Conversation I—Reading the Scriptures and Prayer

Purification, Illumination, Deification: Orthodox Spirituality

Fr. Stephen Rogers is the priest at St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, TN. He gave a series of 9 talks at the parish on Orthodox Spirituality concentrating on Purification, Illumination, and Deification.

March 2014

Conversation I—Reading the Scriptures and Prayer

March 1, 2014 Length: 46:59



It’s good to see all of you tonight. I hope you’ve had a week to recover from the brief interlude we had in our purification, in our Thanksgiving celebrations, but as we come tonight, the fourth session. Just by very quick way of reminder: thus far in our discussions, by touching upon God’s purpose for man, we spent the first session together hearing from the Fathers and from the Scriptures the fundamental truth that man is created in the image of God, to grow in his likeness, and that God’s intention for man, placing him in paradise, a state of communion with him, was to provide all that was necessary, that man could fulfill his purpose, to grow eternally into the image and likeness of God; how the fall of man, man’s disobedience, man’s decision to become self-sufficient, to become autonomous, to turn his back on his purpose resulted in the loss of communion with God. Sin brought death into the world, and it became impossible for us, through our own efforts, to restore our communion with God and therefore fulfill our purpose.

Then in the second session we began our discussions on the means by which that communion is restored, that through the Incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity, divinity and humanity is once again united, and that union in Christ makes possible that all have faith in him and lean upon his grace have the potential and capacity to have their purpose restored. And we spoke of the process of purification, which leads to illumination and then what the Church refers to as deification, or theosis, when that image and likeness to God begins to permeate our very physical being, and we radiate the divine energies of God through our union with him.

So in the second and third sessions we discussed the initial stages of purification. We talked a great deal about renunciation as a first step, renunciation of the world. We talked about how, for those of us that live in parish life, that aren’t monastics, what does that mean; what does it mean in our lives, our everyday lives, to renounce the world. And again, we spoke at great length about renunciation of the world being a change of perspective, of no longer seeing the world as a thing in and of itself, no longer seeing the world as the source of the fulfillment of our purpose—the mistake that Adam made. We spoke of repentance as a necessary step in purification.

And then last week we spoke about obedience as part of that purification process. And obedience, again, for us, for us everyday Christians who have jobs and families and responsibilities in the world, that that obedience takes the form of being faithful to the teachings and traditions of the Church, being faithful to our liturgical life, of being faithful to the fasting disciplines that the Church gives us in order to purify ourselves. So we have discussed renunciation of the world, repentance, and obedience as some of the initial steps in our purification, making sure to understand that these steps are not exclusive. It’s not a stair-step, but each continues as we progress to the next.

So tonight, according to our syllabus, in our discussions of purification, we come to the subject of prayer, but I want to begin that discussion with an aspect of that topic that may be seen or thought of as separate, and that is the place and use of Scripture in the process of our purification. But in fact prayer and Scripture are not separate. You can say with authority that the reading of Scripture, done properly, is a form of prayer, and it is certainly not distinct and separate from it. That great ascetic Father, St. Isaac of Nineveh, says:

Never approach the words of the mysteries that are in the Scriptures without praying and asking for God’s help. Say: Lord, grant me to feel the power that is in them. Reckon prayer to be the key that opens the true meaning of Scripture.

Furthermore, Scripture reading is not simply pursued as a primary reading of knowledge, but as a primary means of purification. 2 Timothy tells us that all Scripture is God-inspired and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction, which is in righteousness, in order that the man of God man be—what? May be perfect, equipped for every good work. The psalmist says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

It is clear that the word of God is given to change us, to purify us, to guide us toward our purpose of deification. But how do we allow this to occur? How do we approach the reading of Scriptures? In the services of the Church, there are profound declarations of how we should approach Scripture. These declarations happen very quickly, and if we’re not paying attention, we can fail to appreciate them or even fail to hear them, but before any Scripture reading, the deacon or the priest exhorts us to—what? “Let us attend. Wisdom!” Wisdom is about to be proclaimed. Pay attention. Let us be attentive.

