Bible Reading: Gateway to the Spiritual Life

“Constant pondering on the holy scriptures will always fill the soul with incomprehensible wonder and joy in God.

We should consider the labor of reading the Scriptures to be something extremely elevated, whose importance cannot be exaggerated. For it serves as the gate by which the intellect enters into the divine mysteries, and takes on strength for attaining to luminosity in prayer.

The reading of Scripture is manifestly the fountainhead which gives birth to prayer.”

(St. Isaac of Nineveh, The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh, p.. 8, 36, 38)

How To Prepare Yourself to Read Scripture

Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra offers a thought about how we can prepare ourselves to read Scripture.  The Scriptures are spiritual, so we have to prepare our hearts spiritually to receive the Word contained in them:

“…it requires desire, exile, interest and lack of interest. What does that mean? Can you fill up a glass that’s already full? For divine meaning to enter your mind, for divine grace to enter into you, you have to empty your heart of its passions, of your self-centeredness, your selfishness, your hate, envy, and negative feelings; you have to purify your heart of these things, and fill it with virtues.

The passions are like static. You turn on the radio to listen to a station, and all you hear is static. You don’t understand a thing the announcer is saying. If you want to hear, you’ve got to eliminate the static. And how can you hear the voice of God, when the passions are booming away and growling loudly within you? You’ve got to free yourself, because if you don’t, you’ll remain a fleshly, carnal person, and a ‘carnal person cannot receive,’ does not understand, ‘the Spirit of God‘ (1 Cor 2.14).”   (The Church at Prayer, p. 109)

Prayer Before Reading Scripture

Illumine our hearts, O Lord and lover of all humanity, with the light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our understanding, so that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel.  Instill in us also reverence for your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all things that are pleasing to You.

For You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto You we render glory, together with Your eternal Father and Your all holy, life giving Spirit.  Amen.


November 13: Commemorating St. John Chrysostom

On November 13 we Orthodox honor St John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople.

“St. Chrysostom was not only continuously preaching the Word of God at every opportunity but also had Bible classes twice a week where he unceasingly encouraged lay Christians to become knowledgeable in the treasures of God’s wisdom and to live by them. To open the Bible and to read prayerfully and attentively its rich library of books was for St. John to open one’s sails to the Holy Spirit and to embark on a most exciting journey in the spiritual seas and shorelines of God’s kingdom. Christians according to him are not only to know the Scriptures but also to engrave them on their hearts. IGNORANCE OF THE BIBLE, SO CHRYSOSTOM TEACHES, IS THE SOURCE OF THE GREATEST EVILS OF THE WORLD, WHILE KNOWLEDGE OF THE BIBLE IS THE SOURCE OF THE GREATEST BLESSINGS.”   (Theodore Stylianopoulous, A Year of the Lord: #1 – Fall, pp 123-124)

Book of the Bee

As I’ve mentioned before, the honeybee is admired by the Fathers of the Church, and used as an example and metaphor for having a good spiritual life.  We have in our Orthodox tradition prayers for bees and for their hives.

St. Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346AD) uses the bee as a model for moderation in wisely developing a virtuous life.   Unlike a body builder who might do countless reps of a single exercise to develop bulging muscles, St. Gregory teaches that we must more daintily approach the virtues, like a bee, taking a small amount from each and many virtues “what is most profitable.”   Developing virtues requires wisdom – developing them in a right quantity, extracting from each what we as an individual are capable of benefiting from, and this will not be same for each individual since each person is differently gifted by God.

“Like a bee one should extract from each of the virtues what is most profitable.  In this way, by taking a small amount from all of them, one builds up from the practice of the virtues a great honeycomb overflowing with the soul-delighting honey of wisdom.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 83500)

As the honeycomb is built by the entire colony of bees receiving the nectar of a great many bees from a diversity of flowers, so too all the virtues are needed to develop the spiritual life.  One must be like a bee collecting nectar from many flowers, partaking of the different virtues to gain from each.

