2nd Letter to a Fallen Monk (St. Basil the Great)

Fig.+2a

A twofold fear has permeated the innermost depths of my mind because of the report concerning you. For, either a certain unsympathetic mood takes precedence, laying me open to a charge of harshness, or again, when I desire to pity and to be indulgent, your Infirmities change my friendly attitude of mind. For this reason, even when I began to compose this letter of mine, I nerved my stiffening hand indeed by reasoning, but my face, which was downcast because of my distress over you, I was not able to alter; such great feeling of shame for you poured over me that immediately the line of my mouth fell as my lips parted with a sob. Alas! What shall I write? What shall I think, baffled as I am?

If I recall your previous life of vanity, when wealth and petty mundane glory surrounded you, I shudder. At that time, a crowd of flatterers and the transient pleasure of luxury with its obvious danger and unrighteous gains followed you. Indeed, on the one hand, fear of the magistrates dissipated your concern about salvation, and, on the other, turmoils in public affairs disturbed your home and constant misfortune caused your mind to return to Him who was able to aid you. Little by little, then, you began to study how you might seek the Saviour, who permits fears for your benefit, but delivers and protects you who in your security mock Him. And you were preparing yourself for a change to a holy way of life, contemptuously rejecting your very dangerous riches and denying yourself the comfort of a home and the company of a wife.

Wholly uplifted, passing as a stranger and a pilgrim by fields and by cities, you hastened to Jerusalem. There lived with you and deemed you happy because of your ascetic labors, when, continuously fasting through the cycles of the weeks, you meditated upon God, shunning at the same time the companionship of men on pretext of turning to a new life; when, conforming yourself to the exercise of silence and solitude, you avoided the distractions of civil affairs. You chastised your body with rough sackcloth; you bound your loins tightly with a stiff belt, patiently enduring the constriction of your bones. Through your abstemiousness, your sides became hollow and flabby as far back as the spine, and you utterly refused the use of an alleviating bandage. You drew in your flanks like a gourd, forcing them to cleave to the region of the kidneys. Then, ridding your flesh of all fat, with lofty purpose you dried the channels of your body, and by fasting compressed your stomach itself, so that you caused your ribs, like the eaves of a house, to cast a shadow over the region of your abdomen. So, with your whole body shrunken, you confessed to God during the hours of the night, and with streams of tears you drenched and smoothed down your beard.

But, why should I enumerate each separate detail? Remember the many saints whose lips you have greeted with a kiss; the many holy persons you have embraced; the many men who clasped your hands as undefiled; the many servants of God who ran like hirelings to clasp your knees.

And, after these things, what now? A slanderous report of adultery flies m all directions more swiftly than an arrow and wounds our ears, and with sharper point pierces our inmost heart. What sorcerer’s cunning was so subtle as to bring you to such a destructive fall? What intricate nets of the Evil One entangled you, bringing to nought your steadfast practices of virtue? Where are the good reports of your labors? They are gone. For, must we not now distrust them? In consequence of the present evidence, how can we refuse to believe things up to now unseen, especially knowing you have bound by terrible oaths souls fleeing for refuge to God, when anything that is beyond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is scrupulously attributed to the Devil?2 Therefore, you have at the same time become liable for a ruinous perjury, and by bringing into contempt the distinctive characteristic of asceticism you have transmitted the disgrace even to the Apostles and to our Lord Himself. You have dishonored the glory of purity; you have mocked the profession of chastity. We have become a tragedy of captives, and our lives are being dramatized for Jews and Greeks.3 You have impaired the spirit of the monks; you have forced fear and timidity upon the more cautious souls, who still wonder at the power of the Devil. You have perverted the indifferent to an emulation of your licentiousness. As much as lies in you, you have destroyed the glory of Christ, who says: Take courage, I have overcome the world’4 and the ruler of it. You have mixed a cup of infamy for your fatherland. Truly you brought to accomplishment the words of the proverb: ‘As a hart pierced to the liver.’5

But, what now? The tower of strength has not fallen, brother; the remedies of conversion have not been mocked; the city of refuge has not been closed. Do not remain in the depth of evil; do not subject yourself to the slayer of men. The Lord knows how to raise up those who have been thrown down. Do not flee afar, but hasten to us. Take up again the labors of your youth and by renewed virtuous actions destroy the sensuality and sordidness which made you grovel in the mire. Look up to the last day, which is so near to our life. Realize how even now the sons of Jews and Greeks are being drawn to the service of God, and once and for all cease denying the Saviour of the world, lest that most terrible sentence overtake you: ‘I do not know who you are.’6

NOTES

1) The authenticity of Letters 45 and 46 has been questioned by a number of scholars. Yet, a careful study of the pros and cons, and especially of the testimony of M. Bessieres, op. ciL 346ff., tends to support the opinion that they were written by St. Basil. However, they probably belong among the homilies rather than among the letters. Bessieres* opinion is based, in the first place, upon the fact that they have the almost unanimous tradition of the manuscripts of letters; secondly, they have a very solid tradition in the manuscripts of homilies; thirdly, Letter 46 was translated into Latin by Rufinus as a homily; and lastly, the expressions and quotations used in Letter 46 are similar to the oratorical works of St. Basil; while Letter 45 has many traits in common with the Hexaemeron. Moreover, both have a Biblical coloring.

2) Matt. 5.37.

3) I.e. we monks in the role of captives are held up for ridicule by Jews and pagans. St. Basil uses the term Greeks’ for the adherents of the old pagan religion.

4) John 16.33.

5)Prov 723. St. Basil gives the substance but not the exact words of the Septuagint. The Douay version is somewhat different.

6) Luke 13.27.

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