Fathers of the Church
Letter XLII: to Chilo, His Disciple
by Basil the Great in 357-370 | translated by Blomfield Jackson, M.A
1. IF, my true brother, you gladly suffer yourself to be advised by me as to what course of action you should pursue, specially in the points in which you have referred to me for advice, you will owe me your salvation. Many men have had the courage to enter upon the solitary life; but to live it out to the end is a task which perhaps has been achieved by few. The end is not necessarily involved in the intention; yet in the end is the guerdon of the toil. No advantage, therefore, accrues to men who fail to press on to the end of what they have in view and only adopt the solitary's life in its inception. Nay, they make their profession ridiculous, and are charged by outsiders with unmanliness and instability of purpose. Of these, moreover, the Lord says, who wishing to build a house "sitteth not down first and counteth the cost whether he have sufficient to finish it? lest haply after he hath laid the foundation and is not able to finish it," the passers-by "begin to mock him saying," this man laid a foundation "and was not able to finish." Let the start, then, mean that you heartily advance in virtue. The right noble athlete Paul, wishing us not to rest in easy security on so much of our life as may have been lived well in the past, but, every day to attain further progress, says "Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling." So truly stands the whole of human life, not contented with what has gone before and fed not so much on the past as on the future. For how is a man the better for having his belly filled yesterday, if his natural hunger fails to find its proper satisfaction in food to-day? In the same way the soul gains nothing by yesterday's virtue unless it be followed by the right conduct of to-day. For it is said "I shall judge thee as I shall find thee."
2. Vain then is the labour of the righteous man, and free from blame is the way of the sinner, if a change befall, and the former turn from the better to the worse, and the latter from the worse to the better. So we hear from Ezekiel teaching as it were in the name of the Lord, when he says, "if the righteous turneth away and committeth iniquity, I will not remember the righteousness which he committed before; in his sin he shall die," and so too about the sinner; if he turn away from his wickedness, and do that which is right, he shall live. Where were all the labours of God's servant Moses, when the gainsaying of one moment shut him out from entering into the promised land? What became of the companionship of Gehazi with Elissaeus, when he brought leprosy on himself by his covetousness? What availed all Solomon's vast wisdom, and his previous regard for God, when afterwards from his mad love of women he fell into idolatry? Not even the blessed David was blameless, when his thoughts went astray and he sinned against the wife of Uriah. One example were surely enough for keeping safe one who is living a godly life, the fall from the better to the worse of Judas, who, after being so long Christ's disciple, for a mean gain sold his Master and got a halter for himself. Learn then, brother, that it is not he who begins well who is perfect. It is he who ends well who is approved in God's sight. Give then no sleep to your eyes or slumber to your eyelids that you may be delivered "as a roe from the net and a bird from the snare." For, behold, you are passing through the midst of snares; you are treading on the top of a high wall whence a fall is perilous to the fuller; wherefore do not straightway attempt extreme discipline; above all things beware of confidence in yourself, lest you fall from a height of discipline through want of training. It is better to advance a little at a time. Withdraw then by degrees from the pleasures of life, gradually destroying all your wonted habits, lest you bring on yourself a crowd of temptations by irritating all your passions at once. When you have mastered one passion, then begin to wage war against another, and in this manner you will in good time get the better of all. Indulgence, so far as the name goes, is one, but its practical workings are diverse. First then, brother, meet every temptation with patient endurance. And by what various temptations the faithful man is proved; by worldly loss, by accusations, by lies, by opposition, by calumny, by persecution! These and the like are the tests of the faithful. Further, be quiet, not rash in speech, not quarrelsome, not disputatious, not covetous of vain glory, not more anxious to get than to give knowledge, not a man of many words, but always more ready to learn than to teach. Do not trouble yourself about worldly life; from it no good can come to you. It is said, "That my mouth speak not the works of men." The man who is fond of talking about sinners' doings, soon rouses the desire for self indulgence; much better busy yourself about the lives of good men for so you will get some profit for yourself. Do not be anxious to go travelling about from village to village anti house to house; rather avoid them as traps for souls. If any one, for true pity's sake, invite you with many pleas to enter his house, let him be told to follow the faith of the centurion, who, when Jesus was hastening to him to perform an act of healing, besought him not to do so in the words, "Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my servant shall be healed," and when Jesus had said to him "Go thy way; as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee," his servant was healed from that hour. Learn then, brother, that it was the faith of the suppliant, not the presence of Christ, which delivered the sick man. So too now, if you pray, in whatever place you be, and the sick man believes that he will be aided by your prayers, all will fall out as he desires.
3. You will not love your kinsfolk more than the Lord. "He that loveth," He says, "father, or mother, or brother, more than me, is not worthy of me." What is the meaning of the Lord's commandment? "He that taketh not up his cross and followeth after me, cannot be my disciple?" If, together with Christ, you died to your kinsfolk according to the flesh, why do you wish to live with them again? If for your kinsfolk's sake you are building up again what you destroyed for Christ's sake, you make yourself a transgressor. Do not then for your kinsfolk's sake abandon your place: if you abandon your place, perhaps you will abandon your mode of life. Love not the crowd, nor the country, nor the town; love the desert, ever abiding by yourself with no wandering mind, regarding prayer anti praise as your life's work. Never neglect reading, especially of the New Testament, because very frequently mischief comes of reading the Old; not because what is written is harmful, but because the minds of the injured are weak. All bread is nutritious, but it may be injurious to the sick. Just so all Scripture is God inspired and profitable, and there is nothing in it unclean: only to him who thinks it is unclean, to him it is unclean. "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from every form of evil." "All things are lawful but all things are not expedient." Among all, with whom you come in contact, be in all things a giver of no offence, cheerful, "loving as a brother," pleasant, humble-minded, never missing the mark of hospitality through extravagance of meats, but always content with what is at hand. Take no more from any one than the daily necessaries of the solitary life. Above all things shun gold as the soul's foe, the father of sin and the agent of the devil. Do not expose yourself to the charge of covetousness on the pretence of ministering to the poor; but, if any one brings you money for the poor and you know of any who are in need, advise the owner himself to convey it to his needy brothers, lest haply your conscience may be defiled by the acceptance of money.
