Thursday, August 29, 2019

"Give Heed To Thyself" (A Homily of St. Basil the Great)


For St. Basil, Know Thyself (Gnothi Seauton) is closely connected with Give Heed to Thyself (Proseche Seauton), for you cannot know yourself unless you guard yourself, and you cannot guard yourself unless you know yourself. The origins of this saying is in Deuteronomy 4:9, which says: "Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life." Know Thyself and Give Heed to Thyself are so closely connected, that some Church Fathers believed the ancient Greek maxim had its origins in Moses and in Solomon, who says: "If thou know not thyself, thou fair one among women, go thou forth by the footsteps of the flocks, and feed thy kids by the shepherd’s tents" (Song of Songs 1:8).

Give Heed To Thyself

A Homily of St. Basil the Great

God Who created us has granted us the faculty of speech that we might disclose the counsels of our hearts to one another and that, since we possess our human nature in common, each of us might share his thoughts with his neighbor, bringing them forth from the secret recesses of the heart as from a treasury. If we were passing through this life with our minds bared for all to see, we should, in thinking, make direct and immediate contact with one another. But, inasmuch as the mind carries on its processes of thought beneath a covering of flesh, nouns and verbs are needed to make known the secrets of the mind. As soon, therefore, as our mental faculty frames a meaningful utterance, it is conveyed by words, as by a ferry, and, flying through the air, it passes from the speaker to the auditor. If the passage of our words is attended by a deep tranquility and calm, they weigh anchor in the ears of our disciples, as in a peaceful haven, untroubled by storms. But, if a noisy protest on the part of our hearers, like an angry surge of the sea, oppose our words, they will be dispersed in the midst of their course through the air and, like a ship, they will be wrecked. By your silence, therefore, assure tranquility for my discourse. It may, perchance, prove to have something useful in it and worth carrying away. The word of truth is hard to catch and it can easily elude the inattentive listener. For this reason, the Holy Spirit wills that our words be concise and brief so as to express much in little and by condensation to make what is said easy to retain in the memory. It is the natural function of speech neither to veil its meaning with obscurity nor to flow aimlessly about the subject in a wordy and inept manner. These faults, indeed, are avoided in the words which we have just quoted from one of the Books of Moses and which attentive listeners among you will recall perfectly, unless the very brevity of the quotation caused you, perhaps, to miss my citing of it. It ran as follows: 'Give heed to thyself, lest perhaps a wicked thought steal in upon thee.' Deut. 15.9

