“Seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear…” (Matt. 13:13)
This is Jesus’ description of those who encountered Him but did not understand. Just because we see something doesn’t mean we see it. Just because we hear something doesn’t mean we’ve heard it. This is particularly true of Holy Scripture. Just because we read it doesn’t mean we’ve read it.
Why do we read the Scriptures?
I assume that anyone who is “reading the Scriptures” is, in fact, a believing Christian, otherwise they would just be reading a collection of ancient writings held in esteem by Christians. For the books of the Bible to be “Scripture” is to say that they are considered somehow inspired and somehow authoritative. But to read them as Scripture also asks the question: “Whose Scripture?” The answer is, “The Christian Community’s – the Church’s.”
Some point famously to Paul’s admonition to Timothy:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
However, this is the admonition of an Apostle to a Bishop. “Doctrine” (“teaching”) is not the task of every Christian. Instead we are told that not many of us should be teachers (James 3:1). St. Paul urges believers at various times to give heed to the “doctrine” that they have received (Romans 16:17; 1 Timothy 1:3; 1 Timothy 4:6; etc.).
In our modern culture, many Christians act as though they have a major task in life to learn doctrine, meaning to once again study the Scriptures and come to their own conclusions about everything under the sun. It is as though Martin Luther was reincarnated multiple times in every generation.
Doctrine, sound teaching, is the “pattern” of teaching which has been delivered (traditioned) to us. We find witnesses to this teaching in the Fathers from the first century forward. The reading of Scripture is not the means whereby we arrive at sound doctrine – sound doctrine is the means whereby we rightly read the Scriptures. The Christian reading of Holy Scripture is a “doctrinally-ruled” reading. We do not come to the Scriptures to decide whether the Nicene Council “got it right.” Without a knowledge of doctrine, much of Scripture will remain closed to the reader.
But there are ways of reading Scripture that are appropriate and generally essential to the Christian life. “Search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life, and these are they which testify of me,” Christ says (John 5:39).
The most appropriate and life-giving manner of reading the Scriptures is to read them as a means of communion (koinonia) with God. Communion with God, sharing in His Life even as He shares in ours, is the means and the goal of salvation. Everything in the Christian life – indeed, the whole purpose of human life – is communion with God. Sin is the breaking of this communion, while salvation is its restoration. All of the sacraments have the one purpose of communion with God, whether manifest as Eucharist, Healing, Ordination, Baptism, etc. The only purpose of prayer is communion with God, for we do not speak to God to inform Him of what He already knows nor to convince of what He is already going to do. We are taught to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), because communion “without ceasing” is the very definition of the Christian life.
So how do we read for the purpose of communion? St. Isaac of Syria says this:
The course of your reading should be parallel to the aim of your way of life…. Most books that contain instructions in doctrine are not useful for purification. The reading of many diverse books brings distraction of mind down on you. Know, then, that not every book that teaches about religion is useful for the purification of the consciousness and the concentration of the thoughts.
In our democratic culture, we find it offensive that anyone should be forbidden to read anything. I would only point to the spiritual abuse found on any number of “Orthodox” websites in which serious matters, originally written for monastics or for the guidance of clergy are tossed about for even the non-Orthodox to read. As if the canons of the Church were meant for mass consumption!
Parents who care about the health of their children usually follow some regimen in the course of their young lives when it comes to feeding them. “Milk and not stong meat” is the Scriptural admonition for those who are young in the faith. St. James offers this warning:
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness(3:1).
And St. Peter’s Second Epistle offers this:
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (3:15-16).
It’s not that Scripture or Canons or books of doctrine are to be avoided or forbidden – rather, that we should learn to read with wisdom in an effort to grow spiritually and not in an effort simply to gain knowledge of a questionable sort.
St. Isaac’s observation is that we give attention first to “purification of the consciousness and concentration of thoughts.” By such phrases he refers primarily to the daily regimen of what we read and how we pray (as well as fasting and repentance) towards the goal of overcoming the passions. Only someone who is not himself ruled by the passions is ready to safely guide someone else beyond those same rocks. Anger and condemnation, pride and superiority are marks of the passions. The passions cannot read the Scriptures and the Traditions rightly, nor offer them to others without doing harm. The same can be said about most argumentation. Reading for the sake of feeding our opinions is actually spiritually harmful.
So, to follow St. Isaac’s guidance, we are reading rightly when our reading is an integral part of a life whose single goal is communion with God. Obviously, “single goal” is the end of the game. On a daily basis we build towards that goal.
Reading with communion as a goal does not mean we avoid information (when we read), but that gathering information is not our primary purpose. Before the Divine Liturgy, as I enter the altar, I recite the portion of Psalm 5 appointed for priests:
I will enter Thy house, I will worship toward Thy holy temple in the fear of Thee. Lead me, O Lord, in Thy righteousness because of my enemies; make my way straight before Thee. For there is no truth in their mouth; their heart is destruction, their throat is an open sepulcher, they flatter with their tongue. Judge them, O God, let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against Thee. But let all who take refuge in Thee rejoice, let them always sing for joy; and do Thou dwell in them, that those who love Thy name my exult in Thee. For Thou blessest the righteous, O Lord, Thou coverest us with good will as with a shield.
How can I read this as communion? About whom am I speaking? This is roughly how I read this in my heart:
I will enter my heart [that place where God dwells], I will acknowledge that it is You who dwell in me. Lead me rightly, O Lord, because of the wicked thoughts within me [my enemies]….My thoughts [logismoi] have no truth in them – they think only of destruction. They are like an open grave….Let me sing with joy in my heart – where You dwell. Let me exult in Your name. For those who rejoice in the Name of Jesus will exult and be blessed. You protect them with Your good will.