4. Shun pleasures; seek after continence; train your body to hard work; accustom your soul to trials. Regarding the dissolution of soul and body as release from every evil, await that enjoyment of everlasting good things in which all the saints have part. Ever, as it were, holding the balance against every suggestion of the devil throw in a holy thought, and, as the scale inclines do thou go with it. Above all when the evil thought starts up and says, "What is the good of your passing your life in this place? What do you gain by withdrawing yourself from the society of men? Do you not know that those, who are ordained by God to be bishops of God's churches, constantly associate with their fellows, and indefatigably attend spiritual gatherings at which those who are present derive very great advantage? There are to be enjoyed explanations of hard sayings, expositions of the teachings of the apostles, interpretations of the thoughts of the gospels. lessons in theology and the intercourse of spiritual brethren, who do great good to all they meet if only by the sight of their faces. You, however, who have decided to be a stranger to all these good things, are sitting here in a wild state like the beasts. You see round you a wide desert with scarcely a fellow creature in it, lack of all instruction, estrangement from your brothers, and your spirit inactive in carrying out the commandments of God." Now, when the evil thought rises against you, with all these ingenious pretexts and wishes to destroy you, oppose to it in pious reflection Your own practical experience, and say, u tell me that the things in the world are good; the reason why I came here is because I judged myself unfit for the good things of the world. With the world's good things are mingled evil things, and the evil things distinctly have the upper hand. Once when I attended the spiritual assemblies I did with difficulty find one brother, who, so far as I could see, feared God, but he was a victim of the devil, and I heard from him amusing stories and tales made up to deceive those whom he met. After him I fell in with many thieves, plunderers, tyrants. I saw disgraceful drunkards; I saw the blood of the oppressed; I saw women's beauty, which tortured my chastity. From actual fornication I fled, but I defiled my virginity by the thoughts of my heart. I heard many discourses which were good for the soul, but I could not discover in the case of any one of the teachers that his life was worthy of his words. After this, again, I heard a great number of plays, which were made attractive by wanton songs. Then I heard a lyre sweetly played, the applause of tumblers, the talk of clowns, all kinds of jests and follies and all the noises of a crowd. I saw the tears of the robbed, the agony of the victims of tyranny, the shrieks of the tortured. I looked and lo, there was no spiritual assembly, but only a sea, wind-tossed and agitated, and trying to drown every one at once under its waves. Tell me, O evil thought, tell me, daemon of short lived pleasure and vain glory, what is the good of my seeing and hearing all these things, when I am powerless to succour any of those who are thus wronged; when I am allowed neither to defend the helpless nor correct the fallen; when I am perhaps doomed to destroy myself too. For just as a very little fresh water is blown away by a storm of wind and dust, in like manner the good deeds, that we think we do in this life, are overwhelmed by the multitude of evils. Pieces acted for men in this life are driven through joy and merriment, like stakes into their hearts, so that the brightness of their worship is be-dimmed. But the wails and lamentations of men wronged by their fellows are introduced to make a show of the patience of the poor.
5. What good then do I get except the loss of my soul? For this reason I migrate to the hills like a bird. "I am escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers." I am living, O evil thought, in the desert in which the Lord lived. Here is the oak of Mature; here is the ladder going up to heaven, and the stronghold of the angels which Jacob saw; here is the wilderness in which the people purified received the law, and so came into the land of promise and saw God. Here is Mount Carmel where Elias sojourned and pleased God. Here is the plain whither Esdras withdrew, and at God's bidding uttered all the God inspired books. Here is the wilderness in which the blessed John ate locusts and preached repentance to men. Here is the Mount of Olives, whither Christ came and prayed, and taught us to pray. Here is Christ the lover of the wilderness, for He says "Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them." "Here is the strait and narrow way which leadeth unto life." Here are the teachers and prophets "wandering in deserts and in mountains and in dens and caves of the earth." Here are apostles and evangelists and solitaries' life remote from cities. This I have embraced with all my heart, that I may win what has been promised to Christ's martyrs and all His other saints, and so I may truly say, "Because of the words of thy lips I have kept hard ways." I have heard of Abraham, God's friend, who obeyed the divine voice and went into the wilderness; of Isaac who submitted to authority; of Jacob, the patriarch, who left his home; of Joseph, the chaste, who was sold; of the three children. who learnt how to fast, and fought with the fire; of Daniel thrown twice into the lion's den; of Jeremiah speaking boldly, and thrown into a pit of mud; of Isaiah, who saw unspeakable things, cut asunder with a saw; of Israel led away captive; of John the rebuker of adultery, beheaded; of Christ's martyrs slain. But why say more? Here our Saviour Himself was crucified for our sakes that by His death He might give us life, and train and attract us all to endurance. To Him I press on, and to the Father and to the Holy Ghost. I strive to be found true, judging myself unworthy of this world's goods. And yet not I because of the world, but the world because of me. Think of all these things in your heart; follow them with zeal; fight, as you have been commanded, for the truth to the death. For Christ was made "obedient" even "unto death." The Apostle says, "Take heed lest there be in any of you an evil heart ... in departing from the living God. But exhort one another ... (and edify one another) while it is called to- day." To-day means the whole time of our life, Thus living, brother, you will save yourself, you will make me glad, and you will glorify God from everlasting to everlasting. Amen.
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.