In anticipation of national Thanksgiving Day in the US, and the homilies which must be written and preached this coming Sunday, we offer wisdom from St. Basil, aptly called ‘The Great.’
by St. Basil the Great
1. You have heard the words of the Apostle, in which he addresses the Thessalonians, prescribing rules of conduct for every kind of person. His teaching, to be sure, was directed towards particular audiences; but the benefit to be derived therefrom is relevant to every generation of mankind. Rejoice evermore, he says;
Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks (I Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Now, we shall explain a little later on, as far as we are able, what it means to rejoice, what benefit we receive from it, and how it is possible to achieve unceasing prayer and give thanks to God in all things.
However, it is necessary to anticipate the objections that we encounter from our adversaries, who criticize the Apostles injunctions as unattainable. For what is the virtue, they say, in passing ones life in gladness of soul, in joy and good cheer night and day? And how is it possible to achieve this, when we are beset by countless unexpected evils, which create unavoidable dejection in the soul, on account of which it is no more feasible for us to rejoice and be of good cheer than for one who is being roasted on a gridiron not to feel agony or for one who is being goaded not to suffer pain?
And perhaps there is someone among those who are standing among us here who is ailing with this sickness of the mind and makes excuses in sins (Psalm 140:4, Septuagint), and who, through his own negligence in observing the commandments, attempts to transfer the blame to the law-giver for laying down things that are unattainable. How is it possible for me always to rejoice, he may ask, when I have no grounds for being joyous?
For the factors that cause rejoicing are external and do not reside within us: the arrival of a friend, long-term contact with parents, finding money, honors bestowed on us by other people, restoration to health after a serious illness, and everything else that makes for a prosperous life: a house replete with goods of all kinds, an abundant table, close friends to share ones gladness, pleasant sounds and sights, the good health of our nearest and dearest, and whatever else gives them happiness in life. For it is not only the pains that befall us which cause us distress, but also those that afflict our friends and relatives. It is from all of these sources, therefore, that we must garner joy and cheerfulness of soul.
In addition to these things, when we have occasion to see the downfall of our enemies, wounds inflicted on those who plot against us, recompense for our benefactors, and, in general, if no unpleasant circumstance whatsoever that would disturb our life is either at hand or expected, only then is it possible for joy to exist in our souls. How is it, therefore, that a commandment has been given to us that cannot be accomplished by our own choice, but depends on other antecedent factors? How am I to pray without ceasing, when the needs of the body necessarily attract the attention of the soul to themselves, given that the mind cannot attend to two concerns at the same time?
2. And yet, I have been commanded to give thanks in everything. Am I to give thanks when I am strapped to a rack, tortured, stretched out on a wheel, and having my eyes gouged out? Am I to give thanks when I am beaten with humiliating blows by one who hates me? When I am stiff from the cold, perishing from hunger, tied to a tree, suddenly bereft of my children, or deprived even of my very wife? If I lose my wealth as a result of a sudden shipwreck? If I run into pirates on the sea, or brigands on the mainland? If I am wounded, slandered, wander around, or dwell in a dungeon?
Raising these objections, and more besides, our adversaries find fault with the lawgiver, thinking that, by slandering the precepts that we have been given as impossible to fulfill, they furnish themselves with a defense for their own sins. What, therefore, shall we say in response to them?
That, while the Apostle is looking elsewhere and attempting to elevate our souls from the earth to the heights and to transport us to a heavenly way of life, they, unable to attain to the loftiness of the lawgivers mind, and preoccupied with the earth and the flesh, crawl around in the passions of the body like worms in a swamp and demand that the Apostle issue precepts which are capable of being fulfilled. For his part, the Apostle summons not just anyone, but one who is as he was to rejoice always, no longer living in the flesh, but having Christ living in himself, since union with the highest good does not in any way allow sympathy for the demands of the flesh (cf. Galatians 2:20).
And even if an incision is made in the flesh, the disintegration occasioned by its continued presence remains in the part of the body that suffers it, since the pain is unable to spread to the noetic part of the soul. For, if, in accordance with the Apostles precept, we have mortified our members which are upon the earth (Colossians 3:5) and we bear in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus (II Corinthians 4:10), necessarily the injury suffered by the mortified body will not reach the soul which has been freed from contact with the body. Dishonor, losses, and deaths of our nearest and dearest will not rise up to the mind, nor will they incline the sublimity of the mind to sympathy with things below.
