Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Importance of Attentiveness - Saint Basil the Great

Saint Basil in his homily “Be Attentive to Yourself” 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].

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.

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.”

Quotes from On the Human Condition, trans by Nonna Vera Harrison, pp 93-105

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