by Fr. Thomas Hopko
Then I remember sentences like St. Tikhon of Zadonsk in Russia, who on his desk when he was writing his books had only really two books: the Bible and a commentary of some parts of the Bible by St. John Chrysostom. Everything is there in the holy Scripture. [It was] St. Seraphim of Sarov who said,
“We should swim in the words of the holy Scripture, like a fish is swimming in the water.”
It’s the air we breathe, it’s the food we [eat], and so on.
Then way back in the second century, you have the early Church Fathers, the apologists, who were collecting Scriptures and comparing Scriptures, Old Testament texts, New Testament texts, trying their best to have the best possible texts and to understand it properly. I think it was perhaps Origen—maybe not good to mention him, although he was a great biblical scholar; he made some mistakes in life and then he had some… sadly, he was the victim of having some very unenlightened disciples who kind of ruined his reputation pretty badly—but in any case, Origen said that “the blood that flows through the veins of Christ, the holy Church, is the blood in which the holy Scriptures are written, and the words of the Scripture are our food.” The word of God, Jesus Christ, is in Scripture, we eat and drink the word of God. We commune with the word of God.
Yes, yes. Bible reading, Bible hearing, Bible contemplating, Bible chewing, reading those words, being acquainted with them deeply—that’s certainly the Orthodox tradition. Everyone who is ever consecrated a reader, technically had the prayer of blessing to be a reader in the Church, was exhorted and even commanded to read the Scriptures daily, to peruse the Scriptures daily.
There’s even a canon which I always love to mention when I get a chance: Seventh Ecumenical Council, second canon, Canon 2, which says that no man should be consecrated a bishop in the Orthodox Church who cannot recite the entire book of Psalms, the entire Psalter, by heart. By heart! By memory! Of course, in those days, that was probably not too hard to do, because you didn’t have all kinds of internet and Facebook and God-knows-what, Twitter and iPods and cds and players of all sorts and radio and TV and all that; that didn’t exist.
When you heard the Scripture, you pretty much always heard it—in fact, you almost always heard it, until modern America, you always heard it in the same translation, the same language. You became familiar with it, and so it wasn’t so hard. If you were a monk, for example, and you went to church every day and had the Psalter through once a week with all the other additional psalms at the various offices, various liturgical services, and you went through that for a couple of years, you would become very familiar with it.
My own children, my own little kids, when they were children, they went to church so much—of course, we took them to church—especially I remember they used to memorize the psalms of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. And they knew how to use them. I remember when I would try to get my kids to go to bed, they would say, they would quote to me:
“I will not give slumber to my eyes or sleep to my eyelids until I find the place for my Lord,”
or something. When I’d try to wake them up, they would say,
“It is in vain that you rise early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
So [they] always knew how to quote the Scripture; everybody knows how to quote it to their advantage. But the question is: How do you quote it for what it really means? How do you understand it? How do you read it? Of course, we remember the very famous sentence of St. Hilary of Poitiers, again in Latin, “Non in legendo sed in intelligendo.” The Bible, the holy Scriptures, the Graphoi, it’s not in the reading, in legendo; it’s in the understanding, intelligendo.
So it’s not enough to read the Scriptures. Lots of folks read the Scriptures. We want to understand the Scriptures. We want to know how we are to interpret them. We want to know how to interpret them properly. We want to know what kind of literature this is and how we are supposed to make it our own, how we’re supposed to use it.