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Fathers of the Church

Letter CCXXIII: against Eustathius of Sebasteia


Basil finally gives a defense against the false charges of blasphemy made against him.


St. Basil's correspondence is a copious and invaluable store of information for the history of the Eastern Church in the fourth century, particularly in Cappadocia. Since he never found a real biographer, his letters represent the best source for his life and times, for his many activities and far-reaching influence, especially for his personality and his character. (Quasten)

by Basil the Great in 357-370 | translated by Blomfield Jackson, M.A

1. THERE is a time to keep silence and a time to speak, is the saying of the Preacher. Time enough has been given to silence, and now the time has come to open my mouth for the publication of the truth concerning matters that are, up to now, unknown. The illustrious Job bore his calamities for a long time in silence, and ever showed his courage by holding out under the most intolerable sufferings, but when he had struggled long enough in silence, and had persisted in covering his anguish in the bottom of his heart, at last he opened his mouth and uttered his well-known words. In my own case this is now the third year of my silence, and my boast has become like that of the Psalmist "I was as a man that heareth not and in whose mouth are no reproofs." Thus I shut up in the bottom of my heart the pangs which I suffered on account of the calumnies directed against me, for calumny humbles a man, and calumny makes a poor man giddy. If, therefore, the mischief of calumny is so great as to cast down even the perfect man from his height, for this is what Scripture indicates by the word man, and by the poor man is meant he who lacks the great doctrines, as is the view also of the prophet when he says, "These are poor, therefore they shall not hear; ... I will get me unto the great men," he means by poor those who are lacking in understanding; and here, too, he plainly means those who are not yet furnished in the inner man, and have not even come to the full measure of their age; it is these who are said by the proverb to be made giddy and tossed about. Nevertheless I thought that I ought to bear my troubles in silence, waiting for some indication to come out of them. I did not even think that what was said against me proceeded from ill will; I thought it was the result of ignorance of the truth. But now I see that hostility increases with time, and that my slanderers are not sorry for what they said at the beginning, and do not take any trouble to make amends for the past, but go on and on and rally themselves together to attain their original object. This was to make my life miserable and to devise means for sullying my reputation among the brethren. I, therefore, no longer see safety in silence. I have bethought me of the words of Isaiah: " I have long time holden my peace, shall I always be still and refrain myself? I have been patient like a travailing woman." God grant that I may both receive the reward of silence, and gain some strength to confute my opponents, and that thus, by confuting them, I may dry up the bitter torrent of falsehood that has gushed out against me. So might I say, "My soul bus passed over the torrent;" and, "If it had not been the Lord who was on our side when men rose up against us, ... then they had swallowed us up quick, the water had drowned us."

2. Much time had I spent in vanity, and had wasted nearly all my youth in the vain labour which I underwent in acquiring the wisdom made foolish by God. Then once upon a time, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvellous light of the truth of the Gospel, and I perceived the uselessness of "the wisdom of the princes of this world, that come to naught." I wept many tears over my miserable life and I prayed that guidance might be vouchsafed me to admit me to the doctrines of true religion. First of all was I minded to make some mending of my ways, long perverted as they were by my intimacy with wicked men. Then I read the Gospel, and I saw there that a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one's goods, the sharing them with the poor, the giving up of all care for this life, and the refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy to things of earth. And I prayed that I might find some one of the brethren who had chosen this way of life, that with him I might cross life's short and troubled strait. And many did I find in Alexandria, and many in the rest of Egypt, and others in Palestine, and in Coele Syria, and in Mesopotamia. I admired their continence in living, and their endurance in toil; I was amazed at their persistency in prayer, and at their triumphing over sleep; subdued by no natural necessity, ever keeping their souls' purpose high and free, in hunger, in thirst, in cold, in nakedness, they never yielded to the body; they were never willing to waste attention on it; always, as though living in a flesh that was not theirs, they shewed in very deed what it is to sojourn for a while in this life, and what to have one's citizenship and home in heaven. All this moved my admiration. I called these men's lives blessed, in that they did in deed shew that they "bear about in their body the dying of Jesus." And I prayed that I, too, as far as in me lay, might imitate them.

