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 The First Commandment
LUKE x. 27.
St. Basil the Great, Bishop and Doctor
Translated by M.F. Toale, D.D.
(PG 31, col. 905, Regulae Fusius Translatae.  
A catechetical exposition of the First Commandment for his monastic brethren.)
I. The Order and Harmony of the Lordís Commandments...

Since Scripture (Deut. xxxii. 7) has given us the right to ask questions, let us ask first of all whether there is any order or sequence in the Commandments of God, so that one is first, another second, and so on; or are they all so joined one to another that all are to be held in equal honour, each one having the character of being supreme, so that whoever desires to be secure may, as with a circle, make a beginning wherever he wishes?

The question is an old one, and was long ago put forward in the Gospels, when a certain lawyer coming to the Lord, said to Him: Master, which is the great commandment in the law? And the Lord answered: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Mt. xxii. 36-39).

It is the Lord Himself therefore who has laid down the order of His Commandments; declaring that the first and greatest is the Commandment that speaks of the love of God. Second in order, and like to the first, or rather completing the first, and depending from it, He placed the Commandment to love our neighbour. So from these words, and from other similar sayings contained in Holy Scripture, the order and agreement of all the commandments of the Lord can be learned.

II. On loving God, and that there is in man by nature a capacity and inclination to keep the commandments of God. 

Speak to us then first of loving God? For we have been taught that God is to be loved, and we long to learn how we shall succeed in doing this? 

The love of God is not something we learn from another. Neither did we learn from another how to love the sunshine or how to defend our life. Nor has anyone taught us how to love our parents, or those who hwe reared us. And so, indeed much more, learning how to love God does not come to us from outside. But in the very commencement of the life of man, there is placed within us a certain seminal conception, having, from itself, the beginnings of a natural propensity towards this love.

And the School of the commandments of God, receiving this aptitude of the soul, begins to tend it with loving care, to nourish it with wisdom, to lead it by Godís grace towards its perfect fulfilment. And so, approving of your zeal in this matter, as so necessary to attain this end, we shall with Godís help and by the assistance of your prayers try, in the measure of the help given us by the Spirit, to awaken to life the spark of the divine love that is hidden within you.

But we must also keep in mind that this is but one virtue; yet such is its power that it inspires us and leads us towards the fulfilment of all the commandments. If any one love me, says the Lord, he will keep my commandments (Jn. xiv. 23). And again: On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets (Mt. xxii. 40). It is not our intention to give you a detailed account of each of the commandments, for dwelling in detail on each part we would lose our view of the whole; but, as best we can, and for our present purpose, we shall speak to you upon the love we owe to God; first however making this clear to you: That we have already received from God the power to obey and fulfil His commandments, so that we should not receive them reluctantly as though they were something new and beyond us; and neither should we be raised above ourselves, as though we were giving Him something more that we had received from Him.

And by means of this power, worthily and fittingly used, we shall adorn our lives with holiness and virtue. But should we misuse this, we are gradually and steadily carried downwards towards evil habit. And this is the true end and purpose of evil habit: The perverted use, also against Godís command, of the power He has given us to do good; just as it is the essence of virtue to use these same powers in accordance with the command of the Lord, inspired by a pure conscience. And this being true, we can say the same of love. And so, receiving the command to love God, at once, from the first instant of our being, we possess the power to love. And we need no outward proof of this. Each can learn it from himself, and in himself. For by nature we long for what is beautiful, though we differ one from another as to what is beautiful. Yet, without teaching, we have a natural love for those near and dear to us, and prompt by nature with good will towards those who have done good to us. And what, I ask, is more to be desired, than the beauty of God? What thought more acceptable to the soul, than the splendour of God? What longing of the soul so piercing, so overwhelming as that arising in a soul now purified by God from every evil, and crying out from its true condition: I am wounded with love (Cant. ii. 5)? Ineffable and wholly indescribable are the lightnings of the divine beauty. Speech will not convey them, nor can our ear receive them. And though you may speak of the brightness of the morning star, of the moonís shining beauty, of the sunís light, compared with this true glory all other glories are poor and lowly, more distant from it than the thick moonless dark of night from the clearest noonday splendour. This beauty no eye of flesh may look on. Only by the mind and soul can we lay hold of it. And wherever it has shone upon the souls of the purified, ever unbearable is the urge of the longing that remains; and impatient now of this present life, they cry: Woe is me, that my sojourning is prolonged! (Ps. cxix. 5). When shall I come and appear before the face of God? (Ps. xli. 3). And again: To be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better (Phil. i. 23). And: My soul hath thirsteth after the strong living God (Ps. xli. 3). And: Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord (Lk. ii. 29). And since they now held this present life a prison, they could scarce contain the force of the eager desire the divine love had awakened in them. And because of this inappeasable longing, to behold the divine Perfection, they prayed that the Vision of the joy of God might last throughout all ages. So is it that man of their own nature long for what is sublime and beautiful. And what is beautiful and lovable is also good. And God is good. And all things desire what is good. Therefore, all things desire God.

