Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Innumerable Facets of Scripture
The Holy Prophet Jeremiah

 "'Is not My Word like...a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?' (Jer 23:29).  As the hammer splits the rock into many splinters, so will a scriptural verse yield many meanings."--Sanhedrin 34A

These words of the Jewish Midrash reveal an essential truth: the Light within the Scriptures is unfathomable.  Yet how much more incomprehensible is the fullness of the Lord!

So many throughout the Church's life have reiterated the fact that Scripture bears a multitude of meanings.  Origen described three ways of interpreting Scripture: the way of the body, the way of the soul, and the way of the spirit.  In the West, the concept of four senses arose, as a medieval couplet summarizes it: "The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; / The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny."  Some came to speak of the "sensus plenior," the fuller meaning that lay deeper than the literal meaning of the words themselves.  All these viewpoints agree on one thing: the Scriptures are mysterious.  They are not a set of technical instructions that have but one meaning: they are dripping with richness of the Truth in all its myriad aspects.

It is for this reason that we must ruminate on the Scriptures to constantly learn more of their meaning.  Guigo II compared it to drawing out the taste of food.  Our drive to delve into the ocean of the Scriptures is to see the Lord "no more from without, in the rind of the letter, but within, in the letter's hidden meaning."  For as we penetrate into the depths of the Word, we come to more deeply know the Word Himself.  And if we cannot find an end to the Truth in the Scriptures, how much less can we find an end to the Truth of the Lord!

"The reading of Scripture is the opening of Heaven," St. John Chrysostom said, and the Word is "a treasure house of divinity" (St. Ephraim).  Yet the more we read it, the more we encounter the Lord, and the more we encounter the Lord, the more are we aware of our inability to comprehend Him.  "The absolute exceeds our power to comprehend; the mysterious wholly eludes it" (Rudolf Otto).  As Gerhard Tersteegen wrote, "A God comprehended is no God."  St. John Chrysostom defined, "A thing is said to be incomprehensible when those who seek after it fail to comprehend it, even after they have searched and sought to understand it"; does this not apply in the highest sense to the Lord, of Whom St. Hilary of Poitiers said, "The utmost efforts of the earthly mind to comprehend Him are baffled by that immeasurable Eternity and Omnipotence"?  For God dwells in unapproachable light.
 St. Gregory of Nyssa

Exploring the manifest and hidden wonders of the Scriptures thus leads us to encounter the infinite riches of the Lord Himself, Whom we can never comprehend.  He is the One of Whom we will always grow deeper in knowledge.  Origen envisioned the afterlife as an endless series of schoolhouses, in which we learned ever more deeply about the Lord and His works.  Yet I am more partial to St. Gregory of Nyssa's view on our ascent to God.  Hear his words on such an ascent:

"The soul which looks to God and conceives that desire for incorruptible beauty always has a new desire for the transcendent, and it is never dulled by satiety. Such a soul never ceases to stretch forth to what lies before, going out from her present stage to what lies ahead....This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him. But one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more. Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied."

We are always moving from strength to strength, from glory to glory, in our ascent to the Lord, and yet we will never stop ascending, for He is always greater than our ever-growing understanding.  In commenting on the Song of Songs, St. Gregory recalls how the bride is given a "veil of despair" because "she loves him who is unattainable," but "the veil of despair is removed when the bride learns that the true satisfaction of her desire consists in always progressing in her search and ascent."  It is not a sorrow to never reach the fullness of comprehending the Lord: it is an irrepressible joy to love Him Whose depths we can never fathom.  Through the many facets of Scripture, we grow deeper into its Truth, and yet this experience is heightened incomparably when searching into the Lord Himself.  And thus our spiritual journey, now until eternity, is an ever-increasing knowledge of He Who is Love, as we draw back each veil that hides Him from us: yet there is always another veil, veils upon veils to infinity, stretching out to beyond the limits of existence, and with each veil removed we are closer to Him yet equally, infinitely far away from His fullness.  Our entire faith life is penetrating His depths, removing veils upon veils forever.
 The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  Even the highest has not grasped the incomprehensible Lord.

Nota Bene: The opening quote is from Hammer on the Rock: A Short Midrash Reader, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer, translated by Jacob Sloan, volume 16 of the Schocken Library (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1948).  The references to Origen are to ideas in his De Principiis (On the First Principles).  The medieval couplet is from Augustine of Dacia's Rotulus pugillaris, as quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #118.  The quote from Guigo II is from his Scala Claustralium (The Ladder of Monks) §VI in The Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations, translated by Edumund Colledge, O.S.A. (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1978).  The first quote from St. John Chrysostom is quoted in St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite's A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, Ch. 11, translated by Peter A. Chamberas, in the Classics of Western Spirituality series (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989).  The quote from St. Ephraim is from his Hymns on the Fast 6.1.  The quote from Rudolf Otto is from his Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy), translated by John W. Harvey (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1958).  The quote from Gerhard Tersteegen is from the same work.  St. John Chrysostom's definition is from his On the Incomprehensible Nature of God 3.12, translated by Paul W. Harkins (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984), taken from Brad Kelly's Broad MeadowThe quote from St. Hilary of Poitiers is from his On the Trinity I.13 translated by E.W. Watson and L. Pullan, found in volume 9 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1899), as found on Kevin Knight's New AdventThe quote from St. Gregory of Nyssa before the ellipsis is from his Commentary on the Song of Songs XII, translated by Casimir McCambley (Brookline, MA: Hellenic College Press, 1987).  The quote after the ellipsis is from his Vita Moysis (The Life of Moses) II.239, translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, in the Classics of Western Spirituality series (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978).  The final quotes from St. Gregory are also from his Commentary on the Song of Songs XII.

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