BASIL the GREAT
(ca. 330-379)

on COMMUNITY
and SOLITUDE
 

 Basil the Great,  18th c. Russian icon

Elder brother of Gregory of Gregory of Nyssa; hermit in Neocaesaria 358-370; Bishop of Neocaesaria 370-379. [Note that this is the LATIN version of Basil's Asceticon, which St. Benedict knew and particularly recommended to his monks in RB 79]


 

 

 

 

QUESTION 3 (LR 7)

[0494B] INTERROGATIO III

 

 

 

 

SINCE your words have convinced us that it is dangerous to live in company with those who hold the commandments of God in light regard, we consider it logical to inquire whether one who retires from society should live in solitude or with brethren who are of the same mind and who have set before themselves the same goal, that is, the devout life.

Quia ostendit nobis sermo tuus periculosum esse cum his qui mandata contemnunt vitam ducere, nunc discere cupimus si oporteat eum qui ab hujuscemodi consortiis discesserit, remotum esse et solum, an vero cum fratribus ejusdem propositi et ejusdem animi vitam suam sociare.

 

 

RESPONSE: RESP.

 

 

3.1. I CONSIDER that life passed in company with a number of persons in the same habitation is more advantageous in many respects.  RESP. In multis utile esse video vitam communem ducere cum his qui ejusdem voluntatis sunt atque propositi. 

My reasons are, first, that no one of us is self-sufficient as regards corporeal necessities, but we require one another’s aid in supplying our needs. The foot, to cite an analogy, possesses one kind of power and lacks another, and without the cooperation of the other members of the body it finds itself incapable of carrying on its activity independently for any length of time, nor does it have wherewithal to supply what is lacking (I Cor. 13) . Similarly, in the solitary life, what is at hand becomes useless to us and what is wanting cannot be provided, since God, the Creator, decreed that we should require the help of one another, as it is written, so that we might associate with one another.

Primo, quia etiam ad usus corporales victusque ministerium unusquisque nostrum solus sibi non sufficit: et vero ideo pro his quae ad ministerium vitae nostrae necessaria sunt, invicem opera nostra egemus. Sicut enim pes hominis in alio quidem suis viribus utitur, in alio vero indiget alienis, et sine adjumento caeterorum membrorum nec explere [0494C] suum opus, nec sufficere suis viribus potest (I Cor. XIII) ; ita etiam vita solitaria mihi pati videtur cum neque quod ei inest, utile esse, neque quod deest ab aliquo possit acquiri.

Again, apart from this consideration, the doctrine of the charity of Christ does not permit the individual to be concerned solely with his own private interests.  Praeter hoc autem nec ratio quidem charitatis unumquemque permittit quod suum est quaerere, 

Charity,’ says the Apostle, ‘seeks not her own.’ (I Cor. 13)
dicente Apostolo: Charitas non quaerit quae sua sunt (I Cor. XIII).

FURTHERMORE, a person living in solitary retirement will not readily discern his own defects, since he has no one to admonish and correct him.
Deinde, sed nec culpas quidem suas unusquisque ac vitia facile dignoscit, cum qui arguat nemo est:

Antony meets Paul the Hermit: 
The Belles Heures
of Jean, Duke of Berry 192v.

Such a one..., consequently, experiences the truth of the saying, ‘Woe to him that is alone, for when he falleth he hath none to lift him up.’(Eccle. 4)

et facile hujusmodi homini accidere potest illud quod scriptum est: Vae soli, quia si ceciderit, nemo est alius qui erigat eum (Eccle. IV)

Moreover, the majority of the commandments are easily observed by several persons living together,  

Sed et mandata a pluribus quidem facilius adimplentur;

but not so in the case of one living alone; for, while he is obeying one commandment, the practice of another is being interfered with
ab uno vero dum unum videtur impleri, aliud impeditur. 

FOR EXAMPLE, when he is visiting the sick, how can he show hospitality to the stranger?
Ut puta, [0494D] quomodo quis solus visitabit infirmum? aut quomodo suscipiet peregrinum?

The Hospitality of Abraham, Getty Hours

 

 

 

 

3.2. Besides, if all we who are united in the one hope of our calling are one body with Christ as our Head, we are also members, one of another. If we are not joined together by union in the Holy Spirit in the harmony of one body, but each of us should choose to live in solitude, we would not serve the common good in the ministry according to God’s good pleasure, but would be satisfying our own passion for self-gratification.

