Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Lenten Homily

St. Basil and Faith in the Holy Spirit

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 25, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa’s third Lenten reflection. The preacher of the Pontifical Household gave the homily Friday.

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1.       Faith tends to reality

Philosopher Edmund Husserl summarized the program of his phenomenology in the motto: Zu den Sachen selbst!, to go to things themselves, to things as they are in reality, before their conceptualization and formulation. Another philosopher who came after him, Sartre, says that “words and with them the meaning of things and the ways of their use” are but “the tiny signs of recognition that men have traced on their surface”: one must go beyond them to have the unexpected revelation, which leaves one breathless, of the “existence” of things.[1]

Saint Thomas Aquinas formulated much earlier a similar principle in reference to things or to the objects of faith: “Fides non terminatur ad enunciabile, sed ad rem”: faith does not end in enunciations, but in reality.[2] The Fathers of the Church are unsurpassable models of this faith which does not stop at formulas, but which goes to reality. The Golden Age of the Fathers and Doctors having past, we witness almost immediately what a scholar of Patristic thought describes as “the triumph of formalism.”[3] Concepts and terms, such as substance, person, hypostasis, are analyzed and studied for themselves, without constant reference to the reality that the architects of the dogma tried to express with them.

Athanasius is, perhaps, the most exemplary case of a faith that is more concerned with the thing than with its enunciation. For some time, after the Council of Nicaea, he seemed to ignore the term homousios, consubstantial, although defending its contents tenaciously as we saw last time, namely the full divinity of the Son and his equality with the Father. He is quick also to accept terms that for him are equivalent, in order to make clear that his intention was to maintain firm the faith of Nicaea. Only in a second moment, when he realized that the term was the only one that left no way out for heresy, did he made ever greater use of it.

This fact is worth noticing because we know the damages caused to ecclesial communion from giving more importance to agreement on terms than to the contents of the faith. In recent years it has been possible to re-establish communion with some Eastern Churches, the so-called Monophysite or Nestorian, having recognized that their quarrel with the faith of Chalcedon was in the different meaning attributed to the terms ousia and hypostasis, and not with the substance of the doctrine. Also the agreement between the Catholic Church and the World Federation of Lutheran Churches on the subject of justification through faith, signed in 1998, showed that the secular quarrel on this point was more in the terms than in the reality. Once formulas are coined, they tend to fossilize, becoming banners and signs of membership, more than expressions of a lived faith.

2.       Saint Basil and the Divinity of the Holy Spirit

Today we climb onto the shoulders of another giant, Saint Basil the Great (329-379), to scrutinize with him another reality of our faith, the Holy Spirit. We will see right away how he is also a model of faith that does not stop at formulas but goes to the reality.

On the divinity of the Holy Spirit, Basil does not say the first or the last word, that it, it is not with him that the debate opens or with him that it is closed. The one who opened the discourse on the ontological status of the Spirit was Saint Athanasius. Before him, the doctrine on the Paraclete remained in the shadow and one can also understand why: the position of the Holy Spirit in the divinity could not be defined before the Son’s was defined. Because of this, one was limited to repeat in the symbol of the faith: “and I believe in the Holy Spirit,” without other additions.

In the Letter to Serapion, Athanasius opened the debate that would lead to the definition of the divinity of the Holy Spirit in the Council of Constantinople of 381. He teaches that the Spirit is fully divine, consubstantial with the Father and the Son, that he does not belong to the world of creatures, but to that of the Creator and the proof, here as well, is that his contact sanctifies us, divinizes us, something he would be unable to do if he himself were not God.

I said that Basil does not even say the last word. He avoids applying to the Paraclete the title of “God” and that of “consubstantial.” He affirms clearly faith in the full divinity of the Spirit using equivalent expressions, such as equality with the Father and the Son in adoration (the isotimia), his homogeneity, and not heterogeneity, in relation to them. These are terms with which the divinity of the Holy Spirit was defined in the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople of 381 and which articulate the article of faith on the Holy Spirit that we still profess today in the Creed:

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,

who proceeds from the Father (and the Son).

