground and that are by their nature absolutely unsuited to men and do not allow their bearers to pass through that narrow gate. But we leave behind what we ought to pick up and take along and we add to our collection what we ought to pass over. That which can be naturally assimilated by us, and which can constitute a true adornment of body and soul alike, we do not even advert to, but possessions which will ever be alien to us and only brand us with shame these we try to acquire, toiling fruitlessly and laboring like a man who would delude himself with the hope that he could fill a sieve with water. This truth I think every child even is aware of: that none of the pleasures of this life, the pursuit of which has caused madness in so many, are or can be truly possessed by us. They are, indeed, foreign to all alike to those who appear to be enjoying them as well as to those who have not yet obtained them. Even if certain individuals should gather together an immense store of gold in this life, it would not remain permanently in their possession. Although they would have left nothing undone for its secure protection in every way, it would either escape them while they were yet alive, passing into the hands of persons stronger than they, or it would presently be lost to them at their death, its nature not being such that it could accompany them at their departure hence. But some who are drawn along the inevitable road by that power which forcibly separates our souls from this miserable flesh, turning back many times to their riches, bewail the hard labor which they had endured from their youth to amass it. The wealth, however, which had only inflicted upon them the toil of acquisition and the guilt of avarice, passes on into the hands of others. Even if a man would own countless acres of land, magnificent houses, and herds of every kind of animal, if he should be endowed, also, with absolute sovereignty among men, he will not possess these things forever. After enjoying the brief prestige they bring, he will, in his turn, give up his abundance to others, while he himself will be placed under a bit of earth. In many cases, even before a man is buried, even prior to his departure form this world, he sees his goods pass on to others perhaps his enemies. Do we not know of many fields, houses, cities, and nations that have taken the name of other masters while they who had previously possessed them are still alive? Have we not also observed how those who were once slaves ascend the throne of sovereignty and how they who used to be called lords and masters are wont to take their place in the ranks of their subjects and bow down to their own slaves when their fortunes suffer a sudden reversal, as by a throw of the dice?
As for the concoctions we devise as food and drink and all the superfluities which arrogant wealth provides for the satisfaction of the capricious and undisciplined appetite, could they ever really belong to us, even if we were continually being surfeited with them? Edibles which produce some slight pleasure for the palate when they are only casually tasted we find offensive as soon as they are eaten in excess and we eagerly cast them out as if life were to be seriously endangered by their remaining in our intestines for any length of time. At any rate, overeating has been the cause of death for many and the reasons for their not having any further enjoyment. Again, are not wanton chamberings, impure embraces, and all such acts of a maddened and frenzied mind manifestly and in every respect detrimental to nature and notoriously harmful? Do they not represent the loss or diminution of powers which are in a very real sense proper and personal to the individual, since by such unions the body is weakened and depleted of aliment that is in the highest degree congruent with it and preservative of its members? So, it is the experience of everyone who engages in such wanton acts that, immediately after the deed, when the sting of the flesh is quieted and the mind, coming finally to abhor that which it has initiated, recollects itself as if from a fit of drunkenness or any such turbulent experience, and takes time to advert to its condition [it generally happens to such a person, I say,] that a strong remorse for his intemperate conduct sweeps over him. He perceives that his body has been very much enfeebled and that it has been rendered torpid and quite without strength for the accomplishment of his duties. Even the masters of the gym- nastic schools are aware of this and have laid down a rule of continence for the palaestra which protects the bodies of the youths against the danger of such pleasure. The contestants themselves are not permitted even so much as to gaze upon the fair and glistening forms of their antagonists, if, indeed, they would have their head adorned with the crown; for incontinency in a wrestling match gives rise to laughter, but does not win a crown.
