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For just as ascetic practice gives birth to virtue, so contemplation engenders spiritual knowledge.
St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662)1
High in the Rockies and sliced through by cold, copper-green streams, the Colorado Plateau spoke to me the moment we came over the rise and coasted down into its lonely expanse of marsh grass and fluttering aspens. The vast alpine plain, rimmed with jutting bare peaks, looked like Arctic tundra. Somewhere far above us a red-tailed hawk wheeled through the endless blue sky; I could hear its long waterfall of a scream above the hum of the engine, and for a moment the sound cracked my heart wide open. This is it, I thought, with a joyful uprush of suppressed longing. Finally: a place without people.
The only trouble was that I was not here on retreat. Instead, my husband, Mike, and I were heading for an isolated group of cabins clustered at the bank of the Tarryall River, where we were to meet up with my many siblings and their families. There we would spend the next five days having a high old time: drinking wine, tossing the Frisbee, barbecuing, hiking, playing never-ending games of Scrabble, and dredging up childhood memories. Stunned at the irony—I’d finally found the perfect solitary hideout, only to have it colonized for family partying—I slumped against the back of the seat. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my sibs, their spouses, or their kids. I loved them a lot, which made my problem even more baffling.
This urge to flee human contact, even with people I adored as much as I did my extended clan, had been putting a damper on all my relationships for the past several years. It had first manifested itself when I began visiting a Camaldolese Benedictine monastery on the California Big Sur coast, a community of hermit-monks who lived on the side of a mountain high above the Pacific. Amazing things had happened to me there: a return to the Christianity I had long since abandoned; a conversion to Catholicism; a powerful new desire to learn how to pray; the discovery of an ancient tradition I’d never heard about in the Sunday schools of my youth.
I couldn’t get enough of all this and disappeared as often as I could into the silence and solitude of the Big Sur hermitage. Naturally, my new passion for religious retreats had an effect on family and friends. Some of them—Mike, for example—found the whole enterprise dubious and disconcerting. What was happening to his formerly sociable wife? Why was I so moody and withdrawn these days? When had I become such a sensitive plant?
I imagine it was hard to take me seriously, though the people who loved me (including the very sibs with whom we were about to rendezvous) certainly tried to be understanding. “You’ve been working too hard for years,” they assured me, “and you should take more vacations.” The word vacation, however, set my teeth on edge. What did they think I was doing up there with the monks—water-skiing? Others pointed to my flock of four young adults barely out of their teens and shook their heads knowingly. “No wonder you can hardly wait to get away. Don’t blame you a bit.” It’s not that, I wanted to protest. It’s not that I’m simply tired or burned out. It’s . . . bigger than that.
I couldn’t be more specific, for I hardly understood it myself, this late-blooming love affair with God that had so totally shifted the focus and direction of my life. Nor had I yet figured out how to deal with the difficult new personality that had invaded my old familiar self. I was embarrassed at the brooding, sardonic, Heathcliff-like person I’d become but had no idea what to do about it. The world seemed too much with me; I felt as though I were living without skin, and every sound (TV, radio, dial-up modems), every sensation (students jostling me as I crisscrossed campus each day), and every image (bumper stickers, T-shirts emblazoned with profound thoughts, scantily clad bodies on billboards) had become an assault on the senses.
I couldn’t avoid the suspicion that this painful state was linked to my hermitage visits. Somehow, the extended time alone on retreat, the hours of silent sitting on benches overlooking the sea, the predawn chanting of psalms during Vigil seemed to have wreaked havoc with my normal capacity to handle stimuli. I worried about this. After all, I was not a monk and never would be. My home was in the world, not in the monastery.
Meanwhile, we had arrived at the Tarryall River and were pulling onto the gravel driveway that led to the cabins. I could feel myself tensing for the inevitable onslaught. For a sweet, blessed moment, all was silence and green pines; then out came my sisters, waving and hollering, and there went my brother’s dog, Breeze, ripping past after a rabbit, and here came three of my giggling, already-sunburned nieces. The reunion had begun: food, hooting laughter, family photo sessions, the garrulous camaraderie of folks who love but rarely get to see one another.
For me, however, the fun was shadowed by a sense of being dangerously overwhelmed. Later, photo after photo would reveal just how aggrieved I had been. I spent much of the time hiding in our cabin, telling everyone I had a writing deadline to meet. When my sibs tried to lure me out with sport, I made transparent excuses. I snapped at one of my brothers-in-law (a merciless tease), then skulked around in a dither of guilt and irritation. And when our reunion was finally over, I confessed to the sister who had worked so hard to put it together, a sister who had driven nearly a thousand miles to be with us, that I wouldn’t be up for another one anytime soon. Then, feeling fragile and misunderstood, I scheduled myself for another hermitage retreat.