With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

Basil’s prudent attitude, meant to avoid distancing the opposing party of the Macedonians even more, drew the criticism of Gregory of Nazianz who places his friend among those who had enough courage to think that the Holy Spirit is God, but not enough to proclaim him such explicitly. Shattering any delay, he writes “Is the Spirit therefore God? Certainly! Is he consubstantial? Yes, if it is true that he is God.”[4]

Hence, if on the theology of the Holy Spirit, Basil does not say either the first or the last word, why should we choose him as our teacher of faith in the Paraclete? It is because Basil, as Athanasius before him, is more concerned with the “thing” than with its formulation, more concerned with the full divinity of the Spirit than with terms with which to express such faith. The thing, to express ourselves in the terms of Thomas Aquinas, is of greater interest to him than its enunciation. He transports us to what is central to the person and action of the Holy Spirit.

Basil’s is a concrete pneumatology, lived, not scholastically but “functionally” in the most positive sense of the term, and it is what renders him particularly timely and useful for us today. Because of the known question of the Filioque, pneumatology ended by restricting itself in the course of the centuries almost solely to the problem of the way of procession of the Holy Spirit:  from the Father alone, as the Orientals say, or also from the Son (Filioque), as the Latins profess. Something of the concrete pneumatology of the Fathers has passed to the treatises on “the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit,” but limited to the ambit of personal sanctification and the contemplative life.

Vatican Council II initiated a renewal in this field, for example, when it moved the charisms from hagiography, that is, the life of the saints, to ecclesiology, that is, the life of the Church, speaking of them in Lumen Gentium.[5] However, it was just a beginning; there is still a long way to go to bring to light the action of the Holy Spirit in all the experience of the people of God. On the occasion of the 16th centenary of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople of 381, Blessed John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter in which he said, among other things: “All the work of renewal of the Church that Vatican Council II so providentially proposed and initiated … cannot be realized except in the Holy Spirit, that is, with the help of the his light and his strength.”[6] We will see that Basil is, in fact, our guide on this path.

3.       The Holy Spirit in the History of Salvation and in the Church

It is interesting to know the origin of his treatise on the Holy Spirit. It is
curiously linked to the prayer of the Gloria Patri. During a liturgy, Basil pronounced the doxology sometimes in the form: “Glory be to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit,” at other times in the form: “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” This second form brought more clearly to light than the first the equality of the three Persons, coordinating rather than subordinating them among themselves. In the overly heated climate of the discussions on the nature of the Holy Spirit, this sparked protests and Basil wrote his work to justify his operation; in practice, to defend against the Macedonian heretics the full divinity of the Holy Spirit.

However, we come immediately to the point for which, I said, Basil’s doctrine reveals itself as particularly timely: his capacity to bring to light the action of the Spirit in every moment of the history of salvation and in every sector of the life of the Church. He begins with the work of the Spirit in creation.

“In the creation of beings the first cause of all that comes into existence is the Father, the instrumental cause is the Son, and the perfecting cause is the Spirit. It is by the will of the Father that created spirits subsist; it is by the operative strength of the Son that they are led to being and it is by the presence of the Spirit that they attain perfection … If one tries to subtract the Spirit from creation, all things are confused and their life appears without law, without order, without any determination.”[7]

Saint Ambrose would take up this thought of Basil, bringing it to a thought-provoking conclusion. Referring to the first two verses of Genesis (“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep”) he observes:

“When the Spirit began to hover over it, creation did not yet have any beauty. Instead, when creation received the operation of the Spirit, it obtained all this splendor of beauty that makes it shine as ‘world.’”[8]

In other words, the Holy Spirit is he who makes creation pass from chaos to the cosmos, which makes of it something beautiful, ordered: a world that is “clean”  (mundus), according to the original meaning of this word and of the Greek word cosmos. We now know that the creative action of God is not limited to the initial instant, as the deist and mechanistic view of the universe thought. God was not “once” but always a Creator. This means that the Holy Spirit is he who continually fashions the universe, the Church and every person to pass from chaos to cosmos, that is, from disorder to order, from confusion to harmony, from deformity to beauty, from oldness to newness. Not of course mechanically and all at once, but in the sense that he is at work in it and guides to an end its very evolution. He is the one who always “creates and renews the face of the earth” (cf. Psalm 104: 30).

