When we try to be virtuous, what are we trying to do? People have different ideas about what the virtues are, and some virtues even seem to contradict each other. Some people consider justice to be a virtue, but, as St Isaac the Syrian points out in his Homily 51, isn’t mercy also a virtue, and how can you be merciful while trying to dispense justice? How do we decide which virtues we ought to live by and how they ought to be interpreted?
St Maximus the Confessor (580-662AD) answers a similar question put to him by a monk, in his Ascetic Life. The monk asks “And who, Father, can do all the commandments? There are so many.” Maximus responds:
This is the sign of our love for God, as the Lord Himself shows in the Gospels: He that loves me, He says, will keep my commandments. And what this commandment is, which if we keep we love Him, hear Him tell: This is my commandment, that you love one another. Do you see that this love for one another makes firm the love for God? (The Ascetic Life, 107; PG90 917A.)
This passage tells us something interesting. It tells us that all the ethical directives we’ve got, be they the commandments, the virtues, or any other parts of Scripture, all conform to love. They are all a kind of love. We are not being asked to do a hundred different things, we are being asked to do one thing, which is to love. Continue reading