We men are easily prone to sins of thought. Therefore, He who has formed each heart individually, Ps. 33.15 knowing that the impulse received from the intention constitutes the major element in sin, has ordained that purity in the ruling part of our soul be our primary concern. That faculty by which we are especially prone to commit sin surely merits great care and vigilance. As the more provident physicians offset physical weakness by precautionary measures taken in advance, so the Protector of us all and the true Physician of our souls takes possession first and with stronger garrisons of that part of the soul which He knows is most liable to sin. The actions performed by the body require time, favorable opportunity, physical exertion, assistance, and other accessories. The movements of the mind, however, take place independently of time; they are performed without weariness; they are accomplished effortlessly; every occasion is appropriate for them. For instance, some haughty person having nothing but contempt for decorum, although wearing outwardly the appearance of sobriety, may be sitting in the midst of persons who are admiring him for his virtue. Suppose that this man has run off in his thoughts, by a secret movement of the heart, to a place of sin. In imagination he beholds the objects of his desire; he fashions the image of some shameful rendezvous entirely within the secret workshop of his heart and within himself he draws vivid pictures of sensual pleasure. He has, unwitnessed, committed a secret sin, which will remain unknown to all until the coming of Him who will reveal the hidden things of darkness and make manifest the counsels of the hearts. 1 Cor. 4.5 Beware, therefore, lest perhaps a wicked thought steal in upon thee.' For, 'he who looks upon a woman to lust after her hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.' Matt. 5.28 The actions of the body, therefore, are retarded by many impediments, but he who sins in his intention has committed a transgression that is accomplished with the swiftness of thought. Where the lapse into sin is sudden, therefore, the power of swift protection has been granted us, 'lest perhaps,' as the Scripture declares, 'a wicked thought steal in upon thee.' And now, let us return to the theme of our discourse. 'Give heed to thyself,' says the Scripture. Every animal has been endowed by God, the Creator of all things, with an interior power of self -protection. You would find upon careful observation that, as a rule, brute beasts have an instinctive aversion for what would be harmful to them. On the other hand, they are drawn by a certain natural attraction to the enjoyment of whatever is beneficial. Consequently, God, who is also our Teacher, has given to us this great precept, so that we may acquire by the aid of reason what animals have by their very nature and that we may do knowingly, by the attentive and diligent application of our reason, that which animals do instinctively. Moreover, in obeying this, precept, we become vigilant custodians of the resources God has bestowed on us, avoiding sin as the beasts shun noxious foods and following after justice as they seek for pasturage. 'Give heed to thyself' that you may be able to distinguish between the injurious and the salutary. Now, inasmuch as the faculty of attention has a double aspect referring, in one sense, to an absorption in visible objects and, in another sense, to an intellectual gaze at incorporeal realities if we should assert that this precept has to do with the action of our bodily eyes, we should be indicating at the start that it cannot be obeyed. How could one encompass his whole person with a glance? The eye does not apply its power of sight to itself. It cannot view the head nor is it acquainted with the back, or the face, or the arrangement of the internal organs. Yet, to say that the precepts in the Scripture are impossible to fulfill is impious. It remains, therefore, to interpret the precept as referring to a mental action. 'Give heed to thyself,' that is, examine yourself from all angles. Keep the eye of your soul sleeplessly on guard, for 'Thou art going in the midst of snares.' Sirach. 9.20 Traps set by the enemy lie concealed everywhere. Look about you in all directions, therefore, 'that you may be saved as a swallow from the traps and as a bird from the snare.' Prov. 6.5 The deer cannot be caught with traps because of the keenness of his vision; whence its name, deriving from its own sharpsightedness. A bird, if alert, easily flies out of the range of the huntsman's snare. See to it, then, that you are not more remiss than the animals in protecting yourself. Never let yourself be caught in the snares of the Devil and so become his prey, the captured plaything of his will. 2 Tim. 2.26

'Give heed to thyself,' that is, attend neither to the goods you possess nor to the objects that are round about you, but to yourself alone. We ourselves are one thing; our possessions another; the objects that surround us, yet another. We are soul and Intellect in that we have been made according to the image of the Creator. Our body is our own possession and the sensations which are expressed through it, but money, crafts, and other appurtenances of life in this world are extraneous to us. What, then, does the Scripture mean by this precept? Attend not to the flesh nor seek after its good in any form health, beauty, enjoyment of pleasures, or longevity and do not admire wealth and fame and power. Do not consider the accessories to your temporal existence to be of great consequence and thus, in your zealous concern for these things, neglect the life which is of primary importance to you. 'Give heed to thyself,' that is, to your soul. Adorn it, care for it, to the end that, by careful attention, every defilement incurred as a result of sin may be removed and every shameful vice expelled, and that it may be embellished and made bright with every ornament of virtue. Examine closely what sort of being you are. Know your nature that your body is mortal, but your soul, immortal; that our life has two denotations, so to speak: one relating to the flesh, and this life is quickly over, the other referring to the soul, life without limit. 'Give heed to thyself,' cling not to the mortal as if it were eternal; disdain not that which is eternal as if it were temporal. Despise the flesh, for it passes away; be solicitous for your soul which will never die.