And I follow these thoughts into my heart. There I find communion with God – distractions flee away. There have been other times in my priesthood when I recited this Psalm as though it were a meditation of God protecting me from other people – particularly those about whom I felt anxious, or whom, in my neurosis, I imagined to be enemies. Such a reading (close to a literal reading) was not only useless, but left me deeper in darkness than I had been before I began my day.
Devotional reading tends to be slow, and often of short duration. For many books that I read – I can only take in a few pages a day.
Contrary to our popular self-conception, we are not a culture that values learning. We are a culture that values opinion, and opinion as entertainment (God save us from the pundits!). Dilettantism plagues us. If we want to be Christians, we must start with the small things and the practices that make for proper discipleship and “let not many of us become teachers.” Let many of us become those who pray, who fast, who repent, who forgive even their enemies and through the grace of God come to know the stillness within which God may be known.
“Reading for the sake of feeding our opinions is actually spiritually harmful.”
Back in the 80s, I had the opportunity to meet a young Japanese man named Kanji, who had very little exposure to Christianity, except for his teachers at a small Christian school, which his family was able to afford. He was required to take one hour of bible study per semester. Through Kanji’s reading of scripture, Christ revealed Himself.
His scripture reading alone was not enough to save him. Yet, the image of Christ in the Gospels led Kanji to seek counsel from a teacher he knew and respected, and in due course he put his faith in Christ.
On this point, it is my understanding that men and women who are honestly & prayerfully seeking the Lord, will recognize Christ when the Lord reveals Himself, such as with Saint Paul’s meeting on the road to Damascus.
Jesus also revealed Himself to Kanji via the mandated bible reading at school.
To the point of this post, Saint Paul was then taught by Ananias’ and was baptized.
Likewise, Kanji was taught by his instructor and was baptized.
Reading scripture without an honest & prayerful spirit will lead to knowledge that is caustic, arrogant, and dishonest.
Man is not saved by his opinion of Jesus’ deity, but, rather his humble submission to revelation of Jesus’ deity.
Glory to God!
Thank you for this writing
Powerful & well-said, Fr. Stephen! Thank you.
Yes! The Scriptures cannot be removed from the audience to whom they were written–the Church–without removing their proper meaning. The Church wrote the Scriptures, but far too many use the Scriptures (especially the New Testament writings) to write the Church, thus rendering both inert & ineffective.
If you see me doing this, please contact me immediately. I do try to be extremely selective in the resources I recommend for the heterodox & inquirers by sticking with those dealing with doctrine, Tradition & history.
Whew! I thought that it was only me being dim-witted & dense 😉
Thank you, Fr Stephen. You make an important point about the true meaning of our “enemies” when these are mentioned in prayer (“deliver me from my enemies” etc). Our wicked thoughts are our enemies…but I have a question on this: does forgiving our enemies include forgiving ourselves for having wicked thoughts?
Yes. Self-loathing is destructive and narcissistic.
Can it be said that everyone having a Bible is a dangerous thing and possibly detrimental to the soul?
It could also be said that everyone having free-will is a dangerous thing and possibly detrimental to the soul. But God has so willed it. The same can be said of owning the Scriptures in our modern times. Everything that can be used for good can be used for detriment. Even Paradise itself wasn’t safe.
Fr. Stephen, if you don’t mind me going a little off topic, how would you say self-loathing differs from certain attitudes that seem to be quite common in the Church such as, say, the Great Canon of St. Andrew, which can certainly be heard in a self-loathing way, or this line from The Ladder of Divine Ascent (as quoted in Fr. Thomas Hopko’s The Lenten Spring: “The repenting person deals out his own punishment, for repentance is the fierce persecution of the stomach and the flogging of the soul into intense awareness.”
I know there is a difference, but I can’t really put a finger on what, exactly, that difference is.
I think the difference is in the narcissistic element. Persecute the stomach, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Loathing of the destructive sort is not repentance – it’s just more ego generated nonsense.
The difference is pride vs. humility. Self-loathing is pride-based while repentence is humility-based. The pride of self-loathing tells us that we are so bad-evil-depraved that God Himself cannot save us…our sinfulness is greater than God’s love. The humility of repentence tells us that God will save us no matter how bad-evil-depraved we are…God’s love is greater than our sinfulness. Simplistic, I know, but this is how I understand them…
The past few weeks I been trying to listen to scripture from one of the online audio bible sites. I try to close my eyes and listen as I do during the liturgical service because of the movement of people within the church that may distract me. Listening this way during the service makes the words alot more important and meaningful. Try it. (My eyes seemed alittle strained from too much reading these days)
Relative to CoffeeZombie’s question, how does shame play into this distinction? There is certainly destructive shame, but is there also a good sort of shame active in repentance? In his books, Archimandrite Zacharias speaks of the bearing of shame in the confessional as a positive thing.
Also, it seems many of the saints speak of a progression from fear of God to love of God. How would you describe the proper understanding of this progression?
Thank you for your many wonderful posts,
This is an excellent question!
Shame is often a very destructive emotion – because it can have deep, toxic roots in some. There is nothing inherently wrong with it as an emotion – it can indeed be a very appropriate and accurate reaction. A person should indeed feel great shame with regard to great sin.
But as an emotion, it is said that shame is the least “bearable” of all emotions. Thus most of us quickly transform it into another more acceptable feeling (usually so fast that we do not notice it – it is not a reaction that comes as a result of thought). Thus shame is often “experienced” as anger, or blame, or depression, or a number of other things.
The healing of those emotions generally can only be healed by tracing them back to their base of shame – and the shame can only be healed by acknowledging it and voluntarily experiencing it. This is extremely difficult and needs both a safe place and a safe person for it to be accomplished. Not all confessors are trained or experienced sufficiently for this.
But with the willingness to bear shame, meaning to acknowledge it, feel it, and have it resolved, great healing and salvation can come.
I’ve read Fr. Zacharias’ books, but can you remind me which one you saw this in? I would like to go back and look at it myself.
