Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Fathers on Reading Scripture, XI

St Peter of Damaskos writes:
'Sing the psalms with understanding,' says the psalmist (Ps 47:7); and the Lord says, 'Search the Scriptures" (Jn 5:39). He who pays attention to them is illumined, while he who pays no attention is filled with darkness. For unless a person attends to what is said in divine Scripture, he will gather but little fruit, even though he sings or reads them frequently. 'Devote yourself to stillness and know,' it is written (Ps 46:10), because such devotion concentrates the intellect: even it if is attentive for only a short time, none the less it knowns 'in part,' as St Paul puts it (I Cor 13:12). This is especially true of the person who has made some progress in the practice of the moral virtues, for this teaches the intellect many things related to its association with the passions. Nevertheless, he does not know all the mysteries hidden by God in each verse of Scripture, but only as much as the purity of his intellect is able to comprehend through God's grace. This is clear from the fact that we often understand a certain passage in the course of our contemplation, grasping one or two of the senses in which it was written; then after a while our intellect may increase in purity and be allowed to perceive other meanings, superior to the first. As a result, in bewilderment and wonder at God's grace and His ineffable wisdom, we are overcome with awe before 'the God of knowledge,' as the prophetess Hannah calls Him (cf. I Sam 2:3).

I am not speaking here about the mere act of listening to a passage of Scripture or to some other person; for this does not by itself involve purity of intellect or divine revelation. I am speaking about the person who possesses knowledge but distrusts himself until he finds another passage from Scripture or from one of the saints that confirms his spontaneous knowledge of the scriptural passage or from some sensible or intelligent reality. And if instead of one meaning he should find many as a result of giving attention to either the divine Scriptures or the holy fathers, he should not lose faith and think there is a contradiction. For one text or object can signify many things. Take clothing, for example: one person may say that it warms, another that it adorns, and another that it protects; yet all three are correct, since clothing is useful alike for warmth, for adornment and for protection. All three have grasped the single purpose assigned by God to clothing; and Holy Scripture and the very nature of things themselves confirm it. But if someone whose intention is to rob and pilfer should say that clothing exists in order to be stolen, he would be an utter liar, for neither the Scriptures nor the nature of things suggest that it exists for this purpose; and even the laws punish those who do steal it.

The same applies to everything, whether visible or invisible and to every word of the divine Scriptures. For the saints neither know the whole of God's purpose with regard to every object or scriptural text, nor on the other hand do they write down once and for all everything that they do know. This is because in the first place God is beyond comprehension, and His wisdom is not limited in such a way that an angel or man can grasp it in its entirety. As St John Chrysostom says with regard to a certain point of spiritual exegesis, we say about it as much as should be said at the moment, but God, in addition to what we say, knows other unfathomable meanings as well. And, in the second place, because of men's incapacity and weakness it is not good for even the saints themselves to say all that they know; for they might speak at too great a length, thus making themselves offensive or unintelligible because of the confusion in their reader's mind. As St Gregory the Theologian observes, what is said should be commensurate to the capacity of those to whom it is addressed.
This next passage can be read here.

St Peter of Damaskos, Book I: A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, Chapter XXIII (Holy Scripture) in volume three of The Philokalia, pp. 263-266.

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