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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 [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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Three Questions About Celibacy

Ann outside Coventry Jesus Centre where she works


Recently a young woman emailed the Undividedblog with questions about Christian celibacy.

Ann Hawker (living in Coventry and a committed Christian celibate for 32 years), Steve Moseley (living in Warwickshire and a committed Christian celibate for 27 years) and Iain Gorrie (married with three children and living in Coventry) give their answers.

 


How do you keep an undivided heart?

Ann: Find ways that work for you to help you be aware of the love of God both personally and for people generally so that you don’t grow cold inside. Worship is one way of doing this.

Have an attitude of service so that you seek out ways to help others and don’t get too absorbed with yourself.

Steve, living for Jesus

Steve: I throw myself into Kingdom life! Celibacy is all about a relationship with God and devotion to the church – a “marriage” with the Kingdom of Jesus. If that sense of being “married” is lost, then you’ve become divided. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul talks about being free from “cares” – the power of natural demands that can sap your spiritual energy, dim your clarity of heart and vision, and compromise your devotion to the Kingdom of God.

Leaders and pastors can have many cares without having a spouse or kids! Protecting my celibate gift, sharing my heart with other celibates, worship and feeding my spirit are all important if I am to stay free from cares.

Also, in order to keep your celibate heart fresh you must embrace the cost now, today. The cost changes as you go along. For example in my late twenties being unable to have children was not for me a cost. Later, in my mid-thirties, the cost suddenly hit me! I had to bring the natural desire to have children painfully to the Cross. Over several years of surrendering, the Spirit took hold of the natural desire and transformed it so that I could become a spiritual father.

Does celibacy work outside of Christian community?

Ann: A call to celibacy can be received and maintained in whatever lifestyle setting you find yourself in.  However, in order to carry the wholeness and fruitfulness of celibacy it is important to have many different opportunities for wholesome relationships and human interaction and a sense of purpose and fulfilment.  This is probably easier within a fairly close community structure but can be achieved within a broader sense of community.  Celibacy is not at its best if it is simply a denial of something rather than an opportunity for something greater which in most cases would mean service and connection with others around.

Steve: I used to think that celibacy would only truly work within a Christian community like our own in the Jesus Fellowship/Jesus Army. However, in recent years I have seen many examples of celibates living on their own who are finding real fulfilment in their celibacy. Of course everyone is different but the crucial thing is relationships – whatever their living situation a celibate must be well related, knitted in to the Body of Christ and able to express their gifts and ministry.

Is celibacy really a ‘higher or harder’ calling than marriage?

Ann: It is a “harder” call in the sense that marriage is a more normal condition and standing against the natural tendency of romance, sexual gratification and close intimacy is a very real challenge.  There is also a great deal of fear of loneliness and of being without support in times of need that leads to a drive to find some kind of “special” relationship.

Steve: Higher: We need to differentiate between the gift and the person. Jesus is of course the model celibate and to be like Him must be the highest. He made it clear that not everyone could receive the gift (Matthew 19:10-12) but there is no suggestion of superiority for those who do. In 1 Corinthians 7 the words “do better” are referring to those who are “betrothed” or engaged to be married and are able to wait patiently for their wedding day. This is not referring to celibates. So, clearly the gift is the highest but in no way does it make celibates superior. The history of the Church is full of highly fruitful married brethren – it’s what you do with your gifts that matters.

Harder: For the majority of people marriage is the “natural” choice. Are we prepared to live differently and oppose peer pressure and all the natural expectations of parents, friends and the world around us? Celibacy in this sense is certainly a harder choice. Being able to trust your emotional life to God is a very big thing. However, no one would claim that natural life is easy!

Iain and his wife, Ruth

Iain: As a married person I find celibacy very inspiring, and would say that marriage and celibacy are very different callings. 1 Corinthians 7:38 says, “He who does not marry does better”. I would think that some aspects of celibacy are harder, like not having a special/exclusive companion, needing to deny your sexual desires, overcoming the expectations of others for a marriage partner etc. It’s hard to give a definitive answer as everyone’s different!

 
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Posted by on Fri 30th Nov 2012 in FAQ

 

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Why Celibate?

Piers Denholm-Young from the Jesus Fellowship, Coventry, speaks about his experience of celibacy:

I was thinking about why I am celibate. It’s good to revisit something like this.

I originally asked God in 1976 if I could be celibate. I was 24 and inspired by the possibility of being like Francis of Assisi and following Jesus the Lamb wherever he went. To me it was the highest way and I didn’t want to opt for anything less. Call it youthful ambition perhaps, but there you are.

I also felt that I could hack it. I had been engaged and we ended it, so I knew something of such an attachment. I definitely was not interested in having children, or devoting a large part of my capacity to raising a family. I wanted to be free to serve God, though what that would entail I had little idea. But my prayer was one of those that shoots through the ceiling and you know it’s got through.

So it was not really a surprise when my prayer was answered. Brethren sensed my calling, and one or two things I read confirmed it to me.

I made no vow then, but just accepted that I was celibate. I felt free of the game of looking at women (sisters) as possible partners, and pressed on with life in community.

I was given the virtue name Single Hearted – more interesting than Denholm-Young, and it was plain sailing for the first 20 years or so. Community was quite segregated and there was limited casual interaction between brothers and sisters. While being rather austere, it made celibacy simpler.

