The man with tired eyes lingers with his question hanging in the air. His friend continues to walk away and does not reply. His mind is made up. He seeks a purer life than can be found in the city. The desert beckons.
For a moment he closes his eyes, maybe he is in prayer and then stroking his long beard the man with the tired eyes turns indoors.
Later he would enshrine his question in a Rule for Christian living which he would offer his flock as their Bishop but for that moment it was part of a painful encounter.
I do not know whether it happened this way. Sara Maitland who introduced me to the question in her book A Book of Silence suggests that Basil, the man with the tired eyes asked the question in irritation as he watched another parishioner wander off into the wilderness. I do not know whether this was how he felt any more than she might but it is a powerful question.
Its origin is in the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet on the night of his betrayal. He took on the responsibility of the servant and told them that as his followers they should do the same.
The man with the tired eyes became known as Basil the Great.
He lived in Cappadocia, a region of Turkey in the 4th century and was the bishop in Caesarea. He was a theologian and his Rule became the basis of monastic rules for centuries to come. He lived at a time when some Christians believed it was necessary to retreat into the desert and become a hermit. As much as we can ascertain this was a seeking for a cleansed life through the powers of silence. This is the point that Sara Maitland wants to emphasis.
Her book is very stimulating. It is intensely auto-biographical whilst including a lot of research and reflection on what silence is and how it may influence people. It is one of a number books that I have on that theme and the others will probably turn up in this blog at some point or other.
But back to Basil and his question. As I have said; I am not sure whether the conversation ever occurred but it is there in the Rule
How shall you show humility if you have no one in comparison with whom to show yourself humble? How shall you show compassion if you cut yourself off from the fellowship of the many?
Whose feet will you wash? In comparison to whom will you be the last?
What occurs to me is that this is a question for anyone who takes themselves off on retreat. It may no longer be into the deserts of Syria and Egypt. Today, it may be to the spa, the lonely cottage, the restored manor house hotel somewhere in the Cotswolds or a short stay with a monastic community.
Of course what we might say is that this chill-out time. A time for personal restoration so that we are ready to return to the fray. It is seeking quietness in a busy life in which there is much foot-washing.
What Basil questions is whether solitariness is a pathway to completeness or not. He warns against seeking to be an island of self-reference unattached to the mainland of other people long before John Donne made his declaration. He is clear that for followers of Jesus this cannot be the case.
The question challenges our age of rampant individualism.
After you have had your jolly in the sun or buried yourself in profound chants and prayers or climbed high into the hills or sat at the bottom of the garden who do you return to serve?
I too watched the backs of people as they walked away from churches where I was the minister. They do not look back. Few had discovered the grace to thank the community that had nurtured them to that point. They often went, seeking altars in the world beyond official communities of faith.
I used to wonder what they have discovered. Maybe some did find the altar where they must kneel. And it might be the place of dirty feet and a Lord who kneels beside them, noticing their arrival but not giving them the satisfaction of his recognition.
Images: St Basil the Great from St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev