The First Commandment

There are prophetic writers who have visions. There are journalistic writers who have obsessions. The latter may confuse these with the former: be warned.

A prophetic vision is not visual, or necessarily visual: the author could be blind. Nor can it be communicated in language alone. A painter might convey it pictorially; and we’ve all heard of Bach.

Even if in words, the genre is not fixed. It might be devotional verse, as Crashaw’s; it might be misanthropic satire, such as Gulliver’s Travels. The apparent or surface topic could be anything at all. Whatever, it will be “larger than life;” it will rise above our mundane condition.

The author, the artist, has been visited by Grace. He has been given a glimpse through how things look, to how things are. He has seen correspondences between “facts” that can’t be charted, or numbered. We call this “genius” sometimes.

Nor can he offer any sort of prediction; nor any immediate “moral” that is not commonplace.

Dante, for instance, is against sin. He is not unique in this. But as a colleague who is teaching him (a certain Fr Pearson who has written THIS simple book on the Inferno) explains, Dante’s book lets his reader know that sin is ugly; it strips away his pride in sinfulness.

This, the average preacher may not succeed in doing. For the glib human mind wants to avoid the painful shock, when what seemed merely “bad” or “imperfect” is exposed as real evil.

But even to say that, “Dante was a genius” is glib, too obvious, almost dismissive. To engage with the Divine Comedy is to penetrate beneath a reading of it. It is a prayerful activity, a seeking for the very grace by which the author was himself animated.

One might as well say that the Bible shows genius. It has “good bits,” to be sure, and it tells stories that the reader will have a hard time forgetting. But to grasp Scripture in its wholeness, is to see through its parts. That it is not so many books, but One as they foregather, is to begin grasping the authorship of God – in inspiration not stenographic dictation.

I am obsessed, at the moment, with a small passage only, to be found in Exodus chapter twenty, then Deuteronomy chapter five. Gentle reader may guess I am referring to the Commandments, of which we number ten in both versions, or two in Christ’s summary found in Matthew and in Mark – themselves quoted from Old Testament passages.

The (orthodox) Jews recite the same twice daily: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength.” And as it continues: thou shalt teach thy children.

There are Ten Commandments, with some fuss about the numbering, but be it observed that all the other nine follow from the first, “the Great Commandment.”

Or precede it. To say that “thou shalt have no other gods before me” itself follows from what is proclaimed. It is to faithfully legalize from the extraordinary “I AM” that precedes all commands. The Lord, having stated his credentials and given as it were his “C.V.” to Israel (“who brought thee out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”), will be worshipped, and Him alone.


Christ is God; there is no conflict in the instruction, as we have long explained to our Jewish and Muslim critics. We worship in the Trinity the One God we have known, revealed to us from Genesis forward, and as we argue, implicitly present even when not acknowledged literally, throughout the Old Testament as the one and same Messiah.

And our liturgies of prayer – conducted also through the ever-living Saints and Prophets, the manifestations of Our Lord and the Mother of Our Lord – descends from Scripture, and from Scripture’s own Christ.

Through twenty centuries, the Truth has been before us in prayer and in the manner of prayer, both private and public. And this through the Church that Christ Himself gave us, including Saints and Doctors and the rest; a Bride that He declared that He would never abandon.

And never will: for God does not lie. For Christ is not a man, only, but “very God of very God,” and his words are not merely tactical.

The genius with which men of vision have conveyed the whole bounty of Our Lord, and drawn the correspondences between one gift and another, and built for us a civilization like no other on this Earth, may be the admiration of English majors and art historians, but goes deeper than they.

It goes back to God, the author of those gifts – not to us or to our ancestors, the many instruments of God’s glory. Even the fierce satires on the arrogance of men, are part and parcel (which is why I mentioned my visionary hero, Jonathan Swift).

“The West,” or “Christendom” in its Western manifestation, may come and go in time; while it serves God’s purposes it stays. But when we have forgotten our origin and purpose from the First Commandment, it may very well go.

Christ goes where He is wanted, and where He is received in human hearts – not for their own purposes but for His. We knew this for a time, and we benefited from the knowledge. Often, very often, we fell into sin, but not into the ignorance of our Maker.

And into heresies we have often fallen, but with the means to extract ourselves. For God will be worshipped, as He wishes to be worshipped, and not as we might wish.

Looking back, it does not surprise me that our final catastrophe would be “the spirit of Vatican II” (not the council itself, but the manglings that followed). As we see today in Rome, not comprehensible heresies, but the utter gibberish now taught by authorities with whom Christ will surely deal.


*Image: Autumn, with Moses Receiving the Ten Commandments by Francesco Bassano, c. 1575-1585 [private collection]. Moses is in the upper left.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: