On Envy: A Sermon by St. Basil
Condensed & Edited by Phyllis Graham
Saint Basil the Great, born in Asia Minor, became the father of the monastic life in the East and was chosen Bishop of Caesarea. His commanding character, his firmness and energy, his learning and eloquence, and not less his humility and the exceeding austerity of his life, made him a model for bishops. St. Basil's whole life was one of suffering. He lived amid jealousies and misunderstandings and seeming disappointments. But he sowed the seed which bore good fruit in the next generation, and was God's instrument in beating back the Arian and other heretics in the East and restoring the spirit of discipline and fervor in the Church. He is venerated as a Doctor of the Church.
Nothing more destructive springs up in the souls of men than the passion of envy, which, while it does no harm to others, is the dominant and peculiar evil of the soul that harbors it. As rust consumes iron, so does envy wholly consume the soul that it dwells in.
Envy is the pain that arises from another's good fortune. And because of this the envious man is never without pain, never without grief of mind. Does his neighbor's house abound in good things? Is its owner without care, and wanting for nothing? All this but feeds his affliction; an increase of pain to the envious. So much so that in nothing does he differ from a man stripped naked and wounded by all men. Is someone brave and manly, in good health? Such things are like a wound to the envious. Is another more pleasing in appearance? This is like a blow to the envious. Is another endowed with many gifts of soul? Is he respected and admired because of his wisdom, his eloquence? Is another man rich, generous of his wealth to the poor, honored for his benevolence? All these things are like so many wounds and blows that strike the envious to the heart.
And the worst of the sickness of soul is that the sufferer cannot make it known; but with bowed head and downcast eyes he suffers torment, he grieves, he perishes of his affliction. Asked of what he is suffering, he is ashamed to reveal his disease and confess, "I am envious and bitter: the gifts of my friends are a torment to me. I grieve at my brother's happiness, I cannot endure the sight of another's good fortune." For this is what he must say if he would tell the truth. But unwilling to speak out, he conceals in the depths of his mind the sickness that smoulders within, consuming him.
And so he neither seeks the help of a physician for his disease, nor finds a remedy to drive out his sickness, though the Scriptures are filled with such remedies. He looks for but one remedy for his affliction: to see one of those he envies fall into misfortune. This is the goal of his hate: to see someone he envies miserable instead of happy, to see one who is admired pitied. Then he is at peace. And when he sees him weeping, when he sees him in affliction, he is his friend. He does not rejoice with them that rejoice, but he weeps with them that weep (Rom. x.15). He pities him in his changed circumstances, not however from human tenderness, or from sympathy; with kind words for his former state, but so that he may make his present circumstances seem worse.
What would be more deadly than this disease, which is a corruption of life, a defilement of our nature, a hatred of the things God has given us, a contradiction of God? What urged the devil, the beginner of evil, to wage fierce war against man? Was it not envy? It was through envy he came to war openly against God; enraged against Him because of His bountifulness to man, but avenging himself on man because he is powerless against God. We see these very qualities revealed in Cain, the first disciple of the devil, who taught him envy and murder. What was it Cain did? He saw another honored by God, and burned with envy. He killed the one who was honored, that he might insult Him who honored him. Since he could not attack God, he turned his hatred to the murder of his own brother.
Let us fly from this wickedness of soul that would teach us to war against God. Why must you show enmity to those who enjoy good things, while taking nothing that is yours? Should you be enraged because someone does you a kindness, are you not then an enemy of your own profit?
Envy is the most implacable form of hatred. To show kindness to the envious only provokes him the more. And the more he receives, the more aggrieved and embittered he becomes. He is more enraged by the worth of his benefactor than thankful for his gifts. Dogs will become gentle when you feed them, lions when their wounds are treated, but the envious become more savage should you once do them a favor.
Turn now in your mind to the greatest envy, that which burst forth from the rage of the Jews against Christ. For what cause was He envied? Because of His miracles! And what were these miracles: the healing of those in need—the hungry were fed, and they attacked the One who fed them; the dead were raised again to life, and they envied the One who recalled them to life; demons were cast out, and they made snares for the One who had commanded them to go out; lepers were made clean, the lame walked again, the deaf heard, the blind saw, and Him who had done all this they persecuted and then scourged and delivered to death.