One can see how popular the bee was in the metaphorical thinking of the fathers in how they refer to the bee.  The Book of the Bee is a Syriac Christian Text written by the bishop, Solomon of Akhlat,  in the 13th Century.   It is a summary of basic Syriac Christian beliefs using excerpts from the books of the Bible, Christian theology and Syriac history.  The book serves as a catechism, which Solomon dedicated to the bee.  He explains:

We have called this book the ‘Book of the Bee,’ because we have gathered of the blossoms of the two Testaments and of the flowers of the holy Books, and have placed them therein for thy benefit. As the common bee with gauzy wings flies about, and flutters over and lights upon flowers of various colours, and upon blossoms of divers odours, selecting and gathering from all of them the materials which are useful for the construction of her handiwork; and having first of all collected the materials from the flowers, carries them upon her thighs,

and bringing them to her dwelling, lays a foundation for her building with a base of wax; then gathering in her mouth some of the heavenly dew which is upon the blossoms of spring, brings it and blows it into these cells; and weaves the comb and honey for the use of men and her own nourishment:

in like manner have we, the infirm, hewn the stones of corporeal words from the rocks of the Scriptures which are in the Old Testament, and have laid them down as a foundation for the edifice of the spiritual law. And as the bee carries the waxen substance upon her thighs because of its insipidity and tastelessness, and brings the honey in her mouth because of its sweetness and value; so also have we laid down the corporeal law by way of substratum and foundation, and the spiritual law for a roof and ceiling to the edifice of the spiritual tower. And as the expert gardener and orchard-keeper goes round among the gardens, and seeking out the finest sorts of fruits takes from them slips and shoots, and plants them in his own field; so also have we gone into the garden of the divine Books, and have culled therefrom branches and shoots, and have planted them in the ground of this book for thy consolation and benefit.

To approach each book of the Bible as if it were a flower full of sweet nectar, and to enjoy the blessing from God, is such wonderful imagery of what Scripture reading should be to us.  It is work, but sweet and nurturing.

And interestingly, the bee does not leave the flower untouched, for it pollinates it.  This is the synergy between the Word of God and the reader of the Word.  We interact with the Word enabling it to bear fruit.  Our hearts are the fecund soil which bear fruit to God.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  (Isaiah 55:10-12)

The Importance of Studying Scriptures

Reading, studying and meditating on the Scriptures are all a normal part of the life of any Christian.   The Scriptures do not merely teach us about God, but bring us into a relationship with the Holy Trinity.  More than inform us, they form our hearts, souls and minds so that we can love God and fulfill His commandments.

“For many Christians the commandments found in the Bible are nothing more than a list of do’s and don’ts. At their best, they tell us the minimal expectations God has for his creation. But in Jewish tradition the commandment embodied much more than this. It was a gift of God given to his people so that they could openly display their love and devotion to him. Fulfilling a commandment is like offering flowers to a new-found love; though the lover is following a social convention the deed springs from a far deeper font.” (Gary A. Anderson, The Genesis of Perfection, p 150)

We are seeking a relationship with the God who has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ our Lord.  The Scriptures bear witness to Christ.

“Because the scriptures clearly reveal the will of God and provide unfailing guidance toward salvation, according to St. Symeon, they are to be studied with utmost diligence and to be obeyed with absolute care not only by scholars, but by all Christians: We need great soberness, great zeal, much searching of the divine Scriptures. The Savior has (said), ‘Search the Scriptures’ (Jn. 5:39). Search them and hold fast to what they say with great exactitude and faith, in order that you may know God’s will clearly from the divine Scriptures and be able infallibly to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5:14)….Nothing is so conducive for saving us as the following of the divine precepts of the Savior.[…]

His reliance on and use of scripture to critique the prevailing view and practice of the ongoing religious tradition as viewed and lived by clerics, monks, theologians, state officials, and lay people alike. To put it in another way, St. Symeon’s bold and prophetic call for radical renewal within the Church, a highly controversial position that in part led to his condemnation and lengthy exile by ecclesiastical authorities, had to do with nothing less than his view that the truth of the apostolic gospel had been swallowed up in an ocean of religious formalism unable to bear the words of a prophetic and evangelical voice.” (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Encouraged by the Scriptures: Essays on Scripture, Interpretation and Life, pp 38-39)


Scriptures Belong to the Fallen World

Orthodox Christians believe the Scriptures are the Word of God containing God’s revelation to the world of the Holy Trinity and the incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus Christ as well as His resurrection from the dead.  Certain of God’s chosen saints were inspired by God to write about this revelation – so the Scriptures have a human element to them as they were written by the hand of these inspired saints.  The Scriptures did not fall in tact from heaven but are the result of this synergy between God and the chosen people.  The Scriptures also require their readers to be inspired because the Scriptures must be interpreted which is also part of this synergy between God and the chosen people.

