Basil the Great and the Constitution of Orthodox Monasticism



Eustathios of Sebastia introduced monasticism to Asia Minor; he influenced St. Basil, who borrowed whatever was good in his innovations, including the monastic garments, monastic vows, and the special religious service (tonsure) that indicated the special status of a monk, superior to that of lay people, and subordinate to the clergy.

Among the many ascetical works of St. Basil, two are the most significant in terms of regulating the life of monasticism: the "Great Rules" (Oroi Kata Platos), and the "Brief Rules" (Oroi Kat' Epitomen). These rules regulate the life in the cenobitic monasteries: they extol the monastic life in common as the ideal Christian life, the "life of perfection," while at the same time indicating the dangers of the solitary anchoretic life. St. Basil's Rules became the Magna Carta of Monasticism, both in the East and in the West, throughout the monastic tradition. The difference is that while in the Christian East the anchorite spirit of St. Anthony continues to persist as the original monastic ideal, thus at times reacting against the organized monasticism of a Pachomian, cenobitic type promulgated by Saint Basil in the Rules, the Christian West, after the modifications to the Basilian Rules by St. Benedict, remains faithful to the cenobitic spirit of organized monasticism.

St. Basil set Christian perfectionism as the goal of monastic life. The monks were to practice Christian virtues together, especially love; to practice obedience to a spiritual father; to practice chastity and poverty, and share the common goods of the monastery. After they achieved Christian perfection, they were allowed to come back to the world and help others to achieve Christian perfection. Thus, the monks had the mission of "social workers" as well. St. Basil's institutions, especially his Basileias, which was at the same time an orphanage, a "kitchen for the poor," and a school for the illiterate was in practice run by monks. This was St. Basil's way of utilizing the monastic movement to benefit the mission of the Church in the world.

Following St. Basil's example, the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), in its canonical legislation, placed the monastics in a given Diocese under the direct jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop. Only this bishop can allow the foundation of new monasteries in his diocese (Canons 4 and 8). Thus in the Orthodox Church the possibility of the creation of monastic "Orders," as we see them developing in the West during the Middle Ages, was once and for all eliminated.


Monasticism also spread in the West. Its origins go back to St. Athanasios of Alexandria, who was exiled to the West (399). His Life of St. Anthony was translated into Latin by Evagrios of Antioch (380). Two Latin monks, Rufinus and St. Jerome, who lived in Palestine, brought monasticism to the West when they returned, during the second half of the 4th century. St. Ambrose of Milan (d. 395) introduced monasticism in Northern Italy, and St. Augustine (d. 430) in Northern Africa, whence monasticism was transplanted to Spain. St. Martin of Tours (370) introduced monasticism into Northern France (Gaul), and St. Honoratus of Arles into the South. St. John Cassian founded two monasteries near Marseilles (415); he had become acquainted with monasticism in Egypt and Palestine, and was ordained a deacon by St. John Chrysostom in Constantinople. At. St. John's deposition, John Cassian returned to Gaul to establish monasticism there.



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