Fortunately, my inability to cope with the world eventually disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived. First, however, I had to make some serious changes in the way I lived, many of them deliberately intended to create more opportunities for solitude and silence. Though some of these shifts—giving up my teaching career, for example—were not easy, I found that when I stopped fighting this strange urge to be alone, time and space opened up. Broken relationships—those that had survived—slowly began to heal. I stopped feeling like a person at war with herself.
Over the next few years, I read, I talked with the monks, and I wrote in my journal, trying to piece together just what had happened to me. Though I toyed with a number of theories—the onset of menopause, or one of Gail Sheehy’s innumerable adult “passages,” or a straight-ahead nervous breakdown—deep down I suspected I’d been through some kind of important spiritual transition. But what? And why me?
Then one day I read a verse I’d read a hundred times before. In it Christ says, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him’??” (John 7:37–38, NAB). Suddenly these words were striking home in a whole new way. For it was certainly true that ever since my prodigal-daughter return to Christianity and those first trips to the hermitage, I’d felt a nearly unbearable spiritual thirst. However, it had not before occurred to me that this thirsty time might finally pass, that streams of living water could begin to flow from within me. How could this be?
I found my answer in a slender classic called Teach Us to Pray. Here Trappist monk and scholar André Louf discusses the plight of modern Christians in regard to what he considers to be a basic fact of life. He says that the contemporary Western world has lost its connection with prayer. In the old days when prayer was taken for granted, the temptation may have been for people to believe they were praying when instead they were simply talking to themselves. But now, he thinks, we are experiencing the opposite extreme; now “we have lost the scent of prayer altogether.”?2 And without prayer, we are in danger of perishing of spiritual thirst, no matter how firmly we hold our beliefs.
How do we recover our connection with prayer? According to Louf, we must first find and listen to our heart, though not in the contemporary sense of paying attention to our feelings. Instead, we are to seek the biblical heart, that “organ of prayer” within us that is designed to be in continual contact with God. When we finally come upon it, we discover something truly amazing: our heart, like an intricate clock set into motion at baptism, is already praying on its own. However, unless we reduce the clamor around us and quiet down ourselves, it is nearly impossible to hear it.
Hence, the need for silence, which is so difficult to find in our noisy, hyperactive society. Anybody who seriously seeks it out is bound to feel guilty and misanthropic for a while, just as I did. To incorporate periods of silence into our lives requires major changes, some of them painful. Certainly, our most important relationships are shaken, as were mine.
But unless we quiet down enough to pick up the sound of our praying heart, we continue to thirst. And as long as we remain unaware of our secretly praying heart, we fail to see the light in which we live and therefore cannot grasp the supernatural side of our identity as human beings. Without knowing who we are, we cannot fathom who we are meant to be. We remain faithful but untransformed, and without such transformation we can never become a source of living water for others.
Thus, this first astonished glimpse of the secretly praying heart is only the beginning of a long journey. To stay the course we must continue to grow and develop spiritually. The hazy outlines of the “new man” in Christ must become more and more sharply defined against the dark backdrop of the world. For we are not being called out of this world after all, but marshaled into God’s earthly service. Our daily activities, mundane as they may seem, are meant to reflect the light of Christ to other people. We are being prepared for a life we can hardly imagine, and for real transformation to take place we must actively participate in the process.
As Paul puts it, we must “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). God provides us with the power of his grace, but focused, strenuous human effort is also required to coax out the person we are meant to be. “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience,” Paul says. “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:12–13). Clearly, the path we are now on requires that we develop spiritual strength. Christians have long turned to a particular method—the practice of the virtues—as an aid to their own metamorphosis.
By Way of Grace is about this spiritual transformation that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection makes possible for human beings. It focuses on two key aspects of the Christian transformative process: listening ever more deeply to the organ of prayer as it communes with God (contemplation) and cooperating with grace to develop spiritual strength (the practice of the virtues).
Since we naturally turn to human exemplars when we are trying to grasp something new, each chapter in this book is devoted to a great contemplative saint. Beginning with the early centuries of the church (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory the Great), and moving on to medieval times (Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas), the Renaissance (Teresa of Ávila, Francis de Sales), and the modern era (Thérèse of Lisieux, Edith Stein), By Way of Grace traces out the ageless and universal pattern of Christian transformation. Out of the eight saints featured in the book, seven are doctors of the church, which means that their writings have in some special way contributed to the evolution of Catholic doctrine.
In addition, at the heart of every chapter sits one of the traditional Christian virtues, those habitual strengths that St. Thomas Aquinas says are developed through repeated good acts within the structure of our daily lives. The cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, once so beloved by the politically astute Greeks and soldierly Romans, are made new by the contemplative framework of Christianity. Transformed in purpose by the incarnation event, the cardinal virtues are what help us put on the new person in Christ. They in turn are strengthened by the great theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, gifts of grace bequeathed at baptism. All are tempered by the monastic virtue of humility, the childlike clarity that opens the doors of the kingdom.