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), considered in Orthodoxy to be one of the greatest expositors of the Scriptures in the early Patristic period, in commenting of the Gospel according to St. Matthew makes some claims about the Scriptures that might be startling to the modern Christian, who not knowing the history of the Scriptures and their development or of the canon of Scripture’s history, wrongly assumes the Scriptures simply fell from heaven and required no human involvement.   Chrysostom says the Scriptures really belong only to the fallen world.  They didn’t exist in heaven nor in paradise and became necessary only as sin separated humanity from divinity.  God spoke directly with Adam and Eve and needed no scriptural intermediary to convey His will to them.  But as humans became more entangled in sin, they no longer could receive the pure Word of God spoken to them directly.  God gave the Scriptures because of love for humankind and because of his considerateness for fall humanity.  God was not willing to let us lose all sight (and sound!) of Him and so Scriptures are God’s continued effort to reach down to humanity in the depths of our fall from grace.   In his first homily on St. Matthew’s Gospel, Chrysostom writes:

It were indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written Word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course. For that the former was better, God made manifest, both by His words, and by His doings. Since unto Noah, and unto Abraham, and unto his offspring, and unto Job, and unto Moses too, He discoursed not by writings, but Himself by Himself, finding their mind pure.

God, as St. John Chrysostom describes it, intended to speak to us humans directly.  This required only that we humans maintain a pure heart for the Spirit would ‘write’ the word on the pure human heart.   We, however, fell in sin, losing the purity of heart.  A few individuals, those great saints like Noah, Abraham, Job and Moses, still had purity of heart and God was able to speak to them, but alas, even those folks disappeared from the earth.  So God in His continued love for humanity and being considerate of our fallen state spoke to us through the written Word.  Thus the Scriptures were necessitated by sin and belong to the fallen world, not to paradise or to the Kingdom of heaven.  The Scriptures are but ‘Plan B’, the contingency plan.

But after the whole people of the Hebrews had fallen into the very pit of wickedness, then and thereafter was a written word, and tables, and the admonition which is given by these. And this one may perceive was the case, not of the saints in the Old Testament only, but also of those in the New. For neither to the apostles did God give anything in writing, but instead of written words He promised that He would give them the grace of the Spirit: for “He,” says our Lord, “shall bring all things to your remembrance.”  And that you may learn that this was far better, hear what He says by the Prophet: “I will make a new covenant with you, putting my laws into their mind, and in their heart I will write them,” and, “they shall be all taught of God.”

Even to the apostles and the saints of the New Testament God did not use a written word to communicate to them, rather God’s incarnate Word spoke to them directly.   God speaking directly to His people is obviously His preferred method of communication.  God relies on the written word to communicate with those who have lost purity of heart and cannot hear His voice any longer.  That God prefers to speak to His people rather than give them a written word is a profound thought.  We are to hear the word of the Lord.  Hearing, listening to God is a different activity than reading the word.  For when we read we become far more focused on grammar, punctuation and every “jot and tittle” in a way that hearing the word does not allow.  It changes our relationship to the Word; the end result being a fall into literalism as we rely more on our minds than our hearts to hear the Word of the Lord.

And Paul too, pointing out the same superiority, said, that they had received a law “not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.”  But since in process of time they made shipwreck, some with regard to doctrines, others as to life and manners, there was again need that they should be put in remembrance by the written word.

Moses receiving the word written on stone.

Chrysostom makes an interesting point – when God is still able to speak to us directly because we have hearts pure enough to receive His Word, we hear the Word of God and we have to remember it internally, in our hearts.  It only can be written on our hearts! There are no written words to look at, and none are needed. But when we cease to be able to hear the Word because we have lost purity of heart, then we have to rely on the written Scriptures to remember the Word.  This written Word is external to us, recorded perhaps even faithfully and exactly, but still externally to our hearts.  They are words written on stone or with ink on paper, but they loose that life-giving property.  St. Paul says with the coming of Christ and the Holy Spirit we now receive “a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  It is even possible for the written word to lead to an idolization of the text or stone on which the word is written word which does not bring us closer to God and His Word, Jesus Christ.  The stone on which the Ten Commandments were written became an object of veneration, but this object was not in the hearts of God’s people but exterior to each of them.  God Himself did not prevent Moses from destroying the original tablets of stone, and even provided a replacement copy, perhaps indicating it is not what they are written on that is to become the object of veneration.  Rather, the stones themselves are already the “second remedy” because humanity had lost its purity of heart.  Instead of idolizing the stone tablets, God wanted us to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh upon which His Spirit could write His Word! (Ezekiel 36:26)