For, if those who fall into difficulties have the same attitude as the virtuous man, they will not cause annoyance to anyone, seeing that not even they themselves endure sorrowfully what befalls them; but if they live according to the flesh (Romans 8:13), not even in this way will they annoy anyone, but will be reckoned pitiable, not so much because of their circumstances, as because they do not choose to react properly.
In short, a soul which has once and for all been held fast by the desire for its Creator and is accustomed to delighting in the beauties of the heavenly realm will not alter its great joy and cheerfulness under the influence of carnal feelings, which are varying and unstable; but things which distress other people it will regard as increasing its own gladness. Such was the Apostle, who took pleasure in infirmities, in afflictions, in persecutions, and in necessities, counting his needs an occasion for glorying (II Corinthians 12:9-10); in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, in persecutions and distresses (II Corinthians 12:10; 11:27), conditions in which others endure only with difficulty, bidding farewell to life: in these he rejoiced. Therefore, those who are ignorant of what the Apostle has in mind, and do not understand that he is calling us to the evangelical way of life, dare to accuse St. Paul of laying down things that are impossible for us. Well then, let them learn how many legitimate occasions for rejoicing are made available to us through Gods munificence.
We were brought from non-being into being; we were made in the image of the Creator (Genesis 1:27); we have the mind and reason to perfect our nature, and through them we have knowledge of God. And perceiving the beauties of nature carefully, we thereby recognize, as if through letters, Gods great providence and wisdom concerning all things. We are capable of discerning good and evil; we are taught by nature itself to choose what is beneficial and to avoid what is harmful. Having been estranged from God through sin, we have been called back to kinship with Him, being released from ignominious slavery by the blood of His Only-begotten Son. We have the hope of resurrection, the enjoyment of Angelic goods, the Kingdom of Heaven, and promised goods, which transcend the grasp of mind and reason.
3. How is it not proper to think that these things are sufficient reasons for unending joy and unceasing gladness? How is it proper to suppose that one who is a glutton, who delights in hearing flute-playing, and who lies on a soft bed and snores, is living a life worthy of joy? I would say that such people are worthy of lamentation on the part of those who are endowed with intelligence, whereas we should call blessed those who endure the present life in the hope of the age to come and who exchange present joys for eternal joys. Whether they stand amid flames, as did the three Youths in Babylon, who were united with God (Daniel 3:21), or are shut up with lions (Daniel 6:16-23), or swallowed by a whale (Jonah 2:1), we should call them blessed, and they should pass their lives in joy, not being distressed over present sufferings, but rejoicing in the hope of what is in store for us in the next life. For, in my opinion, a good athlete, once he has stripped down for the arena of piety, should valiantly endure the blows of his adversaries in hope of the glory that comes from crowns of victory. Indeed, in gymnastic contests, those who have become inured to pain in wrestling schools are not depressed at the prospect of suffering pain from blows, but advance to close quarters with their foes, disdaining momentary pains in their desire to be publicly proclaimed victors.
Thus, even if some misfortune befalls a virtuous man, it will not cast a shadow over his joy. For tribulation worketh patience, and patience, experience, and experience, hope; and hope maketh not ashamed (Romans 5:3-5). Hence, in another place, Saint Paul enjoins us to be patient in tribulation and to rejoice in hope (Romans 12:12). It is hope, therefore, that makes joy to dwell within the soul of a virtuous man. But the same Apostle bids us weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15); and, writing to the Galatians, he wept over the enemies of the Cross of Christ (Philippians 3:18). And what need have I to speak of the tears of Jeremiah (Lamentations), of Ezekiel writing lamentations over the rulers of Israel, at Gods command (Ezekiel 2:9), or of many other Saints who mourned? Alas, my mother, that thou hast borne me (Jeremiah 15:10); Woe is me, for the godly man hath perished from the earth, and there is none among men that ordereth his way aright (Micah 7:2); Woe is me, for I am become as one gathering straw in the harvest (Micah 7:1).
So, in a word, scrutinize the sayings of the righteous, and when anywhere you find one of them emitting a rather doleful expression, you will be convinced that all who are of this world bemoan the misery of the life that is led therein. Woe is me, for my sojourning is prolonged (Psalm 119:5, Septuaginta). For the Apostle has a desire to depart, and to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23). He is, therefore, vexed at the prolongation of this earthly sojourn as an impediment to his joy. David, too, bequeathed to us a lamentation in song for his friend Jonathan, in which he also mourned for his enemy: I am grieved for thee, my brother Jonathan (II Kings 1:26); and: O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul (II Kings 1:24). He mourns for Saul, as one who died in sin, but for Jonathan, as one who shared his life in every respect. Why should I speak of the other examples? And yet, the Lord wept over Lazarus (St. John 11:35) and He wept over Jerusalem (St. Luke 19:41), and He calls blessed those who mourn (St. Matthew 5:4) and likewise those who weep (St. Luke 6:21).
4. But how, you say, are these things to be reconciled with the words: Rejoice always? For weeping and joy do not derive from the same source. Weeping, for example, is naturally engendered as a result of some blow, in which the involuntary impact strikes and constricts the soul, while the spirit surrounding the heart is depressed; but joy is like a leap of the soul, as it were, which rejoices at things that are under its control. Hence, the physical symptoms are different. For, in the case of those who are distressed, their bodies are sallow, livid, and cold, whereas in the case of those who feel joyous, the condition of their bodies is efflorescent and reddish, while their souls all but leap outwards, propelled by delight.
To this we will say that the Saints lamented and wept on account of their love for God. And so, ever beholding Him Whom they loved and increasing the gladness that they themselves derived from Him, they provided for the needs of their fellow-servants, mourning for those who sinned and correcting them through their tears. Just as people who stand on the shore and feel sympathy for those who are drowning in the sea do not jettison their own security in their concern for those in peril, so also, those who are distressed at the sins of their neighbors do not efface their own gladness; on the contrary, they increase it, being vouchsafed the joy of the Lord by virtue of the tears that they shed for their brothers. This is why those who weep and those who mourn are blessed, for they themselves will be comforted and they themselves will laugh. By laughter, one means not the sound which is emitted through the cheeks when the blood boils, but the cheerfulness which is pure and unmixed with any sadness. Therefore, the Apostle allows us to weep with those who weep, because tears of this kind are like the seed and pledge of eternal joy. Ascend with me in mind, please, and behold the Angelic estate and consider whether any other condition befits them than that of rejoicing and gladness; for they are vouchsafed to stand before God and enjoy the ineffable beauty of the glory of Him Who created us. And so, it is to that life that the Apostle urges us on, bidding us always to rejoice.
5. Now, as for the fact that the Lord wept over Lazarus and the city, we have this to say: He ate and drank, not because He needed these things Himself, but so as to leave you with measures and limits by which to control the unavoidable emotions of the soul. Thus, He wept in order to correct the propensity to excessive emotion and dejection among those given to mourning and lamentation. For if there is anything that needs to be moderated by reason, it is weeping: that is, over what things, to what extent, when, and how it is proper to weep. For that the Lords weeping was not emotional, but didactic, is clear from this verse: Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep (St. John 11:11). Who among us mourns for a sleeping friend, whom he expects to awake after a short while? Lazarus, come forth (St. John 11:43). And the dead man was brought back to life; he who was bound walked. This is a miracle within a miracle: that his feet were bound with grave-clothes and yet were not prevented from moving. That which strengthened him was greater than that which impeded him.
Why, therefore, did the Lord, Who was about to accomplish such things, judge the incident worthy of tears? Is it not clear that, disregarding our infirmity in every way, He contained the necessary emotions within certain measures and limits, avoiding a lack of sympathy, on the one hand, as something appropriate to wild beasts, and, on the other hand, refusing to give way to excessive grief and lamentation as something ignoble? Hence, in weeping over His friend, He both displayed that He Himself shared in our human nature, and freed us from either kind of extreme, allowing us neither to indulge our emotions nor to be unfeeling in the face of sorrows.
