Abba Ammon said [to Abba Poemen]: “If I need to talk with my neighbour, do you think I should talk to him about the Scriptures, or about the sayings and judgments of the elders?” And the old man said to him: “If you cannot keep silence, it is much better to talk about the sayings of the elders than about the Scriptures. For the danger is no small one.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.20
It may be a curiosity to some why my reflections, which focus on Christian spiritual practice, almost entirely consist of musings on the sayings of the fathers and mothers of the Church rather than the Scriptures. To be sure, the Scriptures are not absent in my reflections, but on the other hand they are always only referenced in the context of seeking to understand one of “the sayings and judgments of the elders.” The reason is quite simple, as Abba Poemen puts it: “the danger is no small one.”
There are, of course, several other reasons why I focus on the fathers: few others are doing the same sort of thing; I wanted to share with other people what I found to be so wonderful in these ancient writings of our universal tradition; and I wanted a writing outlet that focused on something I really cared about and had nothing to do with politics and public policy.
However, one other reason is that there are very many books and blogs already in existence in which people offer their reflections upon the Scriptures. For one thing, if someone is interested, they can read those blogs. When supply is high in one industry, one ought not to expect to contribute anything significant. Additionally, I am not ordained. I have an education in theology and biblical studies, but I am not an official teacher of the Church and it is not my duty to interpret the Scriptures.
For that matter, it is not my duty to be anyone’s spiritual father. These are personal reflections, carrying no weight of authority whatsoever. If I have any spiritual children (other than my son and godson), they are illegitimate.
Most importantly, however, Abba Poemen is right: “the danger is no small one” when discussing Holy Scripture. It is much better to understand the Scriptures within the tradition in which they were received and given to us. It is much better to discuss St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on the epistles of St. Paul, for example, than to get caught up in discussions of the Scriptures themselves, relying solely on one’s own authority.
As it turns out, the Scriptures themselves seem to have warnings to this effect. Many of the scribes and Pharisees intensely studied the Scriptures but did not recognize God himself when he stood in front of them incarnate. For that matter, the disciples really barely got it, and they certainly did not understand Christ’s whole purpose until he explained everything to them after the resurrection. Surely I am much less qualified than them!
St. James the Just even has a stern warning (which can be extended beyond biblical interpretation to spiritual teaching in general):
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. (James 3:1-5)
The tongue is a dangerous gift. St. James goes on to describe it as “a fire, a world of iniquity” (James 3:6). If even a harsh look can hurt a sensitive soul, how much more so a careless word? And ought we (especially myself), who are so prone to speak before we think and to boast rather than to be—ought we to so casually discuss the Holy Scriptures themselves? According to the Creed: the Holy Spirit “spoke through the prophets.” God himself speaks through those words in a unique way. The words of Scripture are, according to St. Paul, “God-inspired” or “God-breathed” or “God-spirited,” just like humanity itself: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). And it is no small thing to misrepresent, even unintentionally, the very words of God.
Now, one may notice that I have nearly written myself into a corner here. The point, however, is not never to discuss the Scriptures—the fathers themselves clearly studied and quoted and, indeed, taught the Scriptures often. The point, rather, is not to reflect on them alone. It may be that, left to my own judgment, I have completely twisted a text or theme. But when I take the time to immerse myself in the tradition of the faith, then often my eyes are opened to new ways of viewing the Scriptures. Then I see that the water in which I was swimming was not so clean after all. Or again, though I had set out with the right destination, I had missed my way. The Scriptures themselves become more living when we submit our understanding to the Church that Christ established to be “the pillar and ground of the Truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Then we begin to see them as more alive with a fuller and deeper meaning we could not have comprehended on our own.
One reason for this is that one ought not to expect to be able to understand the words of God any farther than one has progressed in godliness. Just as, as I have noted in the past, one ought not to expect to do the works of God in a greater degree than one’s attainment of deification. Righteousness stands in a reciprocal relationship to knowledge and holiness, as again, I have noted before.
Now, let us think for a moment of the venom sometimes exchanged between Christians, people who ought to think of one another as brothers and sisters, over interpretations of the Scriptures. This is not to minimize the importance of such debates—quite the opposite, in fact. No, such discussions are so important and the subject so holy that we ought only in fear and awe to take up the words of the Scriptures upon our tongues apart from the guidance of the saints and to speak with any presumed authority of our own.
And, indeed, there is a more excellent way: “it is much better to talk about the sayings of the elders than about the Scriptures,” says Abba Poemen, “… [i]f you cannot keep silence.” Silence is often best. At this point it ought to be clear that the taming of my tongue when it comes to spiritual matters is one of my chief struggles. In that sense, perhaps writing about public policy is better … but Lord, have mercy! That can be such a dead weight on the soul.
Here I attempt to fix my mind upon the nobler life, the kingdom of heaven. Up to this point it has been a blessing. One or two people seem to have even benefited from reading it! Glory to God. Hopefully, however, reading what I write here will inspire others to read more of the saints and fathers of the Church, rather than more of me. Of one thing I am certain: no word of value here can be imputed to me. Anything good is not my own insight but that of others who have truly lived lives worthy of such heightened spiritual understanding.
Here I aspire to imitate them and learn from them. Here I am not a teacher but a student. And a student, barring some inspired accident of Providence, I hope to ever remain. Hopefully, I shall be spared that vocation that “shall receive a stricter judgment.” “For,” Abba Poemen warns, “the danger is no small one.” I struggle enough at guarding my tongue as it is.