Before the Gospel reading: “That we may be accounted worthy to hear the holy Gospel, let us pray to the Lord.” There can be no doubt that the Church calls us, not simply to listen, but to submit to Scriptures. We seek for Scriptures to do something to us. There is something that should happen when we hear the holy Gospel. Otherwise, the Church wouldn’t call for us to be in a certain condition to be able to receive it.

Christ tells the disciples that he will send a Comforter, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, that same Spirit we prayed to tonight. Christ says, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. That’s from John 14. And it is this Holy Spirit that we must call upon and depend upon in the reading and hearing of Scripture.

Scripture reading and prayer cannot be separated. Again, we being almost every holy service with that prayer: “O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth”—the One that makes known the meaning of the Scriptures—“the Treasury of good things, the Giver of life: Come and abide in us. Cleanse us from every stain and save our souls, O Good One.” And this most fundamental petition to the Holy Spirit makes it very clear that there is a relationship between the hearing of Scripture, receiving the Spirit of truth, and our purification. “Cleanse us from every stain, that we might receive the Spirit of truth.”

We call upon God to give us ears to hear. Just before the gospel reading in the Divine Liturgy, the priest prays: “Illumine our hearts, O Master, with the divine light of thy proclamations…” We’ll refer to this prayer in its entirety later, but what is the priest praying and acknowledging? That our true understanding of the Scriptures is dependent on God granting us the grace to hear. “Let us hear the Gospel in the light of thy divine illumination” is what we’re praying for.

In an essay entitled, “How to Read the Bible,” Matthew the Poor says the following, and I really want you to listen to this. This is so fundamentally important for those of us that have been trained and educated to think the way we think. St. Matthew the Poor, in the essay entitled, “How to Read the Bible,” says the following:

There are two ways of reading. The first is when a man reads and puts himself and his mind in control of the text, trying to subject its meaning to his own understanding, and then comparing it with the understanding of others. The second way of reading is when a man puts the text on a level above himself, and he tries to bring his mind into submission to its meaning, and he even sets up the text as a judge over him, counting it as the highest criterion.

In other words, Matthew the Poor is saying this second way of reading is not that we judge the text as to whether it is valid or not, but we allow the text to judge us, and we place it above our reason and our intellect. Matthew the Poor goes on to say:

The first way [that is, of reading a text and trying to subject it to the control of our mind, to interpret it, to understand it, to analyze it, he says that way] is suitable for any book of the world, whether it be a book of science or of literature, but the second way [that is, placing the text above our intellect] is indispensable in reading the Bible. The first way of reading [trying to control the text] gives man mastery over the world, which is his natural role. The second way gives mastery to God as the all-powerful Creator.

Do you get that? Do you hear that?

Continuing on with Matthew the Poor:

But if a man confuses these two methods, he stands to lose from both of them, for if he reads science as he should read the Gospel, he grows small in stature, and if he reads the Bible as if he would science, he makes God small. The divine Being appears to be limited, and his awesomeness fades.

When we read the Bible the first way, that is, as a textbook, then we acquire a false sense of our own superiority over divine things—the very forbidden thing that Adam committed in the beginning.

What Matthew the Poor is saying to us is that if we read textbooks like they’re a Bible, it minimizes us. We become irrelevant and insignificant to the scientific law that controls and rules our lives; but if we read the Bible as a textbook, then we make God small, because we cast him in our image, and he is understood by our reasoning. So it’s absolutely critical that we understand the distinction between these two ways of approaching a text, and to approach the Bible, submitting ourselves to it, rather than seeking to control it and analyze it and subject it to our reasoning ability.

We must yield to Scripture, not make it yield to us, and there is a certain humility that must be exhibited when the Scriptures are approached. St. John Cassian says:

If you wish to attain to true knowledge of the Scriptures, hasten to acquire first an unshakable humility of heart. That alone will lead you not to the knowledge that puffs up, but to the knowledge which enlightens.

That is why we’re called to bow before the Gospel when it passed down that center aisle in matins. That’s why we are to bow as the Gospel is being read to us in the Divine Liturgy. We must show humility, because the very word of God is being manifested to us, and it’s only when we approach it in humility can it enlighten us, says St. John. Our goal in reading Scripture is not to understand it, not to investigate it; scriptural understanding centers on the acceptance of divine truth, of bringing the mind and the will to the obedience of the truth so that it purifies us.

