Windows to Heaven: Seeing the Beatitudes, part 1

Icons and the Mysteries: Meeting God in the Material World — third lecture

Even in a culture in which the Bible is a dark and unmapped continent to millions of people, if you say “Blessed are…,” someone is likely to add the next few words of the first Beatitude, “the poor in spirit.” The text is hard to forget, even if it isn’t easily understood.

With only a little effort, all the Beatitudes can be memorized. Once learned by heart, we carry within us for the rest of our lives a short summary of the teaching of Jesus Christ: the whole gospel in a grain of salt.

Some churches see to it that the Beatitudes become engraved in our hearts while we are still children. In the Orthodox churches of the Russian tradition it is customary to sing the Beatitudes almost every Sunday of the year during the first procession, when the Gospel book is carried out of the sanctuary into the main part of the church and back into the sanctuary again to be placed on the altar. Week after week the words are sung until they reach so deep a place that late in life, even if the face in the mirror seems now to belongs to a stranger, these words will still shine like pebbles in a stream.

There are eight Beatitudes, if we recognize the last two verses as one, as both describe the suffering often imposed upon those who live the gospel: eight facets of discipleship. Yet in another sense, there is only one Beatitude, because all are aspects of life in communion with God. Each of the eight describes aspects of being in the kingdom of God.

They are like rungs on a ladder which Christ has arranged in an exact order. There is a pattern to his arrangement. Each step builds on the foundation of the previous step, each leads to the next, and each is indispensable. We can’t divide them up, retaining those we find appealing and leaving those we don’t care for to others, as if one could specialize: “I’ll take peacemaking, you can have purity of heart.”

Saint John Climacus, one of the Desert Fathers, used the ladder metaphor for a more complex arrangement in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, a strategy of salvation which begins with the renunciation of worldly life and ascends through obedience, penitence, detachment, and humility in the daily struggle to enter more and more deeply into the love of God and freedom from everything that impedes that love. So far as I am aware, his is the only book that has given rise to its own icon: the image of a ladder with many rungs stretching from the desert toward the welcoming arms of Christ in the upper right-hand corner. The ladder is crowded with those who wish to enter the kingdom of God, but they are under attack by small demons armed with arrows, spears, and ropes. Succumbing to various temptations, some are shown falling off the ladder.

Instead of the 40 rungs in St. John Climacus’ ladder, with the Beatitudes there are only eight rungs to climb. What could be easier? What I would like to do in this session is attempt a quick assent of the ladder of the Beatitudes, looking as we climb at icons that shed light on each Beatitude.

We have to start at the bottom, and the first step is a big one. Here we find a rung that immediately makes people living in a rich society at least a little anxious: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

But before looking at the last few words, let’s look closely at the very first, the word “blessed.” What does it mean?

“Blessed” is not a word one finds in headlines nor is it often used in conversation. In the Greek New Testament, each Beatitude begins with the word makarios. In classical Greek makar was a condition associated with the immortal gods. Kari means “fate” or “death,” but given a negative prefix the word means “being deathless, no longer subject to fate.” Being deathless was a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods were the blessed ones.

In Christian use, makarios meant sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists, an infinitely remote Being whom we can faintly glimpse through an intellectual telescope. In the kingdom of God, the blessing extended to us is nothing less than participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity. It is being received into God’s immortality. It is being blessed with qualities that seem humanly impossible.

Understood in this way, the word “blessed” might be translated “freed from death” or “risen from the dead.” To be blessed is to participate in Christ’s resurrection.

To be risen from the dead is not simply a condition of the life to come. It has to do with our lives here and now — as we see in the words of the first Beatitude: “for theirs is” — is, not will be — “the kingdom of heaven.”

Thus we can say “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

What does poverty of spirit mean? It is my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am basically defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than I wanted. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than I need anything else. Poverty of spirit is getting free of the rule of fear, fear being the great force that restrains us from acts of love. Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be. It is an outlook summed up in a French proverb: When you die, you carry in your clutched hand only what you gave away. Poverty of spirit is a letting go of self and of all that keeps you locked in yourself.

