St Basil: Epistle 2 [St. Pachomius Library]


This document is in the public domain. Copying it is encouraged.


St. Basil the Great:

Epistle II

Translated by John Henry Cardinal Newman and Rev. Blomfield Jackson

Edited by Friar Martin Fontenot, CANDLE Library

(To St. Gregory Theologos. Probable date: 358)

CONTENTS: 1. Introductory -- 2. The Beauty of the Solitary Life -- 3. How a Monk Lives the Biblical Life -- 4. How a Monk Becomes God's Temple -- 5. How a Monk Should Speak -- 6. How a Monk Should Act



I recognized your letter
as one recogises one's friend's children,
from their obvious likeness to their parents.
Your saying that to describe
the kind of place I live in
before letting you hear anything about how I live,
would not go far towards persuading
you to share my life,
was just like you.
It was worthy of a soul like yours,
which makes nothing of all that concerns this life here,
in comparison with the blessedness
which is promised us hereafter.

What I do myself, day and night,
in this remote spot, I am ashamed to write.
I have abandoned my life in town,
as one sure to lead to countless ills,
but I have not been able to get quit of myself.
I am like travellers at sea,
who have never gone a voyage before,
and are distressed and seasick,
who quarrel with the ship
because it is so big and makes such a tossing,
and, when they get out of it
into the pinnace or dinghy,
are everywhere and always seasick and distressed.
Where ever they go
their nausea and misery go with them.
My states is something like this.
I carry my own troubles with me,
and so everywhere I am in the midst of similar discomforts.

So, in the end, I have not got much good
out of my solitude.
What I ought to have done,
what would have enabled me to keep close
to the footprints of Him who has led the way to salvation --
for He says, "If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself
and take up his cross and follow me" -- is this.


We must strive after a quiet mind.
As well might the eye ascertain an object put before it
while wandering restless up and down and sideways,
without fixing a steady gaze upon it,
as a mind, distracted by a thousand wordly cares,
be able to clearly apprehend the truth.

He who is not yet yoked in the bonds of matrimony
is harrassed by frenzied cravings,
and rebellious impulses,
and hopeless attachments.
He who has found his mate
is encompassed with his own tumult of cares.
If he is childless there is the desire for children.
Has he children? Anxiety about their education,
attention to his wife, care of his house,
oversight of his servants, misfortunes in trade,
quarrels with neighbors, lawsuits, the risks of a merchant,
the toil of a farmer.
Each day, as it comes, darkens the soul in its own way,
and night after night takes up the day's anxieties,
and cheats the mind with illusions in accordance.

Now, one way of escaping all this is separation from the world,
that is, not bodily separation,
but the severance of the soul's sympathy with the body,
and to live without the city, home, goods, society
possessions, means of life, business,
engagments, human learning, that the heart may readily
receive every impress of the divine doctrine.
Preparation of the heart
is the unlearning of the prejudices
of evil converse.
It is smoothing the waxen tablet
before attempting to write on it.

Now, solitude is of the greatest use
for this purpose,
insomuch as it stills our passions,
and gives room for the principle
to cut them out of the soul.
For just as animals are more easily controlled
when they are stroked,
lust and anger, fear and sorrow,
the soul's deadly foes,
are better brought under the control of reason,
after being calmed by inaction,
and where there is no continuous stimulation.

Let there be such a place as ours,
separate from intercourse with men,
that the tenor of our exercises
be not interrupted from without.
Pious exercises nourish the soul
with divine thoughts.

What state can be more blessed
than to imitate on earth the choruses of angels?
To begin the day with prayer,
and honor our Maker with hymns and songs?
As the day brightens, to betake ourselves,
with prayer attending on it throughout,
to our labors,
and to season our work with hymns,
as if with salt.
Soothing hymns compose the mind
to a cheerful and calm state.

Quiet, then, as I have said,
is the first step in our sanctification.
The tongue purified
from the gossip of the world;
the eye unexcited
by fair color or comely shape;
the ear not relaxing the tone of mind
by voluptuous songs,
nor by that especial mischief,
the talk of light men and jesters.
Thus the mind,
saved from dissipation from without,
and not through the senses
thrown upon the world,
falls back upon itself,
and thereby ascends to the contemplation of God.

When that beauty shines about it,
it even forgets its very nature.
It is dragged down no more
by thoughts of of food, nor anxiety concerning dress.
It keeps a holiday from earthly cares,
and devotes all its energies to the aquisition
of the good things which are eternal,
and asks only how may be made to flourish in it
self-control and manly courage,
righteousness and wisdom,
and all other virtues, which,
distributed under those heads,
properly enable the good man
to discharge all the duties of life.


The study of inspired Scripture
is the chief way of finding our duty,
for in it we find both instruction about conduct
and the lives of blessed men,
delivered in writing,
as some breathing images of godly living,
for the imitation of their good works.

Hence, in whatever respect each one feels himself deficient,
devoting himself to this imitation,
he finds, as though from some dispensary,
the due medicine for his ailment.

He who is enamored of chastity
dwells upon the history of Joseph,
and from him learns chaste actions,
finding him not only possessed
of self-command over pleasure,
but virtuously-minded in habit.