Acquire an exact understanding of yourself, that you may know how to make a suitable allotment to each of the two sides of your nature: food and clothing to the body and to the soul, the doctrines of piety, training in refined behavior, the practice of virtue, and the correction of vice. Do not fatten the body unduly and do not try to acquire physical bulk 'for the flesh lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary one to another.' Gal. 5.17 Take care never to provide the lower part of your nature with great power of dominion by adding weight to the flesh. As with scales, where, if you depress one side, the other is necessarily raised, so, in the case of the body and soul, excess in one inevitably causes defect in the other. If the body is sleek and corpulent, the mind, by a necessary consequence, is weak and languid in carrying on the activity proper to it. If, on the other hand, the soul is in good case and has been developed to its proper stature by the practice of virtue, the body suffers a corresponding deterioration.

This precept, moreover, is at once useful to the sick and highly appropriate also to those who are in good health. In the case of physical illness, physicians exhort their patients to give heed to themselves and neglect nothing which pertains to their cure. The Scripture, likewise, the physician of our souls, restores to health a soul afflicted by sin with this brief remedy: Give heed, therefore, to thyself, that you may be given assistance toward your recovery proportioned to the gravity of your transgression. Sin is a serious and difficult matter. You require frequent confession, bitter tears, prolonged vigils, constant fasting. A fault is light and supportable; the penance done for it should be equally so. Only 'give heed to thyself' that you may recognize the state of health or sickness in your soul. Many persons, from lack of attentiveness, contract serious and even incurable diseases and they are not even aware that they are ill. But, even to those in good health, this admonition is of no small assistance as regards their actions. Thus, the same remedy heals the sick and establishes the sound in more perfect health. Every one of us, indeed, who is instructed in the Holy Scripture is the administrator of some one of those gifts which, according to the Gospel, have been apportioned to us. In this great household of the Church not only are there vessels of every kind gold, silver, wooden, and earthen but also a great variety of pursuits. The house of God, which is the Church of the living God, 1 Tim. 3.15 has hunters, travelers, architects, builders, farmers, shepherds, athletes, soldiers. To all of these this short admonition will be appropriate, for it will produce in each proficiency in action and energy of will. You are a hunter sent forth by the Lord, who says: 'Behold, I send many hunters and they shall hunt them upon every mountain.' Jer. 16.16 Take good care, therefore, that your prey does not elude you, so that, having captured them with the word of truth, you may bring back to the Saviour those who have been made wild and savage by iniquity. You are a wayfarer, like to him who prayed: 'Direct my steps.' Ps. 119.133 'Give heed to thyself that you swerve not from the path, that you decline neither to the right nor the left.' Deut. 17.20 Keep to the King's highway. The architect should lay the firm foundation of faith which is Jesus Christ, and let the builder look to his materials : not wood, nor hay, nor stubble, but gold, silver, precious stones. 1 Cor. 3.11,12 If you are a shepherd, take care that none of your pastoral duties is neglected. And what are these duties? To bring back that which is lost, to bind up that which was broken, to heal that which is diseased. Ezech. 34.16 If a farmer, dig around the unfriutful fig tree and administer remedies that will promite fecundity. Luke 13.8 If a soldier, 'labor with the gospel, war a good warfare' 2 Tim.1.8; 1 Tim. 1.18 against the spirits of wickedness. Eph. 6.12 'Take unto you all the armor of God' Eph. 6.13 against the desires of the flesh. Do not 'entangle yourself in secular businesses that you may please him to whom you have engaged yourself. 2 Tim.2.4 If an athlete, 'give heed to thyself lest you violate any of the laws for athletes, for no one is crowned except he strive lawfully. 2 Tim, 2.5 Like Paul, run, fight, and strike with the fist. 1 Cor. 9.26 Keep the eye of your soul unwaveringly alert, like a skillful boxer. Shield your vital parts with your hand. Keep your gaze fixed upon your opponent. In the race, stretch forth yourself to the things that are before; Phil. 3.13 'So run that you may obtain'; 1 Cor. 9.24 do battle with your invisible adversaries. Eph. 6.12 Such a one this precept would have you be as long as you live, neither losing heart nor resting, but soberly and vigilantly maintaining a watch over yourself.

