The Communion of a Book

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.”

10 Responses to “The Communion of a Book”

  1. bencstrs Says:

    Amen Father. . .
    Praise God for His inspiration to you. Let us “eat the words” of our savior.

    On a side note, I’d be interested to hear what you think of the/any connection between art in general (like those jingles, the hallelujah chorus of Bach, or even a very spiritual U2 song) and the spiritual realm.

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    Everything is connected. Some things are connected positively and some negatively. But there is no such thing as a “neutral” connection, nor something existing that has no relation to God.

    Of course, it also matters what you do with some things. A stick has a connection and can be good as a walking stick, and not good as a murder weapon, if you see what I mean.

  3. Matthew Says:

    As we seek communion with the Living God through His Holy Scriptures and seek to acquire a proper interpretation of them in symphony with the mind of the Church, may I humbly suggest the Gospel Commentaries of Blessed Theophylact as an indispensable resource.

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    Good suggestion. I enjoy mine. I would also strongly suggest that readers also move beyond interpretation as an intellectual activity, and study for the sake of communion with God – the largest portion of which is to read the word, take it into our heart, and embody its commandments. Our religious culture in America has long stressed the “understanding” or “interpretation” of Scripture, engaging in arguments and speculations, etc. Communion with God as the proper end of Scripture is a different matter and one which I wish to emphasize.

    Study is good, but can become an end in itself. Forgive me.

  5. Allen Long Says:

    Father,

    Do you have any suggestions for Bible Study? How do you see it fitting in the life of a believer? Should it be regularly scheduled, as we schedule our daily prayers? I am new to the Orthodox church, having been in pastoral ministries in “evangelical Bible churches” for 30 years. I have benefited greatly from your blog. Thank you, for taking the time to write.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    I certainly don’t mean to discourage study – I think especially we should study and strive to place Scripture in our hearts (memorization is essential). St. Seraphim’s daily reading of the gospels is a good example. I study myself, and use every tool at my hand – Orthodox commentaries, word studies, etc., but I’m also in the position of teaching regularly. But if you have the tools for good study it’s an important discipline.

    Daily reading of Scripture (at least the appointed readings of the day) or reading in some organized manner through the gospels, etc. is good. But always, struggling to take it into our heart and make it part of our lives. “Praying” the Scriptures is useful. Some of the commandments break me, and all I can do is pray and ask for grace. But that’s good, too.

    One of the most interesting commentary on Scriptures is the Menaion (the variable hymns for the daily services of the saints) or the Festal Menaion (the variable hymns for the great feasts) and the Lenten Triodion, etc. make interesting commentaries on Scripture in that they make great use of typological interpretation that is so much a part of the Church’s devotional reading of Scripture. Just some thoughts…

  7. Matt Says:

    I have an aged uncle, a Pentecostal preacher, who reads the Bible through each year (and the Psalms each week) and has memorized all the Psalms, the Gospels, most of the epistles, and the minor prophets. His preaching is amazing because half the time it is the words of Obadiah, Paul, James, David, or Peter he is speaking. If his listeners are not familiar with the texts I’m sure that can’t tell where his words end and Scripture begins. Interestingly, he does not do that with the words of Jesus. When ever he quotes Jesus he says, “The lord said” before he quotes him. I’ve never asked him about it. I should.

  8. Isaac the Syrian Says:

    I have a few different audio versions of scripture including Johnny Cash reading from the NKJV. I find this to be a great help to make use of driving times or when I am doing chores around the house to also hear the scripture. It is not quite the same as a more structured reading on a particular topic, but the constant hearing tends to bring a greater familiarity with the Bible. It never fails as I go through the NT that I find new insights and passages that I had not retained before.

  9. Well Worth Reading « Orthodox Harlemite Says:

    […] Worth Reading As usual, Fr. Stephen has posted something on his Glory to God for All Things blog site that is well worth reading. As someone whose […]

  10. Allen Long Says:

    Thank you, Father.

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