Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Illumination: Spiritual Understanding of Scripture

Man has the absolute need for these two things, if he wants to keep the right way to God without error: the spiritual understanding of Scripture and the spiritual contemplation of God in nature."
Saint Maximus the Confessor

Saint Maximus also tells us that for a spiritual understanding of Scripture it is essential to go beyond the literal understanding.  He writes,
He who doesn't enter into the divine beauty and glory found in the letter of the law falls under the power of the passions and becomes the slave of the world.
This means we must first be worthy of the Spirit and able to enter into a spiritual relationship with the words to gain deeper spiritual understanding of Scripture.

Fr. Dimitru Staniloe says,
The spiritual understanding.... requires preparation as well as the knowledge of the logoi or the living words and present workings of God by things.  Those who are full of passions, to the extent that they are glued to the visible surface of things, are also glued to the letter of the Scripture and its history... the wall which blocks the road to God, rather than being transparent for them or a guide to Him.
This implies that the most useful study of Scripture comes after we have conquered our passions.  Before this we are apt to make self-serving and highly subjective interpretations of Scripture.  This is why it is not advised for Orthodox Christians to engage in their own study or interpretation of Scripture, but instead to rely on the interpretations given to us by the Church Fathers and study in the context of the Church with the assistance of her clergy.

Scripture is divine word and the proper understanding of it involves a limitless depth and a universal validity for every age and every person.  To gain this universal understanding requires the ability to hear the words as if they are spoken by God, to us personally and at the present time.

Fr. Dimitru says,
It means that when I read the letter I hear God himself speaking to me and to us today, or about me and us, and about our duties... means to see the constant relationship between God and us, and to live it in the way it affects me at the present moment....
This is not a subjective interpretation but one that is universal and the same for all persons.  Spirit must penetrate the words of the Scripture, allowing them to be understood from our inner being.  This inner understanding is from Spirit and not the intellect that becomes available to us once we are purified of the passions which blind us to the selfless truth of things.

The Scripture gains meaning from a virtuous life and a life in the Church.  The readings of the Church Fathers help us give clear meaning to the words.

Fr. Dimitru says,
Scripture... has depths which lead to the divine infinite and make the Person of the divine Word felt.  This wisdom makes way of an infinite progress in the deeper study of the Scripture and in the increasing accentuated feeling of Christ... The progress in the deeper study of Scripture is in proportion to our progress in the life according to the Spirit, in proportion to our purification from the egotism of the passions.
This is why when we read Scripture time and time again it takes on new and deeper meanings.  As we progress spiritually, progressively revealing the influence the passions have on us, repenting and correcting our ways, gaining in self-control, we see new depths in Scripture.  The Scripture has not changed, but our perception of it changes and deepens. Once we have reached the state of dispassion where the passions no longer have any control over us we enter into the spiritual nature of Scripture and it becomes in a real way the voice of God.

Fr. Dimitru says,
In this way all things in Scripture not only become contemporary, but in some way a biography of our relationship with God.  In this sense the events of salvation of the life of Jesus become present events which happen in the depths of my life... He is resurrected in me when I reach the state of dispassion.  He is transfigured for me when I become worthy of seeing the divine light.  He penetrates into me in a hidden way at baptism. He is the effective force which guides and empowers my whole ascent along which He becomes increasingly more transparent in me by my gradual deification, making me like Him by the dialogical communication with Him...
For the spiritual man, in the depths of Scripture... the Spirit sustains his efforts of purification and illuminates for him everything around that they might become transparent symbols of divinity.  All things give him the consciousness that  "In God we live and move, and have our being," (Acts 17:28) as Saint Paul told us in Athens.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 224 - 229 

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