02 August 2017

Blessed Basil the Wonderworker of Moscow

Blessed Basil the Wonderworker of Moscow

A blessed and easy Dormition Fast to my fellow Orthodox!

Continuing on my Fedotov kick, I have been drawn more and more to that social aspect of Russian Orthodox Christianity that Fedotov deems so important. Fedotov, it should be noted, does have a certain sympathy for the holy fools (saloi, or yurodivi) of the Muscovite era, on account of their unique form of kenotic, prophetic social witness – one which he claimed was derived, at least in part, from the Classical Greek example of Diogenes. Fedotov writes: ‘salia is akin to the life of the ancient Cynics, yet transformed by the idea of following the humiliation and kenosis of Christ. In fact, the salia is the most radical form of Christian kenoticism. That is why it became so popular on Russian soil.’ However, he is a harsh critic of the official hagiographies of the holy fools, which he felt were ‘wordy’ and ‘florid’ and had little to do with their kenotic or prophetic ways of life reflected in popular legend. (As a historian, he critiques the popular legends of the holy fools for being factually-inconsistent or even plagiarising each other.) This holds also for Saint Basil, Fool-for-Christ and Wonderworker of Moscow whom we commemorate today. Fedotov writes:
According to popular legend, Basil was apprenticed to a shoemaker as a child, and even then revealed his gift of foresight when he laughed and wept at a merchant who had ordered a pair of boots, the merchant dying shortly afterward. When he left the shoemaker, Basil began to lead a wandering life, walking naked (like St. Maxim) through Moscow, and lodging with a widowed noblewoman. Like the Syrian holy fool, he destroyed wares, like bread and kvas, in the market in order to punish dishonest tradesmen. Behind all his paradoxical acts there lay a lesson and truth and justice which could be clearly discerned; these acts were not committed because of the ascetic desire of a holy fool for self-humiliation. Basil hurled stones at the houses of the virtuous and kissed the stones of houses where ‘blasphemies’ were committed… He gave the gold he received from the Tsar to a merchant who had lost all his property and although he was starving had not ventured to go begging. The drink the Tsar gave Basil he poured out of the window, in order to douse the fire in distant Novgorod. Most terrifying of all, he smashed with a stone the miraculous icon of the Virgin at the Barbarian gates, because a devil was drawn on the board underneath the holy picture. He could always discern the devil in every form, and he pursued him everywhere. Once he recognised him in a beggar who was collecting a lot of money and granting the donors in return ‘temporary happiness’. In his reprisal against the devil beggar there is a moral which is directed sharply against ‘well-intentioned self-interest’: ‘When you collect Christian souls by the promise of happiness you turn them to the love of silver.’
This radical anti-consequentialist position, aimed squarely against ‘enlightened self-interest’ not only in money but in spiritual benefits, first articulated by Blessed Basil finds echoes throughout Russian literature, including Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. One such echo – no doubt deliberate – is heard in a passage from Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, placed in the mouth of the terminally-ill cancer patient Shulubin (who calls himself an ‘ethical socialist’):
One should never direct people towards happiness, because happiness too is an idol of the market-place. One should direct them towards mutual affection. A beast gnawing at its prey can be happy too, but only human beings can feel affection for each other, and this is the highest achievement they can aspire to.
Blessed Basil, with his total and seemingly-mad kenotic lifestyle, naturally attracted the ire of the wealthy merchants whose stalls he overturned and whose property he destroyed or stole, and the gossiping whispers and snickers of those who saw his nakedness and the heavy chains he draped his body with. But he soon came to be respected as a foreteller of the future, and even Tsar Ivan IV Grozniy – a man not known for his timidity – respected and feared Basil, and forbade anyone from harming him. However, Basil was not clearly afraid of the Tsar.
Several times the Blessed One is presented as an accuser, although a meek one, of Ivan the Terrible. Once he reproached the Tsar for letting his mind wander in church to the Swallow Hills where his palace was being built. As he died around 1550, St. Basil did not witness the terror of Ivan’s oprichniki, but the legend assures us that he went to Novgorod during the executions and destruction of the city. Here in a cave under the Volkhov Bridge, he summoned Ivan and offered him fresh blood and meat. In reply to the Tsar’s refusal, he embraced him with one arm, and with the other pointed to the souls of the innocent martyrs rising up to Heaven. The Tsar in horror waved a handkerchief, ordering the executions to stop, and the terrible offerings turned into wine and sweet watermelon.
Respect for Blessed Basil did not stop with the Tsar, however.
Evidence of the respect accorded to St. Basil, who was canonised in 1588, lay in the churches dedicated to him as early as the sixteenth century. Also the name of the Pokrov (and Trinity) Cathedral in Moscow, where he was buried, was changed by the people to the Cathedral of Basil the Blessed.
This particular kenotic genius of the Russian soul, is one which Fedotov takes pains to point out over and over again. Though Fedotov finds himself at odds with Solzhenitsyn in finding such spiritual tendencies in the Novgorodian state (Solzhenitsyn, true to his narodny-Slavophil preferences, finds those spiritual tendencies instead in among the neighbouring Pomor peasantry), the two of them are in agreement that there is a certain self-abasement, a genuine humility, to the Russian temperament – one of the expressions of which is the ‘holy fool’. Though the Greeks and Arabs had several ‘holy fools’ among them (the abovementioned St. Simeon of Emessa being one of the earliest), the phenomenon was much wider-spread in Russia, and Blessed Basil was the most outstanding in a series of many Russian yurodivy who thunderously denounced the powerful, shocked and scandalised public opinion, challenged the ‘common sense’ of the worldly and distributed whatever they had amongst the poor and bereaved. Clearly something in the Russian soul responds to such alarms and such cries for justice – which is why Saint Basil has remained as popular as he has.
Your life, O Basil, was true and your chastity undefiled.
In fasting, vigilance and exposure to heat and frost
You subdued your flesh for the sake of Christ.
Therefore your countenance shone with the brilliance of the sun.
Today the faithful glorify your holy falling-asleep.
Implore Christ to deliver us from all bondage, dissension and war,
And to grant great mercy to our souls!

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