Poverty of any kind is little praised beyond the Bible. Avoiding poverty and avoiding the poor is a way of life for a great many people, yet we know that people who have done well in life financially are often not made happy by their wealth, still less “blessed” in the sense of makarios. Far from being risen from the dead, many are in the hell opf fears, hatreds, resentments, jealousies and bottomless greed.

The first Beatitude, pointing as it does in the opposite direction, is a thorn in our sides. For twenty centuries men and women, some of them theologians, have been searching for a loophole.

One of the most popular loopholes is simply to bracket the Beatitudes, along with anything else in the New Testament that seems impractical, as a “counsel of perfection,” advice for monks and nuns, something for would-be saints rather than the ordinary person. But if one can be a Christian without taking seriously the teachings or example of Christ, the word “Christian” no longer means “a follower of Christ.”

Another approach has been to spiritualize the text: Thus the argument: “Jesus of Nazareth was indifferent to material possessions. He didn’t care whether or not his followers were rich or poor. It simply wasn’t important. Only one thing was important — the person’s attitude.”

This approach at least has the virtue of taking the text seriously, even if shifting the stress. After all, Christ speaks of “poverty of spirit.” Clearly attitude matters. The poverty Christ calls blessed is useless if it is resented or hated. The person who is poor but is obsessed with what he wishes he owned has become a billionaire in his fantasy life. He may be poor according to economists, but he isn’t poor in spirit.

But is Jesus neutral to wealth itself and only concerned about one’s attitude toward riches? When you look further in the Gospels to see what else he has to say about money, you find Christ never encourages the pursuit of wealth. Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount he teaches, “But seek for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt and where thieves do not break in or steal.” On another occasion he warns his disciples that it is “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” only adding the consoling words to his anxious listeners that “anything is possible with God.”

The Greek word used for “poor” in the first Beatitude — ptochos — refers not just to a person who possesses very little but to someone who is destitute. The state of need Christ describes is urgent and absolute, the desperate condition of need of someone at the very bottom. A good translation of the first Beatitude into modern English is, “Risen from the dead are the beggars in spirit…”

Does the first Beatitude mean that to follow Christ one has to dispossess oneself of everything and become voluntarily destitute? That depends on what God requires. It is a life-by-life question. There is no one-size-fits-all Christian vocation. Among the saints one easily finds those who owned close to nothing and would without hesitation give away what little they still possessed.

Let’s look at an icon of a saint whose life shows what poverty of spirit can look like. Here is one of the most famous of the Desert Fathers, St. Moses the Black, born about the year 330 or 332. As a young man he escaped from slavery only to become a notorious and dangerous criminal, head of a gang of 75 robbers. He was a large and powerful man regarded with dread in Egypt. His transformation began when he sought to hide among a community of monks. He was amazed that none of the monks were afraid of him. Their love and welcome astonished him. Finally he asked if he might stay. Here began his life of repentance, but his conversion was far from instantaneous. He had a difficult time adjusting to monastic discipline and the ascetic life. One of the many stories that survives is this: While living in a small cell, he was attacked by four robbers. Much to their surprise, Moses fought and overpowered them, tied them together and dragged them to the chapel where the other monks were praying, announcing that he didn’t think it was “Christian” to hurt them but then what should he do? Again the robbers were amazed, first to be conquered by a monk and now to hear the monk opposing their punishment. The robbers repented, were converted, and themselves became monks under the influence of Moses. Eventually a community of 75 monks — not all of them former robbers — were drawn to live around him while many others, both monks and lay people, came from far away to confess and seek his counsel.

Here is another story from later in his long life: One day Abba Moses was asked to join a meeting of the community at which one brother was to be condemned for a sin he had committed, but Abba Moses failed to appear. Finally someone was sent with the message, “Come, the community is waiting for you.” Reluctantly Abba Moses came, but not before filling a cracked jug with water and carrying it with him over his shoulder while its contents spilled out onto the sand behind him. “Father, what does this mean?” he was asked as he reached the meeting place. “It is my sins flowing out behind me but I do not notice them. Thus I come to judge the sins of another.” His gesture inspired his fellow monks to forgive rather than to condemn.

In the year 407, when Abba Moses was 75, he and several other brothers accepted to be murdered rather than defend themselves from attack.

