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Ch. 6: Basil

On the south shore of the Black Sea, eastward of Sinope, there dwelt in those days, at the mouth of the River Iris, a hermit as gentle and as pure as Ephrem of Edessa. Beside a roaring waterfall, amid deep glens and dark forests, with distant glimpses of the stormy sea beyond, there lived on bread and water a graceful gentleman, young and handsome; a scholar too, who had drunk deeply at the fountains of Pagan philosophy and poetry, and had been educated with care at Constantinople and at Athens, as well as at his native city of Caesaraea, in the heart of Asia Minor, now dwindled under Turkish misrule into a wretched village. He was heir to great estates; the glens and forests round him were his own: and that was the use which he made of them. On the other side of the torrent, his mother and his sister, a maiden of wonderful beauty, lived the hermit life, on a footing of perfect equality with their female slaves, and the pious women who had joined them.

Basil's austerities--or rather the severe climate of the Black Sea forests--brought him to an early grave. But his short life was spent well enough. He was a poet, with an eye for the beauty of Nature--especially for the beauty of the sea--most rare in those times; and his works are full of descriptions of scenery as healthy- minded as they are vivid and graceful.

In his travels through Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, he had seen the hermits, and longed to emulate them; but (to do him justice) his ideal of the so-called "religious life" was more practical than those of the solitaries of Egypt, who had been his teachers. "It was the life" (says Dean Milman {163}) "of the industrious religious community, not of the indolent and solitary anchorite, which to Basil was the perfection of Christianity. . . . The indiscriminate charity of these institutions was to receive orphans" (of which there were but too many in those evil days) "of all classes, for education and maintenance: but other children only with the consent or at the request of parents, certified before witnesses; and vows were by no means to be enforced upon these youthful pupils. Slaves who fled to the monasteries were to be admonished and sent back to their owners. There is one reservation" (and that one only too necessary then), "that slaves were not bound to obey their master, if he should order what is contrary to the law of God. Industry was to be the animating principle of these settlements. Prayer and psalmody were to have their stated hours, but by no means to intrude on those devoted to useful labour. These labours were strictly defined; such as were of real use to the community, not those which might contribute to vice or luxury. Agriculture was especially recommended. The life was in no respect to be absorbed in a perpetual mystic communion with the Deity."

The ideal which Basil set before him was never fulfilled in the East. Transported to the West by St. Benedict, "the father of all monks," it became that conventual system which did so much during the early middle age, not only for the conversion and civilization, but for the arts and the agriculture of Europe.

Basil, like his bosom friend, Gregory of Nazianzen, had to go forth from his hermitage into the world, and be a bishop, and fight the battles of the true faith. But, as with Gregory, his hermit- training had strengthened his soul, while it weakened his body. The Emperor Valens, supporting the Arians against the orthodox, sent to Basil his Prefect of the Praetorium, an officer of the highest rank. The prefect argued, threatened; Basil was firm. "I never met," said he at last, "such boldness." "Because," said Basil, "you never met a bishop." The prefect returned to his Emperor. "My lord, we are conquered; this bishop is above threats. We can do nothing but by force." The Emperor shrank from that crime, and Basil and the orthodoxy of his diocese were saved. The rest of his life and of Gregory's belongs, like that of Chrysostom, to general history, and we need pursue it no further here.

I said that Basil's idea of what monks should be was never carried out in the East, and it cannot be denied that, as the years went on, the hermit life took a form less and less practical, and more and more repulsive also. Such men as Antony, Hilarion, Basil, had valued the ascetic training, not so much because it had, as they thought, a merit in itself, but because it enabled the spirit to rise above the flesh; because it gave them strength to conquer their passions and appetites, and leave their soul free to think and act.

But their disciples, especially in Syria, seem to have attributed more and more merit to the mere act of inflicting want and suffering on themselves. Their souls were darkened, besides, more and more, by a doctrine unknown to the Bible, unknown to the early Christians, and one which does not seem to have had any strong hold of the mind of Antony himself--namely, that sins committed after baptism could only be washed away by tears, and expiated by penance; that for them the merits of him who died for the sins of the whole world were of little or of no avail.

Therefore, in perpetual fear of punishment hereafter, they set their whole minds to punish themselves on earth, always tortured by the dread that they were not punishing themselves enough, till they crushed down alike body, mind, and soul into an abject superstition, the details of which are too repulsive to be written here. Some of the instances of this self-invented misery which are recorded, even as early as the time of Theodoret, bishop of Cyra, in the middle of the fifth century, make us wonder at the puzzling inconsistencies of the human mind. Did these poor creatures really believe that God could be propitiated by the torture of his own creatures? What sense could Theodoret (who was a good man himself) have put upon the words, "God is good," or "God is love," while he was looking with satisfaction, even with admiration and awe, on practices which were more fit for worshippers of Moloch?

Those who think these words too strong, may judge for themselves how far they apply to his story of Marana and Cyra.

Marana, then, and Cyra were two young ladies of Berhoea, who had given up all the pleasures of life to settle themselves in a roofless cottage outside the town. They had stopped up the door with stones and clay, and allowed it only to be opened at the feast of Pentecost. Around them lived certain female slaves who had voluntarily chosen the same life, and who were taught and exhorted through a little window by their mistresses; or rather, it would seem, by Marana alone: for Cyra (who was bent double by her "training") was never to speak. Theodoret, as a priest, was allowed to enter the sacred enclosure, and found them shrouded from head to foot in long veils, so that neither their faces or hands could be seen; and underneath their veils, burdened on every limb, poor wretches, with such a load of iron chains and rings that a strong man, he says, could not have stood under the weight. Thus had they endured for two-and-forty years, exposed to sun and wind, to frost and rain, taking no food at times for many days together. I have no mind to finish the picture, and still less to record any of the phrases of rapturous admiration with which Bishop Theodoret comments upon their pitiable superstition.

Charles Kingsley