Be Attentive to Yourself
Commentary on a Homily by Saint Basil the Great
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To grasp the truth in the teachings of Scripture and our Church Fathers requires a calm and silent mind says, Basil the Great.
God who created us has given us the use of language, that we may reveal the plans of our heart to each other... Accordingly, since when our thought takes meaningful voice, as if carried in a ferry by our discourse, crossing the air it passes from the speaker to the hearer; and if it finds the sea calm and quiet, the discourse comes to anchor in the ears of the students as if in a tranquil harbors untroubled by storms; but if as a kind of rough upsurge the clamor of the hearers blows adversely, it will be dissolved as it is shipwrecked in the air. Therefore make it calm for the discourse through silence.... The word of truth is hard to catch
Importance of Attentiveness
Saint Basil in his homily discusses a truth handed down to us from Moses: "Be attentive to yourself, lest an unlawful word come to be hidden in your heart" [Deut 15.9].
Our Mind easily leads us to Sin
He explains that it is in our mind that we are most easily led into sin. Therefore God is advising us in this directive to focus on our most vulnerable area much like a physician will give us preventative advice on that aspect of our heath that is the weakest. So why is the mind that area of our greatest weakness? Saint Basil tells us that it is because it acts by itself, it acts quickly and effortlessly, and is active at any time or situation. Therefore, it is much easier to sin in the mind than through actions of our body. Action in the body takes time and effort as well as the interaction with others. In fact, you can be acting in a wholly virtuous manner while at the very same time your mind is involved in numerous sinful thoughts. There is no witness to sins that take place in our mind and no one to correct us. It is therefore most important to be attentive to the action of our mind. It is most important that we give priority to control its actions.
Be Attentive to Your True Nature
He says, “attentiveness is of two kinds: on the one hand we can gaze intently with the bodily eyes at visible things, and on the other hand by its noetic faculty the soul can apply itself to the contemplation of incorporeal things.” Here is where we can go wrong by giving priority to what we perceive through our senses because we cannot comprehend our totality by this means. Basil says, “Let the eye of your soul be sleepless to guard yourself. You walk in the midst of snares [Sir 9.13]. Hidden traps have been set by the enemy in many places.” He emphasizes that we are more than a physical being with senses and skills to maintain life, but we are also a soul and mind.
Saint Basil writes,
“Examine what sort of being you are. Know your own nature, that your body is mortal but your soul is immortal, and that our life is twofold in kind. One kind is proper to the flesh, quickly passing by, while the other is akin to the soul, not admitting of circumscription. Therefore be attentive to yourself, neither remaining in mortal things as if they were eternal, nor despising eternal things as if they were passing. Look down on the flesh, for it is passing away; take care of the soul, for it is something immortal…
For when the body enjoys well-being and becomes heavy through much fleshiness, the mind is necessarily inactive and slack in its proper activity; but when the soul is in good condition and through care of its own goods is raised up toward its proper greatness, following this the state of the body withers.”
He cautions that we must always be attentive to our inner being, our soul, and be able to recognize its strength and illness. For he says, “For many through lack of attention get great and incurable illnesses, and they do not themselves know they are ill.”
We are a Small Microcosm
When we learn to be attentive to our inner nature we also discover that we are a “small ordered world,” from which we can see the wisdom of our creator. We can learn that like God who is incorporeal and not contained by any space, and the same is true of our mind or soul. As we examine this inner nature we gain insight into the large cosmos.
Through Our Soul We can Know God's Energies.
You may believe that God cannot be understood by your soul because it is invisible. But, God is recognizable by His energies. Therefore do not think about knowing God through your eyes or any of your senses, but only through “supporting faith through reason.”
