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That Prayer is to be Placed before All Things.
St. Basil the Great, Bishop and Doctor
Translated by M.F. Toale, D.D.
(PG 31, Constitutiones Monasyicae, Ch. I.)
1.  Dearly Beloved, each word and deed of Our Saviour Jesus Christ is for us a lesson in virtue and piety.  For this end also did He assume our nature, so that every man and every woman, contemplating as in a picture the practice of all virtue and piety, might strive with all their hearts to imitate His example.  For this He bore our body, so that as far as we could we might repeat within us the manner of His Life.  And so therefore, when you hear mention of some word or deed of His, take care not to receive it simply as something that incidentally happened, but raise your mind upwards towards the sublimity of what He is teaching, and strive to see what has been mystically handed down to us. 

Martha did indeed welcome the Lord; but Mary sat at His feet.  In each sister was an earnest good will.  Yet note what each does.  Martha served Him by preparing what would be needed for the refreshment of His Body; Mary, seated at His feet, listened to His words.  The one ministered to the visible man; the other bowed down before the Invisible.  And the Lord Who was there as both God and Man was pleased with the good dispositions of both women. 

But Martha, busy with her task, cried out to the Lord to speak for her to her sister, that she should come and help her.  Speak to her therefore, she says, that she may get up and help me. But the Lord said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things.  But one thing is necessary.  Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her (Lk. x. 38-42).  We have not come here for this purpose, to sit at ease at the table, to fill our stomachs.  We are here to nourish you, with the word of truth, and by the contemplation of heavenly mysteries.  Yet though He did not turn the one away from her task, He praised the other because of that to which she had devoted herself. 

Here we see the two states placed before us by means of the two women; the lower, choosing to serve Him in corporeal ministrations which also is most profitable, and that which, ascending to the contemplation of the sacred mysteries, is the more spiritual.  Take these things spiritually, you who listen, and choose that which you wish.  And should you choose the way of service, render your service in the Name of Christ.  For He said: As long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it unto me (Mt. xxv. 40).  And so whether you receive the stranger, or feed the poor, or comfort the afflicted, or give help to those who are in need and in pain, or take care of the sick Christ receives your service as bestowed on Him.  But should you choose to imitate Mary, who, putting aside the service of bodily need, ascended to the contemplation of the divine glories, seek truly to do this.  Leave the body, leave the tilling of the earth, and the preparation of what is eaten with bread.  Sit at the feet of the Lord, and give your mind to His words, that you may become a sharer of the mysteries of the divine nature which Christ reveals.  For to contemplate that which Christ teaches is a work above the service of corporal need. 

2. You have then, Beloved, received both divine teaching and an example of life.  Strive for whichever you will, and be either a servant of the needy of this world, or a zealous lover of the words of Christ.  And if it be that you strive after both, then from both gather the fruit of salvation.  But the spiritual motive is the first, all the rest come second; For Mary, He says, has chosen the better part.  If then you would enter in to the mysteries of Christ, let you sit by His feet, and receive His Gospel, and abandoning your way of life let you live apart from men and free from all concern; let you have no further thought for your body, and then you will be enabled to enter into mystic converse with Him in contemplation of His truth, and so imitate Mary, and gain the highest glory. 

And when you pray, see that you ask not for what is alien to your life, and provoke the Lord.  Ask not for money, nor for human glory, nor power, nor for any of the things that pass away.  But seek for the kingdom of God, and all that is needed for your body will be provided; as the Lord Himself has said: Seek ye the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things will be added unto you (Mt. vi. 33). 

Twofold, Beloved, are the methods of prayer.  One is to give praise to God from a humble heart; the other, the lower, is the prayer of petition.  Therefore, when you pray, do not immediately begin with petitions; otherwise you may then be accused of praying to God only when in need.  So when you come to pray, leave self behind, leave wife and children.  Let the earth go, and rise up to heaven.  Leave behind every creature, the visible and the invisible, and begin with the praise and glory of Him Who has made all things.  And as often as you offer Him praise be not wandering here and there in your mind.  And choose not your words from fables, like the Greeks, but from the holy Scriptures, and say: O Lord, patient and forbearing, I praise Thee because Thou hast spared me who offend Thee daily; giving to all a season for repentance; and because of this Thou art silent, and art patient with us, O Lord, that we may offer glory and praise to Thee who hast care for the salvation of all men.  Thou dost help us, now by fear, now by counsel, now through the prophets, and last of all through the coming of Thy Anointed; For thou hast made us, and not we ourselves (Ps. xcix. 3). 