Finally, By Way of Grace intertwines the wisdom of the saints and the power of the virtues with the story of my own spiritual struggles. For the sake of my beleaguered siblings at that family reunion on the Colorado Plateau, it is certainly time to sort it all out. Even more important, however, is the fact that in these secular times, spiritual eyewitnesses are needed. I wish I had known ahead of time, for example, that the sudden, inexplicable disruption of my comfortable life was something to be welcomed rather than feared. I wish I had known that this temporary shattering of all that is loved and familiar is a critical phase of the spiritual journey.
For it is only when we surrender to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit within us that we ourselves become oases in the midst of a contemporary spiritual wasteland. As a long-ago Byzantine monk once put it, “Looking back, my impression is that for many, many years I was carrying prayer within my heart, but did not know it at the time. It was like a spring, but one covered by a stone. Then at a certain moment Jesus took the stone away. At that the spring began to flow and has been flowing ever since.”
These, I believe, are the living waters that Christ promised. They bear on their tide our new self, “renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator.” They carry us on their crest to places we cannot imagine. And most important of all, they allow us to share in that divine love that alone can slake the world’s terrible thirst.
Prudence The Art of Seeing Cearly
Prudence springs from contemplation in the sphere of things good and evil.
St. Basil of Caesarea (c. 330–79)1
I had been thrashing about for hours, and by the soft, disjointed snorts coming out of Mike, I could hear that he was barely hanging on to the edges of whatever dream he was trying to have. Poor man. This was my third night of insomnia in a row—a record even for me, the nocturnal happy wanderer—and the worst part was that nothing was yet resolved.
I knew that when I woke up the next morning, if I finally got to sleep in time to require an actual waking, I would be fifty years old. And somehow I’d gotten it firmly in mind that a decision I’d been postponing for several years, the decision about whether to continue on with my university teaching job or to take a shamefully early retirement, had to be made by my fiftieth birthday.
Why? No real reason, except that on my fiftieth birthday I would become eligible to receive a pension from the system, not to mention a packet of medical benefits that, given the current lunatic cost of insurance, was worth several of my weights in gold. This decision, which could obviously be put off indefinitely if I so chose, was for some reason pressing inexorably down upon me; I could hardly breathe because of the urgent need to do something now about the confused mass of shoulds and oughts and wish I coulds that had been banging around inside me for so long.
If only I could think straight! If only I had a wise adviser! If only, if only . . . the irony being that I had talked myself blue in the face with anyone not in my department who would listen—Mike, colleagues at other universities, even my poor twentysomething kids, who could not quite grasp why their mom, gainfully employed in a career they could only wish for in this current job market, would consider leaving. “But you like teaching, don’t you?” they asked, honestly confused.
“Of course—I love it,” I said. “That’s not the point.”
“So the point is . . . ? Help us out here, Mom.”
But this was the question I could not answer, despite the long months of strenuous mental debate. And now the self-imposed deadline loomed: fifty was rising with the dawn sun.
Sweating and desperate, I plunged my face into the pillow and moaned out loud, “Tell me what to do, God!” Within thirty seconds, words were coming right back at me, strong, clear, and unmistakable: Surrender—just yield.
Surrender? Give up the long bloody battle to wrestle this decision to the ground? Let it go, just like that?
All right, I thought. I will. And I promptly fell deeply asleep. Two hours later, as I stumbled out of bed to turn off the alarm, I realized that new words were hanging in the air: You’re done. Since this was the clearest message I’d had in months of writing out priority lists, comparing financial scenarios, badgering people, recording long pros and cons in my journal, and praying for guidance, I decided to go with it. I sat down at the computer, typed up a resignation letter, made copies for my department head and dean, put them in envelopes, and headed off for campus. Within two months I was walking away from my last class at the university, twenty years of employment ended with a simple “You’re done.”
Needing to See
Had I made the right decision? Only time would tell. First I had to go through the inevitable second-guessing. Maybe, I thought, I’d really quit because of some self-centered urge I couldn’t acknowledge, so I pretended God had spoken to me. Maybe teaching, which I’d always thought I loved so much, had been starting to drive me nuts on a subconscious level, and if it really was starting to drive me nuts, then maybe I should have continued on with it to find out what God was trying to teach me.
Maybe, on the other hand, I’d been called to leave because it had become too easy for me. I did it well, my ego was constantly reinforced by my students, and the classroom provided a built-in social arena I was going to miss. More, in teaching there was no room for malaise, ennui, the noonday devil; I had to maintain high-energy good spirits no matter what. Yet life had its somber sides, and I needed to face up to that.
And on and on and on.
