Category Archives: Historical

Part 2: Basil the Great: ‘Belonging to the Poor’

basil the great 2 Part 2 of the life of Basil the Great

When a sharp famine arose, Basil provided for the destitute out of offerings the rich gave. He distributed bread in person among them, waited upon them at table with an apron wrapped around him and afterwards, washed their feet.

In AD 370, after being appointed Bishop of Caesarea, Basil founded a large complex of hospitals and hostels known as the Basiliad or Ptochoptopheion (New Town). Here the poor, the ill, orphans and old people were able to receive food, shelter, and medical care free of charge and industrial training for the unskilled was given. Its success resulted in other hospitals in Constantinople and Alexandra being built on similar lines. Basil himself lived in a monastic community at the heart of the Basiliad. The Basiliad itself was run by monks and nuns as well as lay people.

After an earthquake Basil worked for days digging through the rubble in order to save those who were trapped; he urged everyone around to share what food they had and organised food to be planted so people would not starve.

Basil encouraged the poor to help those worse off. “Give your last loaf to the beggar at your door,” he urged,and trust in God’s goodness.”

In AD 378 as he lay dying, the whole city gathered about the door and when he died (on 1 January AD 379, aged 51) huge numbers attended his funeral. Even pagans and Jews wept with the Christians, one commentator noted, lamenting the death of a common father to all.

Basil wrote that choosing the gift of celibacy would greatly help people in their quest to share the very nature of God Himself. Celibacy, he said, is not merely about abstaining from sex. The celibate gifting should shine through the celibate’s “whole life, conduct and moral character.” Their “every action” must display the celibate way they have chosen. He describes it as “the way of angels” that goes beyond the limitations of ordinary human nature … and when free of marriage they may “not to be distracted by any created beauty, but to be constantly intent upon the divine countenance.”

Oriental monks still follow the rule Basil wrote over sixteen hundred years ago and he is known as father of Eastern monastic communities.  He was a man who ‘belonged’ in a unique sense to the poor. If only more of us today would listen to his advice : “If we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.”

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Posted by on Thu 10th Jan 2013 in Historical


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Part 1: Basil the Great: ‘Belonging to the Poor’

basil the great We belong to the beggar on the street

To the people that we meet in our town.

We belong to the refugee

The single mother on her knees, we belong.


We belong to the gang in the yard

To the woman who is hard up and sad

We belong to the kids without dad

To the one going mad, we belong.

These lines from a song, written by a celibate who lives in London, express a recurring theme  in church history: celibates, having left the possibility of producing natural children, often possess a sense that they belong in a unique way not only to the church but to the disadvantaged and the poor – spiritual orphans – and have received a call to love and serve them.

Basil the Great  who died on 1 January AD 379,  was one of these and his initiative, the Basiliad, a large complex for the poor and disadvantaged in his home town, was considered by some at the time as one of the wonders of the world.

Basil  was one of the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’, a church leadership trio in what is now Turkey in the fourth century.  The trio  included Basil’s  brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and friend, Gregory of Nazianzus. They guided the church through turbulent times and their influence was felt for many years to come.

Basil was born in AD 329 at Caesarea (central Turkey). His parents and grandparents were Christians. His grandmother, Macrina, who played a large part in his upbringing, had spent seven years hidden in a forest fleeing persecution and her faith exerted a huge influence on Basil.

Basil was a student, first in Constantinople and then Athens. At Athens, he met up with an old friend Gregory (of Nazianzus). They became life-long friends, sharing a great zeal to serve God and keep away from anything that would spoil their love for Jesus.  They pooled their possessions and shared what they had, including lodgings and meals, and studied, fasted and prayed together.

A promising career lay ahead for Basil; he was very able but he hated the pride this wrought within him and, encouraged by his friend Gregory and sister Macrina, left aside his career, got baptised, gave his wealth to the poor and dedicated his life to seeking God. Like his friend Gregory, he chose a life of celibacy.

Basil’s mother, Emmelia, and sister, Macrina, had founded a community for women in his hometown. Basil followed their vision, establishing a community of men on the opposite side of the river, which he led for five years until his brother, Peter, took over. Basil founded several other communities in the district, both of men and women, and drew up a rule for them.  He was a great believer in community – believing it was better for celibates to live in such a way rather than the solitary existence that monks often led in those days.

