Risky Business – Revisited

I offer this reprint from last year – my pilgrimage time in Jerusalem is not leaving much time for writing. It is obvious in this city of Holy Places that how we keep such places – including those within the heart is deeply important. This reprint seemed to fit those thoughts. May God bless.

Amoun found Abba Poemen and told him, “When I visit a neighbor or he visits me, he hesitate to talk with each other. We are afraid that we might bring up a worldly topic.

The old man replied, “Yes, young people need to guard their mouths.”

Amoun asked, “But how do old men handle this problem?”

Abba Poemen said, “Those who have advanced in virtue no longer have any worldliness in them. Nothing will taint their speech.”

Amoun continued his questioning. “When I must speak with my neighbor, should I speak of the Scriptures or of the Fathers?”

The old man answered, “It is best to keep silence. If you can’t, talk about the sayings of the Fathers. Speaking about the Scriptures is risky.”

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

In our modern world the above conversation of two monks in the desert sounds rather quaint. We have very little concern about our subjects for conversations. As autonomous individuals, we talk about whatever we want to talk about and never give a second thought as to whether the topic was suitable or whether our words were helpful or harmful.

I was particularly struck by Abba Poemen’s statement that “speaking about the Scriptures is risky.” It brought a smile. Of course, all this has radically changed in our culture. The Bible is no longer a rare book (or copied laboriously by hand). Everyone has numerous copies (usually) and more opinions than copies.

I was making a presentation several years ago at a fundamentalist Christian school in Tennessee. Somewhere in the course of my comments I spoke about the 6th chapter of St. John’s gospel and Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist within it (though it occurs as a commentary on the feeding of the 5,000 – it is most decidedly a teaching on the Eucharist). It is in this chapter that Christ says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you,” and many similar things.

A young man (a freshman) in the audience approached me after the lecture and was absolutely beside himself. He began to argue and to explain how the passage could not be about the Eucharist and how Christ was speaking figuratively about something else. I pointed out to him that even Protestant scholars agree that the chapter concerns the Eucharist – but to no avail.

Discussing Scripture is risky business. Part of what is missing in our Christian culture is a proper reverence for the Word of God. Even those who claim to hold it as utterly infallible in every jot and tittle, do not hesitate to use it in an cavalier manner.

I can recall several years ago a conversation that occurred within a group of Orthodox priests. The subject was the ever-Virginity of the Mother of God. Someone mentioned some of the traditional physical details associated with this doctrine. The conversation quickly ceased. One of the priests said, “I cannot discuss such things about the Mother of God.” There was no disagreement among the priests, only a sense that somethings are better left unsaid and that respect dictates that silence is best in some matters.

It was very instructive for me. The Holy always involves “boundaries” (I have written about this before). In an Orthodox Church such boundaries are particularly emphasized in the “boundary” of the altar area, and even within the altar area, the boundary of the altar itself. Only some may enter the altar area, and then only with a blessing. And generally, only bishops, priests and deacons may touch the holy altar or the things that are on it. It is an action, or refraining from action, that helps interiorize the reality of the Holy and how we should handle such things.

The Scriptures are certainly Holy, and should be rightly handled, that is rightly interpreted. But there is rarely a Godly fear in approaching such a task. Were such respect present, we would argue less and listen more, and many times remain silent.

It is utterly essential in the Christian life that believers begin to pay attention to their inner life and the state of their souls and dwell less in the fantasy of ideas and argument. The Christian faith is a way of salvation that involves the transformation of our inmost being – it is not a set of ideas with which we are trying to conquer the world.

None of this is to suggest restricted access to the Scriptures. Neither do I mean to suggest restricting access to the Holy (indeed in an Orthodox service, the Body and Blood of Christ are brought forth from the altar and given to the faithful to eat). What I mean to suggest is that we think about what it means that something is Holy and treat it accordingly. For with such treatment our hearts will begin to recognize things in the “truth of their being” and realize as well that we are not autonomous individuals in charge of the universe, but are, at most, servants of the Most High God, to Whom be glory.

11 Responses to “Risky Business – Revisited”

  1. blackincense Says:

    Dear Fr.
    Fr. bless!

    Thank you so much for this beautiful “reprint”…it was very timely for me, personally. God be with you in the Holy Land.

    In Christ,
    Suzanne

  2. Shevaberakhot Says:

    Father,

    This is very, very profound. Beyond this boundary, the human soul finds herself either in the brilliance of the Father’s Light, or in outer darkness.

    Selah.

  3. Lucy Says:

    Excellent post. Thank you for running it again.

  4. Dave Michie Says:

    Dear Father,

    Thank you for your blog. I enjoy reading your thoughts along the way!

    If the “fear” of Scripture was one of holy respect who could argue. I have observed not that sort of fear but an actual “I’m scared of using it” mentality among certain Orthodox Christians I have met. Even on matters of biblical ethics and morality where Scripture is plain and interpretation is not an issue, there is much more willingness to quote the Fathers or even personal opinion, than St. Paul for example.

    I wonder if maybe the actual reason for this attitude has more to do with ignorance of Scriptures than fear of it. Just a thought.

    Dave Michie

  5. Shevaberakhot Says:

    Dave,

    Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, quoted scripture at Satan. He sets the precedent. Scripture is a sharp double edged sword, and has the power to give eternal life, or to separate bone from marrow.

    St. Paul continued this fine tradition with a “new” strategic imperative — namely that mankind’s fight is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness in high places, etc.

    I think Father Stephen’s point was that Jesus can easily be misquoted, and we know too that scripture is frequently misinterpreted. Sometimes it is better to be silent and to pray for illumination, than to walk into a trap.

    Bless.

  6. Dave Michie Says:

    Shevaberakhot,

    Of course you are correct in all your points. My response did in fact change the subject somewhat and in retrospect it was probably not the way to suddenly begin replying to Father’s posts.

    Thanks for the indulgence!

  7. clary Says:

    This is so true, talking about Scripture is risky. I believe you express perfectly the ultimate goal as Christians and how to impact those around us:

    “It is utterly essential in the Christian life that believers begin to pay attention to their inner life and the state of their souls and dwell less in the fantasy of ideas and argument. The Christian faith is a way of salvation that involves the transformation of our inmost being – it is not a set of ideas with which we are trying to conquer the world.”

    If all of us manage to do this, we do right. Actions speak much louder than words.
    Thank you for your words.

  8. Shevaberakhot Says:

    Dave,

    Just to clarify (I speak for none but myself), purgatory, indulgences, and anything less than one-storey eschatology, is not my thing.

    Apologies to Father Stephen if my response was in any way amiss.

    Bless.

  9. handmaidleah Says:

    Shevaberakhot writes: “Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, quoted scripture at Satan. He sets the precedent.”

    Our Lord walked upon water, healed and raised the dead, too. As of yet, I can do none of these things so why should I consider myself worthy to interpret & quote Sacred Scripture – especially if my personal sinfulness and ignorance would lead me into error or possibly lead another astray?

    Forgive me if this sounds flippant, I do not mean it that way.
    Fr. Stephen writes: “Discussing Scripture is risky business.”
    Amen and for a myriad of reasons.

  10. The Boar’s Head Tavern Says:

    […] I think there is something to that. I tend more towards the line of thought of Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman in a recent post on his blog: […]

  11. Steve Says:

    Wise words handmaidleah, amen.

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