Though the back-and-forth on this decision I had already made ended soon enough, it was followed by something more serious: a siege of spiritual darkness that went on for several years. Was this proof I’d chosen badly? Only after the black season ended did I finally understand: I needed to quit the job because it was getting in the way of yet another spiritual transition—a bleak, lonely, but necessary time that could be experienced only when the landscape had been cleared. In other words, I’d made the right choice.
But how, exactly? It didn’t seem that I’d actually decided anything, only given up at the end out of sheer exhaustion. And I would be faced with such major decisions again, either my own or those confronting other people. I needed to learn a more reliable decision-making method than the emotionally tumultuous, sleep-deprived sorry excuse for one I’d used in the past. If God hadn’t saved me from myself, I’d still be hammering my pillow in frustration each night.
I suspected that the method I was seeking might lie buried somewhere in the past, because I had discovered, with the guidance of the monks, other long-lost spiritual treasures in the books of a handful of contemporary Christian “archaeologists.” These scholars had introduced me, for example, to the almost-abandoned spiritual disciplines of fasting, silence, solitude, and lectio divina, or holy reading. They’d pointed me toward the original Christian method of meditative prayer as recorded in the fifth-century Institutes and Conferences of St. John Cassian. They’d translated the Praktikos of Cassian’s teacher, Evagrius Ponticus, along with his instructions about “watching the thoughts.”
The Point of Prudence
I was pretty sure early Christianity had also come up with a way to make a good decision, and I even had an inkling of where I’d uncover the method: in the ancient cardinal virtues. Very early on—in fact, as soon as I began to read about prudence—I found what I was looking for. Indeed they’d had a method, an ingenious one at that, but the worldview on which it was based now seemed outmoded, even alien. Could it still work for contemporary people? That seemed doubtful.
“To the contemporary mind,” says philosopher and Thomist scholar Josef Pieper, “prudence seems less a prerequisite to goodness than an evasion of it.”?2 In other words, the word prudence has picked up negative connotations in our time. Pieper blames our present attitude toward prudence on an unconsciously held but deeply influential romantic worldview picked up early in the nineteenth century via the great British Romantic poets. Romanticism insists that the highest kind of life—in fact, the only life worth living—is one of constant striving for what can never be achieved. The true romantic doesn’t care; he launches himself heedlessly into the universe and flames out when young. On the romantic trajectory, any stopping to assess can lead to stalling out, and so one never stops. Better to live by the passions, risk all, and die a hero.
Much of the aggressive hyperactivity of our culture is linked to this notion that passionate, spontaneous action is worth far more than considered thought. We’ve come to see unchecked impulsiveness—another key romantic value—as “natural” and thus good. Prudence, which demands clear vision, careful thought, and the temporary banking of the fires of emotion, is therefore deeply suspect for many contemporary people. Like the nineteenth-century romantics, we believe that only the passionate really live, that the happiest and richest life is the one lived with gusto, and that the prudent—those who ponder deeply before taking action—are really just cowards pretending to be wise.
We also suspect that prudent people may be self-deceptive. The legacy of another major nineteenth-century thinker, Freud, has greatly shaped our thinking about what we can and cannot know about ourselves. His theory of the unconscious has so permeated the contemporary Western worldview that we can no longer imagine clear and objective thinking to be possible. He taught us that so-called rational thought can act in a frighteningly devious way—as a reassuring screen between us and what’s really going on at the deeper and more mysterious level of the unconscious mind.
Finally, from nineteenth-century Darwinian biology we inherit the notion that the world is a jungle, only the strong survive, and he who hesitates is lost. Under this view, it is far better to act swiftly and instinctively and sort it all out later, for waiting can prove fatal. If this is our reality—and many contemporary people, including Christians, believe it is—then gut reaction obviously serves us better than careful thought.
The very word itself—prudence—sounds crabbed, miserly, puckered. We see it as a trait of those who overvalue personal safety and comfort. The prudent, we think, are the sort of folks who stop to untie their shoes, fold their clothes, and lay their glasses carefully aside before attending to the drowning man hollering for help.
Yet for much of Christian history, prudence has been the primary cardinal virtue. For the ancients, prudence referred to the “perfected ability to make right decisions.”?3 It had to be present in order for the other three cardinal virtues of temperance, justice, and fortitude to qualify as virtues at all. Prudence in this original sense describes a kind of spiritual vision, the capacity to see and comprehend the nature of reality. This clarity of vision allows prudent people to discern the truth of a situation and to recognize what particular action they must take that will lead to the good. Then it enables them to follow through.
People can act bravely, justly, or well without prudence, but practicing the virtue of prudence means that all our actions are rooted in this clear vision of reality. When we act without prudence, our motives are unclear: maybe, for example, we are simply pretending to be brave or secretly showing off our intelligence or even doing the right thing through lucky accident. We cannot be relied upon to react the same way the next time around; we may be swayed by a different emotion, for example, or by a recent new idea. On the other hand, if we try to establish a basis for our decisions by operating solely from principle, we also act imprudently, for no rule can possibly cover all the complexities of human relationships. Though some of us—those we think of as “naturally good”—may instinctively lean in the right direction much of the time, this instinct remains a bare uncertain urge, not the “perfected ability” of prudence.
