Fathers of the Church
Letter XLVI: to a Fallen Virgin
by Basil the Great in 357-370 | translated by Blomfield Jackson, M.A
1. Now is the time to quote the words of the prophet and to say, "Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people." Though they are wrapped in profound silence and lie stunned by their misfortune, robbed of all sense of feeling by the fatal blow, I at all events must not let such a fall go unlamented. If, to Jeremiah, it seemed that those whose bodies had been wounded in war, were worthy of innumerable lamentations, what shall be said of such a disaster of souls? "My slain men," it is said, "are not slain with the sword, nor dead in battle." But I am bewailing the sting of the real death, the grievousness of sin and the fiery darts of the wicked one, which have savagely set on fire souls as well as bodies. Truly God's laws would groan aloud on seeing so great a pollution on the earth. They have pronounced their prohibition of old "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife"; and through the holy gospels they say that "Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery already with her in his heart." Now they see the bride of the Lord herself, whose head is Christ, boldly committing adultery. So too would groan the companies of the Saints. Phinehas, the zealous, because he can now no more take his spear into his hands and avenge the outrage on the bodies; and John the Baptist, because he cannot quit the realms above, as in his life he left the wilderness, to hasten to convict iniquity, and if he must suffer for the deed, rather lose his head than his freedom to speak. But, peradventure, like the blessed Abel, he too though dead yet speaks to us, and now exclaims, more loudly than John of old concerning Herodias. "It is not lawful for thee to have her." For even if the body of John in obedience to the law of nature has received the sentence of God, and his tongue is silent, yet "the word of God is not bound." John, when he saw the wedlock of a fellow servant set at nought, was bold to rebuke even to the death: how would he feel on seeing such an outrage wreaked on the marriage chamber of the Lord?
2. You have flung away the yoke of that divine union; you have fled from the undefiled chamber of the true King; you have shamefully fallen into this disgraceful and impious corruption; and now that you cannot avoid this painful charge, and have no means or device to conceal your trouble, you rush into insolence. The wicked man after falling into a pit of iniquity always begins to despise, and you are denying your actual covenant with the true bridegroom; you say that you are not a virgin, and made no promise, although you have undertaken and publicly professed many pledges of virginity. Remember the good profession which you witnessed before God, angels, and men. Remember the hallowed intercourse, the sacred company of virgins, the assembly of the Lord, the Church of the holy. Remember your grandmother, grown old in Christ, still youthful and vigorous in virtue; and your mother vying with her in the Lord, and striving to break with ordinary life in strange and unwonted toils; remember your sister, who copies their doings, nay, endeavours to surpass them, and goes beyond the good deeds of her fathers in her virgin graces, and earnestly challenges by word and deed you her sister, as she thinks, to like efforts, while she earnestly prays that your virginity be preserved. All these call to mind, and your holy service of God with them, your life spiritual, though in the flesh; your conversation heavenly, though on earth. Remember days of calm, nights lighted up, spiritual songs, sweet music of psalms, saintly prayers, a bed pure and undefiled, procession of virgins, and moderate fare. What has become of your grave appearance, your gracious demeanour, your plain dress, meet for a virgin, the beautiful blush of modesty, the comely and bright pallor due to temperance and vigils, shining fairer than any brilliance of complexion? How often have you not prayed, perhaps with tears, that you might preserve your virginity without spot! How often have you not written to the holy men, imploring them to offer up prayers in your behalf, not that it should be your lot to marry, still less to be involved in this shameful corruption, but that you should not fall away from the Lord Jesus? How often have you received gifts from the Bridegroom? Why enumerate the honours given you for His sake by them that are His? Why tell of your fellowship with virgins, your progress with them, your being greeted by them with praises on account of virginity, eulogies of virgins, letters written as to a virgin? Now, nevertheless, at a little blast from the spirit of the air, "that now worketh in the children of disobedience," you have abjured all these; you have changed the honourable treasure, worth fighting for at all costs, for short-lived indulgence which does! for the moment gratify the appetite; one day you will find it more bitter than gall.
