Amoun found Abba Poemen and told him, “When I visit a neighbor or he visits me, he hesitate to talk with each other. We are afraid that we might bring up a worldly topic.
The old man replied, “Yes, young people need to guard their mouths.”
Amoun asked, “But how do old men handle this problem?”
Abba Poemen said, “Those who have advanced in virtue no longer have any worldliness in them. Nothing will taint their speech.”
Amoun continued his questioning. “When I must speak with my neighbor, should I speak of the Scriptures or of the Fathers?”
The old man answered, “It is best to keep silence. If you can’t, talk about the sayings of the Fathers. Speaking about the Scriptures is risky.”
From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers
In our modern world the above conversation of two monks in the desert sounds rather quaint. We have very little concern about our subjects for conversations. As autonomous individuals, we talk about whatever we want to talk about and never give a second thought as to whether the topic was suitable or whether our words were helpful or harmful.
I was particularly struck by Abba Poemen’s statement that “speaking about the Scriptures is risky.” It brought a smile. Of course, all this has radically changed in our culture. The Bible is no longer a rare book (or copied laboriously by hand). Everyone has numerous copies (usually) and more opinions than copies.
I was making a presentation several years ago at a fundamentalist Christian school in Tennessee. Somewhere in the course of my comments I spoke about the 6th chapter of St. John’s gospel and Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist within it (though it occurs as a commentary on the feeding of the 5,000 – it is most decidedly a teaching on the Eucharist). It is in this chapter that Christ says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you,” and many similar things.
A young man (a freshman) in the audience approached me after the lecture and was absolutely beside himself. He began to argue and to explain how the passage could not be about the Eucharist and how Christ was speaking figuratively about something else. I pointed out to him that even Protestant scholars agree that the chapter concerns the Eucharist – but to no avail.
Discussing Scripture is risky business. Part of what is missing in our Christian culture is a proper reverence for the Word of God. Even those who claim to hold it as utterly infallible in every jot and tittle, do not hesitate to use it in an cavalier manner.
I can recall several years ago a conversation that occurred within a group of Orthodox priests. The subject was the ever-Virginity of the Mother of God. Someone mentioned some of the traditional physical details associated with this doctrine. The conversation quickly ceased. One of the priests said, “I cannot discuss such things about the Mother of God.” There was no disagreement among the priests, only a sense that somethings are better left unsaid and that respect dictates that silence is best in some matters.
It was very instructive for me. The Holy always involves “boundaries” (I have written about this before). In an Orthodox Church such boundaries are particularly emphasized in the “boundary” of the altar area, and even within the altar area, the boundary of the altar itself. Only some may enter the altar area, and then only with a blessing. And generally, only bishops, priests and deacons may touch the holy altar or the things that are on it. It is an action, or refraining from action, that helps interiorize the reality of the Holy and how we should handle such things.
The Scriptures are certainly Holy, and should be rightly handled, that is rightly interpreted. But there is rarely a Godly fear in approaching such a task. Were such respect present, we would argue less and listen more, and many times remain silent.
It is utterly essential in the Christian life that believers begin to pay attention to their inner life and the state of their souls and dwell less in the fantasy of ideas and argument. The Christian faith is a way of salvation that involves the transformation of our inmost being – it is not a set of ideas with which we are trying to conquer the world.
None of this is to suggest restricted access to the Scriptures. Neither do I mean to suggest restricting access to the Holy (indeed in an Orthodox service, the Body and Blood of Christ are brought forth from the altar and given to the faithful to eat). What I mean to suggest is that we think about what it means that something is Holy and treat it accordingly. For with such treatment our hearts will begin to recognize things in the “truth of their being” and realize as well that we are not autonomous individuals in charge of the universe, but are, at most, servants of the Most High God, to Whom be glory.