Basil felt that caring for disadvantaged people was integral to his calling, a way of loving commanded by Jesus Himself. In his writings and preaching he drew graphic attention to their plight and used all his persuasive powers to encourage the rich to give away their wealth: “For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love,” he wrote.

For Basil, ‘the poor’ were not impersonal recipients of alms and worldly goods given away to rid the soul from that  which encumbers. ‘The poor’ had a face and his writings vividly personalized their troubles.

“When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

Part 2: Next week.

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Posted by on Tue 1st Jan 2013 in Contemporary, Historical


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Hildegard of Bingen: Celibacy is Green: (Part 2)

Hildegard of Bingen (sehildegard 4e previous blog of 14/12/12 ) wrote of celibate women:

By their purity of purpose, these women have overcome their vain, empty unpredictable desires. Through their passionate love for the true Son, they have ascended to that level beyond the confines of prescribed laws and now they breathe a new air, an air pure beyond the clarity of the purest water; and they shine with radiance beyond the radiant glory of the sun. In the green life of their virginity and in the blossoming of body and spirit, these women have revealed their sweetest longings. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, they have been filled with the fragrance and power of many virtues. And now they feel the breath of a new air, air that breathes the fresh green force of all the herbs and flowers of earth and paradise; air that is filled with the fragrance of life-giving power, just as the summer is filled with the perfume of green plants and flowers.” (The Wisdom of Hildegard of Bingen)green 1

It’s easy to be cynical of words like this: the medieval way of thinking is certainly quite distant from our own. But aren’t they positive, reaching upwards and not inwards, revealing the need to live supernaturally, in touch with God? Don’t they paint a picture of celibates fulfilled in their union with God and satiated by the life He brings?

Hildegard thought green … abundant, verdant, well-watered, God-breathed life  … O to feel the breath of a new, pure air, air that breathes the fresh green force .. air filled with life-giving power ... the Holy Spirit. How we need Him and the abundant life He brings!

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Posted by on Fri 21st Dec 2012 in Historical, Quotes


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Hildegard of Bingen [1098-1179] Celibacy is Green! (Part 1)

What greater praise can I give you than to call you green?’

hildegard 2This Saturday is Accelerate (women’s training day in the Jesus Fellowship). Following the traffic light theme, we’ve already had ‘red’ and ‘amber’ days so now it’s ‘green’ day for ‘go’ – ‘ready for action!’

But, you know, Hildegard of Bingen loved the colour green and she is one of my heroes so we had to invite her to step into our day somewhere! We’re going to have a presentation on her life and dress our Coventry Jesus Centre in ‘living green.’

Yes, Hildegard, she’s got a lot to say to us women, whether single or married.

Hildegard, described as “one of the most remarkable woman of the Middle Ages,”* was born in Bermersheim in Rheinhessen, Germany, in 1098. She was the tenth child of a noble family and her father was a soldier.

At the age of eight she began to be trained and educated by a nun called Jutta who lived nearby in a Benedictine monastery in Disobodenberg. Others soon joined them and, at 15, Hildegard became a Benedictine nun.

Jutta died in 1136 and Hildegard, with her deep love for God and creative leadership ability, was elected the new leader of the community. In 1150 she left Disobodenberg to found a new community in Rupertsberg near Bingen. Fifteen years later, a daughter house at Eibingen was established nearby.

When Hildegard was about forty, she felt God tell her to dictate to someone what she had learned about Him and the quality of life He longs to bring. (She could read but never learned to write.) Although reluctant at first, her works began to be circulated and she found crowds of people flocking to her for advice and help. Some were local but others came from more distant parts of Europe. She became spiritual advisor to many of the leading religious and political figures of the day, corresponding with kings and queens, abbots and abbesses as well as ordinary people. She began travelling extensively whilst still continuing to lead her two communities.

Hildegard’s energy and vision led her into many fields: she authored works on medicine and natural science and composed music. She painted her visions and wrote poetry. She even invented a new language which was a mixture of Latin and German!

At the centre, and fuelling Hildegard’s great industry and love of life, was her profound love for Jesus, which found expression in her celibate gifting. To her, Jesus has not come primarily to take away the old life but to gift us with abundant, new life. For her, the celibate life is always meant to be vibrant and ‘green’, not life denying and ‘grey.’ In her writings she makes much of the subject of greenness, drawing her inspiration from the fresh and verdant life that is manifest in God’s creation. To her, celibates are the jewel of God’s glorious creation.

Hildegard wrote that celibacy has at its core a passionate love for Jesus and, through this love, celibates can experience life on a higher plain and not continually be dominated by natural pleasures and loves. Celibates need not dwindleHildegard but blossom and positively shine and radiate God’s love and life as they are acquainted and filled with the Holy Spirit.

 Although suffering from ill health all her life, Hildegard lived to be eighty. The test of true greatness in spiritual writers is that both their life example and their works stand the test of time and have something to say to every generation. This is certainly true of Hildegard of Bingen.

*The Penguin Dictionary of saints, Donald Attwater.)

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Posted by on Fri 14th Dec 2012 in Historical


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No Longer Mine, But Yours – The Celibate Spirit: An Old and a New Hymn

“Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.”

Frances Ridley Havergal was born in 1836, the youngest child of a Church of England minister. She became a Christian when she was fourteen.

Frances began writing poetry when she was seven and in her life wrote numerous hymns and poems as well as booklets. Her writings are permeated with a deep love for Jesus and a desire to live ALL her life in undivided devotion to Him – a total consecration.

Francis was a pianist and singer and used her musical gifts to reach people in hospital wards. She visited the poor and went into people’s houses to read the Bible and tell them about Jesus. She sometimes led meetings, too, to lead people into a fuller consecration. She was an avid Bible student and skilled linguist – being proficient in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.

In her lifetime,several men wanted to marry Frances but she felt that if she married it would diminish her devotion to Jesus and she deliberately chose to remain single and leave marriage aside.

The most famous hymn penned by Frances is:“Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” She wrote it after she helped several people to find faith in Jesus.

“I was too happy to sleep, and passed most of the night in praise and renewal of my own consecration; and these little couplets formed themselves, and chimed in my heart one after another till they finished with ‘ever only, ALL FOR THEE!'”

In 1878 Frances wrote the following letter to a friend:

“The Lord has shown me another little step, and, of course, I have taken it with extreme delight.’Take my silver and my gold’ now means shipping off all my ornaments to the church Missionary House, including a jewel cabinet that is really fit for a countess, where all will be accepted and disposed of for me … Nearly fifty articles are being packed up. I don’t think I ever packed a box with such pleasure.”

Frances died in 1879, at the age of forty-two.

*                        *                           *

Renate Roth comes from Switzerland.  She tells her story:

I met the Jesus Fellowship while I was working as a volunteer at Ashburnham Place (a Christian conference centre) during the summer months of  1979. God opened my eyes to the beauty and possibility of a shared lifestyle, as we read in the early chapters of Acts. Visiting one of the Church’s households for a few days before returning to Switzerland, I heard God’s call and moved into community in October 1981.

Inspired by the lives of many of my friends who were celibates, I considered this way of life before God over some time, until I knew in my heart that this was God’s call for me. I made my vow of celibacy in January 2000 before the whole church.

Inspired by the message of Frances Havergal’s famous hymn, Renate has written the following words to express her own longing to live totally devoted to Jesus:

Take my will and make it strong for You, Lord
May it be no longer mine, but Yours
I long that all I ‘will’ may bring You glory
Lord, take my will, and make it strong for You.

Take my hands and let them move for others
At the impulse of Your mighty love
May they be hands that bless Your chosen people
Lord, take my hands, and let them move for You.

Take my voice and let me sing for ever
Songs of praises to my Lord and King
A sacrifice of worship and thanksgiving
Lord, take my voice, and let me sing for You.

Take my love, and fill my life with Yours, Lord
At Your feet its treasure store I pour
May it refresh the feet of Your redeemed ones
Lord, take my love, and fill my life with Yours.

Take my heart, it shall be Yours for ever
May it be a royal throne for You
Come purify my longings and desires
Lord, take my heart, it shall be Yours alone.

Lord, take myself and these my Zion brethren,
Transform our hearts to love with Jesus’ love,
That world will see we’re Your disciples
And join themselves to our Redeemer’s Bride.

In the Old Testament ‘Zion’ was the district in Jerusalem where the temple stood and the Jews saw it as the place where God was present in a special way – in the midst of His people. There are many prophecies in the Old Testament about the restoration of Zion after its destruction in 587BC at the hands of the Babylonians. Over the centuries Christians have seen the church as ‘Zion’ and part of the fulfilment of these prophecies.