3. Who would not grieve over such things and say, "How is the faithful city become an harlot?" How would not the Lord Himself say to some of those who are now walking in the spirit of Jeremiah, "Hast thou seen what the virgin of Israel has done to me?" I betrothed her to me in trust, in purity, in righteousness, in judgment, in pity, and in mercy; as I promised her through Hosea the prophet. But she loved strangers, and while I, her husband. was yet alive, she is called adulteress, and is not afraid to belong to another husband. What then says the conductor of the bride, the divine and blessed Paul, both that one of old, and the later one of to- day under whose mediation and instruction you left your father's house and were united to the Lord? Might not either, in sorrow for such a trouble, say, "The thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me." "I have espoused you to one husband that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ." I was indeed ever afraid "lest by any means as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your mind should be corrupted;" wherefore by countless counter-charms I strove to control the agitation of your senses, and by countless safeguards to preserve the bride of the Lord. So I continually set forth the life of the unmarried maid, and described how "the unmarried" alone "careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit." I used to describe the high dignity of virginity, and, addressing you as a temple of God, used as it were to give wings to your zeal as I strove to lift you to Jesus. Yet through fear of evil I helped you not to fall by the words "if any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy." So by my prayers I tried to make you more secure, if by any means "your body, soul, and spirit might be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." Yet all my toil on your behalf has been in vain. Bitter to me has been the end of those sweet labours. Now I needs must groan again at that over which I ought to have rejoiced. You have been deceived by the serpent more bitterly than Eve; and not only your mind but also your body has been defiled. Even that last horror has come to pass which I shrink from saying, and yet cannot leave unsaid, for it is as a burning and blazing fire in my bones, and I am undone and cannot endure. You have taken the members of Christ and made them the members of a harlot. This is an evil with which no other can be matched. This outrage in life is new. "For pass over the Isles of Chittim and see; and send unto Chedar and consider diligently, and see if there be such a thing. Hath a nation changed their gods which are yet no gods." But the virgin has changed her glory, and her glory is in her shame. The heavens are astonished at this, and the earth is horribly afraid, saith the Lord, for the virgin has committed two evils; she has forsaken Me, the true and holy Bridegroom of holy souls, and has betaken herself to an impious and lawless destroyer of body and soul alike. She has revolted from God, her Saviour, and yielded her members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity. She forgot me and went after her lover from whom she will get no good.
4. It were better for him that a mill-stone had been hanged about his neck, and that he had been cast into the sea, than that he should have offended the virgin of the Lord. What slave ever reached such a pitch of mad audacity as to fling himself upon his master's bed? What robber ever attained such a height of folly as to lay hands upon the very offerings of God, not dead vessels, but bodies living and enshrining a soul made after the image of God?
Who was ever known to have the hardihood, in the heart of a city anti at high noon, to mark figures of filthy swine upon a royal statue? He who has set at naught a marriage of man, with no mercy shewn him, in the presence of two or three witnesses, dies. Of how much sorer punishment, suppose you, shall he be thought worthy who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and defiled His pledged bride and done despite unto the spirit of virginity? But the woman, he urges, consented, and I did no violence to her against her will. So, that unchaste lady of Egypt raged with love for comely Joseph, but the chaste youth's virtue was not overcome by the frenzy of the wicked woman, and, even when she laid her hand upon him, he was not forced into iniquity. But still, he urges, this was no new thing in her case; she was no longer a maid; if I had been unwilling, she would have been corrupted by some one else. Yes; and it is written, the Son of Man was ordained to be betrayed, but woe unto that man by whom He was betrayed. It must needs be that offences come, but woe to that man by whom they come.