It took me a while to accept wearing a silver ring – what would my parents think? But since 1987 I have worn one and never taken it off.

I did have a couple of short experiences of falling for people that passed off quite quickly, and then in the third decade I had a more serious heart struggle over someone that I found myself alongside, but nothing was said and again I managed to let go and it blew over. The fourth decade – that’s another story for another time.

Back to my reasons for being celibate.

Quite early on I started enjoying spiritual fathering, finding sons, and some daughters, that I could train. That remains a wonderful motive for being celibate. They grow up faster than natural kids, and you get grandchildren pretty soon too. They become your crown and joy, and even the delinquent ones continue to be in your heart.

God keeps showing me that celibacy gives the freedom to love widely, rather than being limited to a wife and children, and then what’s left over for others. That makes marriage sound like a mean affair, and in fact it knocks a lot of selfishness out of people, while celibates like me can be quite selfish in their freedom if they are not careful. But I do enjoy being available to love the poor (especially at the Jesus Centre drop-in), my natural sister, my community house family including children, friends near and far, people I bump into randomly, or meet in evangelism. Plus I can love nature on mountains or in the back garden (I’m well known for liking bugs); it can be a real empathy.

And of course there is more time and freedom to seek and love God. I call it sitting by the sea when I go down the cellar or somewhere quiet and take time with him. I may pray or write verses or just be still (my weakest one). I can check my own heart, meditate, find prophetic insight, pursue a theme, and so on. I have scope to study scripture and read, to fast, to walk in the night. I’m free to waste time too, so it’s a responsibility.

Celibacy is an offering to God. One of the strongest words I ever heard from God was at a big event the church had in the early 90′s. I realised how much it had cost us so far to build, and it brought me to tears in the Spirit as I heard God say ‘I have made you (to be) an offering’. We are corporately a living sacrifice to him, and celibacy is a particular expression of this, an offering of love to him who first loved us and called us to be part of his bride. It is painful at times, but rich.

Celibates love Jesus. Now that does not instantly float my boat; after all he is a man, albeit a majestic man and an incomparable role model. But my images are of a bearded man with long hair (did he?) and a long white robe. I love him for what he did for me, but not for looking like that. However, he made it clear that we can love him in ways other than singing soppy songs with tearful eyes. Sorry – I do get moved by songs once in a while, and of course manly David loved God in song and prayer. His presence brings me to unsentimental tears.
He said ‘If you love me, keep my commandments’, so obedience is loving him. And his new command was to love one another, so I love Jesus by loving my brethren and being there for them. I also love him by doing good to ‘the least of these my brethren’ (Matthew 25.40) and meeting the needs of the poor and rejected. For Peter to love him meant to feed Jesus’ sheep, and as a pastor I must do that too; celibacy helps me have capacity. Plus I guess that to advance the kingdom with gifts and the gospel is to love Jesus. So there are lots of ways that I can work it out.

There is a theme that I return to, which is the quest of the human heart for union. The fall and our physical limitations leave us essentially lonely. We are made in the image of the triune God and so we long for oneness with others while still being ourselves. Even marriage with its intimacy can be an elusive reaching for the union of being that we are made for (I have known a taste of it, sublime but still limited). Celibacy is one path in the quest, loving many, exploring how to love God and to know him more.

We shall only find our full home and consummation of union in glory, but for now our hearts draw us on after Jesus.

 
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Posted by on Fri 16th Nov 2012 in Interviews

 

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All The lonely People: Celibates And Christian Community

Malcolm Lisle from Sheffield comments on the UK’s lonely society and the need for Christian community – for everyone, celibates included.

The Beatles wrote a song entitled ‘All The Lonely People’:

 

Eleanor Rigby died in the church

And was buried alone with her name

Nobody came.

 

Father McKenzie wiping the dirt

From his hands as he walks from the grave.

No one was saved.

 

All the lonely people

Where do they all come from?

All the lonely people

Where do they all belong?

When I was a nurse I looked after an old lady who was very distressed because she had no surviving relatives. I said that I felt sorry for her and I would certainly notice when she wasn’t there anymore. But that is as much as a nurse is allowed to feel. We shouldn’t be callous. It is acceptable to feel sadness when a patient has died but running a busy hospital has to carry on and you can’t worry about it too much or you would be unable to do the job. Just imagine what it must feel like to come to the end or your life, and your only friend is a nursing assistant who is trying not to get too emotionally involved.

There are a lot of lonely people in the world today. I was walking down the street in Leeds when a woman asked to borrow my phone to call a taxi. She was a prostitute. I began to realise that the people she was calling weren’t professional taxi drivers. They were customers, who were simply willing to give her a lift in their cars, anywhere she wanted to go. You might move a long way from your family in order to find work. A prostitute might be your only friend.

In Christian community, the members of the church household become your family. I now have lots of children, lots of brothers, lots of sisters and a grandmother, even though my natural grandparents are now dead. It’s good to be with a church family for a long time so that you can watch the children grow up. The celibate needs community, to substitute for not having their own family. But isn’t it a good idea for everybody?

 
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Posted by on Wed 31st Oct 2012 in Snippets

 

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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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