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?

3 thoughts on “The Desert Fathers: Why read the Bible?

  1. Pingback: What is the Bible? | Fr. Ted’s Blog

  2. Pingback: The Saints: Why read the Bible? | Fr. Ted’s Blog

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