Fathers of the Church
Letter CCLXXXIX: Without Address. Concerning an Afflicted Woman
by Basil the Great in 357-370 | translated by Blomfield Jackson, M.A
I CONSIDER it an equal mistake, to let the guilty go unpunished, and to exceed the proper limits of punishment. I accordingly passed upon this man the sentence I considered it incumbent on me to pass—ex-communication from the Church. The sufferer I exhorted not to avenge herself; but to leave to God the redressing of her wrongs. Thus if my admonitions had possessed any weight, I should then have been obeyed, for the language I employed was far more likely to ensure credit, than any letter to enforce compliance.
So, even after listening to her statements that contained matter sufficiently grave, I still held my peace; and even now I am not sure that it becomes me to treat again of this same question.
For, she says, I have foregone husband, children, all the enjoyments of life, for the attainment of this single object, the favour of God, and good repute amongst men. Yet one day the offender, an adept from boyhood in corrupting families, with the impudence habitual to him, forced an entrance into my house; and thus within the bare limits of an interview an acguaintanceship was formed. It was only owing to my ignorance of the man, and to that timidity which comes from inexperience, that I hesitated openly to turn him out of doors. Yet to such a pitch of impiety and insolence did he come, that he filled the whole city with slanders, and publicly inveighed against me by affixing to the church doors libellous placards. For this conduct, it is true, he incurred the displeasure of the law: but, nevertheless, he returned to his slanderous attacks on me. Once more the market-place was filled with his abuse, as well as the gymnasia, theatres, and houses whose congeniality of habits gained him an admittance. Nor did his very extravagance lead men to recognise those virtues wherein I was conspicuous, so universally had I been represented as being of an incontinent disposition. In these calumnies, she goes on to say, some find a delight—such is the pleasure men naturally feel in the disparagement of others; some profess to be pained, but shew no sympathy; others believe the truth of these slanders; others again, having regard to the persistency of his oaths, are undecided. But sympathy I have none. And now indeed I begin to realise my loneliness, and bewail myself. I have no brother, friend, relation, no servant, bond or free, in a word, no one whatever to share my grief. And yet, I think, I am more than any one else an object of pity, in a city where the haters of wickedness are so few. They bandy violence; but violence, though they fail to see it, moves in a circle, and in time will overtake each one of them.
In such and still more appealing terms she told her tale, with countless tears, and so departed. Nor did she altogether acquit me of blame; thinking that, when I ought to sympathise with her like a father, I am indifferent to her troubles, and regard the sufferings of others too philosophically.
For it is not, she urged, the loss of money that you bid me disregard; nor the endurance of bodily sufferings; but a damaged reputation, an injury involving loss upon the Church at large.
This is her appeal; and now I pray you, most excellent sir, consider what answer you would have me make her. The decision I have come to in my own mind is, not to surrender offenders to the magistrates; yet not to rescue those already in their custody, since it has long ago been declared by the Apostle, that the magistrates should be a terror to them in their evil-doings; for, it is said, "he beareth not the sword in vain." To surrender him, then, is contrary to my humanity; while to release him would be an encouragement to his violence.
Perhaps, however, you will defer taking action until my arrival. I will then shew you that I can effect nothing from there being none to obey me.
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.