St Basil the Great: Is Your Mind Tranquil and Focused on Truth?

Feast of Sts Floros & Lauros the Monk-Martyrs of Illyria

Basil_Square_5.jpegI RECOGNIZED your letter, just as men recognize the children of their friends by the parents’ likeness appearing in them. For when you say that the nature of our surroundings would not greatly tend to implant in your soul a desire to live with us until you should learn something of our habits and mode of life, it is truly characteristic of your mind and worthy of your soul, which counts all the things of this earth as nothing compared with the promised bliss which is in store for us. But I am ashamed to write what I myself do night and day in this out-of-the way place. For I have indeed left my life in the city, as giving rise to countless evils, but I have not yet been able to leave myself behind. On the contrary, I am like those who go to sea, and because they have had no experience in sailing are very distressed and sea-sick, and complain of the size of the boat as causing the violent tossing; and then when they leave the ship and take to the dinghy or the cock-boat, they continue to be sea-sick and distressed wherever they are; for their nausea and bile go with them when they change. Our experience is something like this. For we carry our indwelling disorders about with us, and so are nowhere free from the same sort of disturbances. Consequently we have derived no great benefit from our present solitude. What we ought to do, however, and what would have enabled us to keep close to the footsteps of Him who pointed the way to salvation (for He says, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” [Matt. 16.24]), is this.

We must try to keep the mind in tranquility. For just as the eye which constantly shifts its gaze, now turning to the right or to the left, now incessantly peering up and down, cannot see distinctly what lies before it, but the sight must be fixed firmly on the object in view if one would make his vision of it clear, so too man’s mind when distracted by his countless worldly cares cannot focus itself distinctly on the truth. Nay, he who is not yet yoked in the bonds of matrimony is greatly disturbed by violent desires, rebellious impulses, and morbid lusts; while he who is already bound in wedlock is seized by yet another tumult of cares; if childless, by a longing for children, if possessing children, by solicitude for their nurture, by keeping watch over his wife, by the management of his household, the protection of his servants’ rights, losses on contracts, quarrels with neighbors, contests in the law-courts, risks of business, or the labors of the farm. Every day brings with it some particular cloud to darken the soul; and night takes over the cares of the day, deluding the mind with the same cares in fantasy.

There is but one escape from all this—separation from the world altogether. But withdrawal from the world does not mean bodily removal from it, but the severance of the soul from sympathy with the body, and the giving up city, home, personal possessions, love of friends, property, means of subsistence, business, social relations, and knowledge derived from human teaching; and it also means the readiness to receive in one’s heart the impressions engendered there by divine instruction. And making the heart ready for this means the unlearning of the teachings which already possess it, derived from evil habits. For it is no more possible to write in wax without first smoothing away the letters previously written thereon, than it is to supply the soul with divine teachings without first removing its preconceptions derived from habit. Now to this end solitude gives us the greatest help, since it calms our passions, and gives reason leisure to sever them completely from the soul. For just as animals are easily subdued by caresses; so desire, anger, fear and grief, the venomous evils which beset the soul, if they are lulled to sleep by solitude and are not exasperated by constant irritations, are more easily subdued by the influence of reason.

—St Basil the Great, Letter 2 to St Gregory the Theologian

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