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Fathers of the Church

Letter CCVII: to the Clergy of Neocaesarea

Description

Basil writes a second time to the Neocaesareans regarding their ready acceptance of the calumnious charges made against him. See also Letter CCIV.

Provenance

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

You all concur in hating me. To a man you have followed the leader of the war against me. I was therefore minded to say not a word to any one. I determined that I would write no friendly letter; that I would start no communication, but keep my sorrow ill silence to myself. Yet it is wrong to keep silence in the face of calumny; not that by contradiction we may vindicate ourselves, but that we may not allow a lie to travel further and its victims to be harmed. I have therefore thought it necessary to put this matter also before you all, and to write a letter to you, although, when I recently wrote to all the presbyterate in common, you did not do me the honour to send me a reply. Do not, my brethren, gratify the vanity of those who are filling your minds with pernicious opinions. Do not consent to look lightly on, when, to your knowledge, God's people are being subverted by impious teaching. None but Sabellius the Libyan and Marcellus the Galatian have dared to teach and write what the leaders of your people are attempting to bring forward among you as their own private discovery. They are making a great talk about it, but they are perfectly powerless to give their sophisms anti fallacies even any colour of truth. In their harangues against me they shrink from no wickedness, and persistently refuse to meet me. Why? Is it not because they are afraid of being convicted for their own wicked opinions? Yes; and in their attacks upon me they have become so lost to all sense of shame as to invent certain dreams to my discredit while they falsely accuse my teaching of being pernicious. Let them take upon their own heads all the visions of the autumn months; they can fix no blasphemy on me, for in every Church there are many to testify to the truth.

2. When they are asked the reason for this furious and truceless war, they allege psalms and a kind of music varying from the custom which has obtained among you, and similar pretexts of which they ought to be ashamed. We are, moreover, accused because we maintain men in the practice of true religion who have renounced the world and all those cares of this life, which the Lord likens to thorns that do not allow the word to bring forth fruit. Men of this kind carry about in the body the deadness of Jesus; they have taken up their own cross, and are followers of God. I would gladly give my life if these really were my faults, and if I had men with me owning me as teacher who had chosen this ascetic life. I hear that virtue of this kind is to be fount now in Egypt, and there are, peradventure some men in Palestine whose conversation follows the precepts of the Gospel. I am told too that some perfect and blessed men are to be found in Mesopotamia. We, in comparison with the perfect, are children. But if women also have chosen to live the Gospel life, preferring virginity to wedlock. leading captive the lust of the flesh, and living in the mourning which is called blessed, they are blessed in their profession wherever they are to be found. We, however, have few instances of this to show, for with us people are still in an elementary stage and are being gradually brought. to piety. If any charges of disorder are brought against the life of our women I do not undertake to defend them. One thing, however, I do say and that is, that these bold hearts, these unbridled mouths are ever fearlessly uttering what Satan, the father of lies, has hitherto I been unable to say. I wish you to know that we rejoice to have assemblies of both men and women, whose conversation is in heaven and who have crucified the flesh with, the affections and lusts thereof; they take no thought for food and raiment, but remain undisturbed beside their Lord, continuing night and day in prayer. Their lips speak not of the deeds of men: they sing hymns to God continually, working with their own hands that they may have to distribute to them that need.

3. Now as to the charge relating to the singing of psalms, whereby my calumniators specially scare the simpler folk, my reply is this. The customs which now obtain are agreeable to those of all the Churches of God. Among us the people go at night to the house of prayer, and, in distress, affliction, and continual tears, making confession to God, at last rise from their prayers and begin to sing psalms. And now, divided into two parts, they sing antiphonally with one another, thus at once confirming their study of the Gospels, and at the same time producing for themselves a heedful temper and a heart free from distraction. Afterwards they again commit the prelude of the strain to one, and the rest take it up; and so after passing the night in various psalmody, praying at intervals as the day begins to dawn, all together, as with one voice and one heart, raise the psalm of confession to the Lord, each forming for himself his own expressions of penitence. If it is for these reasons that you renounce me, you will renounce the Egyptians; you will renounce both Libyans, Thebans, Palestinians, Arabians, Phoenicians, Syrians, the dwellers by the Euphrates; in a word all those among whom vigils, prayers, and common psalmody have been held in honour.

4. But, it is alleged, these practices were not observed in the time of the great Gregory. My rejoinder is that even the Litanies which you now use were not used in his time. I do not say this to find fault with you; for my prayer would be that every one of you should live in tears and continual penitence. We, for our part, are always offering supplication for our sins, but we propitiate our God not as you do, in the words of mere man, but in the oracles of the Spirit. And what evidence have you that this custom was not followed in the time of the great Gregory? You have kept none of his customs up to the present time. Gregory did not cover his head at prayer. How could he? He was a true disciple of the Apostle who says, "Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth Iris head." And "a man indeed ought not to cover his bead forasmuch as he is the image of God." Oaths were shunned by Gregory, that pure soul, worthy of the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, content with yea and nay, in accordance with the commandment of the Lord Who said, "I say unto you swear not at all?" Gregory could not bear to call his brother a fool, for he stood in awe of the threat of the Lord. Passion, wrath, and bitterness never proceeded out of his mouth. Railing he hated, because it leads not to the kingdom of heaven. Envy and arrogance had been shut out of that guiltless sold. He would never have stood at the altar before being reconciled to his brother. A lie, or any word designed to slander any one, he abominated, as one who knew that lies come from the devil, and that the Lord will destroy all that utter a lie. If you have none of these things, and are clear of all, then are you verily disciples of the disciple of the Lord. if not, beware lest, in your disputes about the mode of singing psalms, you are straining at the gnat and setting at naught the greatest of the commandments.

I have been driven to use these expressions by the urgency of my defence, that you may be taught to cast the beam out of your own eyes before you try to remove other men's motes. Nevertheless, I am conceding all, although there is nothing that is not searched into before God. Only let great matters prevail, and do not allow innovations in the fifth to make themselves heard. Do not disregard the hypostases. Do not deny the name of Christ. Do not put a wrong meaning on the words of Gregory. If you do so, as long as I breathe and have the power of utterance, I cannot keep silence, when I see souls being thus destroyed.

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.