We have previously underlined the need for discernment and the necessity of serious scrutiny in discernment. I want to now examine St. Moses’s advice about testing what I am deeming “pious reasoning.” “Pious reasoning” is the trap of thinking that one can be simply guided by pious presumptions or seemingly pious logic while actually falling out of line with Scripture and the precedent of the Fathers. Further, one can deceive one’s self into thinking one is making pious decisions and yet have one’s heart full of pride and vanity.
St. Moses compares the life of discernment and scrutiny to the work of a “money-changer”.1 Money changers are those who can tell not only the difference between qualities of gold in a coin but also whether or not the coin has been deceitfully made to bear the “genuine likeness of the king.” They also “make careful use of the scales in case anything should be missing from the legal weight.”2 Let us look at how St. Moses fleshes out how one can detect a rightly minted and accurately weighted coin.
Discerning the Genuine Likeness of the King
Discernment is difficult precisely because it deals with deceit. And this deceit can be perpetrated unawares. This is even more important with incredibly sensitive areas. The ability to rightly discern whether or not a coin holds ”genuine likeness of the King” is St. Moses’s way of conveying the possibility of accepting and holding a false interpretation of Scripture. This reality for St. Moses was evident during the devil’s episode of testing our Lord through his deceitful use of Scripture. And so we are also tested.
In contemporary Orthodox circles I do not always see the gravity of this reality given the true attention it deserves. Perhaps this is due to how many “refugees” from certain fundamentalist circles of Protestantism Orthodoxy has? Or, in another extreme, it is evidence of our supreme ignorance of Scripture. While we glory in the depth and richness of the liturgy I have heard far too often from Orthodox Christians that they only need to rely upon the liturgical life of the Church to feed and shape them. Some of this is a fault of catechesis that is excessive in its reliance upon the liturgical life of the Church. How can the faithful understand most of our hymnody if they are unfamiliar with the Scriptural narratives? How could one possibly understand the Great Canon of St. Andrew or the many hymns from the great feasts of the Church? And this literacy is presuming that the faithful actually attend a full cycle of services.
We need to immerse ourselves in consistent and deep study of Scripture. How can we even begin to understand the mind of Christ and therefore of the Church if we do not have the basic grammar we need from the Old and New Testaments? This is before we even begin to try and absorb and understand the later writings of the Fathers. The presumption of the Fathers of the Church is that we know the Holy Scriptures backwards and forwards. If we do not then we can so easily be tripped up and ensnared by supposedly learned discourses. Scripture is full of tensions and nuance. Just think of St. Paul and the Epistle to the Romans on subjects such as law and grace, flesh and spirit, Jew and Gentile, etc. It is typical of false interpretations of Scripture, e.g. the denial of marriage as a good due to a misunderstanding of the flesh and spirit, that they overemphasize and so lose the tension that exists within the text.
This ignorance of Scripture is incredibly evident when we begin to engage with the “hot topic” issues facing Christians today. What does Scripture teach about humanity? Sexuality? Creation? The “End Times”? One can pepper one’s positions with Scripture and so therefore deceive, willingly or unwillingly, the faithful. This can be due to a full and unthinking capitulation to “higher criticism” that ruled the 20th century as much as it can be due to a zealous and pious interpretation that ignores the readings of the Fathers and the broader canonical corpus of Scripture. At times seemingly “pious” ideas or formulations can float far from the actual teaching of Scripture. The speculations of a lone Athonite monk can be as spurious as a 19th century German exegete.
St. Moses notes that the devil abuses Scripture by “twisting them to an opposite and dangerous sense in order that he might display the image of a tyrannous countenance in the deceptive guise of gold.”3 The abuse of Scripture is used by the demonic hosts in order for God to be hidden from us. The wrong understanding of Scripture can confirm our delusions, distort the truth, and ultimately cloud God. Beware interpretations of Scripture that do not show the visage of Jesus Christ. Beware interpretations of Scripture that do not help you bear the fruit of the Spirit. But, above all, beware being caught unawares by sheer ignorance of the Holy Scriptures.
Checking the Weight of Our Coinage
Beyond discerning the “genuine likeness of the King” we need to be also properly checking the weight of the coinage. For St. Moses this consists in an inward turn. To accurately discern is to deeply probe and test our heart. St. Moses is after the crookedness of our own heart. How easy it is for us to convince ourselves of a particular “righteous” activity which we then abuse or use for the occasion of something else, that something else not being close to righteous. This is a form of “pious reasoning”.
St. Moses, who is addressing monastics. mentions the temptation to excessive or inappropriate fasting as a false and dangerous way to emulate the Fathers because it falls beyond the boundaries they set, using the responsibility of Christians to reach out to others in charity as an opportunity for dissolving necessary boundaries and internal spiritual work for just “visiting”, or the appeal of becoming a priest for the sake of edifying people but actually being another occasion for drawing one away from the specifics of their calling, for St. Moses this is the austerity of the desert for monastics.
As St. Moses is addressing those in the monastic vocation we need to convert these examples for ourselves. Do we attempt to follow the basics of the spiritual disciplines laid out for us by the Church? Or, are we on a “choose your own adventure”? Have we put ourselves out there as teachers and lights of the Orthodox faith? Who asked us to do this? Who are we accountable to? Do we constantly document and project our lives into social media? To what end?
Discernment means a real testing of our heart. St. Moses asks a series of questions that we should regularly pose to ourselves.
Is it filled with what is good for all? Is it heavy with the fear of God? Is it genuine in the feelings which underlie it? Is it lightweight because of human show or because of some thrust toward novelty? Has the burden of vainglory lessened its merit or diminished its luster?4
As we discern what to do we need to be constantly filtering our motives, our desires, and our true feelings. “The rust of vanity” is something which so quickly overtakes us. This as much as our “feelings”, those effervescent and volatile companions. St. Moses continues
All the corners of our heart must therefore be examined thoroughly and the marks of all that rise up into them must be investigated with the utmost wisdom. And all this must be done in case some beast of the mind, some lion or serpent, has passed through and has left its dangerous hidden marks there, marks by which, as a result of the way we neglect our thoughts, a way into the sanctuary of our heart may be made available to others.5
According to St. Moses our true standard of judgment is “the acts and witness of the apostles.” I would like us to return to our first concern, the centrality of Scripture. For St. Moses the Holy Scriptures serve as one of the imminent tools in our pursuit of purity of heart. He suggests that we should
Every hour and every moment working over the earth of our heart with the plough of Scripture, that is, with the memory of the Lord’s cross, we shall manage to destroy the lairs of the wild beasts within us and the hiding places of the venomous serpents.” 6
Discernment as testing the spirits with the Holy Scripture
St John tells us that we should “test the spirits” for false prophets abound ( 1 John 4). The rule by which we are able to measure and discern this is the Scripture as understood by the Church. Therefore brothers and sisters let us delve deeply into Holy Writ. Let it prove us, rebuke us, and show us who we really are (James 1). For when we probe and test our hearts with the word of God we can ever strive to be doers of the Word and not just hearers.