3. And when you have praised and glorified God from the Scriptures, with all your heart, then begin with humility to say: Lord, I am not worthy to praise Thee, for I have sinned most grievously.  And though you may not be conscious of any fault, yet so must you speak to Him.  For save God alone there is no one without sin.  We commit many sins, and the greater part of them we forget.  Because of this the Apostle said: I am not conscious to myself of anything, yet I am not thereby justified (I Cor. iv. 4); that is, I have committed many sins, and taken no notice of them.  And because of this the prophet also says: Who can understand sins? (Ps. xviii. 13).  So you do not speak falsely when you say you are a sinner.  And if you do know that you are one, you also sin when you say: I am not a sinner.  Say rather: I have sinned more than other sinners, for I have broken the commandment which says: When you have done all things commanded of you, say: we are unprofitable servants; we have done that which we ought to do (Lk. xvii. 10).  So must you think to yourself: I am a profitless servant. 

And again: In humility let each esteem others better than himself (Phil. ii. 3).  Pray to the Lord therefore with fear and with humility.  And when you pray to Him from a humble heart let you say: I give Thee thanks, O Lord, because Thou hast borne with my sins in patience, and hast left me even till now without chastisement.  For I have long deserved to suffer many afflictions; and to be banished from Thy sight; but Thy most clement mercy has borne with me in patience.  I thank Thee again, although I am unable to render Thee such thanks as are due Thy mercy. 

And when you have fulfilled in turn the duty of praise and of humility, then ask for what you ought to ask for; not for riches, as I said, not for the glory of this earth, not for health of body: for He made you and your health is His care, and He knows which state is profitable to each one, to be healthy or to be infirm.  But let you seek, as He has told us, for the kingdom of heaven.  For, as I said before, He will provide for your body’s needs.  For our King is of infinite dignity, and it is unfitting that anyone should ask of Him what is not becoming.  Be mindful therefore when you pray that you do not bring upon yourself the anger of God; but seek from Him the things that are worthy of God our King.  And when you pray for the things that are worthy of being asked of God, cease not from praying till you receive them.  For the Lord has intimated this to us where He says in the Gospel: Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go to him at midnight, and shall say to him: friend, lend me three loaves, because a friend of mine is come off his journey to me, and I have not what to set before him.  And he from within should answer, and say: Trouble me not, the door is now set shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee.  Yet if he shall continue knocking, I say to you, although he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend; yet because of his importunity, he will rise, and give him as many as he needeth (Lk. xi. 5-8). 

4.  Our Lord puts this example before us to teach us that we should be strong and persistent in faith.  He takes the example of one man’s prayer to another man, that you may learn never to be discouraged, so that when you pray and do not receive the answer to your prayer, you should not cease from praying till you do receive it; provided that, as I said, you ask for what God wishes you to ask.  And do not say: I am a sinner, and therefore He does not listen to me.  That you may not lose heart on this account He says to us: Although he will not give him, because he is a friend; yet because of his importunity he will give him as many as he needs. 

So henceforth, if a month goes by, or a year, or three years, or four, or many years, do not give up praying till you receive what you ask for; but ask on in faith, and be at the same time steadfast in doing good.  It will happen often that someone in his youth strives earnestly for chastity.  Then pleasure begins to undermine his resolution, desires awaken his nature, he grows weak in prayer, wine overcomes his youth, modesty perishes, and the man becomes another man.  So we change because we have not with high courage of soul stood firm against our passions.  It behoves us therefore to resist all things, yet we must cry out to God, that He may bring us aid. 

For if a man through folly gives way to evil desires, and betrays himself to his enemies, God will not aid him, nor hear him, because through sin he has turned away from God.  He who hopes to be helped by God should have no part with what is unworthy.  But he who does not betray what he owes to God will never be in want of the divine aid.  It is just and fitting that in nothing should we be condemned by our own conscience.  Only then may we cry out for divine aid and cry earnestly, and not with minds wandering here and there.  For one who so prays, not alone shall he continue unheard by God, but he will also provoke the Lord yet more.  For if a man stands in the presence of a king, and speaks with him, he will stand there with great trepidation of mind, careful not to let either his eyes or his mind go wandering.  With what greater fear and trembling should we stand in the presence of God, having our whole mind intent on Him alone, and on nothing else whatsoever?  For He beholds our inward life; not merely the outward one which men see. 

Standing then in God’s Presence, in a manner truly worthy, and laying before Him all the desires of your heart, cease not to pray till you receive what you ask for.  But should your conscience tell you that you are praying unworthily, and should you stand in prayer while your mind goes wandering when you could well pray with recollection, then venture not to stand thus in the presence of the Lord for fear your prayer becomes an offence.  Should it be however that your soul has become weak through sin, and that you are unable to pray without distraction, strive with yourself as best you can, striving manfully before the Lord, having your mind steadfast on Him, and calling upon Him, and God will have compassion on you, since it is not because of indifference but through infirmity that you cannot pray as you ought when you kneel before God.  Let him who so strives with himself in every good work cease not to pray till he obtains what he asks for; but in making his request let him knock patiently at the door: For everyone, He says, that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened; for that which you desire to obtain, what is it but salvation in God? 

