The Word of God in the Life and Works of St Basil: God’s Commandments

Very Rev. Basil Koubetch, OSBM—Protoarchimandrite (2004-2012)

1. God’s Commandments in the Teachings of St. Basil the Great

In the first seven of the Wider Rules, we find key themes in the teachings of St Basil, especially as regards his spirituality’s close relation to the Word of God. The commandments are succinct, but wide-reaching laws that treat our interactions with God and other human beings. For example, love of God is seen in our concrete actions, that is in our keeping of the commandments through our common life with our neighbour —in our community (WR 7). Because of the limited amount of time, I will highlight only the main points of these seven Wider Rules.

1.1. The Greatest Commandment

As to the question of how God’s commandments relate to each other, i.e., their hierarchy and importance, St Basil immediately responds by showing Jesus’s response to the teachers of the law: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind: this is the first and greatest commandment. The second is similar to it: love your neighbour as yourself.[1]At the end of WR 1, St Basil gives a kind of introduction to the other responses that follow as regards God’s commandments: From what was said, and from other similar places given in Sacred Scripture, we can see that there is order and unity among all of the Lord’s commandments.[2]

 

1.2. How to Love God?[3]

When those who were speaking with Basil asked how to put into practice the commandment of love of God, St Basil’s answer was loving God does not require a teacher.  In this response, he also provides the following reasons for his belief:[4]

1)    Without anyone’s teaching, we rejoice in the light and desire life.

2)    Nature itself teaches us to love our parents and those who have taught and cared for us.

3)    We receive from God the power required to fulfill his commandment…we receive this ability to love from nature itself.

4)    From our very nature we desire goodness, though each person grasps goodness in different forms; just as from nature —and without teaching— we have an inclination to that which is ours, to that which is dear to us and in our dealings with those who are kind to us, we naturally extend our kindness.

5)    People naturally desire things that are beautiful and good… and God is good; thus, when someone desires goodness, they desire God.

6)    From nature, we are given a love for our parents, as is seen also in animals and in smallest infant that turns to its mother with the greatest of love. Let us not be less intelligent than small, uneducated children, nor more savage than beasts; let us neither be strangers, nor hold ourselves equal to our Creator.

In the light of such natural gifts, St Basil guarantees that when we act justly and properly with these God-given powers of the soul, we live pious lives of virtue.[5] And he gives an understanding of moral good and evil: evil—this is the wrong use of what God has given us; it goes against His commandments; while on the other hand, virtue, which God requires of us, is a good usage of the gifts He has given us, according to His commandments.[6]

In his response, Basil also puts forth various biblical reasons for our love of God. In particular: God created humans in His image and likeness, blessed them with an intellect and various gifts, gave them the possibility of knowing God, placed mankind as master over all creation, and —after man’s fall into sin— He sent His prophets and, in the fullness of time, Christ —who redeemed mankind from the curse of the law.[7]

1.3. The ‘Second Commandment:’ Love of Neighbour[8]

For as much as St Basil is always aware of human nature, which is called to the fulfillment of God’s commandments, he expresses this especially in his responses to the questions concerning the commandment of love of neighbour. We can, without much difficulty, observe his anthropological, pedagogical and rhetorical method of teaching this principle. He begins from natural reason as to why we should love our neighbour,[9] then presents it as a commandment of God,[10] in the fulfilling of which we receive our identity[11] and, ultimately, on the basis of Christ’s teachings,[12] revealing the most sublime of  reasons: God accepts this love as love of Him.

 

1.3.1. Love of Neighbour Fulfills the Commandment of Love of God

Inasmuch as good works, motivated by love of neighbor, God accepts for himself, St Basil puts forth his conviction that the commands of love of God and neighbour are fully entwined. In this answer (WR 3), we can feel his exhortation of the validity of St John’s first Epistle,[13] which he does not cite in the text, but is strongly felt in other texts.

The originality of St Basil is especially seen in the fact that he —on the basis of biblical texts that have been introduced— interprets the commandment of love of neighbor as a fulfillment of the commandment of the love of God.[14] Both commandments are fulfilled differently, but they are still tied together in a such a way that fulfilling one without the other is impossible. We do not have two commandments, but a single two-fold commandment.[15]

Love of God and union with Him is revealed in our daily, common life with our neighbour:  In agreement with the teaching of this Church Doctor, the heart and mind of the Christian, who lives in grace, is free from hatred and sin. He —who has love for others and a desire for their good— is united to God.[16]

1.3.2 Love of Neighbour is the Identity of Christ’s Disciple

St Basil is convinced that we perfect ourselves as Christ’s disciples in no other way than when we have love for one another. He clearly adds other possible elements to this identity: as a sign of being his disciples, do not desire miracles or extraordinary signs (though the Holy Spirit would give us the strength for this), for what is written? ‘From this all will understand that you are my followers, when you have love for one another.’[17]

At the conclusion of this response, St Basil puts forth the example of the prophet Moses, when it comes to love of neighbour, and St Paul the apostle, who showed a complete desire to follow Christ and pay the price for the salvation of all.

All these thoughts are exemplified in WR 7, regarding community life.

1.4. The Fear of God[18]

Certain scholars feel that this answer is not really in its proper place and have difficulties understanding the connection between love of God and neighbour within the context of the ‘fear of God.’[19] I believe that the key to understanding this answer —in the context of these seven Wider Rules— is the radical obedience of St Basil to God’s word. In this, he is convinced and desires to see this same obedience in those whom he is addressing. We must take into consideration whom he is addressing: he is not addressing ‘beginners,’ but rather thosewho need greater commandments, in which are found the entire truth of Christ’s love, because you are no longer children in Christ, you no longer need milk…

Fear might be used to quickly hasten someone’s actions even when this is not their primary motivation. We may deduce that the method of St. Basil’s teaching is to place in some of his listeners a ‘beginning of wisdom,’ which is a fruit of the fear of God.[20] He does not exclude that for older people this fear of God might be a positive thing to discourage ungratefulness towards God.

Without a doubt, St Basil means wisdom in a biblical sense and gives various passages from Scripture.[21] As well, the overriding thought of his teaching is the listening to and accomplishing of God’s desires through the fulfillment of God’s commandments.

1.5. Recollection of Spirit and Thought[22]

Recollection of spirit and thought has this distinct goal: a likeness to God by doing His will. The heart of Basilian spirituality: a disposition and mindfulness of God.[23] To accomplish any goal a person needs to be recollected and requires the appropriate means and strength. St. Basil understood this well, especially when trying to attain the goal of holiness. For those who earnestly wish to serve God and to do His will, St Basil proposes: remove yourself from worldly activities, get away from having random thoughts, free yourself from all attachments in life and keep a constant and pure recollection of God. For this, he shows us the one goal and rule for our lives: fulfill God’s commandments as God would desire of us.

1.6 For Recollection We Need Solitude[24]

What can the idea of ‘solitude’ add to the teachings of the founder of coenobitic monasticism? St Basil’s responds that the need for solitude does not go against, but rather enhances his earlier teachings about fulfilling God’s commandments, as well as prepares us for the responses about communal life.

In short, here are some citations and paraphrases from WR 6:

 

1.6.1. Things We Must Avoid:

1. A common life with people who do not fear God and do not take seriously the need to fulfill God’s commandments.

2. Living with sinners and identifying ourselves with those who are worse than us, not taking their faults seriously.

3. Living with too many worldly affairs that occupy the soul.

4. Habitually neglecting or forgetting God’s judgment.

1.6.2. Our Goal:

1. Attaining an ascetical and recollected soul.

2. Distancing from ourselves all that —by sight or sound— leads to sin.

3. Renouncing ourselves so as to follow Christ by taking up our cross.[25]

4. Forgetting everything that was in the past and turning away from our own will and desires.

5. Being ready to die for Christ by mortifying our flesh and passions.

6. Bearing all hardships in the name of Christ and not having any attachment to this present life.

7. Removing all stains of sin through fervent prayer and ceaseless meditation on the will of God.

8. Constant remembrance of God.

1.7. Community: The Best Place to Fulfill God’s Commandments

The main theme of number 7 of the Wider Rules is the coenobitical life, but the overriding thought is the fulfillment of God’s commandments. One is so closely related to the other that one without the other cannot stand in the life of a Christian. This is a credit to the pedagogical and rhetorical style of our saintly father. He begins his reply by basing himself on the ‘many reasons’ why there should be a life in common. First of all, there is the physical necessity of mutual assistance,[26] which is the will of the Creator. He also gives various biblical reasons as to why there should be community life—such as the law of Christian love; ultimately, he shows that we can indeed live according to this divine law. In fact, the first Christian community gives an example of this.

1.7.1. Natural Reasons for the Commandment of Love of Neighbour

In the first part of number 7 of the Wider Rules —although he doesn’t cite it— St Basil paraphrases the biblical pericope: for as in one body there are many members and these members do not have the same function, so are we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.[27] No one is autonomous; we all need each other’s aid. Based on the foundation of St Basil’s teaching, we need one another, to save one another, as healthy members of the body save the wounded ones. We also need help from other members so that we make better use of our own strengths. On the other hand, in the solitary life, our gifts remain unused and our woundedness knows no succor. In community, the weaknesses of one are overcome by the strengths of another. The gifts of one are joined to those of another, forming one strong body. A person needs this and can only realize this in community life.

However, because of our fallen nature a person will seek that which benefits himself. Therefore, the Basilian community is not led by the law of fallen nature, but by God’s commandments.

1.7.2. The Law of Christian Love

St Basil foresees in community life a better possibility of accomplishing the law of Christian love. In St Paul’s writings, namely, love does not seek its own,[28] and, I also seek to please everyone in everything, not seeking that which is beneficial to me, but for many so that they may be saved.[29] St Basil puts forth a general norm regarding true Christian love. This love is unselfish, this is life in the spirit of self-giving for the good of all. Therefore, he gives a warning about people who are on their own: solitary life often has only one goal—to meet your own needs, which clearly goes against the law of love.[30]

Instead of the eremitical life, Basil proposes certain biblical reasons for having a life in common, in which we can better live the law of Christian love.

1.7.2.1. Fraternal Correction

As a good anthropologist, St Basil takes into account the difficulty one might have regarding an examination of one’s life and objectively valuing one’s own particular gifts. The natural mechanism for self-protection and self-affirmation does not allow a person to readily see in themselves that which needs correction. Subjective reason blinds a person, and they do not see their own faults. St. Basil understood this well and therefore teaches that when we are alone it is not easy to recognize our faults, since there is no one there to gently and lovingly correct us.[31]

The person, who corrects his mistakes, St Basil refers to as ‘wise,’ notwithstanding that they have fallen.[32] Therefore, to accept correction and to amend our faults is necessary, but only possible in community.

St Basil states that fraternal correction is an act of love: the more someone truly loves, he heals imperfections by his knowledge.[33]Therefore, to remain silent or to not do anything to correct the faults of our brother is a lack of true love towards him and to the community. He has in mind Christ’s words regarding fraternal correction (text cited earlier).[34]

1.7.2.2. The Community is able to Fully Carry out Christ’s Teaching

St Basil has in mind various acts of mercy towards our neighbor—the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and those in prison.[35] On one’s own, one can only serve one other needy person at any given time or place, and has to ignore others in need, especially when those works take a long time to accomplish.[36] Our saintly father feels that, on one’s own, it is possible to overlook the most important general commandment that is absolutely necessary for salvation, in other words to not feed the hungry or clothe the naked.[37] It is clear that community can accomplish much more than merely one person. By working together in community, we are better able to carry out all of Christ’s requirements at the same time. It is not the service of an individual person, but rather of the one great body of the community.

1.7.2.3. Community Life is Laid Out According to God’s Commandments[38]

To create a community means to become one body, whose head is Christ. If the community becomes one body, then all the members become one body. Therefore, when it is Christ—the most important and commanding member—as head, then the life of this community is laid out according to God’s commandments. I believe that this is the crux of the Basilian concept of community life. Christ is the head of many members, who are joined in the love and fellowship of the Holy Spirit, constantly attentive to the Word of God and labouring in a communion of gifts.

Continuing his response, St Basil mentions other dangers of solitary life: firstly and most importantly— that of satisfying oneself.[39] This, in his opinion, happens when there is no fraternal correction and the person will see themselves are being perfect (as has been mentioned earlier).

St Basil sees in the solitary life a dangerous lack of fulfilling God’s commandments and growth in the virtues: besides in this life there is a lack of growth in the virtues. A person does not recognize any weakness, nor progress. There is really no chance of fulfilling the commandments.[40] He bases this thought on the teaching of St Paul: for it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.[41]

Regarding growth in the virtues, St Basil highlights especially the virtue of humility as the basis of the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, who washed his disciples’ feet. In the solitary life, whose feet will we wash? Whom will we serve? When you live on your own, how can you be last?[42]

1.7.3. Commandment of Love of Neighbor as the Basis of the First Christian Community

At the conclusion of this response, St Basil shows community life to be a spiritual battlefield, a good road to progress, an unceasing betterment of self and meditation on God’s commandments.[43]In mentioning the goal of this life —the glory of God according to the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ—he lays down a foundation upon which it is possible to live out this commandment of God. The first Christian community showed us this by example: many faithful, but with only one heart and one soul, for them everything was done in community.[44]

Conclusion

The characteristics of Basilian monks and nuns that live according to the teachings of St Basil the Great. (*Characteristics of every Christian).