He is taught endurance by Job, who,
when the circumstances of life
began to turn against him,
and in one moment he was plunged
from wealth into penury,
and from being father of fair children into childlessness,
remained the same,
keeping the disposition of his soul,
all through uncrushed,
but was not not even stirred to anger
against the friends who came to comfort him,
and trampled on him
and aggravated his troubles.

Or should he be enquiring
how to be at once meek and great hearted,
hearty against sin,
meek towards men,
he will find David
noble in warlike exploits,
meek and unruffled as regards to revenge against enemies.

Such too, was Moses,
rising in great heart
upon sinners against God,
but with meek soul
bearing their evil speaking against himself.

Thus, generally, as painters,
when they are painting from other pictures,
constantly look to the model,
and do their best to transfer its lineaments to their own work,
so too must he who is desirous
of rendering himself perfect in all branches of excellency,
keep his eyes turned
to the lives of the saints
as though to living and moving statues,
and make their virtue his own by imitation.


Prayers too, after reading,
find the soul fresher and more vigourously
stirred to love towards God.
And that prayer is good which imprints a clear idea
of God in the soul;
and the having of God established in self
by means of memeory
is God's indwelling.
Thus we become God's Temple,
when the continuity of our recollection
is not severed by earthly cares,
when the mind is harrassed by no sudden sensations,
when the worshipper flees from all things
and retreats to God,
drawing away all the feelings
that invite him to self-indulgence,
and passes his time in the pursuits that lead to virtue.


This, too, is a very important point to attend to,
knowledge of how to converse,
to interrogate without overearnestness,
to answer without desire of display,
not to interrupt a profitible speaker,
or to desire ambitiously to put in a word of one's own.
To be measured in speaking and hearing,
not to be ashamed of receiving
or to be grudging in giving information,
nor to pass another's knowledge for one's own,
as depraved women and superstitious children,
but to refer candidly to the true parent.

The middle tone of voice is best,
neither so low as to be inaudible,
nor to be ill bred from its high pitch.
One should reflect first what one is going to say,,
and then give it utterance.
Be courteous when addressed,
amiable in intercourse,
not aiming to be pleasant by facetiousness,
but cultivating gentleness in kind admonitions.

Harshness is ever to be put aside,
even in censuring.
The more your show modesty and humility in yourself,
the more likely you are to be acceptable
to the patient who needs your treatment.
There are, however, many occasions
when we shall do well to employ the kind of rebuke
used by the prophet who did not
in his own person
utter the sentence of condemnation on David
after his sin,
but by suggesting an imaginary character
made the sinner judge of his own sin,
so that, after passing his own sentence,
he could not find fault with the seer
who had convicted him.


From the humble, submissive spirit
comes an eye sorrowful and downcast,
appearance neglected, hair rough,
dress dirty,
so that the appearance which mourners
take pains to present
may appear our natural condition.

The tunic should be fastened to the body by a girdle,
the belt not going above the flank, like a woman's,
nor left slack, so that the tunic flows slack
like an idler's.
The gait ought not to be sluggish,
which shows a character without energy,
nor on the other hand pushing and pompous,
as though our impulses were rash and wild.

The one end of dress is that it should be
sufficient covering alike in winter and summer.
As to color, avoid brightness;
and in material, the soft and delicate.
To aim at bright colors in dress
is like women's beautifying when they color
their cheeks and hair with hues other than their own.
The tunic ought to be thick enough
not to want other help to keep the wearer warm.
The shoes should be cheap but serviceable.
In a word, what one has to regard in dress
is the necessary.

So too with food.
For a man in good health, bread will suffice,
and water will quench the thirst.
Such dishes of vegetables may be added
as conduce to strengthening the body
for the discharge of its functions.
One ought not to eat
with any exhibition of savage gluttony,
but in everything that concerns our pleasures
to maintain moderation, quiet, and self control;
and all through, not to let the mind forget to think of God,
but to make even the nature of our food
and the constitution of our body that takes it,
a ground and means for offering Him the glory,
bethinking us how the various kind of foods,
suitable to the needs of our bodies
are due to the provision
of the great Steward of the Universe.

Before meat let grace be said,
in recognition alike of the gifts
which God gives now,
and which he keeps in store from time to come.
Say grace after meat in gratitude
for gifts given and petition for gifts promised.
Let there be one fixed hour for taking food,
always the same regular course,
that of all the four and twenty hours of a day and night,
barely this one may be spent upon the body.

The rest the ascetic ought to spend
in mental exercise.
Let sleep be light and easily interrupted,
as naturally happens after a light diet.
It should be purposely broken
by thoughts about great themes.
To be overcome by heavy torpor,
with limb unstrung,
so that a way is readily opened to wild fancies,
is to be plunged into death.
What dawn is to some,
this midnight is to athletes of piety.
Then the silence of the night
gives leisure to their souls.
No noxious sounds or sights
obtrude upon their hearts.
The mind is alone with itself and God,
correcting itself by the recollection of its sins,
giving itself precepts to help it to shun evil,
and imploring aid from God
for the perfecting of what it longs for.


The St. Pachomius Orthodox Library, September/October 1995.

Have mercy, O Lord, upon Thy servants the translators the Cardinal John Henry and Blomfield, and the Friar Martin!