It seems to be very easy to be busy in service, and even in theological studies, and to have a low view of the Scriptures. I mean that we can be sure that the Bible is important. And we can even feel that we really should read a portion of the Bible ourselves every day, but for most of the time we get by with a sense that modern theological works, or learning and practicing hymns and rites, or even teaching others about pressing social issues, is where real life is at, and the Scriptures are necessary, but rather boring to be honest.
It is even possible to be working on a Bible study, and practically have a low view of the Scriptures, as a text to be studied, and as a means of categorising and cataloguing commentary, but for it not to be almost the most important and fruitful source of our experience of God each day.
When we look at the Fathers, such as St John Chrysostom, St Cyril, St Severus, we find that much of their theological, pastoral and spiritual insight is essentially exposition of the Scriptures. If we take the example of the Commentary on the Gospel of St Luke by St Cyril of Alexandria, we can see that it is being presented as a series of Bible Studies. He has not sat down to produce a written Commentary which he would then publish and make available in Christian Bookshops throughout fifth century Egypt. On the contrary, before all else, he is standing in front of a gathering of Christians in Alexandria and is teaching theology, spirituality and applying pastoral care in the context of exposition of the Scriptures.
We can see this in the words which were written down verbatim it would seem. Though certainly we can imagine that he edited them as necessary. But on the occasion when he was teaching about Luke 2:8-18, we find him beginning with the words…
Let me begin my discourse to you with that which is written in the book of Psalms, “Come let us praise the Lord, and sing unto God our Saviour:” for He is the Head of our feast-day, and therefore let us tell His noble doings, and relate the manner of that beautifully contrived dispensation, by means of which He has saved the world, and having placed on each one of us the yoke of His kingdom, is justly the object of our admiration.
This is his opening sentence, and he is speaking to a crowd of people, not an academic audience of readers of a book. Immediately he turns to the Scriptures and quotes from the Psalms, and this becomes a means of introducing the theology of our salvation, and the spiritual reality of our service in the Kingdom. We will not consider exactly what he said on that occasion, but the text shows that through exposition of the Scriptures he presented theology, spirituality and pastoral insight.
In the very next gathering, when he led the congregation in thinking about Luke 2:21-24, we find this same sense that we are present at an actual Bible Study. He begins, “Very numerous indeed is the assembly, and earnest the hearer, for we see the Church full, but the teacher is but poor.” We would all be pleased to find Churches filled. In this experience of St Cyril, the Church was filled because people wanted to come and hear and learn what the Scriptures had to say.
In these two Sermons, out of all those we could consider, he does not refer to a single other Father of the Church. Of course, we know that he does in other places and on other occasions. But his emphasis is on allowing Scripture to interpret and explain Scripture. In the second of these Bible Studies, for instance, he quotes passages in the Scriptures twelve times in one short study, and much of the rest of his teaching is in allusion to other passages of Scripture.
We can be sure that he knew the writings of all the great Fathers of his time, but when he came to teach his own people, he chose to base himself firmly and almost entirely on the Scriptures. Probably all of us enjoy the study of theology, and even the study of the Bible as a text. But the Patristic mindset seems different to our own, and therefore should give us a pause for thought.
If I turn to the Letters of St Athanasius, in case this concentration on the Scriptures is because of a special setting that influence St Cyril, we find that in his first Letter as Bishop he quotes from the Scriptures at least 27 times, and much of the rest of his language is alluding or referring to other passages in Scripture.
Even if turn to a later Father, such as St Severus, in his first theological Letter to Sergius, he quotes directly from the Scriptures 23 times in the one letter. He certainly quotes from St Cyril of Alexandria as much, even more, but the purpose of the letter is to show that Sergius is not properly understanding or following the Christology of St Cyril. Nevertheless, it is significant that even in such a context St Severus turns to the Scriptures 23 times.