Consider his life in light of the first Beatitude. As a young man, Moses had been ruled by lust for power and wealth which he was willing to obtain without any regard for others. Finally his heart was conquered not by fear of punishment but by the hospitality of Christians who had renounced violence and lived in poverty. He saw in them a blessedness that money simply cannot buy and was ready to struggle to overcome his own demons and share in the blessedness he had discovered by chance. This powerful and selfish man, with many great sins in his past, was made meek by the Gospel and became in time one of those transfigured by Christ, living in such a way that the main outlines of the Gospel were clearly revealed by how he lived. He who had wounded and murdered others finally saved not only many from physical harm but led many to salvation. Through his conversion his idea of what is valuable was turned upside down. He became a new man, a Christ-like man.

St. Moses was a poor man, but poverty of spirit does not always mean empty pockets and life in the desert. The exterior forms of poverty vary from person to person and even from year to year in a particular life. The forms of sanctity are countless.

However various the forms it takes, at the core of poverty of spirit is an attitude that we see in its most perfect form in Christ’s mother. Her unconditional assent to the will of God is a model for every Christian: “Be it done to me according to your word.” At the marriage feast at Cana, after drawing her son’s attention to the fact that there was no more wine, she instructs the servants of the feast, “Do whatever he tells you.” And this is what she is forever saying to each of us.

The second rung has to do with grieving: “Risen from the dead are they who mourn for they shall be comforted.”

In his book on the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus wrote: “When we die, we will not be criticized for having failed to work miracles. We will not be accused of having failed to be theologians or contemplatives. But we will certainly have some explanation to offer to God for not having mourned unceasingly.”

This doesn’t mean a life of unceasing tears but it requires being in a state of continuing vulnerability to the sufferings of others as well as ongoing dismay for the sins I have committed. We have a lot to mourn. Yet we live in a world in which it is a kind of sin not to be happy, in the sense of cheerful, on a more or less full-time basis unless someone very close to us has died or there has been a catastrophe of some kind. We are allowed a bit of mourning but we should be quick about it.

Mourning is linked to poverty of spirit. Without poverty of spirit, I am always on guard to keep what I have for myself, and to keep me for myself. An immediate consequence of poverty of spirit is becoming sensitive to the pain and losses of people around me, not only those whom I happen to know and care for, but also people I don’t know and don’t want to know. To the extent that I open my heart to others, I will do whatever I can to help — pray, share what I have, even share myself. I also open myself to the grief of my neighbor.

The most common grief is linked with death, the anguish of a devastating loss, having to live without someone we still love, desperately miss, and will never see again in this world.

Perhaps the worst grief is experienced by those people who are so numbed by loss that they cannot cry. Their eyes feel like desert sand. In such a state one prays for tears just as people living in a region of drought pray for rain. When tears come at last, it is a waterfall of God’s grace. Part of being made in the image and likeness of God is being able to cry.

Twice in the gospels we are told of Jesus crying. The first occasion happened as he stood gazing at Jerusalem. He foresaw Jerusalem’s destruction, the suffering of the city’s inhabitants, and the enslavement and deportation of its survivors. He wept for the victims of a catastrophe decades in the future, but so real to him, so immediate, so devastating, that he grieved as if it were happening at that moment. He said to those who were with him, “Would that today you knew the things that make for peace!” (Lk 19:42).

We next hear a report of Jesus weeping when he approached the tomb of his friend Lazarus, now dead four days. Before calling Lazarus back to life, he shared fully in the grief of Lazarus’s sisters and friends. In John’s Gospel the shortest verse is simply, “Jesus wept.” It is one of those events when we see Jesus first as true man, responding to death with grief, and then as true God, reviving a corpse.