Most of the progress from fear to love comes from the growth of our perception of the truth of God’s love which overcomes all things. This is more than simply holding to an intellectual form of the doctrine of God’s love. It is a true perception that allows us both to see the naked truth of our own sin, and the precarious position in which we live (verging on non-being), and seeing the true extent (so far as it is possible) of God’s love for us.
The Canon of St. Andrew simply speaks the language of mortification and discipline — admittedly strange in our soft, comfort-seeking, and self-loving culture.
Thank you Fr. Stephen, and Rhonda, for your comments.
Rhonda, your point about pride and humility reminds me of the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim. I’ve read before the idea that the two lists in the prayer are somewhat parallel. Idleness, chastity; despondency, humility; lust for power, patience; idle talking, love.
Perhaps, to try to reformulate what I’ve read here, it might not be inaccurate to say that self-loathing begins with the self-expectation of perfection. “Imperfection is a moral failing,” perhaps. Maybe even an ego that considers itself perfect. And, so, when you are forced to see yourself as not perfect (for no one but God is perfect), this becomes a source of great shame for you. In this case, however, you do not have another to lash out against, so you lash out against yourself.
Or, maybe I’m still overthinking things, and it is simply a redirection of shame. Hm….
On the point of shame, by the way, perhaps this is part of why I’ve found confessing with a priest to be so, so much more helpful than my old Baptist way of confessing “to God alone.” “God alone” easily becomes simply confessing to myself, and that’s really not all that difficult. The presence of the priest makes the confession more concrete…it brings out that shame to be healed.
A truly excellent post, Fr. Stephen.
RE: self-loathing…while some self-loathing may be narcissistic or ego-generated, some is experienced by people who have been severely abused. Their sense of self has been damaged to the point that they equate themselves with what was done to them and therefore loath themselves.
Those who experience this sort of self-loathing may be further damaged by being told that they need to repent of THIS or that their feeling is based in pride.
I’m sure that none of you intended that meaning – I’m just adding it in case any silent reader may experience this sort of pain.
Fr. Schmemann in his book Great Lent says of despondency (self-loathing, faint-heartedness):
Ah, yes the Protestant years 😉 I remember being told by a Baptist minister that because I had sinned & was feeling remorse was proof I hadn’t really “been saved” earlier & that I had obviously lied about it. The answer was to “get saved again”. Well, me being the ornery precocious youngster that I was, let’s just say that I “got saved a lot!” I also developed an attitude that I wasn’t “save-able” because I couldn’t meet the standard of perfection.
Unfortunately for us fallible humans, it is usually not the sinful act that we regret, but rather it is the “getting caught”, i.e. the loss of secrecy. I agree about your experience with Confession now that I am Orthodox. When formerly confessing to “God alone” my sins were still secret & hidden…only I & God knew or would know about them. The concreteness I think is from the fact that you are confessing to a priest who is still a man–your sin is not hidden/secret & is now known by another. In Confession you are telling on yourself which is not that much different than “getting caught” if you think about it from the loss of secrecy aspect.
My former minister kept “saving” me from my “imperfection” & “deceitfulness” telling me that my salvation “would take” this time if I was truly sincere & repentant. My first priest was known to slap me on the back as he told me “Welcome to the fallen human race, Rhonda!” It was very reassuring to just be a normal screw-up rather than a deceitful liar. I was “save-able” afterall 🙂
Quite true. The self-loathing that results from abuse is not what was meant by any of us. Same word–totally different usage.
Fr. Stephen, thank you for this blog post and for the comments and responses here! I also appreciate the comments of others.
Regarding Rhonda’s quote from Fr. Schmemann here in part from above post: “Despondency is the impossibility for man to see anything good or positive; it is the reduction of everything to negativism & pessimism. It is truly a demonic power in us because the Devil is fundamentally a liar. He lies to man about God & about the world; he fills life with darkness & negation.”
Is this also true of those who go through life seeing the glass as half empty or those only mentioning the least favorable outcome or forecast for the day or situation at hand? I guess I’m talkng about the “everyday pessimist” and is “nodding in an understanding way” a good thing to do in these exchanges with those around me?
I think I tend towards a certain pessimism, and I count it as a fault. I know that I do far more good when I have a word of encouragement rather than a “wise” observation about how bad something is. I don’t want to argue with people (pessimists), but, again, to find the “right” word – as the Scripture says, “in due season,” “how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23)
For one who tends toward pessimism, you certainly are very good at finding the right word(s) in your writings 🙂 Thank you for the benefit they are.
Thank you for your response, Fr. Stephen. I agree with Rhonda, you are very good a finding right and encouraging words! Glory to God for All Things!
I wanted to take the time to stop by and thank you for the article. I couldn’t agree more with what you said. Good piece.
Fr. Zacharias’ book where I came across the topic of shame is The Hidden Man of the Heart, specifically Ch. 4, “The Awakening of the Heart Through Bearing Shame in the Sacrament of Confession.” Looking back over the chapter, it seems his teaching is basically the same as what you and others here have expounded.
I found your comment about the love of God very helpful, that it is not an intellectual perception of His love (as with all true knowledge in Orthodox thought), but the actual experience of the disparity between our own sin, our “verging on non-being,” and seeing the true extent of God’s love for us. It strikes me that this could also be seen as a proper understanding of what it is to fear God? That He is our only hope that we not wipe ourselves out of existence due to our constant turning back from being and life itself?
In my own experience, I am still trying to understand what precisely it means to fear God. If it is as above, I think I may be beginning to understand. I know that fear of God does not mean fear that He will send us eternally into hellfire, however, when reading some Orthodox writers, my formerly Protestant mind can’t help but think that this is what is being said. For instance, when reading St. Ignatius Brianchaninov in The Arena, the way he speaks of fear is that we should nearly be trembling when we pray. Perhaps you could provide some further elaboration on how to rightly understand this sort of fear?
Thank you again to all.