In our modern times, it seems to me that we might read and write a great many words and relate them all back in a notional sense to a verse or two of Scripture. But we are generally unlikely to be so immersed in the Scriptures that they overflow in everything we say and write and think. We are not students of the Scriptures just because we have a lot of interesting and useful books about the Bible. We are not even students of the Scriptures, it seems to me, if we have a lot of Patristic texts which refer to the Scriptures, in passages we usually skate over because we do not expect anything interesting to be revealed.
But for the Fathers, the Scriptures were everything. Not as if St Cyril sat in his office with a Concordance and looked up a useful passage to support something he wanted to say. Rather everything he wanted to say was built on a personal experience of engagement with the Scriptures and in finding divine life in them.
Of course, none of this means that works of theology and modern academic texts are not useful and should not be written. But there is something missing in our experience and spirituality if the Scriptures are not alive to us as they were to all of the Fathers of the Church. We all desire a renewal of the Patristic in the Church, in our own Church. I support this entirely as something looked for in all the 26 years of my membership of the Church. But for us to become authentically Patristic must surely mean that we embrace and engage with and value the Scriptures as they did. It is not enough for us to know in general what they might have said about particular passages of the Scriptures. These Scriptures and these passages must come to mean as much to us as they did to them.
Do we read a lot of the Scriptures, with prayerfulness and seeking the voice of God? Do we find ourselves sad to be drawn away from reading more of a passage, or sad that we feel an obligation to read a small passage as quickly as possible? Do we ever feel that we want to read just a little bit more, or do we always feel that we want to read a little bit less? Do we ever pick up a complete book of the Bible and read it all the way through with as much attention and interest as a modern novel, or a modern work of theology?
This is not to be judgemental. Though I judge myself critically in this respect. It is to point out that the Fathers knew the Scriptures very intimately and found spiritual nourishment in them. They could quote at least the substance of many passages, and perhaps many more verses than we are able to or would even choose to do. We cannot be Patristic, or consider ourselves the Disciples of the Fathers, if we do not share their living and life-giving relationship with God in the Scriptures.
If we consider a few of the spiritual Fathers in their consideration of the place of the Scriptures in our spirituality. St John Cassian, teaching about how to overcome the demon of unchastity, says,
“Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil and manual labour. These are able to check the restless impulses of the soul and to recall it from its shameful fantasies. Humility of soul helps more than everything else, however, and without it no one can overcome unchastity or any other sin.”
Within the context of these other necessary spiritual means, St John Cassian is clear, we need to be frequently meditating on the Scriptures. Those two words are important. Frequent and Meditate. Both need to be present if we are to overcome the assaults if the enemy in the case of unchastity or any other sin. It is no good having such a relationship with the Scriptures so that we only occasionally pick them up and reflect deeply on their meaning for us and to us. Equally, it is of little use or fruitfulness to often pick up the Scriptures but to hardly make any effort to discover the voice of God in them. We must do both. We must meditate, reflect deeply and prayerfully on what we are reading, and we must do this frequently.
St John Cassian also describes how to overcome the demon of listlessness, or that desire to just give up with everything. He says, “His attacks become stronger and more violent, and he cannot be beaten off except through prayer, through avoiding useless speech, through the study of the Holy Scriptures and through patience in the face of temptation.” Once again, one of the necessary components of our spiritual resistance is the study of the Holy Scriptures. Not just the casual reading of Scripture but such an investment of time and energy that it can be called study.
One other short passage on the Scriptures is from St Mark the Ascetic, who says, “When reading the Holy Scriptures, he who is humble and engaged in spiritual work will apply everything to himself and not to someone else.” There is a way of reading the Scriptures which is fruitful and one which is not. If we are humble and engaged in our own service, both in the interior effort required of us, and in our external service to others, then we will not be puffed up in our studies but will find greater humility in applying what we discover to ourselves. Indeed, this is surely the purpose of the Scriptures, as St Paul writes to Timothy. It is that we become complete, perfect, mature and receive all that we need in the study of the Scriptures with prayer for our life of service to God and others.