One saint who symbolizes a life of mourning for past sins is Mary of Egypt, a woman of the fifth century. Explore any Orthodox church and probably you will find her icon — an emaciated, white-haired woman wearing little and standing among barren forms suggesting the desert. Each year during Lent, in every Orthodox parish, there is a public reading of the story of how Father Zosima, a monk who lived in the desert southeast of Jerusalem, one day caught sight of a human figure disappearing into the bushes. Pursuing the stranger, he heard her voice calling on him to turn his eyes away because she had no clothing. Father Zosima gave her his cloak, after which she spoke to him from a distance, telling him how, in Alexandria, she had abandoned herself to promiscuous pleasures and diversions. On a whim she joined a group of pilgrims going to Jerusalem, seducing some of them along the way. Then in Jerusalem she experienced a miracle. Looking at an icon of Christ’s mother in a church courtyard, a simple image of self-giving love and purity, she was overwhelmed with remorse. Afterward she entered the church. Venerating a relic of the cross, she heard a voice telling her, “If you cross the Jordan, you will find peace.” Taking these few words literally, for forty-seven years she lived a solitary life, praying day and night, fighting an invisible war with demons, surviving on plants and spring water. Father Zosima visited her a second time to bring her Communion. On his third visit, he discovered her dead body. She left a message in the sand to let him know she had died on the night of Christ’s passion.

Mary of Egypt is one of those saints who sum up for many people “everything that is wrong with Christianity.” Measured against modern definitions of sanity, Mary of Egypt is a lunatic. Her “unnecessary, church-instilled guilt” over alleged sins turned her into a masochist living in caves, nearly starving herself to death, and for what? A self-inflicted, masochistic punishment for a few wild years in her youth.

But for most of Christian history, saints such as Mary of Egypt were universally regarded as models of lucidity rather than madness. They represented the sanity of repentant mourning. The tears they shed over their past sins restored the image of God in themselves. They had sinned on a grand scale, and then they repented on a similar scale. It wasn’t that they imagined their sacrifices could purchase God’s mercy; rather, they saw the ascetic life as a way of washing themselves clean in the presence of God.

Christianity, incarnational religion that it is, has always sought to do things in a way that holds body and soul together. The church therefore looks for ways to bring repentance not only into one’s thoughts but into day-to-day physical activities. Repentance is not only regret in the mind but prayer and fasting, each reinforcing the other.

In Dostoevsky’s crowning work, The Brothers Karamazov, there is the Christ-like monk, Father Zosima. He is based in part on a monastic elder personally known to Dostoevsky, Staretz Amvrosi of Optina. Many people travel long distances in order to see Fr Zosima even for a few minutes, to seek a word of advice, an answer to a question that tortures them, an assurance of forgiveness. On the last day of his life, Father Zosima tells his life story to his beloved young cell attendant, Alyosha Karamazov. He recalls that as a child, in a time of illness, God had entrusted him with a great truth, which he first expressed to his mother: “Each of us,” her told her, “is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all.” Of course she objects, telling her feverish son that, after all, he is no murderer or robber. The boy cannot explain or justify his truth, but assures her with even more conviction that “each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything.”

It is a useful spiritual exercise to consider the ways we are connected to each other and the implications of being so dependent on so many and thus also co-responsible. The food I ate at my last meal involved the skills and labor of many people, not only those who grew it, packed it, transported it, and finally cooked and served it, but people down through the centuries who are part of the chain of discovery and tradition that is the history of agriculture and the craft of cooking. And it is not only our physical well-being that depends on others. Our attitudes toward the world around us have in large measure been assimilated from family, friends, teachers, pastors, storytellers, film makers, politicians, journalists. There are extremely intricate webs of connection that not only circle the planet but which connect us to people who died many centuries ago. We also play larger and smaller roles in sins committed by others, individually and en masse.

Christ’s tears as he gazed on Jerusalem were shed not for anything he had done or failed to do, but were tears of grief for our sins. His prayer was and is, “Would that today you knew the things that make for peace!”

God grant us the gift of tears: for those whom we miss, for our past sins, for the sins of others, for the violence we do to each other and to the world God gives to us each day. It is this condition of soul that Saint Paul wrote of in his letter to Timothy: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am first” (1 Tm 1:15).

Another rung, the third: “Risen from the dead are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

Christ’s first miracle — changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana — was done in meek submission to his mother’s appeal, after telling her that it wasn’t yet time. Her petition made it the time.

Meekness doesn’t mean being weak in the knees. It doesn’t mean obeying those in power who might order us to commit a sin. Jews understood meekness as the essential quality of the human being in relationship to God. The Hebrew word for meekness, anaw, is used in the psalms to describe the stance of a man or woman aligned with God. Such a person seeks God’s guidance and is not bitter or resentful in obedience to the divine Law, though it is one of the glories of Judaism that the human being, however meek, is called to be more than God’s “yes-man.”

