The Saints: Why read the Bible?

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is The Desert Fathers:  Why read the Bible?

“Meditations on the scriptures teaches the soul the discourse with God.”

(St. Isaac the Syrian, in ORTHODOX PRAYER LIFE by Matthew the Poor, p 52)

The Annunciation

The witness of many Orthodox saints is that the Christian should lead a life, not without purpose, but always directed to God.  The goal of the Christian life is union with God, what the Orthodox saints term theosis or deification.  Part of the means given to humanity to attain this goal is the listening to the Word of God.  Through hearing God’s Word, the prophets told what God is doing in the world, and the Virgin Mary conceived the Son of God and Messiah in her womb.  She attained a union with God becoming truly Theotokos by hearing God’s Word and freely agreeing to obey it. 

For the saints, the Scriptures contain the revelation which God Himself wanted His creatures to know about theology: that divine life which has become hidden from our eyes due to sinfulness.  The Scriptures for the saints are rich and varied, a treasury and a deep well from which a wealth of wisdom and the quenching of the thirst for knowledge come.  St. John Chrysostom offers a rich description of what the believer will find in the Bible:

“Let us…put our soul in at the reading of the Scriptures as though into some peaceful harbor.  It is, after all, a harbor without billows, an impregnable wall, an unshakeable tower, imperishable glory, invulnerable armor, imperturbable satisfaction, undying enjoyment and whatever else you class a good—such is the communion with the divine Scriptures.  It repels discouragement, preserves good spirits, makes the poor person richer than the affluent, bestows security on the rich, makes the sinner righteous, sets a secure guard on the righteous, snatches away ill-gotten gains, makes goods that are missing spring up, drives out wickedness, leads on to virtue—or does not so much lead on as even roots deeply and makes it last without end, being a spiritual remedy, a kind of divine and ineffable incantation which eliminates ailments, rooting up the thorns of sin, making the furrow clean, casting the seeds of piety and bringing the crop to fruition.”   (OLD TESTAMENT HOMILIES  Vol 3, pp 105-106)

We can read in his comments the fulfilling of what St. Paul told Timothy about the Word of God:   “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”  (2 Timothy 3:16-17).    The reading of scriptures is not meant just to benefit “me” personally, it also prepares me for Christian service, witness, mission and ministry.

“This, after all, is the object of our earnest effort, that you would know precisely the power of the Scriptures so as not merely to understand them yourselves but also to become teachers of them to others, and so be in a position, according to blessed Paul, to edify one another.”  (St. John Chrysostom, HOMILIES ON GENESIS 1-17, p 105)

We are after all to become doers of the Word, not just hearers of the Word.  We are to lead by example.

As we move out of the Patristic Age and more into the modern world, Post-Guttenberg, in which the availability of God’ Word for personal reading or hearing is made possible through books and MP3s, we encounter even more incentive to read the Scriptures.  If we are literate, we should read the Bible which is so easily available to us.

“If you read worldly magazines and newspapers, and derive some profit from them, as a citizen, a Christian, and a member of a family, then you ought still more and still oftener to read the Gospel and the writings of the Holy Fathers; for it would be sinful for a Christian, who reads worldly things, not to read divinely-inspired ones.”  (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 2, p 137)

 “O brethren, read more of the Gospels, the Epistles of the Apostles and the works of the holy Fathers!  Through such reading does the soul come to know God, and the mind becomes so occupied with the Lord that the world is quite forgot, as if you had never been born.”  (ST. SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 416)

An encounter with God is made possible through the Scriptures.

 “…the Fathers of the Church declared that the ultimate purpose of reading Scripture is to acquire theoria, an inspired ‘vision’ of God and His truth.  … Yet we never really grasp it, understand it and take it into ourselves until we can ‘see’ it—that is, until the words become in some sense icons, sacred images that enable written words to become a living Word.” (John Breck, LONGING FOR GOD, p 221)

We come to see the Scriptures in the lives of the saints: those men and women who endeavored to live by the Word of God and who incarnated them in their own lives.  They became living icons of God’s Word.   Thus meditating on icons and reading the lives of the saints should lead us to seeing the scriptures embodied in the lives of Christian men and women made holy by their relationship with God through their living the evangelical life.

Next:  Reading and Studying the Scriptures

The Desert Fathers: Why read the Bible?

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is What is the Bible?

“Whensoever a man reads the Divine Books, the devils are afraid.” 


“’Once I saw the devil lying in wait outside the cell of my disciple,’ said a sagacious elder.  ‘So I cast an eye inside to see what my disciple was doing.  He had the Holy Scriptures open in front of him and was plunged deep in study. As soon as he closed the book and ended his reading, the devil rushed in to tempt him.”   (THE ANCIENT FATHERS OF THE DESERT, p 32)

There is little doubt that in the writings of the Desert Fathers, the reading of, the reciting of, and the listening to the oral proclamation of the Scriptures were all seen as one way that the Holy Fathers had direct contact with the Divine.  The recitation of the Scriptures aloud drove demons away from those listening to the Word, according to the beliefs of the desert mothers and fathers.  The words of Scriptures have spiritual power to drive away evil which is why the monks and nuns were encouraged to read then continually.

Prophet Habakkuk Listening For God's Word

Modern people tend to assume that it is only in rationally apprehending Scriptures can they possibly have any power – the desert experience smacks too much of superstition.  Yet, the ancients relied heavily on repetition as the mother of learning, and the constant recitation of and listening to the Word was understood to permeate one’s mind with God’s Word.  It wasn’t simply reading aloud, but that hearing also caused the Word to hide in one’s heart, and was the only way that one would have any chance of obeying God.   One’s heart and mind were to be shaped by the scriptural messages:  truly catechesis was not just about gathering information, it was about formation of one’s heart and very life.  The very term “catechesis” implies that the sound goes down into our ears (catechesis has the same root word as “echo”).   It was a repetitive form of learning by listening to the words again and again.  The belief was that rote learning did allow the word to penetrate into and form the heart, becoming one with the heart and natural to the mind.

“A brother said to an old man, ‘See, abba, I frequently ask the Fathers to give me an earnest reminder for the salvation of my soul, and I do not remember a thing of what they tell me.’  Now the old man had two empty vessels, and he said to the brother, ‘Go, bring one of the vessels and pour water in it: rinse it, pour it out, and put it back in its place, all shiny.’  The brother did this several times, and the old man said to him, ‘Of the two vessels, which one is cleaner?’  The brother answered, ‘The one I put water in and cleaned.’  Then the old man said to him, ‘son, thus it is with the soul that frequently hears the word of God; though the soul remembers nothing of what she asked, she is nonetheless cleansed more than the soul that did not inquire.’”  (Lives of the Fathers, in SPIRITUAL DIRECTION, Irenee Hausherr, p 248)

So the Church lectionary repeats the same biblical passages each year, through the course of a life time one would hear the same lessons repeatedly, hopefully so that they become so familiar to the listener that they can begin to unravel the mysteries contained in the scriptural lessons.  Like peeling an onion, each hearing of the Word brings new depth and meaning from the text.

 “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone.  So it is with the word of God;  it is soft and our hearts are hard, but those who hear the word of God often, open their hearts to revere the Lord.” (Abba Pimen, IN THE SPIRIT OF HAPPINESS by the Monks of New Skete, pp 137-138)

For the early Christians who left the civilized life of the Roman Empire behind to allow themselves to hear the Word of the Lord by silencing the din of society, going into the quietude of the desert, to enable themselves to hear God, rather than all the clamor of the world, the constant listening to the Scriptures was the way to salvation.

Next:  The Saints:  Why read the Bible?