Saint Basil writes,
“Marvel at the Creator's work, how the power of your soul has been bound together with the body, so that penetrating to its extremities it leads the many separate limbs and organs to one convergence and sharing of life. Examine what power from the soul is given to the flesh, what sympathy is given back to the soul by the flesh; how the body receives life from the soul, and the soul receives pain from the body. Examine where you have stored away the things you have learned; why the addition of things that have come later does not overshadow the knowledge of things retained, but without confusion you keep your memories distinct, inscribed on the directive faculty of the soul as if on a bronze slab, guarded closely. Examine how as the soul slips gradually toward the passions of the flesh its own beauty is destroyed; and how again cleansed from the shame of evil, through virtue it ascends quickly toward the likeness of the Creator.”
What Saint Basil Teach us About Attentiveness ?
Need a Quiet Mind
First, we must learn how to have a quite mind. Basil tells us that it is with a quiet mind that we can grasp the truth contained in the Gospel. He is not referring to the reading of Scripture, but the underlying truths that the Scripture represents. This is the starting point to knowing our soul, the working of Spirit, and our relationship with God. But just a quiet mind is not sufficient. We also need a critical skill.
Quietness brings attentiveness to the Mind
With an quiet mind we can learn to become attentive to the action that is taking place in our mind. This is what he calls attentiveness. Other Fathers call it watchfulness.
Essential to Learn Attentiveness as Mind is Fast
Learning the skill of attentiveness is what is most important because this allows us to get at the source of our sinfulness. Our mind is not physical so things happen it it very fast and without effort. Thoughts quickly arise that lead us to react even faster than we can think with actions and emotions. These can be good or evil. They can lead us to anger, to speaking out words that harm others, and to physical violence. By being attentive to what is taking place in the mind we can intercept thoughts, cast them out before they lead us to action. We can also recognize automatic patterns of response to stimulus received by our senses, our eyes, earns, nose, mouth and sense of touch. and work at changing them as well. This is all a process of knowing intimately our inner self.
As we become attentive we begin to Know true nature of our selves and all of Creation
In addition, because the mind and body is a microcosm of the universe, as we become attentive we can lean about the true nature of all of Creation through self-knowledge. As we appreciate the make up of our physical and spiritual being we begin to know the energies of God. We come closer to God. This is our aim.
Attentiveness is a Fundamental Skill
So attentiveness is teaching us about a fundamental skill we need in the spiritual life to become more like God and to know Him. The question he leaves with us then is the following, How does one develop the quite mind so we can become attentive of this inner life?
Be Attentive to the Structure of the Body
Saint Basil suggests that we should be attentive to the structure of the body and how it is an appropriate place for the rational soul to dwell. Think about how we differ from the animals. We have been fashioned by God to be able to look towards heaven and NOT to be slaves to our passions – the desires of the stomach or our sexual drives.
The nature of our makeup cannot but help to lift you to become attentive to its Creator.
Saint Basil concludes,
“Then God placed the head at the top, locating in it the most valuable of the senses. There sight, and hearing, and taste, and smell have been established, all near each other. And although confined in a small space, none of them impedes the activity of its neighbor. The eyes have laid hold of the highest lookout point so that nothing blocks their view of the body’s parts, but placed under the small projection of the eyebrows, they reach out from the prominence above in a direct line. Again, the hearing is not directed straight, but by a spiral-shaped pathway it takes hold of the noises in the air. This indeed exhibits the highest wisdom, enabling sound to pass though unhindered, or rather be led in, bending around the twists, while nothing from outside that accidentally falls in can be a hindrance to the auditory perception. Examine closely the nature of the tongue, how it is tender and nimble and is sufficient by its varied movement for every need of speech. Teeth, also organs of speech, provide strong resistance to the tongue and at the same time also take care of food, some cutting it and others grinding it. And so when you have traversed all things with suitable reflection on each, and have observed carefully how air is drawn in through breath, how warmth is kept around the heart, and the organs of digestion, and the channels of blood, from all these you will perceive the unsearchable wisdom of the Creator [Rom 11.33]. So you will also say to him with the prophet, "Your knowledge from myself has become wonderful" [Ps 138.6].
Therefore be attentive to yourself, that you may be attentive to God, to whom be glory and dominion unto the ages.”
Quotes from On the Human Condition, trans. by Nonna Vera Harrison, pp 93-105
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