This does not mean, Basil explained in the same text, that the Father created something imperfect and “chaotic” which was in need of corrections; it was simply the design and will of the Father to create through the Son and lead beings to perfection through the Spirit.

From creation the holy Doctors pass to illustrates the presence of the Spirit in the work of redemption:

“In regard to the plan for man’s salvation (oikonomia), the work of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, established according to the will of God, who could contest its fulfillment through the grace of the Spirit?”[9]

At this point, Basil abandons himself to a contemplation of the presence of the Spirit in the life of Jesus which is one of the most beautiful passages of his work and opens to pneumatology a field of research which only recently has begun to be taken into consideration again.[10] The Holy Spirit was already at work in the proclamation of the prophets and in the preparation for the coming of the Savior; it was by his power that the incarnation in Mary’s womb was realized; he was the chrism with which Jesus was anointed by God in baptism. Every work of Jesus was realized with the presence of the Spirit. He “was present when Jesus was tempted by the devil, when he worked miracles; the Spirit did not leave him when he rose from the dead, and on the day of Easter he poured the Spirit on the disciples (cf. John 20:22f.). The Paraclete was “the inseparable companion” of Jesus during his whole life.

From the life of Jesus, Saint Basil passes to illustrate the presence of the Spirit in the Church:

“Does not the organization of the Church make clear the incontestable work of the Spirit? He himself has given the Church, says Paul, in the first place the Apostles, then the prophets, then the teachers … This order is organized in keeping with the diversity of the gifts of the Spirit.”[11]

In the Anaphora that bears the name of Saint Basil, which our present Eucharistic Prayer IV has followed closely, the Holy Spirit has a central place.

The last description is concerned with the presence of the Paraclete in eschatology: “Also at the moment of the event of the awaited manifestation of the Lord of the heavens – writes Basil – the Holy Spirit will not be absent.” This moment will be, for the saved, the passage from the “first fruits to the full possession of the Spirit” and for the reprobates the definitive separation,between the soul and the Spirit.[12]

4.       The Soul and the Spirit

However, Saint Basil does not stop at the action of the Spirit in the history of salvation and in the Church. As an ascetic and spiritual man, his main interest is in the action of the Spirit in the personal life of every Christian. Although not yet establishing the distinction and order of the three stages of the spiritual life that will become classic later on, he brings marvelously to light the action of the Holy Spirit in the purification of the soul from sin, in its illumination and divinization that he also calls “intimacy with God.”[13]

We can do no less than read the page in which, in continuous reference to Scripture, the Saint describes this action, and allow ourselves to be transported by his enthusiasm:

“The relationship of familiarity of the Spirit with the soul, is not a drawing close in space – as if one comes close, in fact, to the incorporeal corporally – but consists, rather, in the exclusion of the passions, which, as a consequence of their attraction for the flesh, enslave the soul and separate it from union with God. Purified from the filth of which it was riddled through sin and returned to its natural beauty, as if restoring to a royal image its old form through purification, only in this way is it possible to draw near to the Paraclete. In the blessed contemplation of the image, you will see the unspeakable beauty of the archetype. Through him hearts are raised, the weak are taken by the hand, those who are progressing reach perfection. He, illuminating those who have been purified from every stain, renders them spiritual through communion with him. And as limpid and transparent bodies, when a ray strikes them, become splendid themselves and reflect another ray, thus souls bearers of the Spirit are illumined by the Spirit; they themselves become fully spiritual and return grace to others. From here stems their foreknowledge of future things; understanding of mysteries; perception of hidden things; the distribution of charisms, heavenly citizenship; dance with the angels; endless joy; permanence in God, likeness to God; fulfillment of desires: becoming God.”[14]

