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)

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Fasting Before Christmas

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  (Matthew 5:8)

St John Cassian reminds us to set the right priorities in our spiritual life.  Purity of heart is for him, the real goal of the Christian life and discipline.  Purity of heart is equal  in his teaching to love.  Fasting is a tool to help us reach the goal, but as St. John notes, if we vent anger at others, fasting can’t compensate for the damage we do.  It will not help our spiritual growth if we keep a strict fast but then rage at others or rail and rave against others.  This last week of the Nativity Fast we would do well to work on peace in our hearts and purity – love for others.  As St. Paul says in the Epistle read on the 2nd Sunday before Christmas:  “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:8).  That should be what we really fast from this week.

“Everything we do, our every objective, must be undertaken for the sake of this purity of heart. This is why we take on loneliness, fasting, vigils, work, nakedness. For this we must practice the reading of the Scripture, together with all the other virtuous activities and we do so to trap and to hold our hearts free of the harm of every dangerous passion and in order to rise step by step to the high point of love.

It may be that some good and necessary task prevents us from achieving fully all that we set out to do. Let us not on this account give way to sadness or anger or indignation, since it was precisely to repel these that we would have done what in fact we were compelled to omit. What we gain from fasting does not compensate for what we lose through anger. Our profit from scriptural reading in no way equals the damage we cause ourselves by showing contempt for a brother. We must practice fasting, vigils, withdrawal, and the meditation of Scripture as activities which are subordinate to our main objective, purity of heart, that is to say, love, and we must never disturb this principal virtue for the sake of those others.”  (John Cassian: Conferences, p. 41-42)

Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.  (Psalms 73:1)

Our Heart of Flesh

And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.  (Ezekiel 11:19)

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.   (Isaiah 57:15)

Archimandrite Zacharias instructs us:

Unless we endeavour to live within our heart, we remain blind to our untamed passions. The inclinations of our heart and mind remain beyond our control. We sin whether we want to or not. Sin can never attract the blessing of God, so unless we keep our hearts alive and alert, we will eventually become strangers to Him. The Scriptures say that ‘the heart is deep.’ God honours this ‘deep heart’ of man. All heaven hearkens to a deep heart athirst for God and ready to receive Him. But if our heart is indifferent to God, we are worth little more than dust and ashes. We must attend to our heart and cultivate it, for the hidden man of the heart is very precious in the sight of God. May God give us such a heart, a deep heart that is capable of divine and spiritual sensation!  

St. Seraphim of Sarov

We learn to enter into our ‘deep heart’ through personal prayer in our rooms and attendance at church services. And if we take courage and enter therein, we shall behold the great miracle of the union of our life with God’s Life, for this takes place in the heart of man. Indeed, the aim of our entire ascetic struggle – our fasts, vigils and prayers – is to reveal the heart, to unearth it.   (Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony, p. 241-242)

Seeing the Invisible God: The Need for a Pure Heart

The Gospel Lesson – Luke 18:35-43

At that time, as Jesus was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging. And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

[Sermon notes, January 2017]

1]  The blind man already knew something of Jesus for although he cannot see what is happening, when he hears Jesus of Nazareth is coming by he begins shouting for Jesus’ attention.   He knows Jesus has no money to give him, but he has obviously heard of the miracles of Jesus.  It is obvious that the blind man could see who Jesus was based on what he knew about Him and what he believed about Him.  The blind beggar not only never saw Jesus before he never saw anything Jesus had done.  But he had the eyes of his heart to see, and there was purity enough in his heart for him to see God!

color-of-paradise2]  The Iranian movie, THE COLOR OF PARADISE, has a scene in it  in which a blind carpenter takes on as an apprentice a blind boy whose poor father sees only as a terrible burden which he wants to be rid of.  The boy explains his sadness to the blind carpenter – God doesn’t love him for He made him blind.  No one wants him, not even his own father.  The blind carpenter points out that God is invisible, eyes will not help you see God.  In fact those with eyes think they can see things about God which they cannot.   Eyes will not help you see God.  To be born blind is a gift from God for those with eyes keep trying to use their eyes to see God, while the blind already know this is not possible and so skip that deception and immediately use the eyes of their heart to seek God.  Seeking God is a matter of faith not sight.  Seeing is believing?  In the Gospel lesson, believing is seeing.

3]  St. Paul reminds us that God is invisible from the day’s Epistle –

“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”  (1 Timothy 1:17)

This is why Jesus spoke about those with a pure heart seeing God.  You can’t see the invisible God with your physical eyes!  You need to work on your inner self, your soul, the eyes of your heart to see God.  Clearing away all manners of impurities from the heart is needed to see God.  Even if you have 20/20 vision, without purity of heart, you won’t see God.

4]  The blind man already sees that Jesus can give him sight before Jesus does anything!  Jesus gives to the blind man what the blind man already believes.  Jesus doesn’t even claim to heal the man, he tells the blind man, “your faith has made you well.”   The fact that the man could see with the eyes of his heart enabled his eyes to be opened.  As St. Paul says, “for we walk by faith, not by sight”  (2 Corinthians 5:7).

5]  The people in the Gospel lesson are interesting as well, for they see the miracle and praise God.  None of them benefitted from the beggar being given sight and yet they praise God.  They were able to see and rejoice in the good fortune of another even though they themselves did not benefit from what Jesus did.  In fact they had just a few minutes earlier tried to prevent the blind beggar from disturbing Jesus.   But their hearts are good as they were able to see what God is doing.   [I think we Christians don’t always have that ability to rejoice in the good fortune of others.  We are often selfish and self-centered, jealous and envious.  We more often rejoice in the misfortune of others.  What the Germans call Schadenfreude.  We seem more likely to take pleasure in the misfortune of others than to find pleasure in the good fortune  of others from which we don’t personally benefit].  We would do well to learn from this crowd – even if we don’t experience a miracle in our lives, we need to be thankful for every blessing others receive, even the dispised people whom we often want to shun and push aside.

 

Cleansing the Heart to Welcome God In

 

“You say to me,’Show me your God.’…

I answer you, ‘Take a look at your heart. Everything you see in it that might sadden God, remove. God wants to come to you. Listen to Christ your Lord: “My Father and I will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). That is God’s promise.

If I were to tell you I was coming to stay with you, you would clean your house. Now it is God who wants to come into your heart. Do you not hasten to purify it? How could he dwell with avarice?… God has commanded you to clothe the naked, But avarice induces you to strip the one who is clothed… I am looking at your heart. What do you have in it? Have you filled your coffers but thrown away your conscience?… Purify your heart.’” (Augustine of Hippo in The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 167)

Praying Without Words: Purity of Heart

“He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend.”  (Proverbs 22:11)

“Purity of heart constitutes prayer more than do all the prayers that are uttered  out aloud, and silence united to a mind that is sincere is better than the loud voice of someone crying out.” (Aphrahat in The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, p 5)

“Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.”  (Psalm 73:1)

St. Herman of Alaska

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  (Matthew 5:8)

St. Julianna the Merciful

 

What the Pure in Heart See

“ Let us therefore purify our hearts so that we may see God in nature, in ourselves, and in others. While we still are on the arduous path of purification, we must remind ourselves that God is in us and all around us. When we see nature let us be attentive to the message it speaks forth (Ps 19:1-4).

When we reflect on our own hearts, let us remember that the Holy Spirit dwells within us who are members of His body.  And when we see our neighbor, when we see those we meet each day, let us love them and honor them, remembering that they have been created in God’s image and have the potential, just like ourselves, to grow in His likeness. Let us remember the words of St. Macarius:

‘There is no other way to be saved, except through our neighbor… This is purity of heart: when you see the sinful or the sick, to feel compassion for them and to be tenderhearted toward them.’”

(David Beck, For They Shall See God, pp 61-62)