Basil of Caesarea wrote his sermon To the Rich sixteen centuries ago, but the context was strikingly similar to today. ‘Those who have recently grown rich desire more of the same,’ he writes. ‘They ought to be happy and contented, but immediately they yearn to be equal with the super-rich.’ Meanwhile, the hungry poor huddled in misery in doorways.
A time of crisis had struck in the form of a great famine. Everyone was afraid of what might come. Social structures were under threat, established patterns of life could not be trusted. Not unlike the global threat of terrorism today.
Basil used the opportunity to press for justice, mercy and equality, but above all for simplicity.
“The soul becomes like the things it gives itself to,” he writes in his Homily on Humility, “and takes the character and appearance of what it does. So let your demeanour, your dress, your walking, your sitting down, the nature of your food, the quality of your manner, your house and what it contains, aim at simplicity.”And let your speech, your singing, the way you relate to your neighbour, be in accord with humility rather than with vanity. In your words let there be no empty pretence, in your singing no excess sweetness, in conversation be not ponderous or overbearing. In everything refrain from seeking to appear important.”
Most of all, Basil pressed for a voluntary redistribution of wealth and resources, as in the first Church at Jerusalem. As this writer sees it, Basil ‘saw it as a rule of life for all Christians. Moved by the extreme social needs of the population, and enlightened by the Scriptures, Basil insisted that the produce of the earth was intended for all. While God the Creator had indeed distributed it unevenly, he had done this with the intention that the rich should share with the poor.’
To Basil, a refusal to embrace simplicity and sustainability is a crime. “Someone who steals clothes off someone’s back is called a thief. Why should we refer to the one who does not clothe the naked, while having the means to do so, as anything else? The bread that you have belongs to the hungry, the clothes that are in your cupboard belong to the naked, the shoes that are rotting in your possession belong to the barefooted, the money that you have buried belongs to the destitute. And so you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them.” (Homily I Will Tear Down My Barns)
Readers today may be more familiar with Richard Foster’s seminal work, Celebration of Discipline, which first appeared in 1978. Here are a few of the practical disciplines for a simpler life that are advocated there. The echoes of Basil sixteen centuries earlier are unmistakable.
* Buy things for their usefulness rather than for status. Basil: ‘When I enter a house and see it shimmering with every kind of crass trinket, I realise that the owner may have given what was soulless a facelift, but he has an unbeautified soul‘.
* Develop a habit of giving things away. Basil attacks the ‘strange madness’ whereby, ‘when wealth overflows, it gets buried in the ground in secret places, “in case they need it one day”.’ And this, while the poor and hungry clamour at their gate.
* Reject anything that will breed oppression of others. Basil castigates the rich: ‘How many people could one of your gold-encrusted fingers release from debt? How many broken-down homes could be rebuilt? You say you are doing no-one an injustice, yet you plunder so much for yourselves!‘
* Learn to enjoy things without owning them. Basil: ‘The world was created for the common benefit of all. The animals use in common the plants that grow naturally from the earth, and all living creatures permit each other to satisfy their need for food. But we hoard that which is common, and keep for ourselves what belongs to many others.’