Time does not permit me to continue enumerating the various pursuits followed by those who are united in labor for Christ's Gospel and how the meaning of the precept applies to them all. 'Give heed to thyself : be sober, thoughtful, careful to preserve what you have and provident of the future. Do not lose by negligence that which you already possess and do not promise yourself the enjoyment of what is is not yours and perhaps never will be, as if you already possessed it. Is not this weakness of imagining that something hoped for is already possessed a natural trait in the young by reason of the frivolity of their minds? Whenever they are at leisure or in the stillness of night, they conjure up airy fantasies and are borne along the course of every extravagant fancy by the agility of their minds. They promise themselves fame, a brilliant marriage, model offspring, a good old age, universal esteem. Then, despite the fact that there is no foundation for such hopes, their minds swell nigh to bursting with dreams of achievements which men regard as supreme. They build fine large houses and fill them with all sorts of precious treasures. They encompass as great an area of land as their idle imagination could conceive of as set apart from the whole of creation. They store the produce therefrom in granaries fashioned by their vanity. To all this they add herds of cattle, a countless throng of slaves, civil magistracies, positions of national leadership, military commands, battles, triumphs, royal power itself. And, although they attain to all these glories only in vain fantasy, they imagine, by reason of their excessive folly, that they are in actual and present possession of their hopes. Now, day-dreaming is a malady which commonly afflicts an idle and indolent mind; in order to restrain, as with a bridle, this mental flightiness, this swelling conceit of thought, the Scripture bids us obey that great and wise precept : 'Give heed to thyself.' Do not promise yourself non-existent possessions, but administer to advantage the things that are yours.

Furthermore, I think that the Lawgiver has intended that this exhortation also should eliminate a very common human vice. It is easier for every one of us to busy ourselves with affairs that do not concern us than to look after our own. In order that we might not be guilty of this, the Scripture says [in effect]: Cease meddling with the affairs of another. Beware of spending your time in scrutinizing another's weakness. 'Give heed to thyself,' that is, turn the gaze of your soul toward self -scrutiny. Many there are, indeed, who, according to the Lord's words, see the mote in their brother's eye and see not the beam in their own. Matt. 7.3 You should, therefore, be constantly examining whether your life conforms to this teaching. But, do not look around outside yourself to see whether you can discover some blemish, as did that stern and boastful Pharisee who stood justifying himself and despising the publican. Continually examine yourself as to whether you have committed any sin of thought, or whether your tongue has been guilty of any lapse by running ahead of your thought, or whether there has been any heedless or involuntary action on the part of your hands. If you find many defects in your way of living (as, being human, you surely will) , say with the publican : 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.' Luke 18.11-13

'Give heed, therefore, to thyself.' This admonition, like a prudent counselor who keeps reminding you of the nature of things human, will be a useful ally when you are enjoying brilliant success and your whole life moves along like a stream. Even when you are cast down by adversities, it might profitably be recited again and again by your heart, that you may not be reduced to ignoble repining by despair; just as, in the former instance, it would keep you from being exalted through vanity to an overweening pride. Is your wealth your boast? Or are you proud of your lineage? Do you find cause for glory in your native land or in physical comeliness, or in the honors universally accorded you? 'Give heed to thyself,' for you are mortal; 'for dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.' Gen. 3.19 Pass in review those persons who have enjoyed positions of eminence before you. Where are they who held the civil magistracies? Where, the peerless orators? Where are they who had charge of the national assemblies the famous breeders of horses, the generals, the officials, the sovereigns? Have not all of these fallen to dust? Have they not all become legend? Is it not true that a few bones are the memorial to the life- of these men? Look down into their graves and see if you are able to discern which is the slave and which the master; which the pauper, and which the rich man. Distinguish, If you can, the captive from the king, the strong man from the weak, the comely from the ill-favored. If you remember your nature, you will never yield to vanity and you will be mindful of yourself if you give heed to yourself.

