The Seven Commandments - St Peter Damaskos
A Treasury of Divine Knowledge The Seven Commandments
If we want to make a start, we must concentrate on the practice of these seven forms of bodily discipline and on nothing else: otherwise we will fall over a precipice or, rather, into chaos. In the case both of the seven gifts of the Spirit and of the Lord’s Beatitudes, we are taught that if we do not begin with fear, we can never ascend to the rest. For, as David says, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Ps. 111:10). Another inspired prophet describes the seven gifts as “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and reverence, the spirit of the fear of God’ (cf. Isa. 11:2-3). Our Lord Himself began his teaching by speaking of fear; for He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit' (Matt. 5:3), that is, those who quail with fear of God and are inexpressibly contrite in soul. For the Lord has established this as the basic commandment, knowing that without this even living in heaven would be profitless, for one would still possess the same madness through which the devil, Adam and many others have fallen.
If, then, we wish to keep the first commandment - that is, to possess fear of the Lord - we should meditate deeply upon the contingencies of life already described and upon God’s measureless and unfathomable blessings. We should consider how much He has done and continues to do for our sake through things visible and invisible, through commandments and dogmas, threats and promises; how He guards, nourishes and provides for us, giving us life and saving us from enemies seen and unseen; how through the prayers and intercessions of His saints He cures the diseases caused by our own disarray; how He is always long-suffering over our sins, our irreverence, our delinquency-over all those things that we have done, are doing, and will do, from which His grace has saved us; how He is patient over our actions, words and thoughts that have provoked His anger, and how He not only suffers us, but even -bestows greater blessings on us, acting directly, or through the angels, the Scriptures,, through righteous men and prophets, apostles and martyrs, teachers and holy fathers.
Moreover, we should not only recall the sufferings and struggles of the saints and martyrs, but should also reflect with wonder on the self-abasement of our Lord Jesus Christ, the way He lived in the world. His pure Passion, the Cross, His death, burial, resurrection and ascension, the advent of the Holy Spirit, the indescribable miracles that are always occurring every day, paradise, the crowns of glory, the adoption to sonship that He has accorded us, and all the things contained in Holy Scripture and so much else. If we bring all this to mind, we will be amazed at God’s compassion, and with trembling will marvel at His forbearance and patience. We will grieve because of what our nature has lost - angel-like dispassion, paradise and all the blessings which we have forfeited - and because of the evils into which we have fallen: demons, passions and sins. In this way our soul will be filled with contrition, thinking of all the ills that have been caused by our wickedness and the trickery of the demons.
So it is that God grants us the blessing of inward grief, which constitutes the second commandment. For, as Christ says, ‘Blessed are those who grieve” (Matt. 5:4) - who grieve for themselves and also, out of love and compassion, for others as well. We become as one who mourns a dead person, because we perceive the terrible consequences that the things we have done before our death will have for us after we are dead; and we weep bitterly, from the depths of our heart and with inexpressible sorrow. Worldly honor or dishonor no longer concerns us; we become indifferent to life itself, often forgetting even to eat because of the pain in our heart and our ceaseless lamentation.
In this way God’s grace, our universal mother, will give us gentleness, so that we begin to imitate Christ. This constitutes the third commandment; for the Lord says, ‘Blessed are the gentle” (Matt. 5:5). Thus we become like a firmly-rooted rock, unshaken by the storms and tempests of life, always the same, whether rich or poor, in ease or hardship, in honor or dishonor. In short, at every moment and whatever we do we will be aware that all things, whether sweet or bitter, pass away, and that this life is a path leading to the future life. We will recognize that, whether we like it or not, what happens happens; to be upset about it is useless, and moreover deprives us of the crown of patience and shows us to be in revolt against the will of God. For whatever God does is “wholly good and beautiful’ (Gen. 1:31), even if we are unaware of this. As the psalm puts it: ‘He will teach the gentle how to judge’ (Ps. 25: 9. LXX) or, rather, how to exercise discrimination. Then, even if someone gets furious with us, we are not troubled; on the contrary, we are glad to have been given an opportunity to profit and to exercise our understanding, recognizing that we would not have been tried in this way were there not some cause for it. Unwittingly or wittingly we must have offended God, or a brother, or someone else, and now we are being given a chance to receive forgiveness for this. For through patient endurance we may be granted forgiveness for many sins. Moreover, if we do not forgive others their debts, the Father will not forgive us our debts (cf Matt. 6:14). Indeed, nothing leads more swiftly to the forgiveness of sins than this virtue or commandment: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven’ (cf. Matt. 6:14).