There was a beautiful simplicity and lightness to the practice of prudence that appealed to me. But I could see two big impediments to it in our contemporary world. Not only do we have trouble believing that it is even possible to see the true nature of reality, but we also can no longer agree on what it is we are looking at.
The twentieth century was tough on us in this regard. Freudian psychoanalytic thought permeated modern literature and gave us a picture of our mental selves as divided into two realms: the thin, sunny strip of light we call the conscious mind and the immense, murky, impenetrable abyss of the unconscious that lies below it, burbling away on its own like a Yellowstone mud pot. The notion that our weakling conscious mind can even begin to see clearly under these circumstances seems misguided, even absurd. How can we trust our vision when dark unconscious forces are so insidiously at work in us? Aren’t we simply kidding ourselves, projecting our wishes on the world and then believing in the illusion?
The belief that it is impossible to see objectively forms the basis of much contemporary thought: pluralism, which insists that cultures are self-contained worlds, impenetrable by outsiders; relativism, which denies the possibility of absolute truth and claims instead that all “truths” are subjective and individual; emotivism, which theorizes that morality is not about good and evil but what we personally like or abhor. Through the earnest efforts of social reformers from the sixties on, we have become skittish about passing judgments on anything, including our own ability to see and think clearly.
To make things even tougher, we’re still dealing with the ramifications of nineteenth-century biology under their many guises in modern literature, economic theory, behavioral psychology, and philosophy. This view, perhaps most bleakly portrayed by the great naturalist writers of the early twentieth century, holds that life is brutal and short and ends in death and decay. More, the forces of nature are both inexorable and uncaring: they grind up whole mountain ranges, given enough time. Humans are simply intelligent animals with a particular slot on the food chain, genetically determined creatures with no hope of transcending the hand they were dealt at birth. Life has no inherent meaning; it is up to the individual person to create, however ineptly, his own reason to go on. With such a heavy legacy weighing us down, it’s almost impossible to think in terms of “spiritual vision” and “the nature of reality.”
I realized that for prudence to become a modern virtue, we need first of all to resurrect the Christian cosmos in all its glory—that vision of an extravagantly beautiful universe resting in the hands of its loving and deeply involved Creator, who cares even about the deaths of sparrows. Then we have to trust that God would not have invited us into his divine life unless he gave us the ability to see where we were going. We can’t look for something we don’t entirely believe is there, and even if we do believe it, we won’t seek it if we think our eyes are defective. We have to know before we begin that the kingdom of heaven, with all its assurances about the deaf now hearing and the blind now seeing, is indeed among us.
To do this in contemporary times, however, we need to reconnect with those who knew the Christian cosmos as though it were home. And what people, I thought, were more familiar with this marvelous landscape than the mighty spiritual warriors of the third and fourth centuries? If anyone needed the virtue of prudence, it was these early definers of Christianity, working out their still-infant religion right at the crossroads of East and West.
St. Basil: Who Brought Moderation to Monastic Life
Off I went to the library to see what I could discover about one of the most influential early Christians, St. Basil of Caesarea, or Basil the Great. I knew he had written a lot about contemplation, and given his amazingly productive life, I was guessing he’d also had some salient things to say about prudence. Perhaps he was the man who could teach me how to make a decision.
Basil was born in Cappadocia, present-day Turkey, around the year 330. His family was one of the most remarkable of his day: his devoutly Christian parents, Basil and Emmelia, produced nine children, three of whom became saints. Among the siblings were three bishops, a hermit, and a nun. Basil’s grandmother Macrina the Elder helped set the standard for the family: a fugitive during the persecutions of Christians under the emperors Diocletian and Maximian, she was also a well-known disciple of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus.4
Basil gave his grandmother credit for his earliest spiritual training, calling her “the distinguished Macrina” and declaring that she had carefully retained the wise sayings of her holy mentor and used these in the “education and formation of the tiny child I was at the time.” It was she who brought him up in the “doctrines of piety.”5
However, it was another Macrina, Basil’s older sister and fellow saint, who ushered him to the threshold of his vocation. Gifted and intelligent, he’d gone off to study first in Caesarea, then Constantinople, then Athens, seemingly destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a rhetorician. While living in Athens he met the friend of his life, fellow student Gregory of Nazianzus, who was also to become a saint and a doctor of the church. The two of them talked early on about Basil’s secret dream: a hermitage in the forest where they could live in solitude and silence, devoting themselves to prayer.
