The Life of Saint Basil the Younger:
Critical Edition and Annotated Translation of the Moscow Version
By Denis F. Sullivan, Alice-Mary Talbot and Stamatina McGrath
Dumbarton Oaks Studies, 45
Reviewed by Andrew Louth
The Journal of Ecclesiastical History
(Volume 67, Issue 3, July 2016 , pp. 629-630)
The Life of Saint Basil the Younger (or the New) is a probably tenth-century vita that became enormously popular in Eastern Orthodox circles in the Middle Ages: twenty-two Greek manuscripts are known to survive, plus a further thirteen in demotic Greek; there are also medieval translations into Slavonic languages. Its popularity is not connected with any cult of the saint (indeed it is not clear if he was a historical figure at all), but rather the result of two visions, disclosed to and related by the author of the vita (who himself may be fictional), which take up nearly two-thirds of the text. It is the first vision that is particularly important, especially for popular Orthodox beliefs about the afterlife: it contains the most detailed account of the so-called aerial "tollhouses" (telonia), twenty-one in number, through which the departed soul has to pass after death. At each tollhouse, the soul is examined in respect of a series of sins, beginning with slander and ending with heartlessness and cruelty, demons accusing, angels defending. The vision concerns Theodora, a slave woman who looked after the saint, which she relates in the vision to reassure Gregory, the author, as to her fate. In her case, it is evident from the beginning that she will make it through the tollhouses, assisted not only by her acts of kindness, but by "spiritual gold" provided by the saint from his abundant virtue. Once the soul has passed the tollhouses, it is introduced to the other world, passing through the gates of heaven and visiting the abodes of the saints and the patriarchs, as well as making a visit to Hades. The soul then settles in the "place of repose": it is remarked that this takes place forty days after the soul has been separated from the body in death. This period of time, therefore, corresponds to the period during which services of prayer (Trisagion, Pannykhida) for the deceased take place - on the third, ninth and fortieth day - though in the vita it is only the fortieth day that is remarked. The notions set forth in colourful detail in the vision can be traced back to the fourth or fifth century, the treatise corresponding most closely to the account of the Life of St Basil immediately after the Mother of God, seems to me to reflect the anaphora of the Byzantine rite. These are, however, scarcely even blemishes in a painstakingly careful edition.