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Posted by on Thu 8th Nov 2012 in Historical, Poetry


Amy Carmichael – celibate pioneer:

Come one, come all to the Welcome Hall – and come in your working clothes! (Amy’s slogan inviting people to Welcome Hall.)

“Give me the love that leads the way.”

As I stood on the top deck of the ferry last week, counting the  buoys as we entered Belfast harbour, I couldn’t help recalling that two people exerting a weighty influence on my life were born or spent some of their most formative years here: C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast and Amy Carmichael, born in the village of Millisle in County Down, moved there when she was a teenager.

Amy Carmichael, yes, I’ve certainly leaned on her heavily for inspiration over the years: she was converted in Belfast as a teenager when her family moved there and at about 20, founded ‘Welcome Hall’ in the Shankill as a mission to reach Belfast’s mill-girls, many of whom worked in terrible conditions. When her family moved to Manchester, Amy again worked amongst the factory girls in the slums.

Amy sailed for Japan in 1893 to be a missionary. Her dream ended just over a year later when she returned home exhausted and unable to cope with the extreme climate. At this time she received a strong call to celibacy. Years later she described how she found a solitary cave to pray: “I had feelings of fear about the future. That was why I was there – to be alone with God. The devil kept on whispering, ‘It’s all right now, but what about afterwards? You are going to be very lonely.’ And he painted pictures of loneliness – I can see them still. And I turned to my God in a kind of desperation and said, ‘Lord what can I do? How can I go on to the end?’ And He said, ‘None of them that trust in Me shall be desolate’. That word has been with me ever since. It has been fulfilled to me.”

The following year Amy sailed to southern India and soon gathered a group of women whom she formed into a woman’s band, called the ‘Starry Cluster’. Under her leadership the women travelled around the villages, visiting homes and speaking to women and children who were willing to listen to the gospel. When two teenage girls who wanted to become believers escaped from their homes and came to her, the threat of violence forced them all to move to Dohnavur, on the southern tip of India. Amy lived there for the rest of her life.

In 1901 Amy rescued her first temple child. Such children were destined for a life of prostitution in Hindu temples. Over the years she rescued, and had brought to her, many other children in similar danger. A home was made for them amidst a community of believers, later called the ‘Dohnavur Fellowship’. Like Amy, many at Dohnavur chose to remain single ‘to attend upon the Lord without distraction’, as one of them said.

In 1916 Amy formed ‘The Sisters of the Common Life’ for single women like herself. In a book of guidelines for them Amy wrote: “There is nothing dreary or doubtful about this life. It is meant to be continually joyful.” She describes those who embraced this lifestyle as those, “being willing to follow the Lamb wherever he goeth”.*

Amy, called ‘Amma’ (mother), was not only a spiritual mother to many of her fellow workers but to her adopted children as well. Her aim was to train the children “to serve, to be evangelists and lovers of souls” and to send out teams to evangelize the people of southern India.

In 1931 Amy broke a leg which left her disabled for the rest of her life. For the next 20 years, confined to her room, she continued in her role as ‘Amma’ to the family as well as writing many books. In one of her books called ‘Ploughed Under’ she writes of the need of celibates to be spiritual parents. “Perhaps because there are so many perishing for lack of love in a world which can be hard and cold to birds which have no nest of their own, He wants some mother-hearts to be free to make nests for them, just as He wants some of His knights to be St. Pauls … and for Francis of Assisi there is need everywhere.”

“Why was it ever forgotten I wonder?” she wrote of celibacy. The word she received so many years ago – “It has been fulfilled to me. It will be fulfilled to you.”

Amy wrote of the importance of having a consistent and loving relationship with God and of allowing nothing to mar that bond. She wrote:  “O, let us more and more deeply love the Forgiving Saviour and more and more walk softly with Him lest we grieve Him in any tiny thing.” Easy, second-rate choices would lead to a quenching of the fire of love; commitment to Jesus and His cause had to be total: “We are not called to be weaklings but warriors… It is all or nothing,” she wrote.

Amy longed that the Dohnavaur community model a very high standard of Jesus-like love and the first line of one of her verses begins, “Give me the love that leads the way.”

