On the Lawful Age to Enter the Monastic Life (St. Basil the Great)

NOTE: The following is taken from The Long Rules, Question 15:

Q 15. At what age consecration of oneself to God should be permitted and at what time the profession of virginity should be regarded as safe.

basil

R. Inasmuch as the Lord says: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me,’1 and the Apostle praises him who has known the Holy Scripture from infancy2 and also directs that childred be reared ‘in the discipline and correction of the Lord,”3 we deem every time of life, even the very earliest, suitable for receiving applicants. Indeed, those children who are bereft of their parents we should take in on our own initiative, so that we may become fathers of the orphans in emulation of Job.4

Those who are under their parents’ care and who are brought to us by them should be received before many witnesses so as not to give occasion [for blame] to those who are desirous of this, but that every unjust tongue uttering blasphemy against us may be stopped,5 They should be received according to this method, but not immediately numbered and reckoned with the body of the community, in order that, in the event of their failing to persevere, they may not afterward heap reproaches on the devout life. They should be reared with all piety as children belonging to the entire community, but meals and quarters for both girls and boys should be separate, to avoid their being too familiar or too self-confident with their elders and, also, that through the rarity of their association with them, their reverence for their directors may be preserved. Furthermore, this separation would prevent their developing a readiness to commit faults when they see the more advanced in perfection incurring penalties for omissions in their duties (if at any time these should happen to be off their guard), and also keep them from being imperceptibly filled with conceit when they witness their elders repeatedly delinquent in that which they themselves do aright. There is no difference, indeed, between a child in years and one who is mentally a child; consequently, it is not surprising that the same faults are often discovered in both. Then, too, [by such an arrangement], the young would not, because of close association with older persons, come to act in a precocious and unbecoming manner by doing things which their elders carry off with decorum by reason of their age. To maintain this economy, then, and to ensure decorous behavior in other respects, the children’s quarters should be separate from those of the more advanced in perfection. Along with other advantages, the quarters inhabited by the monks will not be disturbed by the drilling which is necessary for the young in learning their lessons. The prayers assigned for recitation throughout the day should, however, be said in common by young and old. The young, on the one hand, are generally stimulated by the example of the more perfect, and, on the other, their elders are in no small measure assisted in their prayer by the children. But as regards sleep and rising, the hours, the quantity, and the quality of the meals, specific routines and diets appropriate for children should be arranged.

Children in the monastery from the scandal of Keratea.
Children in the monastery from the scandal of Keratea.

Moreover, one who is advanced in years should be placed in charge of these little ones, a person of more than average experience and who has a reputation for patience. Thus, he will correct the faults of the young with fatherly kindness and give wise instruction, applying remedies proper to each fault, so that, while the penalty for the fault is being exacted, the soul may be exercised in interior tranquility. Has one of them, for example, become angry with a companion? According to the seriousness of his offense, he should be made to care for this comrade and wait on him; for the practice of humility fells, as it were, an angry spirit, while arrogance usually breeds anger within us. Has he partaken of food out of time? Let him fast for most of the day. Has he been accused of eating immoderately or in an unseemly fashion? Let him be deprived of food at meal time and forced to watch the others who know how to eat properly, so that he may be at once punished by abstinence and taught proper decorum. Has he uttered an idle word, or insulted his neighbor, or told a lie, or said anything at all that is forbidden? Let him learn restraint in fasting and silence.

A young monk

Their studies, also, should be in conformity with the aim in view. They should, therefore, employ a vocabulary derived from the Scriptures and, in place of myths, historical accounts of admirable deeds should be told, to them. They should be taught maxims from Proverbs and rewards should be held out to them for memorizing names and facts. In this way, joyfully and with a relaxed mind, they will achieve their aim without pain to themselves and without giving offense. Under the proper guidance, moreover, attentiveness and habits of concentration would readily be developed in such students if they were continually questioned by their teachers as to where their thoughts were and what they were thinking about. A child of tender age, simple, candid, and unskilled in deceit, readily reveals the secrets of his soul; so as not to be continually caught in what is forbidden, he would avoid unsuitable thoughts, and, fearing the shame of a scolding, would instantly recall his mind from its follies.

St Anthony's Monastery Arizona Nov03 081

While the mind is still easy to mold and as pliable as wax, taking the form of what is impressed upon it, it should be exercised from the very beginning in every good discipline. Then, when reason enters in and habits of choice develop, they will take their course from the first elements learned at the beginning and from traditional forms of piety ; reason proposing that which is beneficial and habit imparting facility in right action. At this point, also, permission to make the vow of virginity should be granted, inasmuch as it is now to be relied upon, since it is the individual’s own choice and the decision follows upon the maturing of reason. After this stage, too, rewards for good deeds and penalties for faults proportioned to the importance of the action are meted out by a fair arbiter.

1950 photograph of the children and nuns at Peukovounogiatrissa Monastery in Keratea.
1950 photograph of the children and nuns at Peukovounogiatrissa Monastery in Keratea.

Furthermore, ecclesiastical officials should be called in as witnesses of the decision, so that through their presence, as well, the consecration of the person as a kind of votive offering to God may be sanctified and the act ratified by their testimony; ‘for,’ says the Scripture, ‘in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word stand.’6 In this way, also, the fervor of the brethren will suffer no disedification, for those who have so vowed themselves to God and afterward try to revoke such a vow will have no excuse for their shamelessness. On the other hand, one who does not wish to submit to the life of virginity, on the ground that he is incapable of devoting his whole attention to the things of the Lord, should be dismissed in the presence of the same witnesses. He who makes such a vow, however, after a great amount of careful deliberation which he should be allowed to engage in privately for several days, so that we may not appear to be kidnapping him, should be received forthwith and made a member of the community, sharing the dwelling and daily life of the more advanced in perfection. Moreover to add a point which we had forgotten and which is not out of place here since certain trades must be practiced even from early childhood, whenever any children appear to have an aptitude for these, we should not oppose their remaining during the day with their instructors in the art. At nightfall, however, we should invariably send them back to their companions, with whom they must also take their meals.

Notes

1. Mark 10.14.

2. 2 Tim. 3.15.

3. Eph. 6.4.

4. Job 29.12.

5. Ps. 62.12.

6. 2 Cor. 13.1.

For a more thorough examination of this Rule, also see:

It is said that Gerondissa Alexia entered the monastic life at age 12, with the blessing of Geronda Ephraim and in his monastery on Thassos.
It is said that Gerondissa Alexia entered the monastic life at age 12, with the blessing of Geronda Ephraim and in his monastery on Thassos.

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