Reflect then how great an evil it is for us, who ought to live so purely as not even to need written words, but to yield up our hearts, as books, to the Spirit; now that we have lost that honor, and are come to have need of these, to fail again in duly employing even this second remedy. For if it be a blame to stand in need of written words, and not to have brought down on ourselves the grace of the Spirit; consider how heavy the charge of not choosing to profit even after this assistance, but rather treating what is written with neglect, as if it were cast forth without purpose, and at random, and so bringing down upon ourselves our punishment with increase.”

(NPNF, Vol X, Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew)

As Chrysostom describes it, we already suffer the shame of having lost our pure hearts and so God can no longer speak to us directly.  But then, when God chooses in love to still speak to us through the written word, we neglect reading or listening to the Gospel anyway.  God is completely considerate of our weakened condition, and still tries to provide a help to us.  Neglecting that help is a scandal for all Christians.

[An additional thought  –  In John 20:30-31, we are told the Gospel was written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  John doesn’t say they were written so that we might remember what Jesus did.  They are written to enter into our hearts and minds so that we might believe which will then give us eternal life.  Interestingly, in Luke 22:19 and in the writings of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:24-25), remembrance is invoked in association with the Last Supper, the Mystical Supper.   It is in Communion that we remember Christ.  The written word witnesses to Christ, but in celebrating the Eucharist, we remember Christ.]

Prayer Before Reading Scripture

Great Lent is a time for us to do spiritual reading, including the reading of the Holy Scriptures.  Scripture reading is begun with prayer and often in Orthodox tradition causes us to move from meditation on the Word of God to prayer to Christ the Word of God.

St. Theophylact (d. 1108AD) credits St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) for authoring the following “Prayer Before Reading or Listening to the Word of God”:

O Lord Jesus Christ, open You to the eyes of my heart, that I may hear Your word and understand and do Your will, for I am a sojourner upon the earth. Hide not Your commandments from me, but open my eyes that I may perceive the wonders of Your law. Speak unto me the hidden and secret things of Your wisdom. On You do I set my hope, O my God, the You shall enlighten my mind and understanding with the light of Your knowledge, not only to cherish those things which are written, but to do them; that in reading the lives and sayings of the saints I may not sin, but that such may serve for my restoration, enlightenment and sanctification, for the salvation of my soul, and the inheritance of life everlasting. For You are the enlightenment of those who lie in darkness, and from You comes every good deed and every gift. Amen.”

(The Explanation of The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Galatians by Blessed Theophylact, pg. XXV)

Spiritual Exegesis

In the modern Protestant world, much of the discussion on Genesis 1 and 2 is limited to whether or not it is to be read literally.  For the Orthodox Church, whether or not the Genesis creation stories are read literally, they offer to us the understanding of what it is to be human.  They are thus more about each of us and who we are as humans than about merely relating the story of the first human beings.  Adam and Eve are a type of us all and we learn about who we are through their story.

The Orthodox Church has a long history of making use of scriptural texts for all manners of wisdom, spiritual teachings and insight into the very nature of 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)

Rather than use the above quote for the dubious purpose of proving that scripture must be read literally, the Orthodox have  woven scriptural texts and images into their large collection of hymns to teach, reprove, correct, train and equip.  Take for example the IKOS hymn from Matins for the Holy Apostle Philip (November 14).  Note that the hymn gives clear reference to the creation of the world, but then ties it in to our daily lives.  The text is not seen mostly as ancient factual history, but  a treasury to inspire us in our daily lives.  The Genesis 1-2 creation text is not so much science or history as a spiritual treasury to help us live as God’s children in His world.

Lord, as You created the nature of water,

grant me a flood of teaching!

Strengthen my heart, Compassionate One, as You established the earth by Your word.

Enlighten my mind, as You are covered with light as with a garment,

that I may speak and chant what is fitting to praise Your friend, MOST MERCIFUL CHRIST!