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Today, while re-reading St. Athanasius of Alexandria’s On the Incarnation, I came across some profound advice on how to understand the Bible. Having concluded his defense of the reality of the Incarnation of Christ, Athanasius adds a brief word advising his reader to move forward by consulting the Scriptures: “Here, then, Macarius, is our offering to you who love Christ, a brief statement of the faith of Christ and of the manifestation of His Godhead to us. This will give you a beginning, and you must go on to prove its truth by the study of the Scriptures” (St. Athanasius On the Incarnation [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1996] p. 95 section 56). Note the order here: right doctrine about Christ is presented (and presented at length) before the urging to read the Scriptures. We’ll come back to that. Then Athanasius continues:

But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven. (p. 96 section 57.)

According to Athanasius, we need to have a “good life and a pure mind” in order to understand the Bible. The most obvious meaning of a “pure mind” is a mind free of sinful thoughts while reading Scripture. But for Athanasius it means more than that.  Remember where Athanasius placed this in On the Incarnation? It’s at the end of the book in which he’s explained the reality of the incarnation of Christ. Part of that purity of mind is about doctrinal purity. His thinking, along with the thinking of the rest of the early Church, was that the Bible could not be understood apart from right faith. We read the Bible through the lens of our theology, and if our theology is unorthodox, the Bible is hard to understand.  A broken lens makes things look strange. But when our theology is correct, the Scriptures are easier to understand and the meaning becomes increasingly clear.

But what Athanasius says here isn’t just abstract theology.  It’s also about relationship. “Anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.” In other words, if you want to know what Paul meant when he was writing his letters to the Corinthians, then you should start acting like Paul. The more your heart breaks for those who don’t know Jesus, the more you endure hardship for the sake of the Gospel, the more you find the pattern of Jesus’ life becoming the pattern of your own, the more insight you will have into Paul’s letters. For Athanasius, the Scriptures were not just an instruction book. They were a gateway into direct relationship with Jesus and also with Jesus’ servants who knew Him intimately. As we study the Scriptures, we grow in fellowship with the Apostles and Prophets whose testimonies about Christ are shared in the Scriptures. That growth in relationship takes time and practice, but it yields deeper and deeper understanding of God’s Word.

So what should we do if we want to understand the Scriptures? Repent. Pursue right faith. Seek holiness. Seek relationship with the Apostles and Prophets. And patiently wait to see what the Lord reveals.

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We’re now three weeks into this series of reflections on John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. (For context, see previous posts from Week 1 and Week 2.) This reflection is on steps 14 to 21: (14) On Gluttony, (15) On Chastity, (16) On Avarice, (17) On Poverty, (18) On Insensitivity, (19) On Sleep, (20) On Alertness, and (21) On Fear. In these steps, Climacus starts to address the more tangible and worldly sins and vices with which we’re familiar: lust, greed, over-indulgence.  But Step 18 and those that follow it shift back to the inner life of the mind, and indication that for Climacus the discipline of the mind and discipline of the body are intimately related. Physical discipline is fruitless without mental discipline, and vice versa.

In Steps 14 and 15,  Climacus points out the mind-body connection which a number of ancient writers observed between hunger and our sexual appetites. He writes, “A stuffed belly produces fornication, while a mortified stomach leads to purity.  The man who pets a lion may tame it but the man who coddles the body makes it ravenous” (page 165). This may be a new concept to us, but even modern neurologists have observed this connection.  The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls our appetites for eating, drinking, and sex.  Because these drives are all processed in the same part of the brain, sexual desires can be experienced with the same intensity as hunger and thirst. Because food and water are essential for survival, the hypothalamus drives us to pursue these at all costs. Unfortunately, our brains naturally perceive sexual desires in the same way. But sex isn’t essential for a person’s survival.  So how does one teach their hypothalamus that? Climacus, in line with the rest of his monastic tradition, recommends fasting.  By cultivating self-control over one of these appetites (hunger) we can cultivate self-control over the other (sex).  And over time this practice enables one to rise above one’s natural appetites and desires:   “To have mastered one’s body is to have taken command of nature, which is surely to have risen above it. And the man who has done this is not much lower than the angels, if even that” (page 181).

Even so, total victory over lust is not within human control. Physical discipline is helpful and beneficial, but ultimate submission of such powerful natural appetites is not achieved by merely natural means. So, Climacus reminds us that purity and chastity are God-given gifts:

When nature is overcome it should be admitted that this is due to Him Who is above nature. . . .. The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overcome it has watched and fasted for nothing.  Offer up to the Lord the weakness of your nature.  Admit your incapacity and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity (pages 172-173).

In Steps 16 (Avarice) and 17 (Poverty), Climacus encourages us to cultivate detachment from possessions to free our hearts from greed. Climacus doesn’t prescribe a physical discipline here because the appropriate physical discipline for greed has already been completed by his monks: they had sold what they owned and given to the poor.  But the physical discipline means nothing if one has not cultivated mental freedom from greed. And as with lust, this freedom requires divine assistance. Climacus writes that the virtue of detachment  “grows from an experience and taste of the knowledge of God” (page 190). Taste and see that the Lord is indeed good and you will trust Him to provide for your every need. Experience God’s provision, and you won’t worry as much about possessions and money.  If you want to be free from greed, seek an experience of God’s goodness and provision.

In contrast to complete trust in God’s provision, Step 18 discusses Insensitivity.   The insensitive person is hard-hearted, hypocritical and judgmental.  Climacus confesses that he himself wrestles with insensitivity, and that it is a common problem among the devout.  In one passage in this step, I could have thought he was describing me:

Detachment he praises, and he shamelessly fights over a rag.  When he is angry he gets bitter, and then his bitterness makes him angry, so that having suffered one defeat he fails to notice that he has suffered another.  He gorges himself, is sorry, and a little later is at it again.  He blesses silence and cannot stop talking about it.  He teaches meekness and frequently gets angry when he is teaching it (page 192).

Climacus says that the cause of insensitivity is different for each person and in each case, but the only way to free oneself from it is to discover the cause.  So I’m praying for the Lord to reveal the causes of my insensitivity. I’m still listening for an answer. Pray for me.

Lastly, the steps concerning Sleep, Alertness, and Fear are all related, and together display the mind-body connection discussed earlier.  Keeping vigil, or going without sleep, is like fasting in that it deprives the body of a need in order to train the body in holiness.  But Climacus says it yields fruit in prayer, as well:  “The farmer collects his wealth on the threshing floor and in the winepress. Monks collect their wealth and knowledge during the hours of evening and night when they are standing at prayer and contemplation” (page 197).  The goal is to cultivate watchfulness over one’s thoughts so that one can recognized where thoughts are coming from and discern between good and evil, true and untrue thoughts. If one can learn to do this even when tired, one will have greater clarity of mind when awake.  And so prayer and contemplation during times when we would normally be sleeping prepare us for alert and attentive prayer at all times.

In the ancient world, nighttime was also regarded as unsafe. Both physical and spiritual enemies attacked at night, and apparently monks were not immune to fears of such attacks. Accordingly, Climacus takes step 21 to remind his monks and readers that, “The servant of the Lord will be afraid only of his Master” (page 200).  Trust in God means there’s no need to fear anyone but God.  As Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4-6 TNIV).  As Jesus’ words suggest, fear reveals a preoccupation with bodily concerns over spiritual.  Fear of those who can harm the body reveals the same concern for the body’s comfort that results in lust and gluttony.  In contrast, the virtue of courage reveals that one’s mind is set not on earthly things, but on heavenly.  And as Climacus says, “The man who has tasted the things of heaven easily thinks nothing of what is below . . .” (page 189).