This, then, is what we realize when we imitate Christ, growing gentle through the grace of the commandment. But we are distressed for our brother, because it was on account of our sins that this brother was tempted by the common enemy and so became a remedy for the healing of our weakness. Every trial and temptation is permitted by God as a cure for some sick person’s soul. Indeed, such trials not only confer on us forgiveness of our past and present sins, but also act as a check on sins not yet committed. But this is not to the credit either of the devil, or of the person who tempts, or of the person tempted. The devil, being maleficent, deserves our hatred, for he acts with no concern for our welfare. The person who tempts us merits our compassion, not because he tempts us out of love but because he is deluded and oppressed. The person tempted, finally, endures affliction because of his own faults, not on behalf of someone else. If the latter were the case, he would deserve praise; but as it is, he is not without sin. Were he without sin-which is impossible-he would still endure the affliction in hope of reward and out of fear of punishment. Such, then, is the situation of these three. But God, being self-sufficient and giving to each what is to his profit, does indeed deserve our thanks, since He patiently suffers both the devil and the wickedness of men, and yet bestows His blessings upon those who repent both before and after they sin.
Thus the person who has been granted the grace of keeping the third commandment, and so has acquired full discrimination, will no longer be deceived either wittingly or unwittingly. Instead, having received the grace of humility, he will regard himself as nothing. For gentleness is the substance of humility, and humility is the door leading to dispassion. Through dispassion a man enters into perfect unfaltering love; for he understands his own nature - what it was before birth and what it will be after death. For mortal man is nothing but a slight, short-lived stench, baser than any other created being. For no created being, animate or inanimate, has ever subverted the will of God except man who, although loaded with blessings, endlessly angers God.
That is why man has been given the fourth commandment, that is, longing to acquire the virtues: ‘Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness’ (Matt. 5:6). He becomes as one who hungers and thirsts for all righteousness, that is, both for bodily virtue and for the moral virtue of the soul. He who has not tasted something, says Basil the Great, does not know what he is missing; but once he has tasted it, he is filled with longing. Thus he who has tasted the sweetness of the commandments, and realizes that they lead him gradually towards the imitation of Christ, longs to acquire them all, with the result that he often disdains even death for their sake. Glimpsing the mysteries of God hidden in the Holy Scriptures, he thirsts to grasp them fully; and the more knowledge he gains, the more he thirsts, burning as though drinking flames. And because the Divine cannot be grasped fully by anyone, he continues to thirst for ever.
What health and sickness are to the body, virtue and wickedness are to the soul, and knowledge and ignorance to the intellect. The greater our devotion to the practice of the virtues, the more our intellect is illumined by knowledge. It is in this way that we are accounted worthy of mercy, that is, through the fifth commandment: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). The merciful person is he who gives to others what he has himself received from God, whether it be money, or food, or strength, a helpful word, a prayer, or anything else that he has through which he can express his compassion for those in need. At the same time he considers himself a debtor, since he has received more than he is asked to give. By Christ’s grace, both in the present world and in the world to come, before the whole of creation he is called merciful, just as God is called merciful (cf Luke 6:36). Through his brother, it is God Himself who has need of him, and in this way God has become his debtor. Although his needy brother can live without him giving what he is asked for, he himself can neither live nor be saved if he does not do what he can to show mercy. If he is not willing to show mercy to his own kind, how can he ask God to show mercy to him? Bearing these and many other things in mind, the person to whom it is granted to keep the commandments gives not only his possessions but even his very life for his neighbor. This is perfect mercy; for just as Christ endured death on our behalf, giving to all an example and a model, so we should die for one another, and not only for our friends, but for our enemies as well, should the occasion call for it.
Not that it is necessary, of course, to have property in order to show mercy. Possessions, rather, are a great weakness. Indeed, it is better to have nothing to give and still to be full of sympathy for all. And if we do have something to give to those in need, we should ourselves be detached from the things of this life, and yet feel deeply involved with our fellow men. Neither should we, in our arrogance, take it upon ourselves to teach others when we have not yet proved ourselves by our own actions; though we make the excuse that we are thereby helping the souls of the weak, the truth is that we are ourselves weaker than those we claim to be helping. For every action must be done at the right time and with discrimination, so that it is not inopportune or detrimental. For a weak person flight is always best, while the total shedding of possessions is far superior to giving alms.
It is through detachment that one is enabled to fulfill the sixth commandment: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart’ (Matt. 5:8). The pure in heart are those who have accomplished every virtue reflectively and reverently and have come to see the true nature of things. In this way they find peace in their thoughts. For, as the seventh commandment puts it, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matt. 5:9), that is, those who have set soul and body at peace by subjecting the flesh to the spirit, so that the flesh no longer rises against the spirit (cf. Gal. 5:17). Instead, the grace of the Holy Spirit reigns in their soul and leads it where it will, bestowing the divine knowledge whereby man can endure persecution, vilification and maltreatment “for righteousness” sake” (Matt. 5:10), rejoicing because his “reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:12).
All the Beatitudes make man a god by grace; he becomes gentle, longs for righteousness, is charitable, dispassionate, a peacemaker, and endures every pain with joy out of love for God and for his fellow men. For the Beatitudes are gifts from God and we should thank Him greatly for them and for the rewards promised: the kingdom of heaven in the age to be, spiritual refreshment in this world, the fullness of all God’s blessings and mercies. His manifestation when we contemplate the hidden mysteries found in the Holy Scriptures and in all created things, and the great reward in heaven (of. Matt. 5:12). For if we learn while on earth to imitate Christ and receive the blessedness inherent in each commandment, we shall be granted the highest good and the ultimate goal of our desire. As the apostle says, God, who dwells in unapproachable light, alone is blessed (cf. 1 Tim. 6:15-16). We, for our part, have the duty of keeping the commandments-or, rather, of being kept by them; but through them God in His compassion will give to the believer rewards both in this world and in the world to be.
When through blessed inward grief all this has been realized, then the intellect finds relief from the passions; and through the many bitter tears that it sheds over its sins it is reconciled to God. It is crucified with Christ spiritually through moral practice, that is, through the keeping of the commandments and the guarding of the five senses, so that they do not do anything contrary to their nature. Restraining mindless impulses, the intellect begins to curb the passions of anger and desire that encompass it. Sometimes it assuages tempestuous anger with the gentleness of desire; and at other times it calms desire with the severity of anger. Then, coming to itself, the intellect recognizes its proper dignity - to be master of itself - and is able to see things as they truly are; for its eye, made blind by the devil through the tyranny of the passions, is opened. Then man is granted the grace to be buried spiritually with Christ, so that he is set free from the things of this world and no longer captivated by external beauty. He looks upon gold and silver and precious stones, and he knows that like other inanimate things such as wood and rock they are of the earth, and that man, too, is after death a bit of dust and mould in the tomb. Regarding all the delectations of this life as nothing, he looks upon their continual alteration with the judgment that comes from spiritual knowledge. Gladly he dies to the world, and the world becomes dead to him: he no longer has any violent feeling within him, but only calmness and detachment.
Thus, by virtue of his soul’s purity, he is found worthy to be resurrected with Christ spiritually, and receives the strength to look without passion on the exterior beauty of visible things and to praise through them the Creator of all. Contemplating in these visible things God’s power and providence. His goodness and wisdom, as St Paul says (cf. Rom 1: 20-21), and perceiving the mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures, his intellect is given the grace to ascend with Christ through the contemplation of intelligible realities, that is, through the knowledge of intelligible powers. Perceiving, after tears of understanding and joy, the invisible through the visible (cf. Rom. 1:20) and the eternal through the transitory, he realizes that if this ephemeral world, which is said to be a place of exile and punishment for those who have transgressed the commandments of God, is so beautiful, how much more beautiful must be the eternal, inconceivable blessings “that God has prepared for those who love Him’ (1 Cor. 2:9). And if these blessings are beyond our conception, how much more so must be the God who created all things from nothing.
If you turn from all other activity and give yourself entirely to the cultivation of the virtues of soul and body, which is what the fathers mean by religious devotion; and if you disregard any dream or private thought not confirmed by Scripture, and avoid all pointless company, not hearing or reading anything fruitless, and especially anything that involves heresy, then the tears of joy and understanding will well up copiously within you and you will drink from their plenitude. In this way you will attain another form of prayer, the form of pure prayer that is proper to the contemplative. For just as previously you had one form of reading, one form of tears and prayer, so now you have another. Since your intellect has moved into the sphere of spiritual contemplation, you should now read all pits of the Scriptures, no longer fearing the more difficuh and obscure passages, as is the case with those stiU at the stage of ascetic practice, who are weak in their ignorance.