It was not difficult for scholars to discover behind Basil’s text, images and concepts derived from Plotinus’ Enneads and to talk, in this connection, of an extraneous infiltration in the body of Christianity. In reality, it is an exquisitely biblical and Pauline topic that is expressed, as was right and proper, in familiar and meaningful terms for the culture of the time. At the base of everything, Basil does not
put man’s action — contemplation — but the action of God and the imitation of Christ. We are poles apart from Plotinus’ vision and from every philosophy. For him, everything begins with Baptism which is a new birth. The decisive act is not at the end, but at the beginning of the journey:

“As in the double race of the stadiums, a stop and a rest separate the courses in the opposite sense, so also in the changing of life it seems necessary that a death come between the two lives to put an end to what preceded and to give a start to subsequent things. How is one able to descend into hell? By imitating the burial of Christ through Baptism.”[15]

The background is the same as Paul’s. In the sixth chapter of the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle speaks of the radical purification from sin that occurs in Baptism and in the eighth chapter he describes the battle that, sustained by the Spirit, the Christian must engage in for the rest of his life, against the desires of the flesh, to advance in the new life:

“Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. […] So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (Romans 8:5-13).

We should not be surprised if to illustrate the task described by Saint Paul, Basil made use of an image of Plotinus. It is at the origin of one of the most universal metaphors of the spiritual life and it speaks to us today no less than it did to the Christians of that time:

“Come now!, return to yourself and look; and if you still do not see yourself beautiful, imitate the author of a statue that must succeed in being beautiful: he in part chisels, in part levels; here he polishes, there he sharpens, until he has expressed a beautiful face in the statue. Similarly, you also must take away the superfluous, straighten that which is crooked, and, in the fury of purifying what is dark, make it become lucid and do not cease to torment your statue until the divine splendor of virtue shines before you.”[16]

If, as Leonardo da Vinci said, sculpture is the art of removing, the philosopher is right in comparing purification and holiness to sculpture. For the Christian, however, it is not about attaining an abstract beauty or building a beautiful statue, but about bringing to light and rendering ever more resplendent the image of God that sin tends continually to cover.

It is said that one day Michelangelo, strolling in a courtyard of Florence, saw a block of rough stone covered with dust and mud. He stopped suddenly to look at it, then, as if illuminated by a flash of lightning, said to those present: “An angel is hidden in this mass of stone. I want to bring him out!” And he began to work with his scalpel to give shape to the angel he had glimpsed. So it is with us. We are still masses of rough stone, with so much “dirt” and useless pieces on our back. God the Father looks at us and says: “Hidden in this piece of stone is the image of my Son; I want to bring it out, so that it will shine in eternity beside me in heaven!” And to do this he uses the scalpel of the cross, he prunes us. (cf. John 15:2).

The most generous not only endure the blows of the scalpel that come from outside, but they also collaborate because of all that has been given them, imposing on themselves little or great voluntary mortifications and breaking their old will. A desert Father said:

“If we wish to be completely liberated, let us learn to break our will and thus, little by little, with the help of God, we will advance and arrive at full liberation from the passions. It is possible to break one’s will ten times in a very brief time and I will tell you how. One is strolling and sees something; his thought says to him: ‘Look there!’ but he answers his thought: ‘No, I will not look!’ and he breaks his will.”[17]

This ancient Father gives other examples drawn from his monastic life. If someone is speaking badly of somebody, perhaps of the Superior, your old man tells you: “Take part also. Say what you know.” But you answer: “No!” And you mortify the old man” … But it is not difficult to lengthen the list with other acts of self-denial, according to the state in which one lives and the office one holds.

Hence, if we live complying with the desires of the flesh we are like the two famous “Bronzes of Riace,” at the moment in which they were rescued from the bottom of the sea, all covered with incrustations and barely recognizable as human figures. If we also wish to shine, as these two masterpieces after their restoration, Lent is the opportune time to get to work.