3. So when I beheld certain men in my own country striving to copy their ways, I felt that I had found a help to my own salvation, and I took the things seen for proof of things unseen. And since the secrets in the hearts of each of us are unknown, I held lowliness of dress to be a sufficient indication of lowliness of spirit; and there was enough to convince me in the coarse cloak, the girdle, and the shoes of untanned hide. And though many were for withdrawing me from their society, I would not allow it, because I saw that they put a life of endurance before a life of pleasure; and, because of the extraordinary excellence of their lives, I became an eager supporter of them. And so it came about that I would not hear of any fault being found with their doctrines, although many maintained that their conceptions about God were erroneous, and that they bad become disciples of the champion of the present heresy, and were secretly propagating his teaching. But, as I had never at any time heard these things with my own ears, I concluded that those who reported them were calumniators. Then I was called to preside over the Church. Of the watchmen and spies, who were given me under the pretence of assistance and loving communion, I say nothing, lest I seem to injure my own cause by telling an incredible tale, or give believers an occasion for hating their fellows, if I am believed. This had almost been my own case, had I not been prevented by the mercy of God. For almost every one became an object of suspicion to me, and smitten at heart as I was by wounds treacherously inflicted, I seemed to find nothing in any man that I could trust. But so far there was, nevertheless, a kind of intimacy kept up between us. Once and again we held discussions on doctrinal points. and apparently we seemed to agree and keep together. But they began to find out that I made the same statements concerning my faith in God which they had always heard from me. For, if other things in me may move a sigh, this one boast at least I dare make in the Lord, that never for one moment have I held erroneous conceptions about God, or entertained heterodox opinions, which I have learnt later to change. The teaching about God which I had received as a boy from my blessed mother and my grandmother Macrina, I have ever held with increased conviction. On my coming to ripe years of reason I did not shift my opinions from one to another, but carried out the principles delivered to me by my parents. Just as the seed when it grows is first tiny and then gets bigger but always preserves its identity, not changed in kind though gradually perfected in growth, so I reckon the same doctrine to have grown in my case through gradually advancing stages. What I hold now has not replaced what I held at the beginning. Let them search their own consciences. Let these men who have now made me the common talk on the charge of false doctrine, and deafened all men's ears with the defamatory letters which they have written against me, so that I am compelled thus to defend myself, ask themselves if they have ever heard anything from me, differing from what I now say, and let them remember the judgment seat of Christ.

4. I am charged with blasphemy against God. Yet it is impossible for me to be convicted on the ground of any treatise concerning the Faith, which they urge against me, nor can I be charged on the ground of the utterances which I have from thee to thee delivered by word of mouth, without their being committed to writing, in the churches of God. Not a single witness has been found to say that he has ever heard from me, when speaking in private, anything contrary to true religion. If then I am not an unorthodox writer, if no fault can be found with my preaching, if I do not lead astray those who converse with me in my own homer on what ground am I being judged? But there is a new invention! Somebody, runs the charge, in Syria has written something inconsistent with true religion; and twenty years or more ago you wrote him a letter: so you are an accomplice of the fellow, and what is urged against him is urged against you. O truth-loving sir, I reply, you who have been taught that lies are the offspring of the devil; what has proved to you that I wrote that letter? You never sent; you never asked; you were never informed by me, who might have told you the truth. But if the letter was mine, how do you know that the document that has come into your hands now is of the same date as my letter? Who told you that it is twenty years old? How do you know that it is a composition of the man to whom my letter was sent? And if he was the composer, and I wrote to him, and my letter and his composition belong to the same date, what proof is there that I accepted it in my judgment, and that I hold those views?