When Basil graduated from his studies and returned to the family estate at Annesi, he was a brilliant twenty-five-year-old, qualified to teach rhetoric and philosophy. He was immediately offered a job in Neocaesarea and went to work on what would clearly become a highly successful career. Macrina the Younger, however, knew his heart and knew that he was becoming increasingly drawn to the kind of monastic life then unfolding in the Egyptian desert.
She saw that he was fascinated by the hundreds of men and women who were flocking away from the big intellectual centers of Alexandria and Rome and heading out to the wilderness. She recognized and understood his yearning to visit the holy men and women in their desert caves or the monks of the gigantic monasteries founded by St. Pachomius. Macrina urged Basil to follow these spiritual promptings, advising him to renounce his career, undergo baptism, and dedicate his life totally to God.
Shortly thereafter, he underwent a dramatic conversion experience. “One day, arising as from a deep sleep I looked out upon the marvelous light of the truth of the Gospel, and beheld the uselessness of the wisdom ‘of the princes of this world that come to naught.’?”?6 Seeing that all he had studied and learned amounted to nothing in light of how badly his character had been “perverted by association with the wicked,” he went to the words of Christ for guidance.7 There he found the same radical call to arms that has prompted saints throughout the centuries to relinquish social status and give away all that they have to the poor.
Newly baptized, Basil headed to Egypt in search of a guide. Among the hermitages and monasteries of the desert, he became an important eyewitness to one of the more amazing spiritual experiments in history. His yearlong travels took him eventually to Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia, where the same phenomenon was occurring. Of the desert dwellers he visited, he said, “I marveled at their steadfastness in sufferings, I was amazed at their vigour in prayers, at how they gained mastery over sleep, being bowed down by no necessity of nature, ever preserving exalted and unshackled the purpose of their soul, in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, not concerning themselves with the body, nor deigning to waste a thought upon it.” He called them sojourners on earth with “citizenship in heaven” and prayed to become their “emulator.”?8
Back home from his travels, he founded a small Christian commune in Annesi on the banks of the Iris. He was ordained as a hieromonk (priest) by Eusebius of Caesarea, and in 370 he succeeded Eusebius as bishop of the first see of Cappadocia.9 First, however, he spent years developing a model for monastic life, incorporating what he had learned in the desert. He was convinced by his travels that the Pachomian monasteries, though far too large, were closer to the gospel ideal than was the completely solitary hermit existence.
For one thing, it was dangerous to enter this portion of the spiritual path alone, and Basil warned that “they who are set apart from ordinary life in the world and follow a regimen more nearly approaching the divine life should not undertake this discipline of their own accord or as solitaries.”10 In addition, he believed that Christian virtues could not be lived out except in community. As he put it in the Long Rules, which were his instructions to the communities he founded, “The doctrine of the charity of Christ does not permit the individual to be concerned solely with his own private interests.”?11 Finally, the goal of monastic life was sanctity, and a group living by a common rule could require accountability from its members: “It is fitting that such a way of life have a witness, that it may be free of base suspicion.”?12
Basil recommended moderate-sized separate monasteries for men and women of all classes (“Members of the female sex are not rejected because of physical weakness, but, chosen for the army of Christ by reason of their virility of spirit”).13 These communities, devoted to manual labor and daily prayer, were to share sleeping quarters and meals.14
Basil’s model became the prototype for Western monasticism as we see it developed later in the Rule of St. Benedict. The hallmark of the Basilian monastery was moderation, which meant reasonable limitations for ascetic practices such as fasting and vigils. Basil was convinced that extreme self-deprivation could lead to a deadly pride and that idealistic young monks would progress faster by obeying an experienced superior who could keep careful watch over them.15 The use of material items such as clothing and food was to be regulated by need rather than desire or strict rules: “Wine, also, should not be held in abomination if it is taken for curative purposes and is not craved beyond necessity.”?16
A true monastic community, Basil believed, offered the best venue for life based on the “double commandment of love.”?17 Basil saw Matthew 22:37–39 as foundational. In this passage, Christ responds to the question of the Pharisee—“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”—with a two-part answer: “??‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’??” Basil understood the first as calling for separation from the world, and the second for community rooted in and nourished by caritas, or true koinonia, a beautiful term used in early monastic communities for the loving sharing of goods and a common rule for life.18
Partaking of Divine Nature
What was the hoped-for result? “Man, according to St. Basil, is a creature who has received a commandment to become God,” explains Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky.19 Basil and the other Eastern fathers of the church believed that Christians are people undergoing transformation—deification—through obedience to the commandments and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This divinization of humanity is in fact the primary purpose of Christ’s incarnation. As Basil’s contemporary St. Athanasius put it, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”?20
The transformation process cannot begin, however, without clear spiritual vision. We have to see who we are and what we are meant to be before we can work together with God to achieve our proper end. Basil said, “The eye that wanders continually around, now sideways, now up and down, is unable to see distinctly what lies under it; it ought rather to apply itself firmly to the visible object if it aims at a clear vision. Likewise, the spirit of man, if it is dragged about by the world’s thousand cares, has no way to attain a clear vision of the truth.”?21
How do we free ourselves of the “thousand cares” in order to get a clear line of sight? “There is only one escape: withdrawal from the world altogether.” Basil was very serious about this need to sever the ties that bind, and he did not confine his advice to monks. He believed that as Christians, we are all meant to free ourselves from dependence on possessions, social identity, security systems, and the intellect, “making ready to receive in our heart the imprint of divine teaching.”?22 As Christ so clearly stated, we must lose our life in order to find it.