5.       A “Spiritual” Mortification

There is a point in which the transformation of Plotinus’ ideal into a Christian ideal remained incomplete, or at least not very explicit. Saint Paul, we heard, says: “If through the Spirit you make the works of the body die, you will live.” The Spirit, hence, is not only the fruit of mortification but also that which makes it possible; it is not only at the end of the journey but also at the beginning. The Apostles did not receive the Spirit at Pentecost because they had become fervent; they became fervent because they had received the Spirit.

The three Cappadocian Fathers were essentially ascetics and monks. Basil, in particular, with his monastic Rules (Asceticon!), was one of the founders of Christian asceticism. This led him to emphasize strongly the importance of man’s effort. Gregory of Nyssa, brother and disciple of Basil, would write in this line: “In the measure that you develop your struggles for piety, in this same measure is also developed the grandeur of the soul through these struggles and these efforts.”[18]

In the following generation, this vision of ascesis was taken up and developed by spiritual authors, such as John Cassian, but removed from the solid theological base that it had in Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. It is from this point – notes Bouyer – that Pelagianism, putting human effort before grace, got its start.”[19] However, this negative success cannot be imputed to Basil or the Cappadocians.

To conclude we return to the reason that renders Basil’s doctrine on the Holy Spirit perennially valid and today, I said, more than ever, timely and necessary: its concreteness and adherence to the life of the Church. We Latins have a privileged means to make our own and to transform into prayer this same type of pneumatology: the hymn of the Veni creator.

It is from beginning to end a praying contemplation of what the Spirit does concretely throughout the earth and in humanity as the creator Spirit; in the Church, as Spirit of sanctification (gift of God, living water, fire, love and spiritual unction) and as charismatic Spirit (multi-form in your gifts, finger of the right hand of God, who puts the word on lips); in the life of the individual believer, as light for the mind, love for the heart, healing for the body; as our ally in the fight against evil and guide in discerning the good.

Let us invoke him with the words of the first stanza, asking him to make our world and our soul pass from chaos to the cosmos, from dispersion to unity, from the ugliness of sin to the beauty of grace.

Veni, Creator Spiritus,                                               

O Spirit that quickens creation,

Mentes tuorum visita,

permeate your faithful in their innermost being

e superna gratia

pour the fullness of grace

Quae tu creasti pectora.                                             

into the hearts you created for yourself.

— — —

[1] J.P. Sartre, La Nausea, Ital. trans., Milan 1984, p. 193 f.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, II-IIae, q. 1, a. 2, ro 2.

[3] Cf. G. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, London 1936, chapt. XIII (Ital. trans., Dio nel pensiero dei Padri, Bologna, il Mulino, 1969, pp. 273 ff).

[4] Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio 31, 5.10; cf. also Oratio 6: “Until when will we keep the lamp hidden under the bushel and not proclaim in a loud voice the full divinity of the Holy Spirit?”

[5] Cf. Lumen Gentium, [6] John Paul II. “To the Constantinopolitan Council I,” in AAS 73, 1981, p. 521.

[7] Basil, On the Holy Spirit, XVI, 38 (PG 32, 137B); Ital. Trans. By E. Cavalcanti, L’esperienza di Dio nei Padri Greci, Rome, 1984.

[8] Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, II, 32.

[9] Basil, On the Holy Spirit, XVI, 39.

[10] J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, London 1988.

[11] Basil, On the Holy Spirit, XVI, 39.

[12] Ibid. XVI, 40.

[13] Ibid., XIX, 49.

[14] Ibid., IX, 23.

[15] Ibid., XV, 35.

[16]Plotinus, Enneads I, 9 (Ital. trans. By V. Cilento, vol. I, Laterza, Bari 1973, p. 108).

[17] Doroteus of Gaza, Teachings 1,20 (SCh 92, p. 177).

[18] Gregory of Nyssa, De instituto christiano (ed. W. Jaeger, Two Rediscovered Works, Leida 1954, p. 46.

[19] L. Bouyer, La spiritualita dei Padri, Edizioni Dehoniane, Bologna 1968, p. 295.

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