Saturday, May 14, 2016

Second Letter to Basil

(Painting: Detail from "The School of Athens," showing Heraclitus, by Raphael, 1509)

Last week, I launched a new series for this Saturday blog slot: "Saturday Salutations: Corresponding with the Greatest Spiritual Advisors of the Christian Tradition." This week I continue my correspondence with Basil of Caesarea (also known as Basil the Great), a 4th-century church father.

Second Letter to Basil, in response to Basil's Letter 2:

Hi, Basil.

I have to say, it’s hard not to be impressed by your commitment to mastering the passions. Your letter (II) was a timely one for me. I’ve often longed to be able to simply cut off the distractions of the world, to retreat into a place of solitude and be refashioned there. But, as you point out so well, it’s easy enough to leave the things of the world behind, but it’s quite another thing to find a way to leave yourself behind. Our real problem, you and I (and all the rest of humanity) is that we bear our passions within us, and the only road forward is to make space in our inner lives for the slow process of healing that Christ’s Incarnation bestows on our sin-infected natures. 

I’m glad that you seem to have found a place in your monastic community in Pontus to be able to work toward that goal. I’ve often learned that there’s nothing I can do to bring about spiritual change within myself (that’s God’s work alone), but that I can take some practical steps to clear the way for him to work. Your suggestions—holy meditation leading to “tranquility of mind,” regular prayer, and temperance in eating—are all things I’m trying to put into practice as well, though my immediate surroundings might make it a bit more of a challenge for me than it was for you to find the space and time to wipe away the old habits and impress some new ones into the “wax slate” of my life. 

My road to victory also seems a bit more difficult because much of the particular wing of the Christian tradition of which I’m a part tends to cast a blind eye toward many of the “natural” passions. Many of my fellow Christians seem to shrug away several troubling passions, many of which lead to gluttony, sloth, vanity, and a generally self-serving lifestyle. Too few, even within the church, would find your all-out assault on every natural inclination towards personal comfort something proper and commendable. We’ve forgotten that we are fighting to make manifest the Kingdom of God in the battlefield of our bodies. So, in many ways, I feel that I labor alone. 

But your letters hearten and encourage me, Basil. I can understand your desire to convince your friend Gregory to join you in your monastic life in Pontus. Give him some time—I think you’ll be surprised at what the Lord will yet do through him. In the meantime, keep me in your prayers.

Your friend and servant,