By Mac Stewart
St. Benedict is justly recognized as the founder of Western monasticism, and for having an integral role in the development of Western civilization through the wide proliferation of the form of religious life he codified. It is interesting to note, though, that at the very end of Benedict’s famous Rule he says — in a characteristically self-deprecating way — that anyone who wants to know what real monks are like ought not to look at him or his communities, but instead at the teachings of the Scriptures and of the holy Catholic Fathers that came before him. He mentions in particular “the rule of our holy Father Basil” as one instance of “the monuments of the virtues of exemplary and obedient monks” (RB, 73).
The monastic teaching of St. Basil is a real treasure, though perhaps not as well known in the West as it might be. Basil developed his thoughts on asceticism and religion in the course of his relatively short but disproportionately eventful life (330-79). After his student days in Athens, he followed one of his mentors (Eustathius) around to visit the anchorites of the Egyptian desert before withdrawing himself in the late 350s to a solitary hermitage not far from his family estate in Cappadocia (where his sister Macrina was diligently overseeing a well-orchestrated form of domestic religious life). In the course of the next decade or so, as he was gradually drawn into the intense theological and ecclesiastical battles fermenting around him, he was also hard at work developing what would become his rule, which probably took shape initially as a series of talks or responses given to other would-be ascetics coming to him for guidance.
Basil did not remain a solitary for long, in other words. He became convinced quite early in his attempt at living an intensely and intentionally Christian life that the solution to the ecclesiastical and theological mess he saw around him was “the promotion of small communities in which could be realized a full and uncompromised dedication to the Christian vocation” (Anna Silvas, The Rule of St. Basil in Latin and English [OSB, 2013], p. 6). His rule makes room for the possibility that the Christian might work out his salvation in removal from all society; his preference by far is to urge his hearers and readers toward all the gifts and challenges of life lived in common.
He gives a series of strong reasons why life in community is of greater advantage than life in solitary retirement. First, God made no one self-sufficient even with regard to mere bodily necessities. Gifts God has given you are often gifts God has not given me, and vice versa, and even the gifts I do have I won’t be able to put to use without the gifts you have. A foot can’t be much of a foot unless it has the rest of the body to stabilize and direct it. Your gift for craftsmanship won’t find its proper end unless there are other people around to use the things you make. God made us this way — possessing things that others lack and lacking things that others possess — precisely so that we would associate with one another. Of course, to try to be self-sufficient is not only impracticable; it is also “flagrantly at war with the law of love,” the law of Christ that forbids his followers merely to seek their own interests (Longer Rules, 7).
Second, those who live on their own have no one to reprove them when they sin. No one easily recognizes his own faults (though plenty of people are well-adept at flagellating themselves for things that aren’t actually faults), and so those who live removed from society are not likely to make an accurate moral evaluation of themselves. Our habitual capacity for self-deception is only amplified when there is no one around to remind us we are not in fact the center of the universe. Even enemies can often serve the purpose here — by their sharp rebukes inducing in us the well-disposed a desire to be cured — but it is far better to be around those who can reprove and set us right with gentleness and compassion.
Third, no one can fulfill all of the commandments by himself. If you are busy visiting the sick, then who will welcome the stranger? Or if you are cooking lunch for the homeless, who will see to their clothing? This is an especially poignant one for our age, I think. The combined forces of individualism on the one hand and activism on the other make us think that each of us ought to be doing and fixing everything. I am a Christian. Jesus said Christians should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and the prisoner (Matt. 25:31-46). So I better make sure that I get all of those on my spiritual resume.
But in the body of Christ there are no spiritual resumes. We act as one organism in the world. If I am sitting beside a man as he dies, I can count on my brother to look after the hospitality at the house. If you are instructing the uninstructed, you can count on your sister to pray for the living and the dead. God creates this harmonious solidarity of the one body of Christ living and acting and praying as the music of the Holy Spirit in the world.
Finally, living life in common with others guarantees that you will always have material around for accomplishing the commandments. Rubbing elbows with others ensures that you will always have the opportunity to test your moral mettle. People will test your patience not only by their faults but by their guileless eccentricities. They will give you occasion to practice humility by being peaceable and instructable. Those who think they can perfectly amend their lives merely by studying Scripture on their own are like craftsmen who learn their building techniques but never actually build anything. The Lord gave us his example of perfect humility and love when he washed his disciples’ feet. If you, then, live on your own, whose feet will you wash?
Basil had centrally in mind the organized common life of monks and nuns living together under a rule. And would to God that such communities might grow and thrive in our day. But given the witness of Macrina and his family’s domestic religious life, as well as his development of the “Basiliads” in Caesarea (houses of hospitality for the poor, hungry, and sick) where the bishop lived, Basil no doubt understood that intensively Christian community can take a variety of forms. Households — a nuclear family or otherwise — can be little monasteries, where everyone learns to wash everyone else’s feet. Neighborhoods could become little collections of Basiliads, bearing one another’s burdens and sharing one another’s joys and in the strength of that solidarity becoming permeable to others who are poor, hungry, sick, and lonely. And surely even the parish church could be home base for the cultivation of this kind of shared material existence, where Christians pray together, eat together, serve together, and celebrate together.
For a people that draws its being from a common loaf and a common cup, there is no substitute for a common life.