I was on active duty in Gulf War I & deployed to the Middle East. I do not remember where I was in the desert, but I do remember the day Gen. “Stormin’ Norman” Schwartzkoff came through my battalion area for a tour. He came through talking with us & shaking hands. You could literally “sense” his confidence, power & authority. The closest words I can come up with for what we all knew & felt from his presence is absolute “awe” & utter “respect”. None of us felt “afraid” of him, but we were affected by his presence. My position as a staff officer often put me around Generals. I never felt around them like I did around “Stormin’ Norman”. Twenty plus years later I remember that day & him “vividly” while the others I cannot ever remember their faces or names.
These feelings of absolute awe & utter respect have always been how I have understood the “fear” of God passages such as Proverbs 1:7 rather than as abject terror. I have always wondered that if it is true when we, the Fathers & Scriptures all say “God is Love” & we all refer to God as “Father”, then how do we reconcile this with fear understood as terror in His presence?
Perhaps I am too informal & flippant, but entering into Confession is the only time that I feel fear as being afraid knowing the just penalty I am due for my sinfulness while yet remaining hopeful of God’s mercy. Afterwards & in the liturgical services I feel awe & respect, or at least I try to retain that awareness, especially when approaching the Eucharist.
Anyway, just my 2 cents…
Rhonda, interesting. I feel less of the fear in approaching confession than I do in approaching the Cup.
Confession is almost always a renewal for me and I approach with confidence in His grace if I am open and honest. I love when the priest places his stole around my shoulders and encloses me in that holy embrace and says: “Know that you confess not to me a sinner but to Christ Himself”. My priest is there with me to support, guide and protect me.
However, when I approach to receive the Euchrist I am often quite surprised that I am allowed to receive. I know I have no business partking of those Holy Gifts, yet there they are offered and I inwardly tremble with the knowledge that without His Grace I will always be unworthy of such a gift.
On the topic of reading Scripture. I am at a loss as how to start: what to read, how much to read. Should I just pick a place at random? I’ve never really been satisfied with the various programs that I’ve tried, even the fine one written by a good friend of mine: Dynamis. I always get bogged down really quickly.
i decided to read this a few times over the course of a couple days to see if that helped, because, i must say, the first day i read it, i found this very discouraging. i concluded that devotional reading just can’t be done (by me), so why bother reading? But i tried to change my attitude and re-read what you have here a few more times.
i’ve just read it again, and i’m far less discouraged. i mean, i am clear on the point that you have to be trained how to read scripture the right way–that tradition corrects our reading of Scripture and not the other way around. i’ve never heard it put quite so plainly, and that was helpful.
But about this devotional reading stuff: i’m very appreciative that you provided an example at the end, but, just as the first time i read it, i really don’t see how you got from the text to your inner-understanding. What i mean is, i don’t see a clear methodology in your example by which i could read any passage at all. Is the point just that i should read any passage as a means by which i can reflect on how to correct my own attitudes and behavior? That’s what i figure from your example, especially the bit about your enemies being your own sinful thoughts. But based on other things you’ve said, i’m guessing that can’t be your intended take-away.
i do have a side question, though, if i may:
Was it spiritually harmful for the psalmist to have written these words about his enemies? Also, is it bad to say that i have “enemies” in the sense that there are other people who have clearly set their wills against me even though i harbor no animosity toward them?
This is just me so take it for what it’s worth. These are meant as ideas & I vary among them as family & life obligations allow:
First & foremost: Talk with your priest about this. He will have good ideas & guidance for you. If you do not already have a prayer rule established, talk with him about that as well. The two work hand-in-glove together.
Secondly: Keep it simple! Don’t allow yourself to get overwhelmed. If you are procrastinating with reading the Scriptures or find that you do not have the time, then these are incidations that you are overwhelmed & making things too hard. Talking with your priest first can avoid this as well.
Read the daily lectionary readings for your jurisdiction found on their website or a lectionary calendar. This is my personal minimum requirement as it helps me relate to the liturgical services & cycle.
Fr. Lawrence Farley has authored a series of books called the Orthodox Bible Companion Study series. I own the 4 books dealing with the Gospels. They have the Scripture text with commentary.
Fr. Patrick Rearden has authored a series of books entitled Orthodox Christian Reflections on… I own his books on Genesis, Chronicles & Job. There is no Scriptural text but the book chapters comment by Scripture chapters. He has also written Christ in the Psalms.
Or just sit down & read a certain amount from the Holy Scriptures each day. I have never been able to read the Scriptures from beginning (Genesis) to end (Revelation) & end up getting bogged down somewhere in the Numbers/Deuteronmy area. I therefore sometimes will choose an individual book to read & focus on. A good time line graph helps me see where, who & when the text falls in with the rest, especially if the timeline includes events such as beginning/end of Paul’s missionary journeys, the Acts 15 council, reigns of the Israelite judges/kings & etc.
FWIW: I know that some may just let the Scriptures fall open & begin reading randomly…not a good idea as you will not see the integrated wholeness of the Scriptures.
Lastly, enjoy yourself 🙂 Do not stress over “doing it right” or learning the “right stuff”, just do it as you are able with an open, prayerful & humble heart.
Again these are just ideas.
Michael, I’m still quite inconsistent in my reading, but I like to listen to “The Path” on AFR. I usually don’t do more than read the Orthodox lectionary reading when I do read. When I have time, though, I’ve really benefitted from chanting the Psalms. (Just praying the Orthodox daily prayers and attending to the services of the Church is meditating on a host of Scriptures in and of itself!) My husband (who is Evangelical) has consistently listened to a podcast called “Daily Audio Bible” for a couple of years now (after a hiatus on reading the Scriptures because of indoctrination in fundamentalist legalism in his family earlier in his life that left him with no desire for a while to read the Scriptures). He’s an auditory learner, so that works well for him (and, as you know, it’s the way most people have been taught the Scriptures for most of history). I spent so many years studying the Bible as an Evangelical, I already know more of what the Scripture says than I can begin to comprehend or put into practice!