5. Ask yourself. How often did you visit me in my monastery on the Iris, when my very God-beloved brother Gregory was with me, following the same course of life as myself? Did you ever hear anything of the kind? Was there any appearance of such a thing, small or great? How many days did we spend in the opposite village, at my mother's, living as friend with friend, and discoursing together night and day? Did you ever find me holding any opinion of the kind? And when we went together to visit the blessed Silvanus, did we not talk of these things on the way? And at Eusinoe, when you were about to set out with other bishops for Lampsacus, was not our discourse about the faith? Were not your shorthand writers at my side the whole thee while I was dictating my objections to the heresy? Were not your most faithful disciples there too? When I was visiting the brotherhood, and passing the night with them in their prayers, continually speaking and hearing of the things pertaining to God without dispute, was not the evidence which I gave of my sentiments exact and definite? How came you then to reckon this rotten and slender suspicion as of more importance than the experience of such a length of time? What evidence of my frame of mind ought you to have preferred to your own? Has there been the slightest want of harmony in my utterances about the faith at Chalcedon, again and again at Heraclea, and at an earlier period in the suburb of Caesarea? Are they not all mutually consistent? I only except the increase in force of which I spoke just now, resulting from advance, and which is not to be regarded as a change from worse to better, but rather as a filling up of what was wanting in the addition of knowledge. How can you fail to bear in mind that the father shall not bear the iniquity of the son, nor the son bear the iniquity of the father, but each shall die in his own sin? I have neither father nor son slandered by you; I have had neither teacher nor disciple. But if the sins of the parents must be made charges against their children, it is far fairer for the sins of Arius to be charged against his disciples; and, whoever begat the heretic Aetius, for the charges against the son to be applied to the father. If on the other hand it is unjust for any one to be accused for their sakes, it is far more unjust that I should be held responsible for the sake of men with whom I have nothing to do, even if they were in every respect sinners, and something worthy of condemnation has been written by them. I must be pardoned if I do not believe all that is urged against them. since my own experience shows me how very easy it is for accusers to slip into slander.

6. Even if they did come forward to accuse me, because they had been deceived, and thought that I was associated with the writers of those words of Sabellius which they are carrying about, they were guilty of unpardonable conduct in straightway attacking and wounding me, when I had done them no wrong, before they had obtained plain proof. I do not like to speak of myself as bound to them in the closest intimacy; or of them as being evidently not led by the Holy Spirit, because of their cherishing false suspicions. Much anxious thought must be taken, and many sleepless nights must be passed, and with many tears must the truth be sought from God, by him who is on the point of cutting himself off from a brother's friendship. Even the riders of this world, when they are on the point of sentencing some evil doer to death, draw the veil aside, and call in experts for the examination of the case, and consume considerable thee in weighing the severity of the law against the common fault of humanity, and with many a sigh and many a lament for then stern necessity of the case, proclaim before all the people that they are obeying the law from necessity, and not passing sentence to gratify, their own wishes. How much greater care and diligence, how ranch more counsel, ought to be taken by one who is on the point of breaking off from long established friendship with a brother! In this case there is only a single letter and that of doubtful genuineness. It would be quite impossible to argue that it is known by the signature, for they possess not the original, but only a copy. They depend on one single document and that an old one. It is now twenty years since anything has been written to that person. Of my opinions and conduct in the intervening thee I can adduce no better witnesses than the very men who attack and accuse me.

7. But the real reason of separation is not this letter. There is another cause of alienation. I am ashamed to mention it; and I would have been for ever silent about it had not recent events compelled me to publish all their mind for the sake of the good of the mass of the people. Good men have thought that communion with me was a bar to the recovery of their authority. Some have been influenced by the signature of a certain creed which I proposed to them, not that I distrusted their sentiments, I confess, but because I wished to do away with the suspicions which the more part of the brethren who agree with me entertained of them. Accordingly, to avoid anything arising from that confession to prevent their being accepted by the present authorities, they have renounced communion with me. This letter was devised by an after-thought as a pretext for the separation. A very plain proof of what I say is, that after they had denounced me, and composed such complaints against me as suited them, they sent round their letters in all directions before communicating with me. Their letter was in the possession of others who had received it in the course of transmission and who were on the point of sending it on seven days before it had reached my hands. The idea was that it would be handed from one to another and so would be quickly distributed over the whole country. This was reported to me at the thee by those who were giving me clear information of all their proceedings. But I determined to hold my tongue until the Revealer of all secrets should publish their doings by plain and incontrovertible demonstration.

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.