Amy’s legacy of compassion, obedience and devotion lives on – both in the books she has written and in the continuing community she established at Dohnavaur.

*I’ve never seen this book, despite searching in the British Library. If anyone knows  where I can get a copy of it, please let me know!

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Posted by on Fri 12th Oct 2012 in Historical


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Mother Teresa in Soho: summer 2012

An unlikely place, Soho, to house an exhibition about Mother Teresa, or … mmmm … perhaps not.

Like Jesus, she specialised in the sort of people that most people prefer to bypass. Second thoughts, a very fitting place to find an exhibition about her.

There was her room, a replica of it anyway. A tiny hospital bed, two old telephones (I mean old), a primitive filing system and a cardboard box under her bed with ‘AWARDS’ written in thick black pen. Perhaps, most telling, was what she had on her wall: a photo of Theresa of Lisieux, (whose name MT adopted at her first vows) with the saint’s words, ‘My vocation is love.’

I think those words could be a summary, actually, of Mother Teresa’s life.

Walking around the exhibition reminded me of my university days. I was studying Theology and finding much of it tedious and dry: reading books written in seminaries or theology departments by academics. Not that I’m against academia or theological study but theology springing from real life, actually life in the gutter, takes on a new and exciting dimension. I remember, in my third year, walking round a reservoir with a book of Mother Teresa’s sayings in my pocket and finding it, well, a reservoir of life to me at that time, water in a largely desert place. I felt as if I had found ‘the real thing’.

It was fascinating to see her simple blue and white habit, her cardigan, the worn cloth she darned, her handwritten notes and letters asking for this and that. It made her a little more tangible and gave insight into her humanity (I hate the iconizing of even the most saintly of people).

Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Albania, Mother Teresa felt the call of God to become a missionary nun when she was eighteen. She joined an Irish order – the Loreto Sisters – and in 1929 arrived in Calcutta where she took her final vows.

Mother Teresa taught for many years. It was not until she was recovering from a serious illness in 1946, aged 36, that she received what she called her ‘second calling’. The voice of God was clear: she was to leave her convent and work with the poorest of the poor.

The exhibition displayed her conversation with Jesus at this time: “To leave that which I loved and expose myself to new labours and sufferings which will be great. These thoughts were a cause of much suffering – but His voice kept on saying, ‘WILT THOU REFUSE?’

Jesus said to her, “Come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come be My light, I cannot go alone, go among them, carry Me with you into them.”

Mother Teresa’s life had many similarities with St Francis of Assisi. Like Francis, strict poverty, abandonment of every personal possession and celibacy were all integral parts of her calling. Also like Francis, she formed her own order – known as the Missionaries of Charity – whilst remaining firmly within the structure of the Catholic Church. Whilst the number of monks and nuns has been steadily declining worldwide, the brothers and sisters in the Missionaries of Charity has been growing and growing, numbering about 4000 today.

The exhibition revealed MT’s inner crisis of faith (what a relief to find people like her had crises like you and me). ‘For nearly 50 years MT clung to Jesus in blind faith, not feeling His presence yet profoundly united to Him, radiating His joy and love to each person she met.’

She wrote: ‘Within me everything is icy cold. It is only that blind faith that carries me through. The smile is a big cloak that covers a multitude of pains.’

Mother Teresa referred to herself as ‘Christ’s spouse’, as do all the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity. She commented that being ‘Christ’s spouse’ is similar to the love of a wife for a husband. “We are all women who have the ability to make use of this love. We should not be ashamed of loving Jesus with our emotions.”

Speaking of her celibacy, Mother Teresa said, “I cannot in conscience love a creature with the love of a woman for a man, I no longer have the right to give that affection to any other creature but God.”

For Mother Teresa, the love she would have given to a spouse was first directed to God. To her it was a marriage of a different kind. Commenting on this ‘marriage relationship’ she found with God she once dryly said, “But sometimes I find it difficult to smile at Him because He can be so demanding!”

Her achievements are formidable in their international scope and she has become a byword of sanctity. The exhibition, however, showed us not only the depth of a love born out of suffering and obedience but a woman who was a human, like you and me.

‘My vocation is love.’  Mother Teresa got it right and I guess, if we have those four words emblazoned on our hearts, we can’t go too far wrong either.

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Posted by on Thu 27th Sep 2012 in Historical


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