On the other hand, suppose you are an ignoble and undistinguished person, poor and of lowly origin, without home or city, sick, in need of daily sustenance, in dread of the powerful, cowering before everyone because of your abject condition; 'but he that is poor,' says the Scripture, 'beareth not reprehension.' Prov. 13.8 Yet, do not despair nor cast aside every good hope because your present state is quite unenviable. Rather, turn your thoughts to the blessings already granted you by God and to those reserved by promise for the future. First of all, you are a man, the only one of all living beings to have been formed by God. Gen. 2.7 Is not this enough to call forth the most ecstatic joy in a man who reasons intelligently that you have been formed by the very Hands of God who created all things? Secondly, having been made according to the image of the Creator, you are able to arrive at a dignity equal to that of the angels by leading a good life. You have been given a mind capable of understanding, through which you gain knowledge of God. You investigate, with the aid of your reason, the nature of existing things. You pluck the fruit, exceedingly sweet, of wisdom. All the animals on land, wild and tame, all those that live in the waters, all that fly through the air of this earth serve you and are subject to you. Have you not invented arts and founded cities, and devised all the tools which minister to necessity and luxury? Has not your rational faculty made it possible for you to sail the seas? Do not earth and waters yield nourishment for you? Do not air and sky and wheeling stars show forth to you their array? Why, then, are you dejected because you do not possess a horse with a silver bridle? You have the sun as a torchbearer, lighting your way in swiftest course all day long. The lustre of gold and silver is not yours, but you have the moon to shed her great beams of light around you. You do not mount a carriage inlaid with gold, but you have your feet, a vehicle belonging to you alone and adapted to you by nature. Why, then, do you admire those who have a full purse, but who need the feet of others to convey them from place to place? You do not take your slumber upon an ivory couch, but you have the ground which is more valuable than quantities of ivory. Sweet is the rest taken upon it and swiftly come by and free from care. You do not lie beneath a gilded roof, but you have the sky glittering overhead in all its expanse with the indescribable beauty of the stars. And these wonders are of a mortal kind; those which I shall now mention are still greater. For your sake, a God dwelt among men, John 1.14 there was a distribution of the Holy Spirit, Heb. 2.4 death was destroyed, I Cor. 15.26,55 hope of resurrection was confirmed, 1 Cor. 15.12,22 a divine precept was given for leading a life of perfection, the way to God was shown by the commandments, Matt. 19.17,21 the kingdom of heaven was prepared, Matt. 25.34 and crowns of justice 2 Tim. 4.8 were made ready for him who has not fled from the labors to be undergone on behalf of virtue. Now, if you give heed to yourself, you will discover all this about yourself and still more. You will not be made disconsolate by your deficiencies, but you will take pleasure in what you do possess. This precept will be of great assistance if you keep it before your mind on all occasions. For example, suppose that anger overrules your reason and you are quite carried away by your wrath, so that you utter unseemly words and act in a rude and savage manner. If you give heed to yourself, you will control your wrath as you would an unruly and refractory young horse, laying on the blows of reason, like a lash. You will also govern your tongue and you will not use violence against the one who is provoking you to anger. Again, suppose evil desires are pricking your soul like goads and are subjecting you to wanton and licentious impulses. If you give heed to yourself, you will remember that this present delight will end in bitterness, and also that the pleasurable excitement now experienced by the body under the influence of sensual delight will beget the venomous worm that punishes us forever in hell. Isa. 66.24; Mark 9.43,45,47 If, moreover, you bear in mind that flesh by ardor will become the mother of everlasting fire, Matt. 25.41 lustful pleasure will be straightway put to flight and marvelous inner peace and quietness of soul will take its place, as the noisy clamor of giddy maid-servants is hushed at the entrance of a discreet mistress.