St. Paul desires for the Church of Ephesus that they may know “the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” It is clear that knowing the love of Christ is much more than acquiring human knowledge, and that simply trying to learn or investigate that love falls far short of experiencing it. In the reading of Scripture we must yield our minds to God, to be open and submissive, that, again quoting Ephesians, “being rooted and grounded in love, you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love.”

So we can see very clearly how reading Scripture this way is very much bound up in our process of purification. For it is a constant submission of the will and a yielding of the possession of it. Scripture read to be submitted to brings peace and comfort to the soul. It creates a humble spirit. Scripture read to gain mastery creates pride.

Matthew the Poor observes that Scriptures read properly are read to build a relationship with God; Scriptures read improperly are a means to build relationships with people, to be a teacher, to be admired, to be looked up to. Furthermore, the reading of Scripture is useless if we do not obey it, make it a law of life. It is even perilous to read without obedience. Christ says:

And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand, and the rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew and beat against the house and it fell, and great was the fall of it.

But for those who are obedient, those who approach the words of Christ in obedience and humility, he says:

Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house upon the rock, and the rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded upon the rock.

And I know for all of us those words sound like a biography of our lives sometimes, because the rain falls and the floods come and the winds blow, and they beat against the house, and whether that house stands or falls is dependent upon how we receive the words uttered by our Savior.

So we must ask ourselves: How do we approach the Scriptures? Are the words of Scriptures our master, or are they words we wish to master? The Desert Fathers tell the story of the holy Father Pambo. He was an illiterate monk: he couldn’t read; he couldn’t write. So he went to his superior in the hopes of being given a psalm to memorize and learn, because he couldn’t read them for himself. So the father pulled out Psalm 38 and read the first verse of Psalm 38, which says, “I said I will take heed to my ways, lest I sin with my tongue.” And after that first verse of the first psalm he wanted to memorize, the illiterate monk stopped the father and refused to hear the second verse. He says, “This one verse will be enough until I learn how to do it.” Six months later, the abbot fussed at Pambo for not coming back to him for more instruction, and Pambo says, “I’m not doing it yet!” Nineteen years later, he came for the second verse. He said to his brothers, “I have just now succeeded in accomplishing it.”

The prayerful reading of Scripture is an indispensable part of our purification, our illumination, our deification. But let’s get practical. How do we read Scripture the way we’re called to read Scripture? Most of these things are self-evident. The first one is all we’ve been talking about. Number one: to read Scripture the way it is intended to be read, to read Scripture that produces a purifying our lives, number one: you must pray before you read. The Holy Spirit prayer or the prayer in the Liturgy before the reading of the Gospel which I referred to, which in its entirety is:

Illumine our hearts, O Master, with the pure light of thy divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our minds with the understanding of thine evangelical proclamations. Instill it within us that, trampling down all carnal desires, we may lead a spiritual life, thinking and doing that which is well-pleasing unto thee.

And that prayer that I pray while the epistle is being read makes it very, very clear that it is God who gives us ears to hear and that we must purify ourselves so that we may receive all that God desires us to hear. So the Scripture reading is very, very much a part of our purification. You can see from that prayer that we seek more than intellectual understanding of the passage. We desire that it would affect us, that it would change us. So number one: Pray before you read. Ask God to illumine the Scriptures for you.

Number two? That most-familiar of prayers in the Church: “In peace, let us pray to the Lord.” Try to still the mind and calm the spirit before you read. Don’t rush into the Scriptures willy-nilly, trying to get it done so you can check off that box in your spiritual progress that day. Ask yourself: Are you at peace with others? Is there any animosity or frustration toward another human being? If there is, pray about that and confess that before you read. “Create, O God, in me a contrite heart, and renew in me a steadfast spirit.” Read Scripture with a repentant heart, and if we are not in a peaceful state of mind and at peace with our brothers, then that divine illumination is clouded. So strive for peace, both environmentally and spiritually, before you read Scripture.