2. And so whatever is done freely of our own nature proceeds from our nature; provided evil has not perverted our judgement. To love God therefore is a debt we all must pay: to fail in this, is the most unendurable of evils. For, estrangement from God, and aversion from Him, are evils more intolerable than the torments of hell to come, more grievous to the one it happens to, than even the painless loss of the light of the eye, or for a living thing to cease from life. And if the love of our parents rises naturally in the young, and even the nature of dumb beasts bears witness to this, as well as the natural affection men bear from childhood towards their own mothers, let us not seem less rational than infants, more savage than wild beasts, revealing ourselves as without love, as estranged from our Creator? And even if we did not already know Him from His goodness, yet from the very fact that He made us we should love Him above all things, and be ever mindful of Him, and rest in His love as children rest in the arms of their parents.

Chief among those whom nature teaches us to love are those who do good to us. And this is a love not peculiar to man only; but is common to almost all creatures, leading them to love whoever has done good to them. The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his masterís crib. May what then follows never be said of us: But Israel hath not known me and my people hath not understood (Is i. 3). As for the dog and other such creatures, what need is there to speak of how great is their good will towards those who care for them? If then we have a natural love for those who are good to us, and will suffer anything for them to repay their goodness to us, what words can rightly praise the gifts that God has given us? They are so many as to be beyond number; so great, so wondrous that for one alone (creation) we should give all thanks to the Giver. I shall not speak of the rest, which though of such surpassing greatness and beauty, are yet outshone in greatness by others still greater, as the sun outshines the stars, and seem in themselves lesser and more obscure. For I have not time, leaving aside the greater glories, to recount from these His lesser gifts the dimensions of the Divine Goodness.

3. We shall be silent of the sunrise, of the changes of the moon, of the changes of weather and season, of the rain that fills the clouds, of the springs that rise from the ground, of the sea, of the earth and of all that comes from it, of the creatures that dwell in the sea, of those that move in the air, the countless forms of living things, and of everything that is meant to serve our needs. But that which we cannot pass over, even if we could, which no man could pass over in silence, who is of sound mind, though to speak worthily of it is beyond our power, is this: that when God had made man to His own image and likeness, and honoured him with a knowledge of Himself, and endowed him above all living creatures of the earth with the gift of reason, and prepared for his delight the inconceivable joys of paradise, and then made him the first of earthly creatures, and even after he had been deceived by the devil and had fallen into sin and through sin into death and into things that deserved death, that even then He did not abandon him, but first gave him a law to help him, placed him under the protection of His angels, sent prophets to rebuke his wickedness and teach him justice, kept him from evil by threats, awakened in him by promises a desire to do good, and at times made known to special persons, that they might warn others, the end of the good and of the wicked; that after these and every other favour He still has not abandoned us, though we continue in disobedience to Him.

