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Letter 233 (St. Basil)

To Amphilochius, in reply to certain questions.

1. I know¬†that I have myself heard of this, and I am aware of the constitution of¬†mankind. What shall I say? The mind is a wonderful thing, and therein we possess that which is after the image of the Creator. And the operation of the mind is wonderful; in that, in its perpetual motion, it frequently forms imaginations about things non-existent as though they were existent, and is frequently carried straight to the¬†truth. But there are in it two faculties; in accordance with the view of us who¬†believe¬†in¬†God, the one¬†evil, that of the d√¶mons which draws us on to their own¬†apostasy; and the divine and the¬†good, which brings us to the likeness of¬†God. When, therefore, the mind remains alone and unaided, it contemplates small things, commensurate with itself. When it yields to those who deceive it, it nullifies its proper judgment, and is concerned with monstrous fancies. Then it considers wood to be no longer wood, but a god; then it looks on gold no longer as money, but as an object of worship. If on the other hand it assents to its diviner part, and accepts the boons of the¬†Spirit, then, so far as its nature admits, it becomes perceptive of the divine. There are, as it were, three conditions of life, and three operations of the mind. Our ways may be¬†wicked, and the movements of our mind¬†wicked; such as adulteries, thefts, idolatries,¬†slanders, strife, passion, sedition, vain-glory, and all that the¬†apostle¬†Paul¬†enumerates among the works of the flesh. Or the¬†soul’s¬†operation is, as it were, in a mean, and has nothing about it either damnable or laudable, as the perception of such mechanical crafts as we commonly speak of as indifferent, and, of their own character, inclining neither towards¬†virtue¬†nor towards¬†vice. For what¬†vice¬†is there in the craft of the helmsman or the physician? Neither are these operations in themselves¬†virtues, but they incline in one direction or the other in accordance with the¬†will¬†of those who use them. But the mind which is impregnated with the Godhead of the Spirit is at once capable of viewing great objects; it beholds the divine beauty, though only so far as¬†grace¬†imparts and its nature receives.

2. Let them dismiss, therefore, these questions of dialectics and examine the¬†truth, not with mischievous exactness but with reverence. The judgment of our mind is given us for the understanding of the¬†truth. Now our God is the very¬†truth. So the primary function of our mind is to¬†know¬†one¬†God, but to¬†know¬†Him so far as the infinitely great can be¬†known¬†by the very small. When our eyes are first brought to the perception of visible objects, all visible objects are not at once brought into sight. The hemisphere of heaven is not beheld with one glance, but we are surrounded by a certain appearance, though in reality many things, not to say all things, in it are unperceived;‚ÄĒ the¬†nature¬†of the stars, their greatness, their distances, their movements, their conjunctions, their intervals, their other conditions, the actual¬†essence¬†of the firmament, the distance of depth from the concave circumference to the convex surface. Nevertheless, no one would allege the heaven to be invisible because of what is unknown; it would be said to be visible on account of our limited perception of it. It is just the same in the case of¬†God. If the mind has been injured by devils it will be guilty of¬†idolatry, or will be perverted to some other form of impiety. But if it has yielded to the aid of the¬†Spirit, it will have understanding of the¬†truth, and will¬†know¬†God. But it will¬†know¬†Him, as the Apostle says, in part; and in the life to come more perfectly. For¬†when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part shall be done away (1 Corinthians 13:10).¬†The judgment of the mind is, therefore, good and given us for a good end ‚ÄĒ the perception of¬†God; but it operates only so far as it can.

Source. Translated by Blomfield Jackson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.)