It was long before he could subdue his emotions so as to turn to the reading imposed upon him. He brought himself at length into the fitting mind by remembering that this wondrous promise was not for a sinner, a murderer; and that only could he hope to merit such blessing if he had truly repented, and won forgiveness. Stricken down by this reflection he grew once more humble and sad.
In the afternoon, as he was pacing alone in a little portico near the abbot’s tower, the prior approached him. This reverend man had hitherto paid little or no attention to Basil. He walked ever with eyes cast down as if in deep musing, yet it was well known that he observed keenly, and that his duties to the community were discharged with admirable zeal and competence. In the world he would have been a great administrator. In the monastery he seemed to find ample scope for his powers, and never varied from the character of a man who set piety and learning above all else. Drawing nigh to Basil he greeted him gently, and asked whether it would give him pleasure to see the copyists at work. Basil gladly accepted this invitation, and was conducted to a long, well-lit room, where, at great desks, sat some five or six of the brothers, each bent over a parchment which would some day form portion of a volume, writing with slow care, with the zeal of devotees and with the joy of artists. Not a whisper broke upon the silence in which the pen-strokes alone were audible. Stepping softly, the prior led his companion from desk to desk, drawing attention, without a word, to the nature of the book which in each case was being copied. It surprised Basil to see that the monks busied themselves in reproducing not only religious works but also the writings of authors who had lived in pagan times, and of this he spoke when the prior had led him forth again.
‘Have you then been taught,’ asked the prior, ’that it is sinful to read Virgil and Statius, Livy and Cicero?’
‘Not so, reverend father,’ he replied modestly, his eyes falling before the good-humoured gaze. ’But I was so ill instructed as to think that to those who had withdrawn from the world it might not be permitted.’
‘Father Hieronymus had no such misgiving,’ said the prior, ’for he himself, at Bethlehem, taught children to read the ancient poets; not unmindful that the blessed Paul himself, in those writings which are the food of our spirit, takes occasion to cite from more than one poet who knew not Christ. If you would urge the impurity and idolatry which deface so many pages of the ancients, let me answer you in full with a brief passage of the holy Augustine. “For,” says he, “as the Egyptians had not only idols to be detested by Israelites, but also precious ornaments of gold and silver, to be carried off by them in flight, so the science of the Gentiles is not only composed of superstitions to be abhorred, but of liberal arts to be used in the service of truth."’