I am very interested to hear Fr. Stephen’s reply to Michael.
Everyone has a different temperament. I can only speak for what is helpful to me. I’ve read the Scriptures nearly every night for decades, usually falling asleep in the midst of reading (with apologies to those who find this disrespectful). Sometime I read from beginning to the end. Other times I skip around a bit. I don’t do this because I ‘should’, but because I’ve grown to love it. For me, it is similar to the warmth, comfort, and peace of being in church, a sense of communion with God that can elude me during hectic work days.
Even so, I’d be the first to admit that not every Scripture reading seems ‘profitable’ at first in terms of communion. Nor do I always have a deep sense of communion when reading. Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t. When I don’t understand something, or I cannot discern how a particular book or passage reveals Christ, or the reading just doesn’t seem draw me into communion with Him, I’ve found it useless to chastise myself for my blindness or be overly concerned. The reason for this is that even what seems ‘unprofitable’ at the time is often revealed later – usually and most profoundly in the context of worship, in the revelatory, communal nature of the Church’s liturgical cycle.
So if I don’t grasp something, if it doesn’t reveal Christ to me, if it doesn’t draw me into communion at any given time (and this if often the case) I simply acknowledge that I am not ready for it…yet. Time has shown that such apparently ‘unprofitable’ reading is nothing of the sort. Indeed, even simply knowing it my head, tucked away and set aside in my memory as it were, makes the communion realized in the worship of the Church even more full when the depth of the riches of Christ finally sinks into my heart. Year after liturgical year, the reading becomes richer as the worship of Christ in the Church illumines the Scriptures; and knowing the Scriptures, even if only the words and the context of the liturgical references, enriches communion throughout the liturgical cycle.
Acts 8:30-31, KJV.
I’m not sure that I have any ideas – but some reflections. Temperament (as mentioned by Brian) is indeed important. Some people will never take to a programmatic reading program – I’m one of them. I would wind up spending more time struggling with my failures to follow the program than actually reading.
Reading isn’t nearly the point so much as communion with God. And for that, almost anything (including just plunging in at random), is fine. I often plunge and read with an attentive heart, and stop when something strikes me. I’ll often follow that “something” as a study in itself. The computer program that I often use for such study allows this very easily.
It’s good to be generally familiar with Scripture – to “know” the stories, etc. Beyond that we read for communion with Christ – reading attentively – listening from the heart – allowing connections to arise.
The “method” of “theoria” is fairly unknown in the modern world – but is the dominant use of the Scriptures within Orthodoxy. The hymnography of the Church consists of this almost exclusively. One study method I recommend is using the Festal Menaion and the Lenten Triodion (Met. Kallistos Ware was one of the translators for these) and study the hymnography in them – tracking down its Scriptural references. This is somewhat tedious, since the volume does not have the references listed – you have to dig. But seeing how the hymnography “reads” the Scripture is an excellent introduction to theoria, and a way to gradually learn this as a devotional exercise.
I’m curious if any of our readers has a suggestion on resources for this sort of thing. There are some books available that have the Scripture references for the various things in the Divine Liturgy – but the use of “theoria” is not as pronounced there as it is in the Menaion and the Triodion.
Simply using an online resource such as the Anastasis site, or the Antiochian liturgical guide, or the OCA texts, for the services upcoming in the week – and studying and meditating on the Scriptures behind those – is another method.
We have to “pay attention to ourselves” as is said in the Desert Fathers. We are often wired in very different ways. I have ADD and my brain utterly despairs at long, tedious efforts. Many kinds of programmatic approaches (which sound wonderfully disciplined, etc.) are simply impossible for me (and many others). This shouldn’t be a cause for guilt or despondency. It’s a cause for learning about yourself and adapting. It’s why my use of “theoria” has a “rabbit trail” component – it’s how my brain works.
It’s worth taking time to think about why things are difficult for us, and doing something different.
I have a bible that I have set aside for the sole purpose of noting and highlighting the scripture references used in liturgies, prayers and hymns. Each time I come across a specific reference or recognize one from scripture, I highlight it in that bible, using different colors for each purpose, and make note of where it is used. It’s become a bit of a game for me…a game that will likely last a lifetime. I started doing this because of the unfounded criticism that the Orthodox Church puts scripture on some sort of secondary degree of importance. I’ve only just begun to attempt implementing the Triodion and I’m beginning to suspect that I’ll have a VERY colorful bible by the time the Lord calls me home…and, still, it will be incomplete.
Would you be willing to share with us which program you use for Bible Study? I would like to get back to studying the Scriptures again, and such software (that aids in “rabbit trail” studying) seems like it would be right up my own alley.
You’re right – a clear methodology is not given. It’s something learned, rather than followed. In the example I used, I employed the “structure” of our inner life in which the heart=paradise=throne-room=peace=righteousness, etc. The “heart” meaning that inmost place within us in which Christ dwells – not our emotions – but that place that does not judge, compare, think, so much as perceive, intuit, realize. The enemies=thoughts generated by the mind and emotions=fears=anxieties=judgments, etc.
This is a particularly helpful approach during the liturgy, when my enemy is precisely my own distracted thoughts and feelings. I am quite literally in the throne room of God as I serve at the altar, but if my heart is not present, then it is diminished value to me.
Learning to read in an “allegorical” manner such as this, has become almost a lost art in Christianity, when it was once the most dominant form of Scriptural understanding, certainly present in the New Testament itself.
It is almost the only way I know of to read the Psalms with great benefit.
On the question of the Psalm-writer’s spiritual benefit/harm. It’s not possible to say, since it is not at all clear what the writer had in mind as he wrote. Nevertheless, the Scriptures are quite clear that even Balaam’s ass could prophesy, as did the High Priest who condemned Christ. The nature of Scriptural inspiration is not to be found within authorial intent. It’s inspired meaning is found only in Christ.
