Archive for March 20th, 2008

The Passions and the Reading of Scripture

March 20, 2008


The following comes from Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality. It underscores the need for the struggle against the passions if we are to read Scripture rightly.

“Man,” says St. Maximus, “has the absolute need for these two things, if he wants to keep the right way to God without error: the spiritual understanding of Scripture and the spiritual contemplation of God in nature.”

In his interpretation of the transfiguration of the Lord, Jesus’ shining face means the law of grace, which the veil no longer hides, while the white and glowing vestments means at the same time the letter of Scripture and nature, which both become transparent in the light of spiritual understanding full of grace. From the human face of the Logos light flows over the old Law and nature.

The spiritual understanding of Scripture is a permanent tradition of Eastern spiritual writing. In this context, St. Maximus also has the sternest words for those who can’t go beyond the literal meaning of Scripture. Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way:

He who doesn’t enter into the divine beauty and glory found in the letter of the Law falls under the power of the passions and becomes the slave of the world, which is subject to corruption… he has no integrity but what is subject to corruption.

The exact understanding of the words of the Spirit, however, are revealed only to those worthy of the Spirit; in other words, only those who by prolonged cultivation of the virtues have cleansed their mind of the soot of the passions receive the knowledge of things divine; it makes an impression and penetrates them at first contact.

So the spiritual understanding of Scripture or the entering into a relationship, by its words, with “the words” of the living meanings and with the deliberate energies of God, requires preparation as well as the knowledge of the logoi or of the living words and present workings of God by things. Those who are full of passions, to the extent that they are glued to the visible surface of things, are also glued to the letter of Scripture and its history; both nature and the letter of Scripture are for them the wall which blocks the road to God, rather than being transparent for them or a guide to Him.

So Scripture and nature too must be considered as a symbol, in the sense already discussed [in a previous chapter], as a medium by which the infinite depths of the spiritual meanings communicated by God as a person, shine through. He who isn’t submerged in them, he who doesn’t have this capacity, but limits himself to the letter on the surface, such a person cuts the ties of Scripture to the depths of God. If it contains the divine thoughts and intentions addressed to us and if these thoughts and intentions are eternally valid, Scripture must have an unending depth and a permanent validity, valid for every age and person. To understand Scripture in this way means to leave the confines of the letter and of the moment in time when a divine word was spoken for the first time and to understand it as referring to me personally, and to my generation, to our time, to our future; it means that when I read the letter I hear God Himself speaking to me and to us today, or about me and us, and about our duties. To understand Scripture in the “spirit” means to see the constant relationship between God and us, and to live it in the way it affects me, at the present moment, because I am living the present moment.