But this is just the first step; the next requires the action of the Holy Spirit within us, which comes only when there is a real willingness to be transformed. That willingness is manifested by our ongoing attempt to live as virtuously as we can: with prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude, humility, faith, hope, and love. However, our “own positive efforts and activities are merely preparatory,” says Benedictine oblate Cyril Karam, “to the higher activity of the Spirit present in us.”?23 This higher activity is grace, in which a new capacity is released within our normal human powers.
The stage that follows, Basil tells us, is “like a sun taking hold of an eye which has been purified.”?24 We are now true contemplatives, and the Holy Spirit is “able to divinize the ‘temple’ in which he dwells.”?25 “By him hearts are lifted, the weak are led by the hand, the proficient become perfect. . . . From this comes foresight of the future, understanding of mysteries, comprehension of hidden things, distribution of charisms, heavenly citizenship, singing with the angelic choirs, joy without end, permanent abode in God, likeness to God, and finally the supremely desirable object: ‘becoming God.’??”?26
Here, I could see, was the lost Christian cosmos in all its glory, a place where rivers of living water could indeed flow within mere human beings. At the core of this magnificent image of the universe was St. Basil’s vision of human life and its ultimate purpose—to become God. I knew that Eastern Orthodoxy has not departed from this vision in seventeen hundred years, but Basil’s influence seemed harder to locate in contemporary Catholicism and Protestantism. Were all Christians on the same page regarding the nature of reality? Did Christian contemplation mean the same thing to every denomination? Was Basil’s version of prudence—seeing clearly, comprehending the truth of a situation, then determining the action that would lead to the good—workable even today?
It didn’t take me long to verify that Catholicism still holds Basil’s view. Though Catholics generally use the phrase union with God in place of the Orthodox term deification, each refers to the same goal: as the Catechism puts it, “The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature.’??”?27 St. John of the Cross describes this process thus: “What God seeks, he being himself God by nature, is to make us gods through participation, just as fire converts all things through fire.”?28
I soon realized that most Protestants also maintain this belief. Though they traditionally refer to the end point of the Christian transformation process as “glorification” rather than “union with God” or “deification,” and though they believe it does not occur until after death, some Protestants describe the divine/human relationship much as Basil would. Anglican bishop Joseph Hall, for example, speaks of the Christian as one who “walks on earth, but converses in heaven: having his eyes fixed on the invisible, and enjoying a sweet communion with his God.”?29
What Prudence Is and Isn’t
I could now look back with new eyes on those long, confusing, and emotional months of decision making that finally resulted in my early retirement. And I saw two things I hadn’t seen before. First, there had been nothing much like prudence involved—a lot of passionate emoting, certainly, but little real vision. Second, under all the layers of shoulds and oughts and wish I coulds had been something that—thanks be to God!—partook of the very nature of reality anyway, despite my complete inability to see it. Underneath everything else had been an already-praying heart, waiting to become a temple of the Holy Spirit. And it was this heart that had finally prevailed.
As my new life began to unfold, it became clearer and clearer that there had been no other option in my case than Basil’s physical withdrawal from the world. Although at the time this had felt like pure flight, possibly escapist, I could now see otherwise. I hadn’t been so much fleeing people or responsibility as wriggling free of a particular framework that no longer reflected my deepest commitments. Philosopher Charles Taylor uses the term framework to describe the set of mostly unquestioned beliefs that “define the demands” by which we judge our lives and measure their “fullness or emptiness.”?30 A framework houses us and gives our lives whatever meaning we think they have.
As a Christian in the middle of a modern secular university campus, I had been trying to inhabit two different frameworks. Struggling to respond to the demands of both, I’d become trapped in a lonely and confusing no-man’s-land. Though I genuinely longed for the “transfigured vision” of the saints, I was at the same time still firmly attached to modern academic values of self-assertiveness, competition, public recognition of achievement, and ranking based on merit. I saw now that I had quite a bit more letting go to do before I could safely return to a campus career—for perhaps God would call me back someday. But for the present, I was where I needed to be.