Si vero omnes corpus sumus Christi, singuli autem alterutrum membra, per consonantiam velut in unius corporis compagem in Spiritu sancto aptari et conjungi debemus adinvicem (Rom. XII) .Quod si unusquisque nostrum solitariam eligat vitam, scilicet non tali aliqua causa vel ratione quae Deo sit placita, vel quod ad communem caeterorum pertineat dispensationem, sed propriae voluntati et passioni satisfaciens;

How could we, divided and separated, preserve the status and the mutual service of members or our subordinate relationship to our Head which is Christ? It is impossible, indeed, to rejoice with him who receives an honor or to sympathize with him who suffers when, by reason of their being separated from one another, each person cannot, in all likelihood, be kept informed about the affairs of his neighbor.

 quomodo possumus discissi et divisi adimplere, et integram assignare membrorum ad se invicem consonantiam? Iste enim talis neque cum gaudentibus gaudet, neque cum flentibus flet (Rom. XV) ; quoniam quidem separatus ac divisus a caeteris nec cognoscere quidem [0 ] necessitates poterit proximorum.

 

 

 

 

3.3. In addition, since no one has the capacity to receive all spiritual gifts, but the grace of the Spirit is given proportionately to the faith of each, when one is living in association with others, the grace privately bestowed on each individual becomes the common possession of his fellows. ‘To one, indeed, is given the word of wisdom; and to another, the word of knowledge; to another, faith, to another, prophecy, to another, the grace of healing,’ and so on. He who receives any of these gifts does not possess it for his own sake but rather for the sake of others, so that, in the life passed in community, the operation of the Holy Spirit in the individual is at the same time necessarily transmitted to all.

Tum deinde nec sufficere potest unus ad suscipienda omnia dona Spiritus sancti, quia secundum uniuscujusque mensuram fidei et donorum spiritualium distributio celebratur: ut id quod per partes unicuique distributum est, rursum tanquam membra ad aedificationem unius corporis coeat et conspiret. Alii enim datur sermo sapientiae, alii sermo scientiae, alii fides, alii prophetia, alii gratia sanitatum (I Cor. XII) , et caetera; quae singula utique non tam pro se unusquisque quam pro aliis suscipit a Spiritu sancto. Et ideo necesse est uniuscujusque gratiam, quam susceperit a Spiritu Dei, et in commune prodesse.

He who lives alone, consequently, and has, perhaps, one gift renders it ineffectual by leaving it in disuse, since it lies buried within him. How much danger there is in this all of you know who have read the Gospel. On the other hand, in the case of several persons living together, each enjoys his own gift and enhances it by giving others a share, besides reaping benefit from the gifts of others as if they were his own.

Accidit ergo ut is qui remotus vivit et separatus, unamquamcunque suscipiet gratiam, et hanc ipsam inutilem faciat, dum [0495B] nihil per eam operatur, sed defodit eam in semetipso (Matth. 7 . Quod cujus et quanti sit periculi, nostis omnes qui legitis Evangelium. Si autem caeteris communicat gratiam, et ipse perfruitur proprie ea ipsa quam suscepit; et multiplicatur in eo, dum communicatur et caeteris; et ipse nihilominus fruitur gratia reliquorum.

 

 

 

 

3.4. Community life offers more blessings than can be fully and easily enumerated. It is more advantageous than the solitary life both for preserving the goods bestowed on us by God and for warding off the external attacks of the Enemy. If any should happen to grow heavy with that sleep which is unto death and which we have been instructed by David to avert with prayer: ‘Enlighten my eyes that I never sleep in death, the awakening induced by those who are already on watch is the more assured.

Habet autem et alia quamplurima bona communis vita ista sanctorum, quae non est nunc possibile omnia dinumerare. Interim, ut diximus, ad conservanda sancti Spiritus dona commodior est multorum societas, quam si degamus in solitudine. Sed et adversus insidias inimici, quae extrinsecus inferuntur, multo cautior est et utilior societas plurimorum: ut facilius suscitetur e somno, si quis forte obdormierit somnum illum qui ducit ad [0495C] mortem (I Cor. XI) .

For the sinner, moreover, the withdrawal from his sin is far easier if he fears the shame of incurring censure from many acting together - to him, indeed, might be applied the words: ‘To him who is such a one, this rebuke is sufficient which is given by many - and for the righteous man, there is a great and full satisfaction in the esteem of the group and in their approval of his conduct. If in the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word shall stand, he who performs a good action will be far more surely corroborated by the testimony of many.