5.  Do you desire to know, Beloved, how the saints endured in patience, and yielded not to despair? The Lord called Abraham when he was still a young man, and brought him out of the land of the Assyrians into Palestine, and said to him: I shall give this land to thee, and to thy seed after thee, and as the stars of heaven shall thy seed be, which shall not be numbered (Gen. xiii. 15, 16).  And the number of his many years went on, and his nature died, and death stood by his door, and yet he did not say: ‘Lord, You promised me many children, and You foretold that I would be the father of many peoples.  And the impulses of nature have withered away; and to my wife because of her age nothing remains of the nature of woman.  So Your prophecy was false.  For what hope have we since we are both old?’  But he did not say this, nor did he think it in his heart, but remained unshaken in faith; and while his body grew old, his hope grew young.  As his body became weaker and gave him grounds for despairing, his faith gave strength to his soul and his body.  ‘It is God,’ he said, ‘who has promised.  He is the Lord of nature; otherwise it could not come to pass.  It is He Who makes possible what is impossible; for He has made all things; and all that is He changes as He wills.’ 

Imitate the faith of Abraham.  After his nature had withered, and its powers were at an end, then the promise of the Lord took life.  Let us consider ourselves, for example.  We pray earnestly for a year; and then we cease.  We fast for two years; and then we cease to fast.  Let us not grow faint in face of the promise of God.  For He Who promised this man that his seed would be multiplied has promised us that He will give us what we ask for.  For He says: Come to me, all you that labour, and are burthened, and I will refresh you (Mt. xi. 28).  For when you were far from Him He pitied you as you toiled under the weary burthen of your sins, and called you and relieved you of it, and then gave you rest.  And you, have you no faith in Him? Even should we keep silence our conscience would not suffer us.  For we do not doubt that He has power to relieve us; but we care not to take upon us His yoke, which is light and sweet; nor enter by the narrow way to the kingdom of heaven; but prefer rather to carry the burthen of our sins, and to walk by the broad way of the pleasures of the senses, and to enter in at the wide gate that leads to destruction. 

But, you will say, how often have I prayed, and I have not been answered? Because you have always prayed badly; either without faith, or with a distracted mind, or for the things that were not expedient for you.  And if at times you prayed for what was expedient for you, you did not persevere.  For it is written: In patience shall you possess your souls (Lk. xxi. 19), and again: He that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved (Mt. x. 22). 

6.  God sees into the hearts of those who pray.  What need then, someone will say, that we should ask God for what we need?  Does He not know already what we need?  Why then should we pray?  God does indeed know what things we need, and with generosity provides all we need for the refreshment of our bodies, and since He is good He sends down His rains upon the just and the unjust alike, and causes His sun to shine upon the good and the bad (Mt. v. 45), even before we ask Him.  But faith, and the power of virtue, and the kingdom of heaven, these you will not receive unless you ask for them in labouring and steadfastness. 

We must first long for these things.  Then when you desire them, you must strive with all your heart to obtain them, seeking them with a sincere heart, with patience, and with faith, not being condemned by your conscience, as praying without attention or without reverence, and so in time, when God wills, you will obtain your request.  For He knows better than you when these things are expedient for you.  And perhaps He is delaying in giving them to you, designing to keep your attention fixed upon Him; and also that you may know that this is a gift of God, and may safeguard with fear what is given to you.  For what we come by with much labour we are zealous to defend; as losing it we lose also our labour; and treating lightly the gift of God we become unworthy of life eternal.  For what did it profit Solomon so quickly to receive the gift of wisdom and then lose it? 

7.  Do not then lose heart if you do not speedily obtain your request.  For if it were known to Our Good Master that were you at once to receive this favour that you would not lose it, He would have been prepared to give it to you unasked.  But being concerned for you, He does not do this.  For if he who received a single talent, and hid it safely, was condemned because he did not put it to profit, how much more would he have been condemned had he lost it? Keeping this in mind, let us continue to give thanks to the Lord whether we receive speedily or slowly that which we pray for.  For all things whatsoever the Lord may do He orders all to the end of our salvation; only let us not through faintheartedness cease from our prayers.  It was because of this the Lord spoke the parable of the Widow who persuaded the judge through her steadfastness (Lk. xviii. 2-5): that we also through our steadfastness in prayer may obtain what we ask for. 

By this we also show our faith, and our love of God, since though we do not quickly receive what we ask for, yet we remain steadfast in praising Him and giving thanks.  Then let us give Him thanks at all times, so that we may be found worthy of receiving His everlasting gifts; since to Him all praise and glory is due for ever and ever.  Amen.