5. In such a state of things as this, "Shall they fall and not arise? Shall he turn away and not return?" Why did the virgin turn shamefully away, though she bad heard Christ her bridegroom saying through the mouth of Jeremiah, "And I said, after she had done all these things (committed all these fornications, LXX.), turn thou unto me, but she returned not?" "Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?" You might indeed find many remedies for evil in Scripture, many medicines to save from destruction and lead to health; the mysteries of death and resurrection, the sentences of terrible judgment and everlasting punishment; the doctrines of repentance and of remission of sins; all the countless illustrations of conversion, the piece of money, the sheep, the son who wasted his substance with harlots, who was lost and was found, who was dead and alive again. Let us not use these remedies for ill; by these means let us heal our soul. Bethink you of your last day, for you will surely not, unlike all other women, live for ever. The distress, the gasping for breath, the hour of death, the imminent sentence of God, the angels hastening on their way, the soul fearfully dismayed, and lashed to agony by the consciousness of sin, turning itself piteously to things of this life and to the inevitable necessity of that long life to be lived elsewhere. Picture to me, as it rises in your imagination, the conclusion of all human life, when the Son of God shall come in His glory with His angels, "For he shall come anti shall not keep silence;" when He shall come to judge the quick and dead, to render to every one according to his work; when that terrible trumpet with its mighty voice shall wake those that have slept through the ages, and they that have done good shall come forth unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation. Remember the vision of Daniel, and bow he brings the judgment before us: "I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head like the pure wool; ... and His wheels as burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came forth before Him; thousand thousands ministered unto Him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened," clearly disclosing in the hearing of all, angels and men, things good and evil, things done openly and in secret, deeds, words, and thoughts all at once. What then must those men be who have lived wicked lives? Where then shall that soul hide which in the sight of all these spectators shall suddenly be revealed in its fulness of shame? With what kind of body shall it sustain those endless and unbearable pangs in the place of fire unquenched, and of the worm that perishes and never dies, and of depth of Hades, dark and horrible; bitter wailings, loud lamenting, weeping and gnashing of teeth and anguish without end? From all these woes there is no release after death; no device, no means of coming forth from the chastisement of pain.
6. We can escape now. While we can, let us lift ourselves from the fall: let us never despair of ourselves, if only we depart from evil. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. "O come, let us worship and fall down; let us weep before Him." The Word Who invited us to repentance calls aloud, "Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." There is, then, a way of salvation, if we will. "Death in his might has swallowed up, but again the Lord hath wiped away tears from off all faces" of them that repent. The Lord is faithful in all His words. He does not lie when He says, "Though your sins be scarlet they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson they shall be as wool." The great Physician of souls, Who is the ready liberator, not of you alone, but of all who are enslaved by sin, is ready to heal your sickness. From Him come the words, it was His sweet and saving lips that said, "They that be whole need not a physician but they that are sick. ... I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." What excuse have you, what excuse has any one, when He speaks thus? The Lord wishes to cleanse you from the trouble of your sickness and to show you light after darkness. The good Shepherd, Who left them that had not wandered away, is seeking after you. If you give yourself to Him He will not hold back. He, in His love, will not disdain even to carry you on His own shoulders, rejoicing that He has found His sheep which was lost. The Father stands and awaits your return from your wandering. Only come back, and while you are yet afar off, He will run and fall upon your neck, and, now that you are cleansed by repentance, will enwrap you in embraces of love. He will clothe with the chief robe the soul that has put off the old man with all his works; He will put a ring on hands that have washed off the blood of death, and will put shoes on feet that have turned from the evil way to the path of the Gospel of peace. He will announce the day of joy and gladness to them that are His own, both angels and men, and will celebrate your salvation far and wide. For "verily I say unto you," says He, "there is joy in heaven before God over one sinner that repenteth." If any of those who think they stand find fault because of your quick reception, the good Father will Himself make answer for you in the words, "It was meet that we should make merry and be glad for this" my daughter "was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found."
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.