Sed et delinquenti delictum suum facilius apparebit, cum a pluribus vel arguitur, vel notatur: secundum quod et Apostolus dicit: Sufficit ei qui ejusmodi est, objurgatio haec quae fit a pluribus (II Cor. VI) . Sed et in oratione non parvum emolumentum a pluribus nascitur, cum consensu et universitate orantibus; ut ex multorum personis, per gratiam quae in nobis est, Deo gratiae referantur.

 

 

 

 

3.5. BESIDES these disadvantages, the solitary life is fraught with other perils. Sed interdum et periculo proxima est vita solitaria.

The first and greatest [danger] is that of self-satisfaction. Since the solitary has no one to appraise his conduct, he will think he has achieved the perfection of the precept. Secondly, because he never tests his state of soul by exercise, he will not recognize his own deficiencies nor will he discover the advance he may have made in his manner of acting, since he will have removed all practical occasion for the observance of the commandments.

Primo quidem illi periculo subjacet, quod certe gravissimum est, in quo ipse sibi placet, et neminem habens qui possit opus ipsius probare, videbitur sibi ad summam perfectionem venisse. Tum deinde sine ullo exercitio degens, neque quid sibi vitii abundet, neque quid virtutis desit, agnoscit. Neque discretionem [0495D] habere poterit in operum qualitate, pro eo quod operandi materia omnis exclusa sit.

Wherein will he show his humility, if there is no one with whom he may compare and so confirm his own greater humility? Wherein will he give evidence of his compassion, if he has cut himself off from association with other persons? And how will he exercise himself in long-suffering, if no one contradicts his wishes? If anyone says that the teaching of the Holy Scripture is sufficient for the amendment of his ways, he resembles a man who learns carpentry without ever actually doing a carpenter’s work or a man who is instructed in metal-working but will not reduce theory to practice. To such a one the Apostle would say: ‘Not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.’

In quo enim humilitatem suam probabit, neminem habens cui humilem se praebere debeat? In quo misericordiam demonstrabit totius consortii et societatis alienus? Ad patientiam vero quomodo seipsum exercebit, nullum habens qui videatur ejus voluntatibus obviare? Si quis autem dicat sufficere sibi doctrinam Scripturae et apostolica praecepta ad emendationem morum vitamque formandam, simile mihi aliquid facere videtur his qui semper fabrile artificium discunt, nunquam tamen fabrifaciunt opus, vel his qui in structorum arte semper docentur, nunquam tamen aedificandae domus operam dabunt.

 

 

 

 

3.6. CONSIDER, further, that the Lord  was not content with merely teaching the word, but, so as to transmit to us clearly and exactly the example of humility in the perfection of charity, girded Himself and washed the feet of the disciples.
Ecce enim et Dominus [0 ] non aestimavit sufficere sibi solam verbi doctrinam, sed et opere ipso voluit nobis tradere humilitatis exempla, cum praecinctus linteo lavit pedes discipulorum suorum    (Joan. XII) .

WHOSE FEET, therefore, will you wash? To whom will you minister? In comparison with whom will you be the lowest, if you live alone?
Tu ergo cujus pedes lavabis? quem curabis officiis? cujus inferior aut ultimus eris, cum solus vivas?

The Washing of the Feet, Giotto

HOW, moreover, in a solitude, will that good and pleasant thing be accomplished, the dwelling of brethren together in one habitation (Psal. 132) which the Holy Spirit likens to ointment emitting its fragrance from the head of the high priest?  Sed et aliud quod dicitur:
Bonum et jucundum habitare fratres in unum
(Psal. 132) ,  quod unguento pontificali in barbam de capite descendenti sanctus Spiritus comparavit, quomodo in solitaria habitatione complebitur?

 

 

 

 

3.7. FOR the place where brothers dwell together in community is what the apostle terms an “arena”
for the amendment of conduct and the formation of life

Stadium namque est quoddam, ex apostolico praecepto, ad emendationem morum vitamque formandam

Pentecost, Fra Angelico

IN this [arena] there is advancement in the practice of virtue; meditation on the divine commandments freely shines forth and illuminates.  in quo per virtutis exercitium proficitur; in quo meditatio divinorum mandatorum effulget amplius et clarescit, 
This fraternal unity of souls which the brethren share among them resembles and exemplifies what sacred scriptures says concerning the saints in the Acts of the Apostles: All the believers were united, and they held all things in common (Acts 4). haec communis inter se unanimorum fratrum [0496B] habitatio: habens in se illam similitudinem et exemplum, quod in Actibus apostolorum refert de sanctis Scriptura divina, dicens: Quia omnes credentes erant in unum, et habebant omnia communia (Act. IV) .

 

 

 

 

   

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