St Basil the Great on Attentiveness

St Basil’s sermon on attentiveness is based on Deuteronomy 15:9: “Be attentive to yourself, lest an unlawful word be hidden in your heart”. It can be found in the book titled On the Human Condition, which contains a collection of St Basil’s homilies and writings published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Focusing on the first phrase, St Basil discusses the usefulness of attentiveness and explains that it is a God-given gift for our protection. Just as animals have the abilities required to defend themselves in the wild, so we have attentiveness. But against what do we need to defend ourselves? These are the “hidden traps” set by the enemy seeking to make us his prey.

“Be attentive, then, to yourself … neither to what is yours nor to what is around you.” In this saying, St Basil directs the listener’s focus to the one thing needful. Specifically, St Basil calls on us to know the deeper motions of our heart, casting aside fleshly things where possible and focusing on adorning the soul. Just as a sick man is directed to be attentive to his health, so we must attend to the illnesses of the soul.

St Basil highlights that attentiveness requires a struggle and warns us against losing it through laziness and vain thoughts. Daydreaming and concentrating on others is a constant temptation, but attention should instead turn inward to one’s internal life. Being attentive to yourself is a reminder of what really matters, and guards against the passions of the soul.

Relevantly for our postmodern age, St Basil considers that awareness to oneself makes one attentive to God without needing “to trace your understanding of the Fashioner from the structure of the universe.” We can see God’s wisdom residing in ourselves through the union of body and soul with each impacting on the other.

St Basil’s teaching is beautifully summarised by the concluding verse and reminds us of our heavenly calling: «Πρόσεχε σεαυτῷ, ἵνα προσέχῃς Θεῷ», that is “be attentive to yourself that you may be attentive to God.”


Source: Lychnos October-November 2020