By your persistent struggle in practicing the virtues of body and soul, you have been crucified with Christ and buried with Him through the knowledge of created things, both of their nature and of the changes they undergo; and you have been raised with Him through dispassion and through the knowledge of the mysteries of God inherent in the visible world. As a result of this knowledge you have ascended with Christ into the transcendent world through the knowledge of intelligible realities and of the mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures. You move from fear to religious devotion, from which springs spiritual knowledge; from this knowledge comes judgment, that is, discrimination; from discrimination comes the strength -that leads to understanding; from thence you come to wisdom.
By passing through all these levels of practice and contemplation you are granted pure and perfect prayer, established within you through the peace and love of God and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is what is meant by saying, ‘Gain possession of God within yourself; and, as St John Chrysostom has said, this manifestation and indwelling of God is realized when your body and soul become so far as is possible sinless, like those of Christ; and when you possess, by virtue of Christ, an intellect that apprehends, through the grace and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, the knowledge of things both human and divine.
There are four forms of wisdom: first, moral judgment, or the knowledge of what should and should not be done, combined with watchfulness of the intellect; second, self-restraint, whereby our moral purpose is safeguarded and kept free from all acts, thoughts and words that do not accord with God; third, courage, or strength and endurance in sufferings, trials and temptations encountered on the spiritual path; and fourth, justice, which consists in maintaining a proper balance between the first three. These four general virtues arise from the three powers of the soul in the following manner: from the intelligence, or intellect, come moral judgment and justice, or discrimination; from the desiring power comes self-restraint; and from the incensive power comes courage.
Each virtue lies between two unnatural passions. Moral judgment lies between craftiness and thoughtlessness; self-restraint, between obduracy and licentiousness; courage, between overbearingness and cowardice; justice between over-frugality and greed. The four virtues constitute an image of the heavenly man, while the eight unnatural passions constitute an image of the earthly man (cf. 1 Cor. 15:49).
God possesses a perfect knowledge of all these things, just as He knows the past, the present and the future; and they are known to some extent by him who through grace has learned from God about His works, and who through this grace has been enabled to realize in himself that which is according to God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen. 1:26). But if someone claims that, simply by hearing about these things, he knows them as he should, he is a liar. Man’s intellect can never rise to heaven without God as a guide; and it cannot speak of what it has not seen, but must first ascend and see it. On the level of hearsay, you should speak only of things that you have learnt from the Scriptures, and then with circumspection, confessing your faith in the Father of the Logos, as St Basil the Great puts it, and not imagining that through hearsay you possess spiritual knowledge; for that is to be worse than ignorant. As St Maximos has said, ‘To think that one knows prevents one from advancing in knowledge.” St John Chrysostom points out that there is an ignorance which is praiseworthy: it consists in knowing consciously that one knows nothing. In addition, there is a form of ignorance that is worse than any other: not to know that one does not know. Similarly, there is a knowledge that is falsely so called, which occurs when, as St Paul says, one thinks that one knows but does not know (cf. 1 Cor. 8:2).
When people say that it is impossible to attain perfection, to be once and for all free from the passions, or to participate fully in the Holy Spirit, we should cite Holy Scripture against them, showing them that they are ignorant and speak falsely and dangerously. For the Lord said: ‘Become perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48), perfection denoting total purity; and: ‘I desire these men to be with Me wherever I am, so that they may see My glory’ (John 17:24). He also said: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away’ (Matt. 24:35). And St Paul is saying the same as Christ when he writes: ‘. . . so that we may present every man perfect in Christ” (Col. 1:28); and:". . . until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13). Thus by aspiring to perfection two of the best things come about, provided we struggle diligently and unceasingly: we seek to attain this perfect measure and growth; and we are not conquered by vanity, but look upon ourselves as petty and mean because we have not yet reached our goal.