Therefore, just as the Lord accepted hunger, after digesting solid food, submitted to thirst, after the moisture in His body was consumed, and felt weary, when His muscles and nerves were strained from travelling–although it was not that His Divinity succumbed to weariness, but that His body accepted its natural attributes; so also, He accepted weeping, permitting a natural property of the flesh to supervene.
This occurs when the hollow parts of the brain, filled with vapors arising from grief, discharge the burden of moisture through the opening of the eyes as through some kind of duct. Hence, one experiences a certain ringing in the ears, dizziness, and darkening of the eyes when he hears about unexpected sorrows, and ones head is set in a whirl by vapors which are emitted by compressed heat deep inside him.
Then, in my opinion, just as a cloud dissolves into raindrops, so also the thickness of vapors dissolves into tears. Hence, those who grieve feel a certain pleasure when they lament, because the burden that weighs on them is secretly evacuated through weeping. Experience of events proves the truth of this account. For we know many people who, in desperate straits, forcibly restrain themselves from weeping; then, in some cases, they fall into incurable sufferings, either apoplexy or paralysis, while in other cases, they completely faint, their strength having been broken down, like a weak support, by the weight of sorrow. For, what is observable in the case of fire, that it is stifled by its own smoke if it does not escape, but rolls around it–this, it is said, occurs also in the case of the faculty that governs a living creature; that is, it wastes away and is extinguished if there is no way for it to ex-hale.
6. Therefore, let those who are given to mourning not adduce the Lords tears in support of their own weakness. For, just as the food which the Lord ate is not an occasion of pleasure for us, but, on the contrary, the highest criterion of restraint and sufficiency, so also, His weeping is not an ordinance prescribing lamentation, but is a most fitting measure and an exact standard whereby we may, with proper dignity and decorum, endure sorrows while remaining within the limits of our nature. Thus, neither women nor men are permitted to indulge in mourning and excessive weeping, but only to the extent that it is fitting to grieve over sorrows; they are permitted to shed a few tears, but this must be done calmly, without bellowing or wailing, without rending ones tunic or sprinkling oneself with dust, or committing any of the other improprieties that are typical of those who are ignorant of heavenly things. For one who has been purified by Divine doctrine must be fenced around by right reason, as by a strong wall, and must manfully and strenuously ward off the onslaughts of such emotions; he must not accept any crowd of emotions that flows in, as it were, to some low-lying place, with a submissive and compliant soul.
It is the mark of a craven soul, and one that is lacking in the vigor that comes from hope in God, that it utterly collapses and succumbs to adversities. For, just as worms are particularly inclined to breed on more tender pieces of wood, so also sorrows grow in men of lesser moral fiber. Was not Job adamantine in heart? Were his inward parts not made of stone? His ten children fell dead in one brief moment of time, overwhelmed by a calamity in the house of their gladness at a time of enjoyment, when the Devil brought down their dwelling upon them. He saw the table drenched with blood; he saw his children, who had been born at different times, but who had ended their lives together. He did not wail aloud; he did not pluck his hair out; he did not let out a degenerate cry; but he uttered that thanksgiving which is renowned and acclaimed by all: the Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away; as it seemed good to the Lord, so hath it come to pass; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21). Was this man not lacking in sympathy? How could this be so? For about himself, at any rate, he says: I wept over every man who was afflicted (Job 30:25). But was he not lying when he said this? But here, too, the truth bears witness to him that, in addition to his other virtues, he was also truthful: …That man was blameless, righteous, godly, and truthful (Job 1:1).
Yet many of you keep on wailing in dirges that are designed to express dejection, and you deliberately waste away your soul with mournful melodies; and, just like the make-believe and paraphernalia with which they adorn theatres to typify tragedies, so, also, you suppose that the proper outfit for a mourner consists of black clothing, squalid hair, dirt, and dust, complete with a darkened house and lugubrious chanting, which preserves the wound of grief ever fresh in the soul. Let those who have no hope do these things. You, however, have been taught, concerning those who repose in Christ, that it [the body] is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body (I Corinthians 15:42-44).