Number three: Try to have a consistent time and a consistent place to read. Again, hopefully a place and a time of quiet and calm. You know, aspiring authors are told to—I can’t use the word “typewriter” any more, can I? I mean, let me think how to say… Aspiring authors are told to sit in front of their keyboards for an hour every day at the same time, and whether a single word comes out, sit there for that hour every day, and what happens in that discipline is that, over time, the mind and the spirit becomes accustomed to becoming creative at that appointed time. And the same is true with the reading of Scripture. The same time, the same place, the same environment will cultivate a spirit of peace and assist us in our understanding. So number three: Seek and establish a consistent time and a consistent place. Just don’t “fit it in” whenever you can.

Number four: what to read. The best way to read Scriptures is to follow the lexicon of the Church, that is, the prescribed readings for each day of the year. This is the best way to read Scriptures, because the readings reinforce our liturgical life, and our liturgical life reinforces our reading, because they go hand in hand. Following the lexicon also presents the Scriptures in digestible portions. And number three—and this is not insignificant—following the lexicon provides another mechanism for obedience. I’m going to read what the Church suggests I read today, not “Oh, this is God’s will for me today.”

So when you approach the appointed passages, after having prayed, after calming yourself down and acknowledging any relationships that need to be repented of, in your consistent time, in your consistent place, and finding the proper reading for that day, read the passage in its entirety. Consider its meaning. And then go back and focus on individual words, pondering their importance and their application in your present circumstance, and praying the entire time, “Illumine my heart, O Master, with thy divine light.” St. Isaac of Nineveh again:

When you approach Scripture, examine the intention of each word in order to measure and understand with discernment the depth and holiness of meaning that it holds. Those who throughout their life have been led to enlightenment by grace feel all the time a kind of spiritual ray shining through the verses, and in their spirit they identify the words and their meaning. When a person reads the words with a spirit of penetration, the heart is refined and satisfied. What a wonderful understanding the divine power gives the soul! What an abundant sweetness!

St. Isaac of Nineveh has just described Scripture read by the illumined man.

But make Scripture-reading a dialogue with God. Ask him to reveal its meaning and an application in your life. Reflect on the reading during the day, and actively seek opportunities to be obedient to what you’ve read. That’s another advantage of the lexicon: it’ll probably only give you one or two things to concentrate on that day.

We must remember that Scriptures are not simply an object of study. They are words of life. They are both simple and profound. They are at the same time crystal clear and clouded with mystery. In his commentary on Job, St. Gregory the Great says the following.

Sacred Scripture tests the strong with its more obscure sayings, and gives satisfaction to the simple by its concrete language. It is intelligible to readers who have little culture, and educated people continually find new meanings in it. However, it also transcends all knowledge and all teaching by the very way in which it expresses itself. For it unveils the mystery throughout its writings.

Then he goes on to say the following.

Those who are truly humble and really instructed are able, when they approach the heavenly secrets, both to understand certain of them, that they have studied—

Listen to this!

They are able to understand certain of them that they have studied, and to venerate others that they don’t understand, in order to protect what they have understood.

Notice he says we are to venerate that which we do not understand. We’re to honor and hold in awe what is beyond us, not be frustrated by it, not demand that it be explained or verified. And we look at some aspects of the Scriptures, we look at some aspects of the nature of God, and we can’t understand it and it frustrates us, and if we don’t understand it, it must not be true, for that which is not verifiable through reason is false—or so some say. But St. Gregory says venerate the parts of the Scripture you don’t understand; honor, give praise. See the Scriptures that are beyond our understanding as a testimony of the ineffability and awesomeness of God, not a falsification or obscuring. But yet we’re trained in such a way that that which we do not understand, that which we cannot verify, that which we cannot analyze and make sense of frustrates us and therefore is either not true or to be ignored.

And so, I’ll be so bold to say it: There’s certain aspects of the Scriptures, in their literal interpretation, I don’t care about. I don’t care that I don’t understand every verse of the book of Revelation. I don’t care that some of the Fathers view the days of creation as literal days and others don’t. It’s perfectly fine to have an opinion, but, ultimately, that which is shrouded in the mystery of the mind of God brings me a source of wonder and peace, not a source of frustration, because that which can be figured out by man is of man. So we need to change… There’s so much we have to do in changing the way we approach things when we become Orthodox. It’s really hard, to be Orthodox.

Here again, holding Scripture in the proper regard aids us in our purification. It aids us in being obedient. It aids us in the renunciation of our own will. And it is very much a prayerful act, and very much a part of our purification.