The goodness of the Lord has not abandoned us. Nor have we deprived ourselves of His love for us through our own folly: treating lightly the One Who has done us so much honour. We have even been recalled from death and restored again to life through Jesus Christ our Lord Himself. And even the way in which this great goodness was shown to us is wondrous beyond measure: For, being in the form of God, he thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (Phil. ii. 6, 7).

4. He has even taken our infirmities upon Him; he Has borne sufferings, He was wounded for us, and by His wounds we were healed (Is. liii. 4). He has redeemed us from the curse (of the law), being made a curse for us (Gal. iii. 13); endured for us a most shameful death, that He might bring us back to a glorious life. It was not enough to recall the dead to life, He gave us also the dignity of His own divinity; preparing for all mankind an everlasting rest that surpasses in the greatness of its joy every thought of man. What then shall I render to the Lord for all the things He has rendered to me (Ps. cxv. 12)? He is so good that He does not even look for a return; it is enough for Him that for the things He has given us, we but love Him in return.

When I recall these things to my mind, if I may speak of my own thoughts, I am filled with fear and terror, lest through failing in watchfulness of soul or through being absorbed in trifling things, I shall fall from the love of God, and become a reproach to Christ. For he who now assails us and strives by the allurements of this world to lead us by every deceit to forgetfulness of our Benefactor, attacking us, leaping at us that he may ruin our souls, will then, in the Presence of God, turn our neglect into a mockery of God, will gloat over our indifference, our apostasy; he who neither made us nor suffered death for us, shall then regard us as his servants, as his followers; because of our disobedience and contempt for the Commandments of God.

This offence to the Lord, this boasting of His enemy, seems to me more unendurable than the pains of hell: that we should become, to the enemy of Christ, a subject of boasting, a source of pride, to gloat over Him Who died for us and rose again; to Whom because of this we owe a greater thankfulness; as it is written (Rom. viii. 12). And so far we have but spoken to you of the love of God. For as we told you our intention was not to speak to you of all the Commandments of God, or of all that can be said of them; for that is impossible; but to place before you a certain summary of them, awakening in you, and ever reminding you of the love of God.

III. On the love of our neighbour. We must then speak of the Commandment that is next in order and importance.

1. We told you earlier that the Law was the cultivator, the nourisher of those powers which were implanted in us after the manner of a seed. Since we have been commanded in these words to love our neighbour as ourselves, let us consider whether we have also received from God the power to fulfil this commandment of God? Who does not know that man is a mild and sociable being, not a wild and solitary creature? For nothing is so congenial to our nature as to live together, to depend on one another, to love our kind. But the Lord giving us beforehand these seeds of loving, looks later for their fruit, saying: A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another (Jn. xiii. 34). And since it was His will to uplift us to the fulfilment of this commandment, He laid it down that it was not by signs and wonders that His Disciples would be known; though He also gave them through the Holy Spirit the power to work these. What then does He say? By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another (Jn. xiii. 35). And so He linked these two commandments together; so that the good we do our neighbour, He receives as done to Himself. For I was hungry, He said, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink. And then He goes on to add: As long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me (Mt. xxv. 35, etc.).

2. And so through the first commandment we are able to fulfil the second; and through the second ascend again to the first. And whoever loves the Lord, it must follow that he also loves his neighbour. For if any one love me, He says, he will keep my word (Jn. xiv. 23). Then He says: This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you (Jn. xv. 12). And again, he who loves his neighbour, fulfils the love he owes to God; for God accepts this love as an act of love offered to Himself. For this very reason Moses, a faithful servant of God, showed such love for his brethren that he desired that he himself should be blotted out of the book of life, if God would not pardon the sins of his people (Exod. xxxii. 32). Paul also dared to be an anathema from Christ for the sake of his kinsmen according to the flesh (Rom. ix. 3). For He wished, following Christís example, to become the price of them all; though he knew at the same time, that it could not happen that he would become a stranger to the love of God, who out of love for God, would put away from himself the favour of God in order to fulfil the greatest commandment; rather, that he would receive more than he gave. From what has been said it has been made abundantly plain to us, that the saints attained to this measure of the love of our neighbour that God demands of us.  Amen.