All these pleasures, then, it is well for us to pass by with our eyes closed, for they are absolutely foreign to our nature, superfluous, and not capable of being really possessed by anyone. On the other hand, we should be at great pains for those possessions which can truly be ours. What, then, really belongs to us? A soul, whereby we live, a light and spiritual being which has no need of anything weighty, and a body, which was provided for the soul by the Creator as a vehicle for carrying on life. This, therefore, is man: a mind united with a fitting and serviceable body. This mode of existence was prepared by the all-wise Artificer of the universe in our mothers' wombs. This, the time of travail brought to the light out of the darkness of their marriage chambers. This being it is which was appointed to rule over the earth. For him, creation lies outspread, an exercise-ground for virtue. For him, the law was made, commanding the imitation of the Creator in accordance with his powers and a reproducing up- on earth, as if in rough outline, of the good order of heaven. This is the being which departs from this world at the summons. This it is which will be placed before the tribunal of God who sent it forth, this it is which will be called to account. This being will receive the recompense for the deeds performed during this life. Moreover, it is evident that virtues become our possession when they are, through practice, woven into our nature. They do not abandon us while we labor on this earth, unless we voluntarily and forcibly cast them out by giving entrance to vice. They eagerly run ahead of us as we hasten toward the next world. They place their possessor in the ranks of the angels and shine for all eternity under the gaze of the Creator, Riches, power, renown, pleasure, and the whole throng of such follies which increase daily by reason of our stupidity do not enter into this life with us, nor do they accompany anyone in leaving this world. For every man, this saying of the just man of old is unalterably and sovereignly true: 'Naked came I out of my mother's womb and naked shall I return thither.'11
A man who has his own best interests at heart will therefore be especially concerned for his soul and will spare no pains to keep it stainless and true to itself. If his body is wasted by hunger or by its struggles with heat and cold, if it is afflicted by illness or suffers violence from anyone, he will make small account of it, and, echoing the words of Paul, he will say in each of his adversities: 'but though our outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.12 When he sees mortal danger approaching, he will not show fear, but he will say courageously to himself: 'We know, if our earthly house of this habitation be dissolved, that we haye a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in heaven.13 But, if a man would also have mercy upon his body as being a possession necessary to the soul and its cooperator in carrying on the life on earth, he will occupy himself with its needs only so far as is required to preserve it and keep it vigorous by moderate care in the service of the soul. He will by no means allow it to become unmanageable through satiety. If ever he observe that it is inflamed by desires more than is good, he will address to it the precept of Paul : 'We brought nothing into this world, and certainly we can carry nothing out. But having food and wherewith to be covered, with these we are content.14 By continually reciting these words to his body, he will render it tractable and nimble for its journey to heaven and he will have a stronger helpmate in the tasks that lie ahead. But, if he should permit it to become overbearing and to be surfeited with food of all sorts every day, it will, at length, like a wild beast, drag him forcibly to the earth along with itself, and there he will lie, groaning to no avail. And, when he is brought before the Lord and asked for the fruits of the journey on earth which was granted him, he will make long lament, since he has none to present, and he will dwell in everlasting darkness, uttering loud reproaches against luxury and its deceits, by which he was robbed of the time of his salvation. Yet, he will have no profit any more of of his laments; for 'who,' says David, 'shall confess to thee in hell?'15
Read the rest of the homily at the web archive.
End Notes 1. Prov. 9.8.
2 Ps. 61.11.
3 Phil. 3.20.
4 Eccle. 1.2.
5 Eccle. 21.2.
6 Isa. 40.6,7.
7 Ps. 118.1.
8 Ps. 118.29.
9 Ps. 17.32,33.
10 Luke 12.35,36.
11 Job 1.21.
12 2 Cor. 4.16.
13 2 Cor. 5.1.
14 1 Tim. 6.7,8.
15 Ps. 6.6.
The Early Church Fathers had to deal with many of the same issues that we are confronted with today: a pagan populace, divisions in the Church, materialism among the faithful, rich and poor, sexual sin, and so on and so forth. It is enlightening to see what they preach about the subject (you will find no calls for increased governmental payments to the poor among them, by the way).
I notice with our current Holy Father a certain resemblance to St Basil's thought processes. And so understanding the Early Fathers of the Church may help one understand Francis a bit.
On St. Basil
Synaxis of The Three Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, & John Chrysostom, Jan.30
THE EARLY CHURCH AND ABORTION: THE WITNESS OF BASIL OF CAESAREA
St Basil The Great (329-379)
Saint Basil the Great "Orator of Orthodoxy"
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