'Give heed to thyself,' then and bear in mind that one part of your soul is rational and intelligent, the other emotional and non-rational. Authority belongs to the former by nature and to the latter, submission and obedience to the reason. Never, therefore, allow your mind to become the bound slave of the passions, nor permit the passions to rise up against reason and usurp power over the soul. In short, scrupulous attention to yourself will be of itself sufficient to guide you to the knowledge of God. If you give heed to yourself, you will not need to look for signs of the Creator in the structure of the universe; but in yourself, as in a miniature replica of cosmic order, you will contemplate the great wisdom of the Creator. From the incorporeal soul within you, learn that God is incorporeal and without local determination. Your soul, likewise, does not have local habitation as a dominant principle of its existence, but, because of its association with the body, it abides in a place. Believe that God is invisible from a consideration of your own soul. Your soul cannot be apprehended with bodily eyes. It has neither color, nor shape, nor any physical determination, but it is discernible by its operations alone. Do not, therefore, seek as regards God that cognition which is gained through the faculty of sight, but, supporting faith by the reason, keep your apprehension of Him a spiritual activity. Marvel at the manner in which the Artificer has joined the powers of the soul with the body so that they permeate it from end to end, bringing the most widely separated parts of it into alliance and uniting them all under one impulse of the breath. Consider, also, what this power is which the soul imparts to the body and what sympathy the body renders the soul in return; how, on the one hand, the body is given life by the soul and how the soul, on the other hand, is the recipient of pains from the body. Reflect upon the stores of learning contained in the mind and ask yourself why it is that, when additional information enters in, it does not obscure the knowledge previously acquired, but our recollections remain clear and distinct, inscribed upon the ruling part of the soul as upon a bronze tablet. Think of how the soul destroys the beauty properly belonging to it by yielding to carnal passion and how, on the contrary, it recovers the likeness to its Creator through the practice of virtue, after it has been purified from the shame of iniquity. Having thus contemplated your soul, direct your attention,, if you will, to the structure of your body. Admire the appropriateness with which the most skillful Artificer has fashioned it as a dwelling place for the rational soul. Of all living creatures, man alone He has made to stand erect, so that you may perceive from your very aspect that your life has a celestial origin. All quadrupeds keep their gaze fixed upon the ground and bow their heads toward their stomach. Man, however, was made to look upward so f that he might not dally with the pleasures of the table nor with lustful desires, but devote his whole energy to his journey heavenward. Moreover, the Creator placed man's head at the highest point of his body and made it the seat of the principal senses. Here are located in close proximity sight, hearing, taste, and smell. And, although they are thus confined to so small an area, no one of them impedes the action of its neighbor. The eyes, of course, hold the topmost point of vantage, so that they may survey the entire body. Posted as they are under their little headlands, so to speak, they enjoy a full and unobstructed view. The sense of hearing, on the contrary, is not directly exposed to its stimulus, but the sounds in the air reach it by a circuitous route. This arrangement is dictated by the highest wisdom, so that while the voice, twisting its way along the tortuous windings of the ears, may pass through or rather, sound within nothing from outside which could act as an obstruction to this sense may be able to steal its way in. Study, also the nature of your tongue. Observe how soft and supple it is and how, because of its power of varied and intricate movement, it can meet every requirement of language. Think of your teeth, which serve both as instruments for the voice in providing the tongue with a sturdy fulcrum and also act as aids in the taking of food, some of the teeth cutting the food and others grinding it. And so, when you have gone over all these points with suitable reflections upon each, when you have, in addition, studied the process of breathing, the manner in which the heart conserves its warmth, the organs of digestion and the veins, you will discern in all of these wonders the inscrutable wisdom of the Creator; so that you will be able to say with the Prophet: 'Thy knowledge is become wonderful' Ps. 139.6 from the study of myself. Give heed, therefore, to thyself, that you may give heed to God, to whom be glory and empire for ever and ever. Amen.