Fathers of the Church
Letter CCXVII: to Amphilochius, the Canons
by Basil the Great in 357-370 | translated by Blomfield Jackson, M.A
ON my return from a long journey (for I have been into Pontus on ecclesiastical business, and to visit my relations) with my body weak and ill, and my spirits considerably broken, I took your reverence's letter into my hand. No sooner did I receive the tokens of that voice which to me is of all voices the sweetest, and of that hand that I love so well, than I forgot all my troubles. And if I was made so much more cheerful by the receipt of your letter, you ought to be able to conjecture at what value I price your actual presence. May this be granted me by the Holy One, whenever it may be convenient to you and you yourself send me an invitation. And if you were to come to the house at Euphemias it would indeed be pleasant for me to meet you, escaping from my vexations here, and hastening to your unfeigned affection. Possibly also for other reasons I may be compelled to go as far as Nazianzus by the sudden departure of the very God-beloved bishop Gregory. How or why this has come to pass, so far I have no information. The man about whom I had spoken to your excellency, and whom you expected to be ready by this time, has, you must know, fallen ill of a lingering disease, and is moreover now suffering from an affection of the eyes, arising from his old complaint and from the illness which has now befallen him, and he is quite unfit to do any work. I have no one else with me. It is consequently better, although the matter was left by them to me, for some one to be put forward by them. And indeed one cannot but think that the expressions were used merely as a necessary form, and that what they really wished was what they originally requested, that the person selected for the leadership should be one of themselves. If there is any one of the lately baptized, whether Macedonius approve or not, let him be appointed. You will instruct him in his duties, the Lord, Who in all things cooperates with you, granting you His grace for this work also.
LI. As to the clergy, the Canons have enjoined without making any distinction that one penalty is assigned for the lapsed,—ejection from the ministry, whether they be in orders or remain ill the ministry which is conferred without imposition of hands.
LII. The woman who has given birth to a child and abandoned it in the road, if she was able to save it and neglected it, or thought by this means to hide her sin, or was moved by some brutal and inhuman motive, is to be judged as in a case of murder. If, on the other hand, she was unable to provide for it. and the child perish from exposure and want of the necessities of life, the mother is to be pardoned.
LIII. The widowed slave is not guilty of a serious fall if she adopts a second marriage under colour of rape. She is not on this ground open to accusation. It is rather the object than the pretext which must be taken into account, but it is clear that she is exposed to the punishment of digamy.
LIV. I know that I have already written to your reverence, so far as I can, on the distinctions to be observed in cases of involuntary homicide, and on this point I can say no more. It rests with your intelligence to increase or lessen the severity of the punishment as each individual case may require.
LV. Assailants of robbers, if they are outside, are prohibited from the communion of the good thing. If they are clerics they are degraded from their orders. For, it is said. "All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword."
LVI. The intentional homicide, who has afterwards repented, will be excommunicated from the sacrament for twenty years. The twenty years will be appointed for him as follows: for four he ought to weep, standing outside the door of the house of prayer, beseeching the faithful as they enter in to offer prayer in his behalf, and confessing his own sin. After four years he will be admitted among the hearers, and during five years will go out with them. During seven years he will go out with the kneelers, praying. During four years he will only stand with the faithful, and will not take part in the oblation. On the completion of this period he will be admitted to participation of the sacrament.
LVII. The unintentional homicide will be excluded for ten years from the sacrament. The ten years will be arranged as follows: For two years he will weep, for three years he will continue among the hearers; for four he will be a kneeler; and for one he will only stand. Then he will be admitted to the holy rites.
LVIII. The adulterer will be excluded from the sacrament for fifteen years. During four he will be a weeper, and during five a hearer, during four a kneeler, and for two a slander without communion.
LIX. The fornicator will not be admitted to participation in the sacrament for seven years; weeping two hearing two kneeling two, and standing one: in the eighth he will be received into communion.
LX. The woman who has professed virginity and broken her promise will complete the time appointed in the case of adultery in her continence. The same rule will be observed in the case of men who have professed a solitary life and who lapse.
LXI. The thief, if he have repented of his own accord and charged himself, shall only be prohibited from partaking of the sacrament for a year; if he be convicted, for two years. The period shall be divided between kneeling and standing. Then let him be held worthy of communion.
LXII. He who is guilty of unseemliness with males will be under discipline for the same time as adulterers.
LXIII. He who confesses his iniquity in the case of brutes shall observe the same time in penance.
LXIV. Perjurers shall be excommunicated for ten years; weeping for two, hearing for three, kneeling for four, and standing only during one year; then they shall be held worthy of communion.
LXV. He who confesses-magic or sorcery shall do penance for the time of murder, and shall be treated in the same manner as he who convicts himself of this sin.
LXVI. The tomb breaker shall be excommunicated for ten years, weeping for two, hearing for three, kneeling for four, standing for one, then he shall be admitted.
LXVII. Incest with a sister shall incur penance for the same time as murder.
LXVIII.The union of kindred within the prohibited degrees of marriage, if detected as having taken place in acts of sin, shall receive the punishment of adultery.
LXIX. The Reader who has intercourse with his betrothed before marriage, shall be allowed to read after a year's suspension, remaining without advancement. If he has had secret intercourse without betrothal, he shall be deposed from his ministry. So too the minister.