Why, then, do you weep for one who has gone to change his vesture? Neither mourn for yourself, as one who has been deprived of a helper in this life; for it is better to trust in the Lord than to trust in man (Psalm 117:8-9, Septuagint). Nor lament for this helper, as one who has suffered a terrible calamity. For, a little later, the trumpet sounding from Heaven will awaken him, and you will see him standing before the judgment-seat of Christ. So, dismiss these dejected and ignorant cries: Alas, these unexpected woes! Who would have thought that this would happen? Could I have ever anticipated that I would cover this dearest friend of mine with earth? If we should hear someone else saying such things, it behooves us to blush, since we have been taught from both past memories and present experience that these natural occurrences are inevitable.
7. Therefore, neither untimely deaths nor other misfortunes that unexpectedly befall us will ever cause consternation in us who have been educated by the doctrine of piety. For example, let us say that I had a son who was a young man–the sole heir of my estate, the comfort of my old age, the adornment of his family, the flower of his peers, the support of his household, and at that time of life which is most charming–, this lad having been carried off by death, he becoming earth and dust who, a short while ago, uttered sweet sounds and was a most pleasing sight in the eyes of his father.
What, then, am I to do? Shall I rend my clothing? Shall I consent to roll around on the ground, scream in vexation, and act in front of those present like a child crying out in pain and having convulsions? Rather, paying heed to the inevitability of events, that the law of death is inexorable and affects every age-group alike, dissolving all compound things in order, surely I should not be surprised at what has happened. Surely I should not be upset in my mind, as if I had been devastated by some unexpected blow, since I have been taught beforehand that, being mortal, I had a mortal son, that there is no constancy in human affairs, and that nothing wholly abides for those who possess it.
Why, even great cities, which were renowned for the elegance of their buildings and the abilities of their inhabitants, and conspicuous for their prosperity both in the countryside and in the marketplace, now display tokens of their erstwhile dignity only in ruins. A ship which has frequently been preserved from the sea, and which has made countless speedy voyages and conveyed innumerable amounts of merchandise for traders, vanishes with a single gust of wind. Armies which have many times defeated their foes in battle have, on suffering a reversal of fortune, become a pitiful sight and one pitiful to relate. Entire nations and islands, which have attained great power, and have raised many trophies both by land and by sea, and have gathered much wealth from booty, have either been consumed by the passage of time or been taken captive and exchanged their liberty for enslavement. Indeed, in short, whatever great and unbearable evil you care to mention, life already has prior examples of it.
Therefore, just as we determine weights by a turn of the scale and assay gold by rubbing it with a touchstone, so also, if we were to remember the limits revealed to us by the Lord, we would never exceed the bounds of prudence. Whenever, therefore, any involuntary adversity befalls you, by virtue of being mentally prepared, you will avoid confusion, and you will make light of present afflictions by your hope for the future. For, just as those whose eyes are weak divert their gaze from things that are excessively bright and give them rest by looking at flowers and grass, so, also, the soul must not constantly behold that which causes grief or be fixated on present sorrows, but must direct its gaze towards what is truly good. In this way will it be feasible for you always to rejoice, if your life always looks towards God and if hope of recompense alleviates life’s sorrows.
Have you been dishonored? Then have regard for the glory which is laid up in Heaven through patient endurance.
Have you suffered a loss? Then contemplate the heavenly wealth and treasure which you have laid up for yourself through your good deeds.
Have you been expelled from your homeland? Then you have Jerusalem as your heavenly homeland.
Have you lost a child? Then you have Angels, with whom you will dance around the Throne of God, rejoicing eternally.
By thus opposing anticipated good things to present sorrows, you will keep your soul in the cheerfulness and tranquillity to which the Apostles precept summons us. Neither let the joys of human affairs create immoderate and excessive gladness in your soul, nor let sorrows diminish its exultation and sublimity by feelings of dejection and abasement. Unless you have previously trained yourself in this way regarding the eventualities of life, you will never have a calm and tranquil life.
But you will easily achieve this if you have dwelling within you the commandment which advises you always to rejoice, dismissing the vexations of the flesh and gathering that which gladdens the soul, transcending the sensation of present realities and extending your mind to the hope of eternal realities, the mere thought of which is sufficient to fill the soul with rejoicing and to make Angelic exultation reside in our hearts; in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be the glory and the dominion, unto the ages. Amen.