Penny Thornton reviews a book about Basil the Great within the ‘Spirituality of the Fathers’ series, edited by Oliver Davies.
[New City Magazine]
Imagine a world where there are no violent winds or scorching summers. Instead, ‘every season is assigned its proper place so that they proceed in an ordered round, calmly and without getting on top of each other or in each other’s way.’
These are the words not of a modern-day environmentalist, but of a fourth century Eastern saint. Basil the Great was born around 330AD and lived through a period of controversy and change, at a time when the nature of the Trinity was still being contested and monasticism was a new method of Christian living. An ascetic with a deep love for the church and a communitarian who treasured solitude, his writings are a combination of strict exhortation and poetic vision.
St Basil was born into a prominent Christian family in Caesarea. He eventually found his calling in the communal life of the monastery where the rule he developed became the most lasting of those in the East. Basil was instrumental in the fight against Arianism, which claimed that Christ is a created being rather than truly divine. In 370 he was made Bishop of Caesarea.
This collection of St Basil’s writings combines examples of his theology and practical advice. His thoughts on Paradise convey a longing for beauty and order which could have been written for our age. His views on adversity, in contrast, are forthright. God allows pain for the good of our soul, as a parent disciplines a child. ‘If we did not have adversity, we would slip from the right path.’ The worst thing we can do is despair, for this is denying God’s power.
The lengthy section on asceticism reflects the importance of the saint’s work in developing a rule for monastic life. Basil sets high standards for those who have renounced the world to choose the ‘life of angels’ and urges them not to put off tackling bad habits, since sitting around and waiting for salvation will not get them anywhere. Yet his views, harsh as they may seem today, were a moderation of existing practices.
St Basil’s writings on the Holy Spirit reflect his ability to teach and inspire. ‘The Spirit is spread throughout all creation and yet gives of his essence without ever being diminished in the process … he is divided without feeling pain and shared out without ceasing to be whole.’ We will never fully understand the mystery, but the grace is available to us all. Finally a selection of Basil’s letters, written to monks, clergy, communities and friends, show his depth of concern for those around him. He encourages and chastises, and longs for the divisions in the Church to be overcome so that the ‘scattered limbs of Christ’ can be reassembled once more.
I found within this book a man of contrasts and great passion for the spiritual life, who was determined to protect the integrity of his faith and its institutions. I was inspired to find out more about someone who had such a strong influence on the life and theology of the early Church.