While meekness is a hard virtue for everyone, men especially have fled from being labeled as meek. We have been made to think of meekness as a feminine quality: “Women are from Venus, men are from Mars,” etc. For many, the male archetypes are cowboys, gun-slingers, and the Marlboro Man. Normally it isn’t women who shoot first and ask questions later. “This is the Gospel According to John Wayne,” a priest once pointed out to me. “No matter who plays the lead in a cowboy movie,” he said, “the story is always the same. When faced by bad men, people evil right down to the marrow of their bones, the only solution is to kill them. It is a ‘gospel’ in the sense that it is the defining story for many people.”

Understood biblically, meekness is making choices and exercising power with a divine rather than a social reference point. Meekness is an attribute of following Christ, whatever the risks. The person who is meek toward God will have the strength not to commit or sanction evil deeds against a neighbor. True meekness provides the strength to disobey, no matter what the punishment.

One can choose any saint as an example of any of the Beatitudes. For this one let’s look at the example of St. Alexis Medvedkov, whose canonization Nancy and I participated in Paris at the beginning of May at the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky. I have to admit that until that day I knew almost nothing about him.

He was born in Russia in 1867, he went to seminary and afterward became a reader and choir director at a St. Petersburg parish. He felt unworthy of the priesthood but finally, encouraged by St. John of Kronstadt, accepted ordination. He was sent to serve a village 60 miles from the capital. As was the case for many priests, his meager salary was not enough. Side by side with his neighbors, he worked the land. Yet he also lived a life of mind and spirit, saving money to buy the writings of the Church Fathers. He was a parent as well — he and his wife had two daughters. His pastoral zeal was recognized — in 1916, age 49, he was made an archpriest. Then the next year, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, he was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. Remarkably, his eldest daughter succeeded in freeing her father by offering herself as a hostage in his place. The effects of torture, however, remained with him for the rest of his life. Because of nerve damage, his right eye was always open wider than his left.

In 1919 the entire family managed to escape to Estonia where Fr. Alexis worked in a mine and then as a night watchman. In 1923 he became assistant priest at a local parish, also helping in the parish school. In 1929, following prolonged illness, his wife died.

After this heavy blow, he was invited by Metropolitan Evlogy in Paris to come to France. He was sent to the town of Ugine, near Grenoble, to serve as rector of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox church. A local factory employed 600 Russian immigrants.

He often celebrated the Liturgy on weekdays as well as Sundays and feast days. He was known for how carefully he intoned each word when he stood in the sanctuary. After services, he would stay on to do memorial services and meet whatever other needs were brought to him by his parishioners, never charging money.

His congregation proved difficult. The parish council was dominated by secular-minded lay people of a military background, men used to giving orders, whose main interest was politics. Some harassed Fr Alexis during services. Some were abusive. When insulted, he replied with silence. He patiently endured the criticism of those who regarded the services as too long or criticized him for not dressing better.

His health declined — doctors diagnosed cancer of the intestines. In July 1934, he was taken to hospital. His died on the 22nd of August. On the advice of a physician who warned that Fr Alexis’ cancer-ridden body would rapidly decompose, he was buried in a double coffin.

His parishioners, even those who had been hostile, came to remember him as an exceptionally modest man, shy, full of gratitude, prayerful, outgoing, compassionate, slow to criticize, eager to forgive, generous with what little he had, who never turned his back on anyone in need.

A friend who visited him during those final weeks of his life recalled him saying: “In my parish the true parishioners are the children… and if those children live and grow up, they will form the inner Church. And we too, we belong to that Church, as long as we live according to our conscience and fulfil the commandments … Do you understand what I mean? In the visible Church there is an invisible Church, a secret Church. In it are found the humble who live by grace and walk in the will of God. They can be found in every parish and every jurisdiction. The emigration lives through them and by the grace of God.”

It was a life of ordinary sanctity — small deeds of holiness performed day after day that were either taken for granted or ridiculed. He might have been entirely forgotten had it not been for a decision by the Ugine town council in 1953 to build flats on the site of the cemetery. The remains of those buried in the old cemetery were moved. On the 22nd of August, 1956, precisely 22 years after Fr Alexis’s death, workmen came to his grave and found that his double coffin had entirely disintegrated but his body, priestly vestments and the Gospel book buried with him, had not decayed.

