[I’m exploring the Fathers of the Church for insights into hospitality. I have published a list of ideas about hospitality in the Old Testament, and the New. Now Tradition. Hence Basil.]
St. Basil wrote a powerful call to repentance, to communal repentance, during a drought. I found the frame a little odd, but the insights powerful.
For most of human history, I guess, people have tried to figure out what as on God’s mind when the weather changed. I don’t really know how to get inside that. I think of weather as being a kind of neutral background, like the moon and stars. But politics, on the other hand: that’s a huge force, about as predictable as the weather. I think there are connections between my (our, your, their) attitudes and actions in one corner of a social fabric, and politics in a different corner of the same fabric. The connections are often hidden in the murk, but they are there. So when I read a sermon by St. Basil about repentance during a drought, I’m a little puzzled, but not completely baffled. I don’t look at a flood or a drought, and then repent. But I can look at my poor, divided nation and ask, “What’s wrong with me, or with us? What did we do wrong?” So with just a little quibble, I’m on same page as Basil. We’re in a hell of a mess: what do we do now?
To begin, Basil says we should pray, and trust God. Amen. Then what? Be fervent in prayer: we sinned enthusiastically, so repent with equal or greater enthusiasm. But what does that look like? Well, to begin, he says, repent the way the prophets of old taught us to repent. Take care of strangers and orphans and widows. Rip up unjust contracts, and cancel any debts that have high interest rates. Find someone like Elijah the Tishbite to pray for you – someone skinny, broke, shoeless, and homeless, but prayerful and upright. If they pray for you, that’s serious help, because God listens to people like that! That’s what repentance looks like.
It’s the detail about care for strangers that I’m most interested in, at the moment. Specifically what should we do? Basil says we should wash their feet, rinsing away the dust of travel. I take that as suggestive, not prescriptive. I think if you start washing people’s feet, you’ll get arrested for sexual harassment or something, and go to jail. It’s a gesture, and gestures change from one culture to another. But I think the point is clear: social repentance begins with real acts of service for people in real need – kids without dads, abandoned women, and immigrants or refugees whose homelands no longer sustain them.
I was startled when references to the trio –widows, orphans, and strangers, found together all over the Old Testament – seemed to disappear in the New Testament. The fiery demand to take care of strangers is still there, although it is usually expressed in other terms (for example, “Who’s my neighbor?”) But whatever happened in the New Testament, the trio is back in Patristic teaching.
St Basil the Great: repentance for social evils begins with fervent prayer, and then care for people in need – the most obvious being strangers on the road.
[I found this sermon – or “oration” – in On Social Justice by St Basil the Great, translated by C. Paul Schroeder, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Yonkers, New York. It is #38 in their Popular Patristics Series. Permission to use: pending.]