The Scriptures have to make a difference. We can apply this to our own service in various ways, and our own necessary work and employment or study. If we hear God speak to us in the Scriptures, and if we are humble and obedient, then this encounter with God in prayerfulness will overflow into our ordinary lives. At first perhaps we do not hear the divine voice so clearly, but as we take more time with the Scriptures, so that we can say with the Psalmist David, “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path,” then it becomes more and more necessary to us and not a chore to a duty to turn to it.
As a lamp it becomes our guide, or rather the means to hear the voice of the one who is Way, the Truth and the Life. We learn, most importantly, that nothing matters before seeking the Kingdom of God, and that we are each of us labourers in the Vineyard of the Lord, and not master of our own life. Or rather, we can be master of our own life, but it will not then be the divine life which is offered us in union with God. If I hear the word of God and his life has become my own life, then everything I do is viewed in a different way. I no longer live for myself, either in my service, or my work, or my studies, or my family, or my aspirations. But I wait always to hear what my Lord asks of me.
Perhaps I am working on the something particular in the Church. That is a blessing indeed. But I must never imagine that even such a project belongs to me. If it is a service according to the will of God, then it must belong to Him. And if it belongs to Him then I must seek such maturity and spiritual growth that I am able to turn to some other service when he asks me. As soon as I believe that something belongs to me, I do not mean in terms of responsibility and duty, but in terms of ownership, then it no longer belongs to God and I am no longer a labourer in his vineyard but working for myself.
This applies to whatever service we are engaged in. As soon as we have to do it because it is our service, and we do not want someone else to do it, then we are no longer serving God but ourselves and our own desires and ambitions. We can easily deceive ourselves. We can imagine that it is best for us to do something because we will do it better than someone else, better than everyone else. But God does not ask us to do things because we can do them better. He asks only that we be obedient and humble.
When we think of what service we might perform, I believe the Scriptures lead us to always volunteer first for the jobs that no one else wants, and always to volunteer last, or not at all, for the jobs that everyone wants. This is an attitude we can apply throughout our life. It is no more than the Lord Jesus teaches us when he says, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”
This should not only be how we position ourselves in our particular service, but it should be how we seek to live in all circumstances. When we are last of all then we are not disturbed by others very easily. Much of our anxiety and stress and frustration comes from expecting things to be different to how they are, and to our being treated differently than we think we deserve. But as we grow in humility through obedience, we discover that what matters most is how we live and act in this moment.
We can discover that each day is not filled with random activities that have little meaning or significance. On the contrary we can learn that in every moment we have the opportunity to grow into closer union with God or to find ourselves moving away from union. Each moment is filled with eternal significance and meaning. It doesn’t matter if we are engaged in a special project, in our ordinary church service, at work or in our studies, or with our family. Every moment, every interaction is of eternal significance.
It is in this context that the words of the Scriptures come to life. They speak into our daily life and ordinary circumstances, and when we meditate on them, frequently and prayerfully, they come back to our mind, by the grace of God, and teach us, rebuke us, convict us, inspire us and encourage us in the smallest ways and humblest of activities.
If only we valued the Scriptures more, and if only we saw how precious each moment is. When we become spiritual men and women our very thinking becomes filled with the words of the Scriptures, and every moment becomes an opportunity to encounter God and apply these divine and inspired words to the ordinary circumstances of our life. Our lives gain meaning not in discovering some important ministry that no one else can do, but in finding the presence of God in the opportunities of each day.
When we are able to be obedient to the word of God and the voice of God, so that whether we do this or that is the same for us, then we are able to give ourselves freely to service, as under the authority of the Lord of the Vineyard, and we are no longer seeking to serve ourselves even in a manner that we hide from ourselves. The frequent meditation on the Scriptures is a necessary component of this spiritual development in us.
Those whose words we value most, the great Fathers of the Church, were those who found the Scriptures coming alive to them, so that the words filled their minds and thoughts and were the basis of their service and experience of God. We have the same opportunity, especially if we wish to become Patristically minded. It is not enough to know about the Scriptures. We must become those who are rooted in the Scriptures so that we bear fruit of the Holy Spirit and transform every moment into an opportunity to hear the voice of God. In obedience to that voice our humble service in every situation becomes service to God.