Now a special word about the psalms. The psalms have always been seen as Scripture, as prayer, par excellence. This is apparent to any of you who’ve graced the doors of an Orthodox church, because the psalms are constant and prominent in their use in the services of the Church. As usual, St. John the Golden-mouth puts it best. He usually does. Hear what he has to say about the psalms.

If we keep vigil in the church…

That is, if we come to the services.

...David comes first, last, and central. If early in the morning we want songs and hymns, first, last, and central is David again. If we are occupied with funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, or if the virgins sit at home spinning…

I presume he means knitting, not like a spins class with the bikes. [Laughter] But even if it’s that—

...David is first, last, and central. O amazing wonder! Many who have made no progress in literature know the psalter by heart, nor is it only in city and churches that David is famous. He is in the village market, in the desert, in uninhabitable lands. In all of these he excites the praise of God. In monasteries, among those holy choirs of angelic armies—David is first, last, and central. In the convents of virgins, where there are communities of those who imitate Mary; in the deserts where men are crucified to the world, who live their life in heaven with God—David is first, last, and central. All other men at night are overcome by sleep. David alone is active, and, gathering the servants of God into seraphic bands, he turns earth into heaven and converts men into angels.

Not to be outdone, St. Basil the Great says the following about the psalms.

A psalm is a city of refuge from demons. A psalm is a means of inducing help from angels. A psalm is a weapon against fear in the night. A psalm is rest from the toil of the day. A psalm is a safeguard for infants. A psalm is an adornment for those at the height of their strength. A psalm is a consolation for the elderly. A psalm is a most-fitting ornament for women. Psalms people the solitudes.

In other words, psalms give us comfort when we’re alone.

Psalms rid us of the marketplace of excess.

In other words, gives us peace when our life is crowded.

Psalms are the elementary exposition of beginners, the improvement of those advancing, and the solid support of the perfect. The psalms are the voice of the Church. They brighten feast days. They create sorrow which is in accordance with God. For a psalm calls for a tear even from a heart of stone. A psalm is the work of angels, a heavenly institution, a spiritual incense.

The reading of psalms as prayer is a fundamental part of worship in the Orthodox Church. And the reading of those psalms have their own rhythm and their own road map, just as the epistles and the gospels do. The psalms are divided into sections that are to be read each day and at each service during each time of the day. While reading the entire sections appointed to each time of the day can be very imposing, I encourage all of you to at least incorporate some of the rhythm of the psalmody into your Scripture reading and prayer life. And right there, Mark, I have the road map.

No Scripture can be better read as prayer than the psalms. David’s praises become our praises. David’s sin becomes our sin. David’s repentance becomes our repentance. David’s enemies become our spiritual enemies. We should not and we cannot separate the reading of Scripture from prayer. We should not and we cannot separate the reading of Scripture from our renunciation of the world. We cannot and should not separate the reading of Scripture from our repentance. We cannot and should not separate the reading of Scripture from our obedience. And we should not and we cannot separate the reading of Scriptures from the power of the Holy Spirit.

I will close by quoting Fr. John Breck in his book, The Power of the Word. “The first step in this renewal—“and he’s talking about the use and understanding of Scriptures.

The first step in this renewal involves overcoming a purely verbal understanding of the word. Protestant theology has rightly insisted on the indispensable role of preaching in the Church’s life as well as in its mission to the world. All too frequently, however, the concept of the word of God in Reformed tradition has been reduced to the canonical Scriptures or even to the sermon, as though one or the other possessed in and of itself the capacity to transmit knowledge of God and establish communion with him.

Human words can become the very word of God only through the inspirational and interpretive power of the Holy Spirit. Only the risen Christ, the eternal divine Word, operating through the Spirit, can open men’s minds to understand the Scriptures, bring them to remembrance, and help them to understand the fullness of his teaching in declaring the hidden truths of the age to come. It is only through Christ that the glory of God the Father can be revealed through the Scriptures.

The reading of Scripture is a holy bidding, brothers and sisters. It is a fundamental aspect and component of our purification. And I hope these few words tonight have helped us to maybe re-think or re-orient a little bit of how we approach them. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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