Speak to us first then of love towards God. For we have heard that one ought to love, but we seek to learn how this may successfully be done.
Love of God cannot be taught. For we have neither learnt from another person to rejoice in the light and to cling to life, nor did anyone else teach us to love our parents or those who brought us up. In the same way, or much more so, the learning of the divine loving desire (pothos) does not come from outside; but when the creature was made, I mean man, a certain seminal word (logos spermatikos) was implanted in us, having within itself the beginnings of the inclination to love. The pupils in the school of God’s commandments having received this word are by God’s grace enabled to exercise it with care, to nourish it with knowledge, and to bring it to perfection. Therefore we also, welcoming your zeal (spoudê) as necessary for attaining our end (skopos), by God’s gift and your assistance of us with your prayers will strive (spoudazô) to stir up the spark of divine loving desire (pothos) hidden within you according to the power given us by the Spirit. You must know that this virtue, though only one, yet as regards power accomplishes and comprehends every commandment. For, ‘the one loving me,’ the Lord says, ‘will keep my commandments’ and again, ‘on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’.
Saint Basil, Longer Rule, 2 as quoted in Augustine Holmes OSB. A Life Pleasing to God. The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil. London, DLT, 2000. 68
Basil thus develops this philosophical term [logos spermatikos] in a specifically Christian direction, as do Justin and Origen in their different contexts. He establishes this new meaning solely in relation to human beings and their natural tendency to love God, which the Creator placed in them at their creation. Connected to this specific use of logos spermatikos, the theme of seeds is important in the Asceticon, for example in Longer Rules 3 and 8. Although Basil would have encountered these concepts in his general education, one can surmise that the main influence would have been his study of Origen during the years of seclusion in Pontus. Although Basil’s use is different from those of Origen mentioned above, it is closer to Origen’s teaching in his Homilies on the Song of Songs (II:9) where he says, ‘When the maker of the universe created you, he sowed in your hearts the seeds of love.’
Augustine Holmes OSB. A Life Pleasing to God. The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil. London, DLT, 2000. 73.
I don’t intend writing detailed summaries or discussions of this book, but here are a few – by no means exhaustive – points that I’ve picked up so far:
- Basil begins his Asceticon by stressing the primacy of love. Whereas Evagrius and Cassian, and also Saint Maximus, view love as something that is attained once one has transcended the passions, something that Saint Basil also does in the Moralia, in the Rules Basil stresses the primacy of the first and greatest commandment which illustrates the biblical orientation of his approach. Saint Benedict will draw on both these approaches in his Rule. He both begins with the command to love in chapter four and sees it as the summit of the Ladder of Humility in chapter seven.
- Basil is clearly speaking to the “zealots” of the Church. He identifies himself with them and welcomes their zeal, but knows how to reconcile them to the Church.
- Like the Rule of the Master, Basil speaks of a school of the Lord’s service, a theme taken up by Saint Benedict. However the phrase is unfortunately missing in Rufinus’ translation and so one cannot posit a direct influence of Saint Basil on Saint Benedict.
- Basil has a very positive view of human nature and its potential which can sound semi-Pelagian to western ears. We should understand this as the working together in synergy of the human will and the Holy Spirit, although he does not use term explicitly.
- Basil uses not only the characteristically New Testament term agape for love, but also the more philosophical and Platonic term pothos – translated by Holmes as ‘loving desire’ – which is orientated to the divine Beauty. Holmes suggests that it is in keeping with Basil’s high view of human nature that he should follow Origen and the Platonists in giving this natural desire a central place in the human response to God. However, he nevertheless speaks within the context of revelation and would appear to emphasise it more at some times than others.