St Symeon Metaphrastis - Paraphrase of the Homilies of St Makarios of Egypt:
Those who deny the possibility of perfection inflict the greatest damage on the soul in three ways. First, they manifestly disbelieve the inspired Scriptures. Then, because they do not make the greatest and fullest goal of Christianity their own, and so do not aspire to attain it, they can have no longing and diligence, no hunger and thirst for righteousness (cf Matt. 5:6); on the contrary, content with outward show and behavior and with minor accomplishments of this kind, they abandon that blessed expectation together with the pursuit of perfection and of the total purification of the passions. Third, thinking they have reached the goal when they have acquired a few virtues, and not pressing on to the true goal, not only are they incapable of having any humility, poverty and contrition of heart but, justifying themselves on the grounds that they have already arrived, they make no efforts to progress and grow day by day, the ‘new creation" of the pure heart (cf 2 Cor. 5:17) are rightly and explicitly likened by the apostle to those who, because of their unbelief, were found unworthy of entering the promised land and whose bodies on that account ‘were left lying in the desert’ (Heb. 3:17). What is here outwardly described as the promised land signifies inwardly that deliverance from the passions which the apostle regards as the goal of every commandment. This is the true promised land, and for its sake these figurative teachings have been handed down. In order to protect his disciples from yielding to unbelief the apostle says to them: ‘Make sure, my brethren, that no one among you has an evil heart of unbelief, turning away from the living God" (Heb. 3:12). By ‘turning away" he means not the denial of God but disbelief in His promises. Interpreting the events of Jewish history allegorically and indicating their true meaning, he says: “For some, when they heard, were rebellious, though not all of those who were brought out of Egypt by Moses. And with whom was God angry for forty years? Was it not with those who had sinned, whose bodies were left lying in the desert? And to whom did He vow that they would not enter into His rest unless it was to those who refused to believe? We see, then, that it was because of their unbelief that they could not enter” (Heb. 3:16-19). And he continues: “Let us be fearful, then: although the promise of entering into His rest still holds good, some of you may be excluded from it. For we have heard the divine message, as they did; but the message that they heard did not profit them, since it was not accompanied by faith on their part. We, however, who have faith do enter into God’s rest” (Heb. 4:1-3). Shortly after this he draws the same conclusion: ‘Let us strive therefore to enter into that rest, so that no one may fall through copying this example of unbelief (Heb. 4:11). For Christians what true rest is there other than deliverance from the sinful passions and the fullest active indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the purified heart? And the apostle again impels his readers towards this by referring to faith: ‘Let us then draw near with a true heart and in the full assurance of faith, our hearts cleansed of an evil conscience" (Heb. 10:22). And again: “How much more will the blood of Jesus purge our conscience of dead works, so that we may serve the living and true God” (cf. Heb. 9:14). Because of the measureless blessings promised by God to men in these words, we should dedicate ourselves as grateful servants and regard what is promised as true and certain. In this way, even if through sluggishness or debility of resolution we do not give ourselves once for all to our Maker, or if we do not strive to achieve the greatest and most perfect measure of virtue, none the less through an upright and undistorted will and a sound faith we may attain some degree of mercy.
- Prayer rightly combined with understanding is superior to every virtue and commandment. The Lord Himself testifies to this. For in the house of Martha and Mary He contrasted Martha, who was engaged in looking after Him, with Mary, who sat at His feet joyfully drinking the ambrosia of His divine words. When Martha complained and appealed to Christ, He made clear to her what takes precedence, saying: ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing alone is needful: Mary has chosen what is best, and it cannot be taken away from her’ (Luke 10:41-42). He said this not in order to disparage acts of service, but so as to distinguish clearly what is higher from what is lower. For how could He not give His sanction to service when He Himself performed such service in washing His disciples’ feet, and was so far from discountenancing it that He bade His disciples to behave in the same way towards each other (cf John 13:4-16)? Moreover, the apostles themselves, when they were oppressed by serving at table, also singled out prayer and understanding as the higher form of work. ‘It is not right’, they said, ‘for us to abandon the word of God in order to serve at table. Let us appoint chosen men, full of the Holy Spirit, for this service; we will devote ourselves to the ministry of the Logos and to prayer’ (cf. Acts 6:2-4). In this way they put first things before secondary things, although they recognized that both spring from the same blessed root.
St Symeon Metaphrastis
The soul that is ‘poor in spirit’ (Matt. 5:3) is aware of its own wounds, perceives the encompassing darkness of the passions, and always calls upon the Lord for deliverance. It endures suffering, and does not delight in any of the good things of this world, but seeks out only the good doctor and entrusts itself to His treatment. How can the wounded soul become fair and seemly, and fit to live with Christ, except by truly recognizing its wounds and poverty and by recovering the state in which it was originally created? If it does not take pleasure in the wounds and weals of the passions, or defend its faults, the Lord will not call it to account for these things, but will come and heal it, restoring its dispassion and its incorruptible beauty. Only it must not deliberately associate with past acts of passion or give its consent to the passions that are still active within it; but with all its strength it must call upon the Lord, so that through His Holy Spirit it may be granted liberation from all the passions. Such is the soul that is called blessed; but alas for the soul that is unaware of its wounds and that in its endless sinfulness and obduracy does not think that it has anything evil within it: the good doctor will not visit it or heal it, since it does not seek Him out or have any concern for its wounds, because it thinks it is well and in good health. As the Lord said: ‘It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick’ (Matt. 9:12).