So do the evils of envy reach to all things. From the beginning until the end of time, the Devil, the Destroyer of life, by means of this sole weapon, envy, wounds and strikes down all men. He who fell himself through envy is preparing the same path for us by means of this same vice! Wise indeed is he who forbade us sit at the table with an envious man (Prov. xxiii. 6), warning us against all association with him. For we cannot be caught by the snares of envy unless we approach to familiarity with it. In the words of Solomon: "Envy is from a man's neighbor" (Eccles. iv. 4, Sept.). For it is! Among people of the same nation, those not known are not envied, but those with whom we are familiar; and it arises between persons of the same age, the same kinship, among brothers. As red blight is a pest in the growing wheat, so is envy a pest among friends.
In this evil there is one thing can be praised: that the more it is aroused, the more bitter it is to the one it masters. As a javelin shot with great force, should it strike a resisting object, will fly back at the thrower, so does the thrust of envy, leaving the one envied un-wounded but becoming the wound of the one envying. The envious consumes himself, pining away through grief. The demons, haters of whatever is good, where they find natures akin to their own, they use them in every kind of way for their own evil purposes. Do you not shrink in horror from being the tool of an evil demon?
This insupportable vice is the teaching of the serpent, an invention of demons, a pledge of torment to come, a barrier to the love of God, the loss of the kingdom of heaven. Just as vultures in their flight will pass over fields and meadows which are sweet and pleasant, drawn by the odors of corruption, and just as flies pass over what is healthy in order to swarm upon what is prurient, so the envious have no eyes for the splendors of life, for the grandeur of virtue, but only for what is decayed and rotten. Should someone stumble, as will happen to men, they make it public (they will strive to make men known by their falls); a man who is courageous, they will say is reckless; a temperate man, unfeeling; a just man, harsh; a prudent man, cunning. They speak of a man of great generosity as vulgar, of a liberal man as prodigal, while a careful man is mean, and in general whatever virtue a man may possess, they will give it a name taken from its opposite vice!
What then are we to do to avoid contracting this sickness? Or, should it attack us, how can we be cured?
The first step is that we should not look upon anything in the affairs of men as either great or impressive; neither their wealth nor their perishable glory nor their health of body—these are fleeting things and are only the instruments of virtue to those who use them well. They do not contain happiness in themselves. Again, a man may be noted for his prudence and held in honor through the word of God because he is a teacher of divine truth. Be not envious of such a man and never wish that as a teacher of Holy Scripture he should be silent when he is praised by those who hear him. For the good he does is yours also! It is sent to you by means of his gift of teaching. No one blocks up a gushing fountain or closes his eyes to the sunlight! So when the spiritual word is welling forth in the Church, or when some pious heart gushes forth like a fountain from the gift of the Spirit, why not give ear with joy? Why not receive these graces with thankfulness? Does the applause of those who listen pierce you? Would you that no one might receive profit and no one receive praise? What excuse can there be for such things in the presence of the Judge of our hearts?
If you are eager for glory and wish to shine above others, so that you cannot endure second place, then direct your ambition as though it were a stream of water towards the cultivation of virtue. Be just and temperate and prudent and courageous and patient in all that you suffer in serving God, for it is in this way that you will save your soul; and, the greater your virtues, the more you shall shine above others! For virtue can be acquired by our loving efforts. However, it cannot be born in the soul unless the soul is free of all violence of feeling, and free above all of envy.
Let us comply with the counsel of the Apostle, and let us not be desirous of vainglory, "provoking one another, envying one another" (Gal. v. 26), but let us rather "be kind to one another"; let us be "merciful, forgiving one another, even as God hath forgiven you" (Eph. iv. 32) in Christ Jesus Our Lord, with Whom be there glory to the Father and to the Holy Ghost, throughout all ages and ages. Amen