Fathers of the Church
Letter Cl: to Amphilochius in the Name of Heraclidas
by Basil the Great in 357-370 | translated by Blomfield Jackson, M.A
1. I REMEMBER our old conversations with one another, and am forgetful neither of what I said, nor of what you said. And now public life has no hold upon me. For although I am the same in heart and have not yet put off the old man, nevertheless, outwardly and by withdrawing myself far from worldly life, I seem already to have begun to tread the way of Christian conversation. I sit apart, like men who are on the point of embarking on the deep, looking out at what is before me. Mariners, indeed, need winds to make their voyage prosperous; I on the other hand want a guide to take me by the hand and conduct me safely through life's bitter waves. I feel that I need first a curb for my young manhood, and then pricks to drive me to the course of piety. Both these seem to be provided by reason, which at one time disciplines my unruliness of soul, and at another time my sluggishness. Again I want other remedies that I may wash off the impurity of habit. You know how, long accustomed as I was to the Forum, I am lavish of words, and do not guard myself against the thoughts put into my mind by the evil one. I am the servant too of honour, and cannot easily give up thinking great things of myself. Against all this I feel that I need a great instructor. Then, further, I conclude that it is of no mall importance, nor of benefit only for a little while, that the soul's eye should be so purged that, after being freed from all the darkness of ignorance, as though from some blinding humour, one can gaze intently on the beauty of the glory of God. All this I know very well that your wisdom is aware of; I know that you would wish that I might have some one to give me such help, and if ever God grant me to meet you I am sure that I shall learn more about what I ought to heed. For now, in my great ignorance, I can hardly even form a judgment as to what I lack. Yet I do not repent of my first impulse; my soul does not hang back from the purpose of a godly life as you have feared for me, nobly and becomingly doing everything in your power,' lest, like the woman of whom I have heard the story, I should turn back and become a pillar of salt. I am still, however, under the restraint of external authority; for the magistrates are seeking me like a deserter. But I am chiefly influenced by my own heart, which testifies to itself of all that I have told you.
2. Since you have mentioned our bond, and have announced that you mean to prosecute, you have made me laugh in this my dejection, because you are still an advocate and do not give up your shrewdness. I hold, unless, indeed, like an ignorant man, I am quite missing the truth, that there is only one way to the Lord, and that all who are journeying to Him are travelling together and walking in accordance with ones "bond" of life. If this be so, wherever I go how can I be separated from you? How can I cease to live with you, and with you serve God, to Whom we have both fled for refuge? Our bodies may be separated by distance, but God's eve still doubtless looks upon us both; if indeed a life like mine is fit to be beheld by the divine eyes; for I have read somewhere in the Psalms that the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous. I do indeed pray that with you and with all that are like minded with you, I may be associated, even in body, and that night and day with you and with any other true worshipper of God I may bow my knees to our Father which is in heaven; for I know that communion in prayer brings great gain. If, as often as it is my lot to lie and groan in a different corner, I am always to be accused of lying, I cannot contend against your argument, and already condemn mystic as a liar, if with my own carelessness I have said anything which brings me under such a charge.
3. I was lately at Caesarea, in order to learn what was going on there. I was unwilling to remain in the city itself, and betook myself to the neighbouring hospital, that I might get there what information I wanted. According to his custom the very godly bishop visited it, and I consulted him as to the points which you had urged upon me. It is not possible for me to remember all that he said in reply; it went far beyond the limits of a letter. In sum, however, what he said about poverty was this, that the rule ought to be that every one should limit his possessions to one garment. For one proof of this he quoted the words of John the Baptist "he that hath two coats let him impart to him that hath none;" and for another our Lord's prohibition to His disciples to have two coats. He further added "If thou wilt be perfect go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor." He said too that the parable of the pearl bore on this point, because the merchant, who had found the pearl of great price, went away and sold all that he had and bought it; and he added too that no one ought even to permit himself the distribution of his own property, but should leave it in the hands of the person entrusted with the duty of managing the affairs of the poor; and he proved the point from the acts of the apostles, because they sold their property and brought and laid it at the feet of the apostles, and by them it was distributed to each as every man had need. For he said that experience was needed in order to distinguish between cases of genuine need and of mere greedy begging. For whoever gives to the afflicted gives to the Lord, and from the Lord shall have his reward; but he who gives to every vagabond casts to a dog, a nuisance indeed from his importunity, but deserving no pity on the ground of want.
4. He was moreover the first to speak shortly, as befits the importance of the subject, about some of the daily duties of life. As to this I should wish you to hear from himself, for it would not be right for me to weaken the force of his lessons. I would pray that we might visit him together, that so you might both accurately preserve in your memory what he said, and supply any omissions by your own intelligence. One thing that I do remember, out of the many which I heard, is this; that instruction how to lead the Christian life depends less on words, than on daily example. I know that, if you had not been detained by the duty of succouring your aged father, there is nothing that you would have more greatly esteemed than a meeting with the bishop, and that you would not have advised me to leave him in order to wander in deserts. Caves and rocks are always ready for us, but the help we get from our fellow man is not always at hand. If, then, you will put up with my giving you advice, you will impress on your father the desirability of his allowing you to leave him for a little while in order to meet a man who, alike from his experience of others and from his own wisdom, knows much, and is able to impart it to all who approach him.
Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (PNPF II/VIII, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.