I distinctly remember a comment made at a retreat years ago—”the saints that we hear of had the same tools as us—the Agpeya and the Bible and from them, they became saints, so why can’t we?”
Before reading on, try to challenge yourself—how many verses can you recall which express the value of God’s word?
The Holy Bible:
Reveals deep things about us:
James 1:21&23 ‘receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls’. ‘For If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in the mirror…’
Hebrews 4:12 ‘for the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart’
John 15:3 ‘You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you’
John 17:17 ‘sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth’
Psalm 1:1-3 ‘blessed is the man whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of the water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf shall not wither and whatever he does shall prosper’
Ephesians 6:17 ‘and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’
Romans 10:17 ‘so then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’ (as we carry the shield of faith in our spiritual armor Heb 11:1)
Guides our way on Earth:
Psalm 119:104-105 ‘through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’
2 Timothy 3:16 ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’
Reveals eternal matters:
John 6:68 ‘But Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’
John 1:1: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’
Isaiah 40:6-8 ‘the word of the Lord endures forever’
Is there a right or wrong way to read the Bible?
Abouna Matta El-Meskeen (2) says that ‘the Bible is not to be read as a book of knowledge or science’. He warns that a sterile and objective approach will lead to one being:
‘snared by the sciences of examination, analysis, criticism and finally the darkness of skepticism’. Rather, ‘it is a personal message from God to you; a direct, personal message from God to man aiming at his salvation and lifting his spirit’. In it, God ‘unveils His identity to man in a very personal and private way’… ‘If man gives himself to the second method, his soul will leap as he approaches the Bible. Hungering for it day after day, he eats from it only to return to it with more hunger. When he quenches his thirst, with its living water, he thirsts for God all the more. At the same time, his hunger and thirst for the world is deadened’ (his short article is very recommended).
Father Antony Paul (3) similarly advises that meditation is needed and specifies that to do so we ought to pray before reading the Bible. He encourages critical thinking but also warns that this must be done in a spirit of humility in search of the truth (4).
Origen (5), who pursued the spiritual sense of the Scriptures and even learnt Hebrew for this purpose, also advises prayer combined with great attention:
“Apply yourself,” I say, for we need great attention when we read the holy books so that we may neither say nor think anything incautious concerning them… Seek with an upright heart and a very firm faith in God, the Spirit of the Holy Scriptures, so often hidden. But do not content yourself with knocking at the door and seeking: the most necessary thing for the understanding of divine matters is prayer. The Savior, when exhorting us, did not content himself with saying to us: “Knock and it shall be opened unto you, seek and you shall find; He also said: “Ask and it shall be given unto you.”
Pope Kyrillos VI, who was known as the man of prayer, said that reading the Bible is perhaps more important than prayer as it is the spring leading to intelligent prayer (6).
Even if reading the Bible is a struggle and we lack understanding, let us at least struggle in attempting to read it in acknowledgment of our souls’ deep desire to be with God. Sometimes the blessings are not obvious immediately or even after some time. Sometimes, others may see a difference in us before we do. Abouna Matta Al-Meskeen said that ‘while he himself feels nothing, others see its brightness… when a person quenches his thirst for God as he drinks from the words of living water, he feels more hungry for God and his thirst for the world is deadened’. The story below illustrates how the word of God does indeed cleanse us.
A young man had tried to turn his life around but was at his wit’s end. He approached a desert monk renowned for the care of souls. The monk listened to his story and gave him a cave where he could pray and read Scripture. The young man tried it for a while but noticed no progress. He forgot what he read; he felt too listless to pray; he fell asleep in the midst of his reading. The monk gave him a wicker basket and told him to fill it with sand, place it outside the door, and every day pour a bucket of water over the sand. The young man did so, and found that every time he poured water over the sand, some of the sand leaked out of the basket. After weeks and months of prayers and reading and pouring the water over the sand, one day he found the basket clean. He reported this to his spiritual father and the monk said, ‘my son, you are the basket. The sand if your sinfulness, your pride, your unhappiness. The water is the word of God. The basket doesn’t remember the water that gradually cleansed it. Neither do you remember every word of Holy Scripture that you read. But if you continue to pour the water of God’s word over your sinfulness, someday you, too, will be clean’ (7).
Father Iskander (6) recommends reading in a systemic, rather than a random way to truly nourish the soul—just as one would have three meals a day rather than snacks. He recommends that the regular readings include some of the gospel. Pope Tawadros suggested that we read the Old Testament on fasting days and the New Testament on the non-fasting days (6). A specific plan should be made and this should be under the guidance of your priest.
If we read a confusing passage then we can do three things: read other translations, interpretations of the fathers, and asking ones’ priest (6). The reason why interpretations of the fathers are useful is threefold: they were very intelligent and academic, they were at a time close to Christ so were aware of the verbal teachings, and they were very holy.
Why don’t we set ourselves a challenge today? Try to form your own challenge with the guidance of your father of confession. Failing that/as a starter, try this seven-day challenge which is very simple but may be hard to implement (for someone as weak as myself). So here it is—the challenge is to read the daily readings chosen by the church every day for seven days. You can find this by looking at the Catena app, the Coptic Reader app, or Copticchurch.net. NB: you cannot get the previous days’ readings the following day (so you can’t try to cheat by catching up).
If this seems too easy for you, try to implement some sort of change. With the guidance of a priest, set yourself a personal challenge and go for it. Whether it be to pray before you read, to regularly memorise a verse or psalm, to read in the morning—whatever it is, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
It would be a good idea to then reflect on your experience. For example, how easy was it, what practical steps could make it more regular or more fruitful? On a scale of 1-10 how useful was it and why? What did you gain from it—did you learn about yourself, did you feel closer to God, did you feel more cleansed, etc? Then extend your challenge to the next step.
With such measures, we may successfully armor ourselves in our spiritual battles; let us say with St. Paul that we have tried to ‘fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called’ (1 Timothy 6:12). At the very least, we may be touched by a few words, as I was many years ago, which may only bear fruit much later on.
2. Father El-Meskeen, M. How to read the Bible by Matta El-Meskeen: The Bible as a Personal Message. [Accessed 15th June 2020].
4. Father Paul, A. On the Importance of Balanced Critical Thinking. [Accessed on 11th June 2020].
5. St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church. Origen’s Life. [Accessed on 15th June 2020].
6. Father Iskander, E. How To Read The Bible. [Accessed 15th June 2020].
7. Kodell, J. Life Lessons from the Monastery: Wisdom on Love, Prayer, Calling, and Commitment. [Accessed 14th June 2020].