The multiple layers of increasing allegory have a depth that is truly unfathomable… The hymnography is the most fabulous teacher of this (a careful, attentive, fervent study of hymnography in the faith that there is far more than my insensitive heart can perceive at first). Also, every once in a while we come across Father’s (e.g Gregory the Theologin, or Maximus the Confessor) who provide a surprisingly unexpected interpretation of a passage, and this can also be a very good teacher in reading Scripture -not trying intellectually to create connections, but, allowing them to happen unforced. Of course this can be far easier after an hour of saying the Jesus Prayer and then reading a stance from the Psalms for instance.
Perhaps i’m over thinking it. Maybe i just need to do the reading and see what happens, but be mindful to guard against the kind of temptations you mention.
About the side question though, i find that fascinating. So it could be that David (or some other Psalmist) really did intend a prayer to God for the defeat or even death of political/military enemies. But what you’re saying is that it is not this specific intent on David’s part which makes the Psalm inspired of the Holy Spirit or authoritative in the Church or even morally exemplary, but rather, how the words that were penned relate to the life and teaching of Christ–have i got you right? So what is inspired about a given text can be a meaning utterly separate (and perhaps even incompatible with???) the author’s intent? How does this apply to, say, Paul’s epistles? Isn’t it his intent in that case that matters since he speaks with apostolic authority?
Good questions about inspiration. In the Old Testament, the Fathers say that the writers and others saw, “In a shadow.” Thus the mind of the writers is not where we look primarily for understanding. As Christ told His disciples (Matt. 13:17 “for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” The NT sees clearly what the OT does not. The OT must be read through the New and through the lens of Christ.
The NT, however, written by Apostles’ etc., the mind of the writer is indeed a question, and can also be understood as inspired. But that mind is understood within the context of the Church they founded. Thus, to read St. Paul or St. John, we also look at St. Ignatius of Antioch, etc., for he was ordained by the Apostles.
These Protestant theories about inspiration and the Bible-only, etc., are, in fact, the man-made doctrines, whereas Holy Tradition was given us by God. It is they who substitute the traditions of their fathers for the oracles of God.
Thank you for your suggestions regarding reading in communion. Having grown up singing hymns and anthems in the Episcopal Church, I can relate to learning the Bible that way. I remember much better if I sing something.
Now I am in the Orthodox Church but have only heard the Menaion briefly mentioned. I looked it up on Amazon and there were options. Do you have any suggestions?
Please and thank you.
Not having seen a Festal Menaion, I looked it up on Amazon.com. Is there any edition which would be preferable?
Fr. Stephen writes:
Me, too! (Lifelong, I realize, but diagnosed late in life.) You’ve probably seen this (it’s a portrait of my life!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oHBG3ABUJU
I’m easily distracted most of the time, but under the gun (adrenaline) or when I’m strongly motivated to learn about a particular thing (e.g., St. Isaac), I can hyperfocus, and hours can pass with me in this state. Not always a good thing when family needs are waiting! 🙁
P.S. Sorry to derail the thread!
I watched that video and thought, “Wait…you mean that’s not normal?” Granted, I was diagnosed with ADD when I was in Kindergarten, so it’s not that I was surprised to discover I act like an ADD person. More…it actually never really occurred to me that the sort of thing in this video is actually a manifestation of ADD, not something normal people (like my wife) don’t do.
Now, I think I understand better why my wife gets frustrated with me all the time! 😀
To bring this back around to the discussion, this is why I was curious before about what software Fr. Stephen uses for his Bible study. 🙂
I use Bibleworks. It’s seriously powerful with more languages than the Tower of Babel. I especially like the ease with which I can move between languages, the LXX and Hebrew, etc. I cannot bear studying in English-only – I almost always want to see the Greek (or Hebrew or both in the OT). Simply using any kind of Bible program is “brain-friendly” because of their ability to move quickly, etc.
For pure devotional reading, however, I like a book in my hands. I prefer the RSV or NKJ. I don’t mind contemporary translations though I prefer the Textus Receptus (the Greek Text behind the KJV) to the Nestle-Aland. There are several “Orthodox” renderings of the Psalms out there. A couple of them are rendered into very badly-done Cranmerian English. I have lost my patience with many prayers in such English – especially those that say, “And do Thou, O Lord, etc.” It’s stilted. Cranmer never produced such lousy stuff. Contemporary English can be quite beautiful and poetic. There’s nothing inherently better or liturgical about Cranmer’s English. Those who think that “Thee” and “Thou” are liturgical, don’t understand English. Thee and Thou are the familiar form of “you” etc. We no longer use the familiar forms in modern English. I have no complaint about them, and I can use them and understand them perfectly well. But I’ve noted that my younger parishioners (20 something’s) don’t have a clue about the familiar form of the verb. Since I’m a missionary, I prefer to use the language in which I live –
For those interested, my parish generally uses the older form of English in its services – a practice common throughout the South in the OCA, though I imagine this will change in time – too many people don’t understand it clearly. And given that some of my congregation is still learning English, it’s even harder to give them an English that isn’t spoken anywhere.
Outstanding post Father! Many thanks!
CoffeeZombie, I hope our spouses never meet and have the opportunity to compare notes!
Oh my gosh…that’s my day, too 😉 Fortunately, it is also my husband’s although he vehemently denies this 🙂
Check out the linkage between Leaky Gut or permeable stomach and ADD.
Dear Fr. Stephen,
– Thank you so much for your comments regarding so-called liturgical English. I have an MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Scot McKnight was my professor for both Greek Exegesis and Synoptics), and I had three years of Greek in my undergrad (Fort Wayne Bible College at the time)–this was before converting to Orthodoxy. I’ve translated some texts for classes over the years, and I also taught as an adjunct instructor at Messiah College for 14 years, one class being a First Year Seminar (writing-intensive class). I care about language, and I agree that we could do tremendously better with translating the Scriptures, liturgical texts, and prayers into Contemporary good English. (We need to translate hilasmos as expiation, not propitiation; Christ descended into Hades, not Hell/Gehenna.)
– I would be interested in your thoughts regarding those who suffered abuse in childhood, and as a result have the wounds stemming from attachment issues and have struggled with self-hatred, a low self-view stemming not from pride, but from said abuse as it intersects with some of the prayers in Orthodoxy (as well as comments found in some of the Fathers). My priest has counselled people to read the prayers of thanksgiving after the Eucharist, rather than the prayers of preparation before communion, until they find healing in their hearts.
I’ve wondered if our English translations are accurate when we translate things such as “your worthless servant.” I suppose some who have a robust self-view, have never experienced abuse, and struggle with pride might need such language. But those who are wounded from abuse do not interpret it properly–they do believe they are ontologically worthless. But we are made in God’s image and God does not consider us to be worthless. Christ did not robe Himself in human flesh, condescent to stoop low, die and rise again, to raise us up to the Divine for a pile of worthless trash.
Humility is necessary for salvation. My understanding of humility is an acceptance and embrace of reality, of the truth: about ourselves, about ourselves before God, about others, and about ourselves in relation to others. Humility does not mean self-hatred, or denying truths about oneself (such as an ability to play an instrument well, or to craft well, etc., although we must acknowledge God as the Granter of all gifts), but to courageously face the truth, however painful it may be, and to transfigure all things in Christ, to overcome all that is evil, wounded, or broken in Christ–humbly bowing to God’s timing in our lives and to accepting what happens as God’s will (often permitted, not caused) and to turn away from our own will.
What would you say to those who, due to an abusive childhood, do not properly understand the language of humility in Orthodox texts? How would you define “humility”?
Thank you, Father, and yes, Glory to God for All Things!
Interesting questions you pose. I look forward to Fr. Stephen’s input.
Father, Chris and Rhonda,
comming from a Greek background I can see the shortcomings of current translations, yet I agree with Elder Sophrony’s respect for the use of the original language and complete reluctance to change any of it (he was speaking of Greek – and Slavonic to a degree). As he has said, people learn a great deal of technical terms today with ease -when they are interested in a particular subject- yet they complain of the so called archaic (which he says is a virtually sanctified and exclusive language) because it is harder somewhat to understand. Learning between 50 to 60 words would suffice to understand what is being said in traditional Church language (in Greek and Slavonic, far less in English).
About translating, in this case from the Greek to English, what would be the best way to translate: μου λέει ο λογισμός ότι…? I have seen this variously as: my thought tells me (which doesn’t really work for English); my reasoning is that (which is incorrect); my conscience tells me (which is incorrect)and my thinking is that (which is what I lean to).
What about transliteration: my logismos tells me? (which my daughter leans to)
I think (μου λέει ο λογισμός) that transliteration is mostly, if not always, a huge compromise “in the name of being uncompromisingly faithful to the original”. It bothers me (as a bilingual speaker) so, I imagine it must be even more bothersome for an English only speaker.
I would peronally rather use an approximation or a whole load of words to explain a term, or an expression ported from another language when that is non-existent in English (e.g: Noetic Faculty, or Mind or even Intellect -which is used in the English Philokalia although it is clearly wrong- rather than “Nous” for “Νούς”, Good-will, or well-mening, or “grtefully reacting to” rather than Filotimo for “Φιλότιμο”, I think or my thinking is that rather than “my logismos tells me” for μου λέει ο λογισμός ότι)
Good questions indeed. The psychic wound left by abuse makes many things hard to hear without mis-hearing. It sounds very appropriate to me to counsel someone to read the post-communion prayers rather than the pre-communion. I’ve often thought that the world of personality has shifted greatly in our modern period, making the traditional language of humility very difficult for us (at least in English). I find that on a personal level, I often have to read such prayers on an “allegorical” basis, or at least a very interpretive basis. Thus, “I am worthless,” is (inwardly translated) “the construct of my ego is worthless.” Of course, you can’t just do that kind of thing “on the fly.” But, I’ve spent time long ago translating such language theologically so that I’m not using it in a manner that is simply destructive. There are many who, lacking training and discretion, misuse such language to their own destruction and the destruction of others. But a language without humility is problematic.
Strangely, deep shame creates a form of narcissism – for though an individual is wounded in such a way as to believe themselves (ontologically) to be worthless, they are also bound to themselves in destructive and crippling manner. “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” There’s no way forward other than to face the wound and begin the painful work of healing. A kind confessor is a godsend.
Your understanding of humility is similar to my own.
On translating. There is rarely a good way to translate. Dynamic translations are almost always more accurate – and I use them my self. But translation is just an abiding problem. When the Elder Sophrony was writing, the great liturgical work of Cranmer was still a dominant cultural reality (particularly in England – where it was the Church of England’s dominant version of the services). In America, Anglicanism has always been but a minority (less in number than the Orthodox today). And though the educated classes used to have some familiarity with Cranmer’s liturgical phrasing (through their knowledge of British literature), we have these days thrown off our British yoke and become speakers of Lingua Americana, with all of the cultural ignorance that implies. I have never been able to preach in the US and assume that those hearing me know who Noah or Moses were, much less the meaning of Vouchsafe. Catechesis today is a massive educational process. Choosing what to concentrate on is hard. I’ll admit that it has only been in the last 3 years or so that I’ve come to despair of there ever being a liturgical English again. In the US, there are probably more than a half-dozen English versions of the Orthodox services (and I’m being conservative in that estimate). Some of them are positively horrible, some are not so bad. None of them are adequate representatives of Cranmer’s language. I’d rather have a decent contemporary translation than a badly-done pastiche of Cranmer.
The Brits are much better at this than Americans. Archm. Ephrem Lash’s translations are excellent and would be more than adequate. I think Americans should only allow Brits to translate liturgical works. American standard English is good for cartoons (at least as it is popularly spoken).
