Dear Brothers and Sisters, dear friends in Christ,
Now that Lent is coming, I wish to speak with you about sacred reading, sometimes known as “spiritual reading.” I will begin by looking at the value and importance of sacred reading—why we need to do it. Then we will look at what we should read, in other words, what is the reading material for sacred reading. Finally we will think about how we should read when we do sacred reading, for sacred reading is a sacred activity in itself. I hope that thinking about these things together will help us grow in love for one another and for the Lord, that we may be able to hear His voice as we read.
First, what is the value and importance of sacred reading? On a very basic level, when we do sacred reading we are putting good and pious thoughts into our mind. This is something we always need to be doing, but it is especially important during the Great Fast, when we fast not only from foods but also from our reliance on media and entertainments. With our phones and computers, we are at risk to fill our God-given minds with vast amounts of useless information! Is this not true? Worse still, much of this information forms our mind and thinking in a way that is worldly in the bad sense of the term, feeding what the Holy Apostle Paul calls the “carnal mind,” which is at enmity with God and unable to be subject to His ways (Romans 8:7). We also know from experience that filling our minds with endless trivia leads to a feeling of personal emptiness and futility.
Sacred reading, on the other hand, is a powerful way of acquiring the “mind of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:16). When we do sacred reading we enter into, and make our own, the culture of the Holy Spirit in the Church. In this sense, sacred reading is a kind of “discipline,” or learning process. As we read and take in the things of God, we begin to grow in love and in zeal to feel His Presence. Instead of being stuck in the endless repetitive cycle of our own thoughts, which sometimes accuse and sometimes excuse us (Romans 2,15), we begin to break free and open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, the “Giver of Life.”
Let us next look at what we should read. What is the “reading material,” so to speak, of sacred reading? The place of honor is held by Sacred Scripture. These are the writings of the Old and New Testament which have been revealed in the Church as divinely inspired. As Saint Athanasios the Great tells us (De Incarnatione 56), these writings were spoken and written by God through human beings who thus are “theologians,” that is, who speak the words of God Himself. The writers of Sacred Scripture—the Holy Apostles and Evangelists, the Holy God-Seer Moses, the Holy Prophets and other sacred writers—are the real theologians, who speak divine things to us.
And this is not all. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Apostles spoke of the wonders of God to the crowds, so that those who heard were “pierced to the heart” (Acts 2:1-37). This prophetic utterance, or theology, continues in the Church down the centuries to our own times though the mouths and writings of those who have been purified and illumined like the Apostles, and who from their sharing in the Kingdom and Beauty of God are able to illumine others. Recognized in the Church as truly holy, these men and women illumine us by their words and writings. All of this constitutes the “treasures of Orthodox Theology” that we hear of on the Feast of the Holy Theophany. All of this is our patrimony as Orthodox Christians. Thus the reading material of sacred reading is above all the Sacred Scriptures, but it also includes the many writings of holy people, of different ages and walks of life, and the descriptions of their lives and spiritual struggles which have been passed down in the Church. By our reading we are encouraged in our own lives and struggles! We receive instruction which is of a special order: more than human wisdom, it is the distillation, so to speak, of the Holy Spirit operating in “those made perfect in Faith” (cf. the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom). For this reason, these writings are called Spiritual and our reading of them is Spiritual Reading.
One of the greatest examples of such writings is The Ladder of Divine Ascent of Saint John Climacus. This book has been read especially during Lent by devout Orthodox of many walks of life since it was written fourteen centuries ago.
In the Ladder, as in all spiritual writings, there will be much that we do not understand. This is actually a good thing! What we can understand and grasp is simply what we are already familiar with, what we are comfortable with. In order to begin to understand the things of God, however, we have to have an affinity with them. Thus when we engage in sacred reading, we are in the process of growing beyond our limited capacity—our carnal mind. It is natural, therefore, that we will encounter things that at first seem strange and do not make obvious sense. This is a great opportunity for a conversation with our priest, which would be personal and relevant, enabling us to be edified, built up, as we seek together the ways of God. A priest by his training and reading--and according to his greater or lesser measure of spiritual experience--is able at least to help remove some of our misunderstandings, and thus allow us to listen and be open to what the Lord has to say. We can also seek advice and counsel from our priest about what we might most usefully read during Lent, given where we are in our life in Christ and our daily responsibilities.
Finally, how should we read when we are doing sacred reading? It is clear that the way we do sacred reading is going to be different from ordinary reading, since we want to hear the Lord speaking to us as we read. Like the Holy Prophet Samuel, we cry out from our heart, “Speak, Lord, Thy servant is listening!” (1 Samuel 3:10) Here we are not reading in order to have read, just so we can say, “I’ve done it! Finished!” Nor are we reading in order to get information, data or ideas which we can then use as a means to some other end, maybe to get a degree or to win an argument. Far less are we are reading out of idle curiosity, as can happen when people are surfing the Internet. Rather, we are earnestly seeking our salvation. We are applying to ourselves what we are reading. We read with compunction, our hearts being pierced as was the case with those who heard the Holy Apostles on the day of Pentecost. We are seeking God. We are reading as if the Lord Himself were personally speaking to us, which is in fact the case! We want to hear what He has to say in us (Psalm 84:8). We want to feed on the divine words and to be nourished by them.
This mode of sacred reading has at times been called rumination. It is a kind of chewing the cud, in which we extract the divine nourishment present for us. A small passage may be enough. Such reading is devout and deeply reverent. It does not remain on the surface but penetrates to the marrow. As we read, we are communing with and meeting the Lord Himself present in Sacred Scripture and in the writings and lives of His holy ones, which are fragrant with the Grace of the Holy Spirit.
Such reading is meant to lead us to personal change and repentance, which in turn lead us back to a more profound reading, in an unending spiral movement toward God. Listen again to what Saint Athanasios says:
“But in addition to study and true knowledge of the Scriptures are needed a good life and pure soul, and virtue in Christ, so that the mind, journeying in this path, may be able to obtain and apprehend what it desires, in so far as human nature is able to learn about God the Word. For without a pure mind and a life modelled on the saints, no one can apprehend the words of the saints…he who wishes to grasp the thought of the theologians must first cleanse and wash his soul by his conduct, and approach the saints in imitation of their deeds, so that being included in their company by the manner of his life, he may understand those things which have been revealed to them by God” (De Incarnatione 57: 1-16).
In this way we in some measure can begin to enter into the experience of the holy writers as we read their words. This, dear friends, is the goal of sacred reading. I hope that by pondering these things together we may be stirred to give more time to sacred reading during the Great Fast and, like the Most Holy Theotokos, hear the Word of God and preserve it in our heart (Luke 2:19 and 51).
Father Paul Burholt
Mission of St. Basil the Great, Marietta, GA
Zacchaeus Sunday (February 14, 2016)