I looked at my new life and saw that even though I had more time for silence and solitude and now experienced on a daily basis what I’d once tried so desperately to get during those hermitage retreats, I was still deeply immersed in community. Besides our large family of twentysomething children and their significant others who continued to flow through the house on a regular basis, there were our many neighbors on the country road, some of them elderly, some of them lonely, some of them needing help.
There were also my myriad sibs—still loyal despite that ill-fated family reunion—and Mike’s too, plus all the attendant nieces and nephews. There were our parents, now in their eighties, and old friends, and the large group of oblates connected with the hermitage who lived in our area. And there were the strangers, the travelers, the pilgrims who had always wandered into and out of our lives and didn’t stop now. I was having more spontaneous interactions with people as an officially retired person than I’d ever had as a teacher.
The need for prudence, that practical spiritual vision Basil calls “contemplation in the sphere of things good and evil,” only increased as my new, nonacademic community grew, because community cannot flourish without the virtues of temperance, justice, fortitude, humility, faith, hope, and love, and none of these qualify as true virtues without the clear vision of prudence behind them.
What does prudence look like in today’s world? First, it provides the ultimate reality check for those of us who have been formed by a fantasy-driven culture. It focuses on the real, including the actuality of good and evil; it prevents us from casting ourselves as the heroes of our own private epics; and it helps us stay focused on the Christian cosmos instead of the mirror.
Second, prudence fosters honest humility in a society that valorizes self-confidence, no matter how empty. “The bright realm of free human action, dominated by knowledge,” Pieper reminds us, “is bordered on all sides by darkness, by the darkness of nature’s part within ourselves and by the deeper, impenetrable darkness of the immediate divine governance of our volition and our actions.”?31 Though Scripture says this darkness is not darkness at all but really “unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16), to us, as we struggle to come to a decision, it can seem like total obscurity. Prudence allows us to wait in hope for an answer without impulsively trying to “solve things” before they are ready to be solved.
Third, prudence provides the “brave boldness to make final decisions”—this in a culture that does not like to close off options.32 Yet the ability to decide upon a course of action and then stick to it is critical in every area of life, and particularly for leaders. Even more important, because prudence nails itself to reality, it holds us to the truth and thus ensures that our decisions will be motivated by loving wisdom rather than expediency or egoism.
However, as Pieper reminds us, “there is no ‘technique’ of the good, no ‘technique’ of perfection.” Growth in prudence “takes place in the course of our replies, appropriate to each given case, to the reality outside us, which is not made by ourselves.” In other words, there is no fast track to wisdom. We come to have prudence through our willingness to attend, to listen, to pray, to deliberate, to ponder, to wait, to pass judgment, and then to act—regardless of how much pain a particular decision might cause us.33
The somewhat “organic” quality of prudence’s development within us can cause its own problems, however. Since there are no techniques we can employ to speed it along, we may be tempted to stop worrying about it and let nature take its course. I find that I am most quickly tripped up in regard to this key virtue by simply failing to think of it at all. On a day-to-day basis, most decisions are not critical ones. Rather than taking the time to think these through in a consciously prudent way, I tend to rely instead on life experience and psychological insight. No big deal, I tell myself—I’ve been down this road before. No need for spiritual cross-checking this time around.
Yet it is the accumulation of hundreds of small daily choices that ultimately determines whether a life has been lived for God or for oneself. Thus, I am learning to watch for the clues that I am once again sidestepping prudence in order to do it “my way.”
First, I check my emotional pulse. Am I metaphorically snorting with self-righteous indignation or panting with anticipatory glee? Am I wriggling with impatience or yawning with boredom? In such cases, prudence has no chance; these strong emotions, or “upheavals of thought,” are the key that I’ve already made up my mind.34 Second, I take another look at the facts of the situation. More often than not, I discover that I’ve missed a couple of important points. In my rush to make a decision and move on, I’ve failed to really listen and take heed. Third, I ask myself a tough two-part question, one that I would rather avoid: Am I either prejudiced or projecting in this case? Am I being swayed by a sense of darkness that might actually be self-created? Last of all, I look back to see if I’ve prayed about this issue. If I haven’t, the danger of acting imprudently is greatly increased.
Trying to live at this level of awareness can feel exhausting at times, especially in a culture that so values spontaneity and impulsiveness. Moreover, sometimes prudence calls for a decision that requires real sacrifice. Yet such willingness to suffer for truth’s sake is an aspect of love. And thus prudence becomes one of the ways we live out Christ’s double commandment, to love God with all our heart and soul and to love our neighbor as ourself. The good news is that when we sincerely try to do this, when we pray constantly for prudence in our dealings with one another, then grace upon grace is poured out on us.
Basil experienced this grace and rejoiced in it: “We pray always for the face of God to shine upon us, in order that we may be in a state becoming to a holy person, gentle and untroubled in every way, because of our readiness for the good.”?35
Christ said it this way: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).