I read the bible through the first time when I was in high school. I was part of a youth group that made it a project. We made a big chart with all of the books of the bible in columns on it with everyone’s names at the side and each Sunday we would check off whatever books (or parts of books) we had read during that week. Since my main social reality in high school was with my Church friends and not my school friends, it worked well for me to read my bible during my lunch break at school most days. And although at that time I had the rather competitive atmosphere of my youth group providing most of my motivation to read the bible diligently, I also thought it was a good idea. After all, if I was going to be a Christian, I figured, then I should read the Christian holy book through at least once in my lifetime.
However, there was also another, deeper motivation. I wanted to know God better and I wanted to be able to help others know God too. At some deep level, this also was my motivation–even though I experienced it faintly at that time and perhaps I couldn’t even identify that as a motivation at the beginning. However, as time went on, as I kept reading the bible, my awareness of that deeper motivation continued to grow. But it took time. And that is what I want to talk about today. In those early days of diligent bible reading, I discovered that often verses or ideas I had encountered several months earlier in my reading would suddenly take on life for me as I read other passages or as I encountered new situations in my life.
When I say diligent bible reading, I am distinguishing it from either casual bible reading (reading a little here or there when I felt like it) or crisis bible reading (opening the bible hoping to be divinely guided to a verse that spoke directly to a crises I was experiencing in my life at that moment). There is nothing wrong, I think, with reading the bible casually or in a crisis; but if we are really going to grow, not only in our knowledge of the bible as a text, but also to grow in our knowledge of God through the holy text, then we have to devote ourselves to diligence in reading. And while a casual reader might often find something interesting or beautiful to think about whenever she picked up the bible; and while, in His mercy, God usually provide some help, guidance or comfort to anyone who looks to Him for help by picking up and reading a bible in a time of crisis, yet reading the bible diligently does not usually produce immediate results.
As those who have read the bible diligently know, especially in the early years, you can go for months at a time reading faithfully and not encountering anything that strikes you as particularly beautiful, interesting, or divinely inspired. Unlike casual reading and crisis reading, the desired results are not so immediate, but they are longer lasting. And this makes sense, even on a purely literary level. To really appreciate a very well written novel, for example, you often have to read it twice or more. The first time I read the Karamozov Brothers by Dostoyevsky, I appreciated some bits, but I had no idea what was going on. Ten years later, when I reread it, I got the plot and saw some of the spiritual aspects of the novel thus appreciating the novel so much more. Ten years after that, on my third reading (now in my forties), I saw Dostoyevsky’s profound grasp of human psychology and was in awe of his ability portray with accurate detail and compassion (and mostly it is the compassion that awed me) the inner lives of the several very different characters in the novel. Now I am sure that I was able to see these things in my forties because of my own life experience, but if I had not already been familiar with the novel, I almost certainly would not have been able to have gained so much from reading it at that point in my life.
But if this principle of diligence bearing fruit is true at a merely literary level, it is even more profoundly true on a spiritual level. In homily 25 of St. Isaac the Syrian’s Ascetical Homilies, the saint talks about this very experience in the spiritual life as it applies to prayer. St. Isaac says:
“It is a sign of the beginning of a man’s recovery from his [spiritual] illness when he desires hidden [i.e. spiritual] things. There is, however, a delay until he witnesses true health.”
When a person begins to be healed of spiritual illness, when he or she begins to actually repent and draw near to God; then the sign that this is really taking place, according to St. Isaac, is that the person will also begin to desire spiritual, or hidden, things. This desire for hidden things is then the motivation that empowers one to diligently pursue a spiritual life. This pursuit of the spiritual life can take various forms depending on one’s personality, calling and circumstances in life. In my case, as a young man in a Protestant context, this pursuit of God took the form of bible reading. In contrast, my wife, or the young woman who would become my wife, who was in the same high school youth group, diligently sought God in ways that worked well for her. Although she also did her fair share of bible reading, that wasn’t where she found life in her pursuit of God. Bonnie is an artist, and since there was very little room for artistic expression in the frigid iconoclastic air of the Protestant context we found ourselves in, Bonnie found life in the diligent pursuit of God through music: playing the guitar and writing songs that were really more like prayers than songs.
And just as I had to slog through Leviticus and the prophecy of Habakuk, getting very little immediate edification for my effort, Bonnie had to slog through music theory (“the circle of fifths,” I think, is what she called her tedium). Discipline and diligence are necessary if one is going to pursue God whether it is through prayer or reading or painting or music. The hidden things in our heart, the spiritual treasures of a relationship with God, do not reveal themselves to the lazy. St. Isaac names the two enemies that keep us from acquiring the spiritual treasure we seek. These are “tedium” and “despondency.” “Tedium” refers to what we might nowadays call the “boring” nature of what we are doing. Let’s face it, until you know something about the history of Israel and the spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament, most of the the Old Testament is just plain boring. But the only way to learn is to begin to read. You have to pass through the boredom to the life. The same thing is true with beginning a prayer rule or learning music theory or basic drawing and brush strokes. You have to be faithful through the tedium before you can start to enjoy the fruit of life in what you are doing.
“Despondency” refers to my own downward spirals, my own inability to motivate myself, my own struggle with bad days or weeks or months. When I am despondent, I just cannot motivate myself to do what I need to do, nor even, sometimes, what I want to do. When I struggle with despondency, it seems like it takes a herculean effort for me just to get my bible open and to read the same few verses over and over again, as though my mind has been greased and every word slides right off. Or I have to force myself with all my might just to light the vigil lamp in my icon corner, open my prayer book and stand there just whimpering for a few minutes. In times like these when I struggle with despondency, a saying from my days of athletic training has helped me a great deal: “Something is always better than nothing.” To open my bible is itself a prayer. To read the same verses over and over again making no sense out of it: this too is prayer. To light a vigil lamp is a prayer. To stand before an icon and just whimper, that too is prayer. Something is always better than nothing.
St. Isaac advises us that when we find ourselves confronting either tedium or despondency, we need to call to mind why we are doing what we are doing. Why do I pray? Why do I read my bible? Why do I do any spiritual discipline that I do? I do it because I desire the hidden, spiritual realities. I desire to know God. St. Isaac tells us that we must allow this desire to generate expectation in us: expectation that God will come to my aid, expectation that soon something hidden will indeed be revealed to me; expectation that this simple act of being diligent and hanging in there will indeed bear fruit.
Jesus loved agricultural metaphors. He sure used a lot of them. A sower sows, farmer plants and the crop grows. The farmer labors in hope, in expectation. Even though there is nothing he can do to hurry the crop along, the farmer knows that if he keeps at it, eventually he will have more fruit than he will know what to do with it all. But he has to hang in there. There is a delay, as St. Isaac tells us, between the beginning of our efforts in spiritual growth, between our desire to enter into the hidden things of our heart, and the time when we do actually begin to enjoy the fruit of our labor, what St. Isaac calls the witness of true spiritual health. And the meat, you might say, that we have to sustain us during this long growing seasons, through the tedium of weeding and through the droughts of despondency, the food that will sustain us during these sometimes dry and sometimes boring times, this food is expectation, expectation that we will indeed, if we do not give up, come to see and know the hidden things of our hearts, the hidden things of God and His kingdom.