Dear Fr. Stephen,
Thank you for your kindness in taking time to respond to me–especially on a Sunday after Divine Liturgy! I trust you had your post-liturgical nap! :o)
You are right that deep shame “creates a form of narcissism…they are also bound to themselves in destructive and crippling manner.” Personal pain can lead us to focus on ourselves and the pain in an endless cycle of destructive inward turning that does not lead to healing (in fact, I think it involves preoccupation with a demonic, false picture of the self). We need humility to face the pain, to work through it with all the resources that God supplies.
I think that helping professions, such as marriage and family therapists, psychologists, etc. can help till the soil of the soul to make ready a person’s openness to the healing of Christ, since some people and some problems require certain work to get them bumped out of this destructive inward turning. I think Orthodox professionals would be in a good position to help do this soil tilling. The mysteries of the Church, especially Eucharist and the mystery of repentance/confession offer the healing, which is a process, not a one-time-event. Ultimately, it is Jesus Christ, who is the Entrance to the Kingdom of the Trinity, that is the medicine of immortality and the real healing and restoration of our souls.
Sadly, I think you are right about American English versus British English, although some Americans–though they be few–have the capacity to wax eloquent and make the language sing. I think we do better with dynamic translations, but with the proviso that the translators are Orthodox, since Scripture translation involves a lot of interpretation. It’s helpful to have a range of translations in one language from formal/literal to more dynamic.
I’m saddened by some of the comments I’ve heard and read regarding the Orthodox Study Bible, both of the notes and the translation of the OT LXX. The criticisms at times are cheap shots and seem to lack substance. I met Fr. Peter Gillquist before he fell asleep in the Lord, and his attitude and words communicated a deep desire to offer a reliable English translation of the Bible with reliable Orthodox notes. He knew it is not perfect, but then no translation is. I notice that the critics have not offered an alternative.
With regard to Orthodox in the helping professions, I find people such as Archbshp. Chrysostomos and Fr. Alexis Trader to be helpful.
Thank you for your thoughtfulness and faithfulness to the Apostolic Faith.
Joy in Christ! +
In your post you said:
“The reading of Scripture is not the means whereby we arrive at sound doctrine – sound doctrine is the means whereby we rightly read the Scriptures. The Christian reading of Holy Scripture is a “doctrinally-ruled” reading. We do not come to the Scriptures to decide whether the Nicene Council “got it right.” Without a knowledge of doctrine, much of Scripture will remain closed to the reader.”
If this is the case, what were the Bereans doing when they “received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11)? Many will use this verse to contend that true doctrine is drawn from the Bible rather than the other way round.
Also, what does Paul mean when he says “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)? Does this apply only to Timothy (and subsequently the clergy) or to all people?
Are there any church fathers who shed loght on this topic? What did the early church think of these matters?
I know these are many questions, Father, but any answers will be greatly appreciated.
Your conversation with Guy intrigues me, especially his comment that
“…what you’re saying is that it is not this specific intent on David’s part which makes the Psalm inspired of the Holy Spirit or authoritative in the Church or even morally exemplary, but rather, how the words that were penned relate to the life and teaching of Christ–have i got you right? So what is inspired about a given text can be a meaning utterly separate (and perhaps even incompatible with???) the author’s intent?”
My question is this: could this be applied to the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites? Is it possible that this episode never happened? That it’s a ‘figure’ for God’s anger against a sinful people (Canaanites)? Atheists always use this episode to ‘prove’ the moral bankruptcy of Christianity. How could a good God, they say, order the genocide of an entire people? However, if this episode didn’t happen exactly as it is portrayed, if the author of the OT wasn’t writing ‘History 101’, then this changes everything. It would certainly reconcile the Christ of the New Testament with the Lord of the Old Testament.
For what it’s worth, my opinion is this: much of the language of ‘driving out the Canaanites’ is hyperbolic. After all, if the Canaanites had all been driven out/exterminated, why would there be laws on how to treat ‘the stranger, the fatherless and the widow’? Why would there be repeated admonishments to ‘love the stranger within thy borders?’ It reminds me of ancient Greek writers saying that x army ‘cut down the olive groves of their enemies.’ This has often been taken literally by historians. However, most historians are not farmers and know little about the land. Victor Davis Hanson, a historian and citrus farmer, points out that the logistics are not feasible if this phrase was meant to be taken literally. What does this mean? Well, it means that Greek warfare wasn’t as destructive as we previously thought, and that the phrase should be read as a rhetorical flourish rather than a statement of fact. The Old Testament betrays the same intention when it mentions laws on how to treat strangers – strangers who should have been destroyed. This incident should make us aware that the Bible is a lot more complex than many think, and that one must be very careful when claiming to expound its meaning.
Dear Father Stephen,
Your article intrigues me greatly. As a life-long Protestant I am not used to being told to refrain from studying theology; in fact, I’m always told that one must study the Bible for oneself, that one must never let anyone ‘impose’ their views upon me (this is often followed by a discourse on the the importance of the Reformation in giving us ‘soul liberty’).
That being said, I have a very important question:
In your article you say that theology is not everyone’s provenance. However, how does an honest inquirer like myself decide which church to go to? How, as a Protestant considering both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, do I determine which church has sounder doctrine? As for myself, whenever Catholicism and Orthodoxy disagree I usually side with the Orthodox (e.g. regarding Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, papal authority, etc). For doctrinal reasons I find myself uncomfortable with becoming a Catholic. However, if theology is not something a layman like myself should study, by what criterion do I judge the true church?
Obviously in some situations we have to do some reading and study and work at making wise decisions. It’s inescapable. I think my point is to be taken more in a normative sense. Our background would almost make “every man a pastor” if not “every man a pope.” And we pile on knowledge without practice with lousy results.
Study, pray and may God guide your heart!