Archive for July 20th, 2008

The Communion of a Book

July 20, 2008

I did not list the Scriptures on my list of “books of influence,” since it would seem somehow wrong to place it as a book among other books. Of course, it is a book, but it is unlike anything else we read. Over the body of the dead we chant the psalms so long as the body lies in the Church. If it is the body of a priest, we chant the gospels over the body so long as it lies in the Church. This is not a book like other books.

St. Seraphim of Sarov, great wonderworker and Staretz of the early 19th century, made it a practice to read one gospel each day. During Holy Week, following the directions of the Typicon, we read all four gospels in the Church over the first few mornings of the week in the context of praying the hours of the day. There is something unique in listening to the gospel in that manner – from beginning to end. They are not like other books.

St. John says:

And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us (1 John 3:22-24).

There is a communion that exists with the words of Scripture, just as surely as there is a communion that exists with Christ’s Body and Blood. Christ not only speaks to us, but He dwells in the very words He speaks, so that when we hear them, take them into our heart, and do them, there is a communion. The life of God, given to us in His word becomes our life.

And so, just as this is not a book like any other book, so we, as believers, do not read it like any other book. Sometimes we read it. Sometimes we sing it. Sometimes its very words direct the steps of our feet (I think of the “Dance of Isaiah” in an Orthodox wedding). But if we are to read as believers, then we must read listening for the voice of our Savior. It is not so much that we’re trying to hear unique and special messages, but simply to hear the living voice of God who speaks in the cadences of the heart.

My first serious encounter with Scripture (other than short memorizing of verses in Sunday School, and memorizing Psalms in public school – yes, in the South, in the 50’s, we memorized Psalms in public school) but my first more or less adult encounter with Scripture was with the Sermon on the Mount. I knew the words vaguely, but at about age 15 I read them and they seemed to me to be the clear voice of God. And it seemed to me that if these words were true, then much else I had been told was not true. It was, for me, the first glimpse of the Kingdom of God. I have never been satisfied with Christianity by the half-measure ever since, and sometimes despised myself and my own half-measures during my years as a protestant pastor. I did not have to live half-measures then – it was no one’s fault but my own. But when I came to the Orthodox faith I repented of half-measured Christianity and wanted to drink it to its very depths. Of course, I still seem to be in the “sipping stage,” the glass is so full.

The prophet Jeremiah declared:

Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O LORD God of hosts (Jer. 15:10).

The Fathers of the 7th Council said that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This of course is a dogma of the Orthodox Church. Though we live in a word filled with images we do not consider the communion we have with those images – how certain things have been burned into our minds and hearts – how some images seem to remain long after they are seen. We also live in a world filled with words and they burn their way into our ears and hearts. Craftily fashioned jingles from radio and television rumble into our minds unbidden and linger like so many household spirits. And we do not see the communion we have with these songs. We become walking exhibits of Marshall McLuen’s world, bits and bytes of information and song sharing only in their commercial connection if that. But they bring us communion with Mammon.

Better that we eat the Word of God and have communion with paradise. I suggested that we might pray each day at least as much as we read. That is a rule to apply apart from Scripture – for reading Scripture (with the heart) becomes a prayer, a liturgy, a communion with the Word Himself.

I shared the story of a hospice patient a while back who prayed a prayer with me until she had no breath left to pray. She said to me, “You can’t pray too much.” The same lady had read her Bible a full 95 times from beginning to end in her lifetime. She made a mark in the front of her Bible each time she finished reading. In such a case it is probably true to say, “You can’t read too much.”