(Painting: "Trompe l'Oeil," by Evert Collier, c. 1669)
For millennia, letter-writing was one of the great literary expressions of spiritual guidance between friends, and we have volumes upon volumes of letters, filled with extraordinary spiritual insights, from church fathers like Basil, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Athanasius, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, and the desert fathers, as well as later figures like Bernard of Clairvaux, Francois Fenelon, Francis de Sales, and many more modern figures as well. These masterworks of personal spiritual counsel go too often unread these days, and that's a trend that impoverishes the mystical life of the Body of Christ. So, in these Saturday blog-posts, I'm going to be posting letters of personal devotional reflection, in conversation with a letter from one of the great spiritual masters of the Christian tradition. This exercise is mostly for my own benefit, and having a weekly due-date for these reflections will give me some implicit accountability to keep up with the practice, but of course I hope that they will also be of use to you, dear readers. I can't guarantee that my own reflections will always be poignant and compelling, but I'll try to include a link to the original letter of the Christian master with whom I'm corresponding, so that you can read their thoughts for yourself if you so desire. In order to make the exercise feel more natural, I'm going to write these letters as if I'm actually a contemporary of my correspondent--a fictional twist, of course, but one that should make the letters come out with a bit more of a personal touch.
My first spiritual advisor will be the great church father Basil of Caesarea, one of the three great "Cappadocian Fathers" who did so much to ground the Christian faith in a well-articulated, biblically faithful, and philosophically sound expression of our beliefs. He is remembered as one of the leading lights of the patristic era in both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, and is one of the great early liturgists and monastic founders of the eastern tradition. In interacting with this patristic pen-pal, I'm going to begin with a response to his First Letter.
On reading your letter (I), I’m glad you find some solace in the arrival of a friend’s epistle, as you note about your relationship with Eustathius. Hopefully my letters will also help to cheer you a bit, though I suppose nowadays you’re not in quite so much need of cheering as I often am. You said at the end of your letter that God “manages our affairs better than if the choice were ours,” and by that you were referring to the vagaries of outside circumstances, which you could not control, and which had prevented you from seeing Eustathius. But it made me longingly think that God could also manage my internal affairs far better than I do. Do you suppose it’s a sin against the grace of God and the honor of his Image-bearers to wish, just for a moment, that I had no free will at all? Because, in point of fact, I haven’t always made very good use of my free will, at least in a few areas of my life—to the point where my will no longer always feels truly “free” on those subjects, so much have I abdicated the sovereignty of my will. No, truth be told, I’m grateful for the synergeia with which God works with me—if I had no free will, that would mean that it has been God’s premeditated intent that I be so long and so frustratingly caught in cycles of foolhardy sins that I'd much rather have long since left behind. I’d rather not believe such a thing about God—let me be a sinner, and him be pure! So, anyway, here I am, casting myself on your friendship and on God’s providence. Perhaps this will be the appointed time in which God’s management of my affairs is shown for all its beauty, and unobstructed by my regresses. Here’s hoping. All the best, Basil, for your time in Alexandria. Remember to pray for me.