LXX. The deacon who has been polluted in lips, and has confessed his commission of this sin, shall be removed from his ministry. But he shall be permitted to partake of the sacrament together with the deacons. The same holds good in the case of a priest. If any one be detected in a more serious sin, whatever be his degree, he shall be deposed.
LXXI. Whoever is aware of the commission of any one of the aforementioned sins, and is convicted without having confessed, shall be under punishment for the same space of time as the actual perpetrator.
LXXII. He who has entrusted himself to soothsayers, or any such persons, shall be under discipline for the same time as the homicide.
LXXIII. He who has denied Christ, and sinned against the mystery of salvation, ought to weep all his life long, and is bound to remain in penitence, being deemed worthy of the sacrament in the hour of death, through faith in the mercy of God.
LXXIV. If, however, each man who has committed the former sins is made good, through penitence. he to whom is committed by the loving-kindness of God the power of loosing and binding will not be deserving of condemnation, if he become less severe, as he beholds the exceeding greatness of the penitence of the sinner, so as to lessen the period of punishment, for the history in the Scriptures informs us that all who exercise penitence with greater zeal quickly receive the loving-kindness of God.
LXXV. The man who has been polluted with Iris own sister, either on the father's or the mother's side, must not be allowed to enter the house of prayer, until he has given up his iniquitous and unlawful conduct. And, after he has come to a sense of that fearful sin, let him weep for three years standing at the door of the house of prayer, and entreating the people as they go in to prayer that each and all will mercifully offer on his behalf their prayers with earnestness to the Lord. After this let him be received for another period of three years to hearing alone, and while hearing the Scriptures and the instruction, let him be expelled and not be admitted to prayer. Afterwards, if he has asked it with tears and has fallen before the Lord with contrition of heart and great humiliation, let kneeling be accorded to him during other three years. Thus, when he shall have worthily shown the fruits of repentance, let him be received in the tenth year to the prayer of the faithful without oblation; and after standing with the faithful in prayer for two years, then, and not till then, let him be held worthy of the communion of the good thing.
LXXVI. The same rule applies to those who take their own daughters in law.
LXXVII. He who abandons the wife, lawfully trailed to him, is subject by the sentence of the Lord to the penalty of adultery. But it has been laid down as a canon by our Fathers that such sinners should weep for a year, be hearers for two years, in kneeling for three years, stand with the faithful in the seventh; and thus be deemed worthy of the oblation, if they have repented with tears.
LXXVIII. Let the same rule hold good in the case of those who marry two sisters, although at different times.
LXXIX. Men who rage after their stepmothers are subject to the same canon as those who rage after their sisters.
LXXX. On polygamy the Fathers are silent, as being brutish and altogether inhuman. The sin seems to me worse than fornication. It is therefore reasonable that such sinners should be subject to the canons; namely a year's weeping, three years kneeling and then reception.
LXXXI. During the invasion of the barbarians many men have sworn heathen oaths, tasted things unlawfully offered them in magic temples and so have broken their faith in God. Let regulations be made in the case of these men in accordance with the canons laid down by our Fathers. Those who have endured grievous tortures and have been forced to denial, through inability to sustain the anguish, may be excluded for three years, hearers for two, kneelers for three, and so be received into communion. Those who have abandoned their faith in God, laying hands on the tables of the demons and swearing heathen oaths, without under going great violence, should be excluded for three years, hearers for two. When they have prayed for three years as kneelers, and have stood other three with the faithful in supplication, then let them be received into the communion of the good thing.
LXXXII. As to perjurers, if they have broken their oaths under violent compulsion, they are under lighter penalties and may therefore be received after six years. If they break their faith without compulsion, let them be weepers for two years, hearers for three, pray as kneelers for five, during two be received into the communion of prayer, without oblation, and so at last, after giving proof of due repentance, they shall be restored to the communion of the body of Christ.
LXXXIII. Consulters of soothsayers and they who follow heathen customs, or bring persons into their houses to discover remedies and to effect purification, should fall under the canon of six years. After Weeping a year, hearing a year, kneeling for three years and standing with the faithful for a year so let them be received.
LXXXIV. I write all this with a view to testing the fruits of repentance. I do not decide such matters absolutely by time, but I give heed to the manner of penance. If men are in a state in which they find it hard to be weaned from their own ways and choose rather to serve the pleasures of the flesh than to serve the Lord, and refuse to accept the Gospel life, there is no common ground between me and them. In the midst of a disobedient and gainsaying people I have been taught to hear the words " Save thy own soul." Do not then let us consent to perish together with such sinners. Let us fear the awful judgment. Let us keep before our eyes the terrible day of the retribution of the Lord. Let us not consent to perish in other men's sins, for if the terrors of the Lord have not taught us, if so great calamities have not brought us to feel that it is A because of our iniquity that the Lord has abandoned us, and given us into the hands of barbarians, that the people have been led, captive before our foes and given over to dispersion, because the bearers of Christ's name have dared such deeds; if they have not known nor understood that it is for these reasons that the wrath of God has come upon us, what common ground of argument have I with them?
But we ought to testify to them day and night, alike in public and in private. Let us not consent to be drawn away with them in their wickedness. Let us above all pray that we may do them good, and rescue them from the snare of the evil one. If we cannot do this, let us at all events do our best to save our own souls from everlasting damnation,
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.