St Basil the Great is widely considered to be one of the most important figures in Christian monasticism. His writings are absolutely brilliant and timeless. As one of the Cappadocian Fathers, he is most famous for his contributions in establishing the importance of the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of the Trinity, but today I want to share a little nugget of his wisdom about the human condition and how the act of tending to our spiritual needs is an art form which we and God participate in together.
In Genesis 1, when God created humanity, the text reads like this:
“Then God said, “Let us make the human being in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Basil has a lot to say about these short few verses, and before we jump into that I want to mention another article I’ve written about the last sentence. The image of God in which we are created includes both male and female and if you want to read more about that you can check out the article A Theology of Gender: Julian of Norwich and the Image of God.
To start off we’re going to focus on how Basil interprets our being created in the image and likeness of God. At first glance it is easy to assume that this is a redundancy. Image and likeness mean the same thing, right? Basil doesn’t think so – and neither do I. Here’s an excerpt from his homily On the Origin of Humanity:
“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” By our creation we have the first, and by our free choice we build the second. In our initial structure co-originates and exists our coming into being according to the image of God. By free choice we are conformed to that which is according to the likeness of God. And this is what is according to free choice: the power exists in us but we bring it about by our activity.”
I think that’s just brilliant. We are created in the image of God but the responsibility to live up to that image lies squarely on our shoulders. Basil points out that any true beauty is attributed only to the one who has created it. God wants us to co-create, to join in the divine action and to make ourselves a work of art. We are to be artists, not simply artwork, and it is free will which makes this possible.
Basil puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of our free will. But the big question, of course, is what do we actually need to do to grow into the likeness of God?
The image of God in which we are created, according to Basil, refers to the rational quality of the soul. Basically, we are like God in our ability to understand things. This makes us unique in creation as no other animal can reason in the same way humans can. And this ability to reason is what gives us the capacity to work towards the likeness of God. Though I do believe that animals have free will like we do, there is something unique about humanity, something ineffable and yet utterly undeniable which makes us unlike the rest of the animals.
It is the image of God which allows us to pursue the likeness of God and we do that by cultivating virtue and goodness. This is our contribution to creation, so that by creating with God we may share in the credit of the beauty of creation. By perfecting our inner selves we contribute to the artwork of God’s creation and there is no greater honour to be found. Basil goes on to say:
“As you have that which is according to the image through your being rational, you come to be according to the likeness by undertaking kindness. Thus the creation story is an education in human life. “Let us make the human being in our image.” For this God gave the power. If he created you according to the likeness, what would be yours to give? But now the one is given, the other left incomplete; that you may complete yourself.”
There are two gifts – one is given to us and one is given by us. We receive the gift of God’s image and we give the gift of God’s likeness. We are left incomplete so that we may complete ourselves. This incompleteness is a blessing which allows us to not only receive goodness but also bestow it. For that is what it truly means to be perfect as God is perfect.
The task of completing ourselves is about developing kindness and the other virtues and in the process of acquiring virtue we must also reject vice. Basil wrote another treatise called On Anger in which he talks about anger as the primary source of the rest of our vices, or sins. Anger, he tells us, leads to all sorts of problems especially because it seems to interfere with the image of God in which we are created – our rational nature. Anger compels us to feel and act a certain way and it comes from an animalistic part of us.
Going back to Genesis 1, right after it says we are created in God’s image and likeness, it says that we were given the ability to rule over the various wild animals. Now, Basil teaches that this is a literal truth which can be observed in the way things actually are. Even though humans have weak bodies compared to other animals, we are still able to capture and tame all the wild beasts. It is the rational capacity of humans which makes us different from the other animals.
However, much more important than this, Basil understands this line of scripture as a metaphor. Just as we are able to use our rational nature to outwit wild beasts, so are we able to use that same rationality to outwit and overcome the wild beasts within us. Anger, greed, lust, and all the other vices can be subdued and tamed just like the mighty lion.
The way in which we tame anger is by looking at it for what it is – a wild and ignorant beast. Our anger is almost never rational and, as Basil points out, if it is rational then it has its rightful place. We often have a tendency to see the value in anger in our modern discourses and there is great wisdom in this. The idea that anger has both good and bad aspects to it is actually the same as what these early Church Fathers taught. They used slightly different language however, and instead of saying that anger can be positive or negative depending how we use it, teachers like Gregory of Nyssa (another Cappadocian Father) described the relationship between vice and virtue by pairing contrary vices and virtues together.
In Gregory’s words, “Anger is a perversion of courage, as lust is a perversion of love.”
You can see that he is talking about how the same energy is behind anger and courage. That’s the same thing as saying anger can be good or bad. One thing that I personally think is really important to keep in mind is that when we are angry we always think we’re righteous. There is such a thing as righteous anger but it is slippery and hard to grasp onto.
An essential part of anger, whether it be righteous or unrighteous, is the feeling that we are right and somebody else is wrong. But not every person who feels their anger is righteous is actually right. And so the wise person allows their anger to settle before they act. The contrary virtue to the vice of anger is, as Gregory noted above, courage. If we are angered by the injustice of the world and we sit with it and decide we must act then we have transformed our anger into courage and it can serve those in need – but if we react from our initial anger then we lose sight of what is truly important as our anger takes over our soul and blinds us from seeing the truth.
However, we are talking here about the vice of reactive anger from insult rather than the virtue of courage in the face of injustice. By this I mean the anger of everyday life and the conflicts which naturally arise. Here is how Basil suggests we use our rational capacity to tame our inner beasts:
“When a small child abuses you, the insults are an occasion for laughter; and when one suffering from mental illness speaks words of disdain, you think him worthy of compassion rather than hatred. Thus the movement of grief is engendered not by the insulting words but by our arrogance toward the one who abused us and the fantasy each one of us has about ourselves. So if you put aside from your mind both of these, the noise of the words hurled at you will appear instead as an empty echo.”
When we are able to look at our anger and see how it is rooted in our own arrogance then we are making steps in the right direction. It is not the words of the insult themselves or even the attack carried by them which injures us, but rather our pride. In our pride we all have fantasies about who and what we are. These fantasies are what is really injured by an insult.
This is often referred to in modern terms as the true self and false self. The fantasy we tell ourselves and others about who we are is our false self – and it is easily injured by petty insults. But the image of God in which we are created is not a fantasy, and it is ironically much more noble than any fantasy we could ever create about ourselves, even if it is more humble at the same time.
With the power of our rational nature we can see past the fantasies and tame the wild anger within us. We can transform our vices into virtue and be courageous instead. And when we do that, we grow into the likeness of God who governs the world not by irrational whims but by patient and compassionate wisdom.
The gift of a human life is the material with which we create our work of art. Each of us is given a unique set of tools. The magic is the act of creating and God left us incomplete so that we may complete ourselves. So make your heart a beautiful fresco. Let your soul be an icon by which the image of God may shine forth into the world. Create something beautiful because the ability to create is the image of God in which you yourself were created.
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