I have left out many details of his life, but you see the main lines: great suffering, endurance, patient service to impatient people, a meek witness to the Gospel in the face of arrogance, belief in the face of disbelief, an uprooted life, the early death of his wife, his own hard death, a love of prayer, a constant testimony to God’s love — and then a sign after death that served to resurrect his memory and inspired the decision that this humble priest ought to be remembered by the Church. The memory of the Church is the calendar of the saints.

The fourth Beatitude is “Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness for the shall be satisfied.”

Notice that Jesus Christ doesn’t praise those who hope for righteousness or campaign for righteousness but those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He praises those who want what is right as urgently as a person in the desert wants a glass of water or a child in a refugee camp cries for a crust of bread.

Righteousness suggests a life armed with virtues. The word virtue is from the Latin word for strength, virtus. To be lacking in virtue is to be powerless. It’s like living in Kansas and having no storm cellar in which to take shelter when tornadoes are raking the land. The cultivation of virtues is the struggle to equip oneself to withstand attack — not of tornadoes but of temptations, including the temptation to be passive and to look the other way.

Hunger was a familiar experience to those who first heard the Sermon on the Mount. Poverty was normal then, as it still is in much of the world. Those living in a part of the world where water is precious are likely to have vivid memories of wanting nothing so desperately as a mouthful of water.

In his sermons on the gospel of Saint Matthew, Saint John Chrysostom asks: “What sort of righteousness? He means either the whole of virtue, or that particular virtue which is opposed to covetousness.”

Covetousness is the driving force in many lives. How many times have I been miserable at not having something I urgently wanted, but the moment of possession only opens the door to the next urgent need — a soul-destroying cycle in which there is no such thing as enough. The hunger for righteousness is the one appetite that Christ blesses — not to covet possessions or achievement or recognition, but to live, through every action and perception, the kingdom of God.

Saint Leo the Great, bishop of Rome in the fifth century, has a similar stress in his homily on the Beatitudes: “It is nothing bodily, nothing earthly, that this hunger, this thirst seeks for, but it desires to be satiated with the good food of righteousness and wants to be admitted to all the deepest mysteries, and be filled with the Lord Himself.” It is notable that Saint Leo, one of only three popes to be recognized as a doctor of the church, laid great stress on almsgiving and other social aspects of Christian life, for Christian life is less our ideas about God than how we live with those around us. To follow Christ and turn a blind eye toward the poor is a contradiction in terms.

The righteous person is someone in whom others, especially those in need, experience the mercy of God.

One outstanding model of the Beatitude is St. Basil the Great. He was born in Cappadocia in 329 to a family remarkable for the many saints it added to the church calendar: not only Basil but his parents St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia; his grandmother, St. Macrina the Elder, his also sister St. Macrina the Younger (the spiritual head of the family); and his brothers St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Peter, future bishop of Sebaste.

In Athens Basil studied alongside his life-long friend St. Gregory of Nazianzus. When he returned from his studies in 356, he found that his mother and his sister Macrina had turned the family home into a convent and that his brothers had also taken up the monastic life nearby. Inspired by his sister, Basil too decided to embrace the ascetical life.

After traveling among monks in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, Basil settled in Cappadocia as a hermit, living in poverty and writing his ascetical homilies. A monastic community gathered around him. For its good order St. Basil wrote his Rule, since regarded as the charter of monasticism.

In about 370 Basil was consecrated Bishop of Caesarea. Even then, he continued to live in poverty. At this time the Arian heresy, which had the emperor’s support, was rending the Church. It became St. Basil’s lot to defend Orthodoxy through sermons and writings.

During a severe drought, when many faced starvation, Basil not only gave away his inheritance for the sake of those in need but established an effective system of relief. In that period he could often be found in a soup kitchen vested in an apron, ladling out food to the hungry. He also founded a hospital for the poor outside the city gates. St. Gregory Nazianzus described it as a new city worthy to be regarded as one of the wonders of the world.

We’re climbed four rungs — that’s all we had time for today. We have four more to climb tomorrow.

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