  1. They love God above all else and follow his commandments.*
  2. They love their neighbour as themselves, striving to love as Christ loved us.*
  3. They are constantly aware that without love of neighbour, love of God is not fulfilled.*
  4. In a common life with others, they try to maintain the identity of a disciple of Christ by fulfilling the laws of love towards God and neighbor.*
  5. They are wise through their efforts to keep the important commandments, in which are contained the entire truth of God’s love. They do this by virtue of the fear of God.*
  6. They are recollected and strive to constantly remember God.*
  7. They keep moments of solitude for prayer, turning away from all that —through sight or sound— would lead to sin.*
  8. They keep away from all that —through sight or sound— would lead to sin, especially through the help of those means offered by the monastery, monastic clothing and the keeping of monastic rules.*
  9. They accept fraternal correction in order to remove all vice from themselves. They do not equate themselves with those who are worse, nor do they justify themselves by the faults of others.*
  10. They strive by working in the monastic community to fulfill all acts of mercy towards their neighbour.*
  11. They live for the glory of God according to the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ.*
  12. In monastic community, as in family and church life, they strive to realize the ideal of the first Christian community: one heart and one soul, having everything in common.*

[1] Cf. WR, 1; Mt. 22, 36-39.

[2] WR, 1.

[3] WR, 2, as are all other citations in this section.

[4] Listed are quotations from WR, 2.

[5] WR, 2.

[6] WR, 2.

[7] Cfr. WR, 2. The supernatural reasons to love God are beautifully explicated in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great.

[8] WR, 3.

[9] “And who does not know that a person is a creation that is both friendly and social, and not wild and isolated? There is no one thing that more greatly corresponds to our nature as does the common life and mutual help and love of other persons” WR, 3.

[10] “When God first gave us the seed, he justly awaited its fruit, saying: A new commandement I give to you that you love one anotherWR, 3.

[11] Citing the words of Jesus: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13, 35).

[12] Cfr. Mt. 25, 40.

[13] Cfr. 1 Jn. 4, 7-21.

[14] “So through the first commandment, the second can be fulfilled; and the second returns again to the first. ” For to love the Lord is to love one’s neighbour, because “If a man loves me, he will keep my word” (Jn. 14, 23) — says the Lord, and again: “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15, 12). Thus, he who loves his neighbour, fulfills the love of God, for God accepts this love as for Himself” (WR, 3).

[15] Cfr. A. Holmes, OSB, A Life Pleasing to God: The Spirituality of the Rules of St. Basil, (Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2000), 54-65.

[16] S. Batruch, Models of Christian Life in the Works of St. Basil the Great, (Lviv: Svichado, 2007), 96.

[17] WR, 3.

[18] WR, 4.

[19] For example A. Holmes, OSB, A Life Pleasing to God: The Spirituality of the Rules of St. Basil, (Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2000), 96.

[20] Cfr. Prov. 1, 7.

[21] For example, Mt. 7, 24-27; 25,1-13.

[22] WR, 5.

[23] A. Holmes, OSB, A Life Pleasing to God: The Spirituality of the Rules of St. Basil, (Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2000), 107.

[24] WR, 6.

[25] Cfr. Lk. 14, 17.

[26] WR, 7: “no one is self-sufficient” (literally, no one of us is sufficient unto himself).

[27] Rm. 12, 4-5.

[28] 1 Cor. 13, 5.

[29] 1 Cor. 10, 33.

[30] WR, 7.

[31] WR, 7.

[32] WR, 7.

[33] WR, 7.

[34] Cfr. Mt. 18, 15-18.

[35] Cfr. Mt. 25, 31-46.

[36] WR, 7.

[37] WR, 7.

[38] WR, 7.

[39] WR, 7.

[40] WR, 7.

[41] WR, 7.

[42] WR, 7.

[43] WR, 7.

[44] WR, 7, citing Acts 2, 44 and 4, 32.

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