Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: Memorizing Scripture

In the final show of his series, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware discusses the importance of memorizing Scripture as a discipline, and the importance of applying it to our lives today.

* Why spend time memorizing Scriptures when we can read them on demand on our smartphones?
* Why does Scripture memorization receive less attention in Orthodox circles than in the Protestant world?
* What can Hebrews 4:12 teach us about the nature of Scripture and the impact it has on our souls? (“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.”)
* How should we approach passages in the Bible that are lists of things or that seem unintelligible?
* What resources would you recommend to our listeners?

Transcript of Come Receive the Light: Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the subject Scripture Memorization

FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Let me begin with the obvious question. We can read Scripture anytime we want in print. Now we can even see it on computers, on our smart phones, when we ride the bus, when we walk–dangerous, though, when you’re walking and reading. So, why should we spend time memorizing Scripture?

METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: The Bible is so easily acquired–so many editions. We don’t have to pay much to buy a Bible. And so, I’m afraid, we don’t always treat it with the respect and the sense of wonder and gratitude that we should. I can remember going to Russia with a friend of mine who, like me, taught in University–and this was in the Communist era–when Bibles were very difficult to obtain. And I smuggled some copies of the Bible in Russian with me.

And when I was visiting a Church, and there weren’t many people around, I was speaking with an elderly lady and I said to her, “Would you like a copy of the Bible?”

And she said, “Oh! All my life I’ve wanted to have my own copy of the Bible. “Yes,” she said, “I have a friend who has a Bible, and sometimes she lends it to me and allows me to read it.”

And this astonished me. We take it for granted we can easily obtain Bibles. But that was not the situation under Communism in Russia. And so, I gave her a copy of the Bible. We were in Church and she took it and put it on a reading desk and opened it. And she began reading. And all the time she made Signs of the Cross and bowed to the ground. And tears flowed down her face.

And my friend said, “If we gave a copy of the Bible to one of our colleagues in the Theology faculty at the University, do you think they would react like that?”So that opened my mind to what a great gift we have in the Bible, in Scripture. And how we, in the West, take this gift for granted. But often Christians under persecution have not been able to have their own Bibles.

Now in Russia things are much better, but in those days the Bible was a rare and precious book. And we ought to have the feeling that that lady had, as she wept to have her own copy of the Bible.

Now, why learn things by heart, if we have smart phones and computers? I don’t use such things myself. I read books. But, then, I belong to another age. I am what C.S. Lewis used to call “Old Western Man,” a species that is rapidly disappearing. However, when it’s so easy with smart phones, with computers and so on, why memorize the Bible?

The answer surely is–memorizing impresses the words upon us. By memorizing, we mark the words of the Bible in our heart. By memorizing, we make the words of Scripture part of ourselves. That, I think, is the value of learning things by heart. I am glad that at school many years ago I was made to learn things by heart from the Bible. And I remember many of those passages even now, some sixty-five years later.

For example, Proverbs: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise.” I could recite a great deal more of that, but I will spare you. But, yes, memorizing makes it part of ourselves. So that we could really say, in the words of the Psalms, “Your Word is a Lamp to my feet and a Light to my path.”

FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Beautifully said. Scripture memorization, I know from the schools that my children have attended–they’re Presbyterian schools–is very popular in the Protestant circles. And the children would come home and I would say, “What is your Bible verse of the week?” And they would learn it and they would say it. And they could quote Scripture left and right. It was just tremendous. I was so thrilled at it. But I also know that many people don’t have that luxury. I want to call it a luxury. They don’t have the ability to have their kids in that kind of a church or “religious” school. For those of us who are Orthodox, we don’t have many Orthodox schools. We have some. But it seems that this memorization process has fallen off the radar as Orthodox Christians.

METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: I’m afraid it has fallen off the radar, as you put it. And that’s something I greatly regret. In earlier ages it was not so. The Canons of the Church say that no one should be consecrated bishop unless they know the whole book of Psalms by heart. 150 Psalms. Now, I think that means that almost all Orthodox bishops at this present time are uncanonical! Because they don’t observe that canon.

Well, perhaps it’s hardly applicable to our age, but it shows there was a time in Orthodoxy when learning Scripture by heart and particularly the Psalms was something respected. Before I was ordained deacon, the bishop insisted I could not use a book in the Liturgy–that I must be able to do all the litanies and the other deacon’s part (except the reading of the Gospel)–that I must be able to do all of that by heart. And I had to do it in Greek, not in my own Mother Tongue.

Well, that’s not so difficult, so I’m glad that I was made to memorize things. And that means when you have learned things by heart, yes, that these word will come back to you at different moments almost spontaneously–rise to the surface of your mind–and that you’ll be able to quote Scripture appropriately, to use Scripture as a daily guide for your different tasks.

We Orthodox have something to learn from the Protestants. We ought to, in our Orthodox teaching, give more space to learning by heart.

FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: I want to go to the Letter to the Hebrews 4:12. And it states this: “For the Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing even to the divisions of the soul and the spirit, and of the joints and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and of the intents of the heart.” Talk with us, if you will, please about what we learn from this one very powerful verse about the nature of Scripture and the impact that it has on our souls.

METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: Yes, indeed. We should see the words of Scripture as a message addressed to each one of us personally. The Fathers used to say, “When you read something in Scripture, do not apply it to other people. Apply it to yourself.” So, we should read Scripture as if it were a personal letter by God to me individually. And we should seek, as we read, for a personal application. What does this mean for me and my way of life? When I read the Gospels, Christ is speaking to me. And I am being invited to respond.

So in this way, exactly as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, Scripture is a challenge to us. A challenge to see, what does this mean to me? And how should I be changed by what I am reading?

FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Not everything in the Bible that we read is just the verse like we just spoke about. There are sections; there are many lists of things. There are sections that seem for some people, for example in the Book of Revelation, that are unintelligible unless you know the full context. There are a number of passages that can be violent. So, how do we approach those sections, or do we just not look at them when we’re focusing on memorization?

METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: All Scripture is inspired by God. That does not mean that it is all literally true. What the Bible contains is not information about geology or geography. The Bible tells us about God. It contains spiritual truth.

So, all parts of the Bible, as I see it, are indeed part of the inspired Word of God. But they are not all equally relevant to us. The case of the Book of Revelation, actually, there are some marvelous passages about the Heavenly Worship and the beauty of the age to come, which surely all of us can understand and appreciate. There are other things in the Book of Revelation that are quite difficult to understand. And, yes, we are confronted in the Old Testament by many statements which imply that God punishes people and inflicts suffering upon them. We should look at the Old Testament in a historical perspective. It is the story of the People of Israel. It is the story of how God guides Israel over the centuries. How he gradually reveals His purpose to them.

And so, what we have in the Old Testament is a historical development. In the earliest parts of the Old Testament, yes, there is sometimes a rather primitive view of God. But then we see gradually in the later writing of Scripture in particular the Prophets and in the Psalms who, through God’s guidance, gradually the People of Israel learn more and more about God and came to have a more and more appropriate picture of how He was. So, when we come across passages implying that God blesses violence and destruction, we are to understand that as indicating how people at that particular stage looked at God. But then we read all of that in the context of the later parts of the Old Testament, which present to us a God of loving mercy, who accepts all people and loves them all.

So, we have to understand the scandalous passages, if you like, in the Old Testament in the context of the other passages, which give us a different view of God. So, let us place the different harsh events and cruel sayings in the Old Testament in their historical context. They are part of the history of Israel. But taking the Old Testament as a whole, we see how God has guided Israel and how Israel is his chosen people.

FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Are there any resources you’d like to recommend to our listeners when it comes to this?

METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: There are perhaps two ways of reading Scripture. One is to get a Church calendar, which tells us the daily Scripture readings appointed in the liturgical cycle of Church worship. For every day there is an Epistle and Gospel. And then, during the season of Lent we have readings from the Old Testament. Now, the advantage of reading Scripture in that way is we are reading with the Church. These are the appointed readings for the day that are being used by Orthodox all over the world.

But there is a disadvantage, that the daily Scripture readings are often very brief, they are not continuous. So, we get a somehow fragmented picture of Scripture. So perhaps it’s good sometimes to adopt another way of reading Scripture, which is to take a particular book and to read it from beginning to end continuously. Reading twenty verses, thirty verses, or a chapter each day. Choosing, of course, a book that will be helpful to us, such as, in the Old Testament a book like Job or one of the Prophets. Or in the New Testament, one of the Gospels, well, any part of the New Testament.

So, those are two ways of reading Scripture. And if we’re going to go more deeply into Scripture, the second way is important for us. And we can use a commentary. Now, we have the Orthodox Study Bible, which, as far as it goes, is a helpful piece of work–a commendable effort. But the comments are often extremely brief, not enough really. If we want to go more deeply into Scripture–but this requires a serious effort–then we want to understand how the Fathers read Scripture.

And here I would recommend a series of volumes entitled “Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture,” published by the Inter-Varsity Press. The editor is one Thomas C. Oden. Now that is basically a non-Orthodox Protestant publication, though, in fact, the Orthodox have contributed to it. For example, this Lent you might take the first volume in that commentary on Scripture, which is Genesis 1-11–the important chapters–and here the editor is an Orthodox priest, Professor Andrew Louth.

So, that’s a way of reading Scripture with the Fathers. Which has always been the Orthodox way of understanding Scripture. When we read Scripture we do not simply interpret it according to our private opinions, but we ask: How did the Fathers of the Church understand this?

FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Your Excellency, it’s been an honor, a privilege, and a blessing to hear from you these past few weeks and I thank you for doing that. I’d like to end this Lenten series with you by hearing one of your favorite verses or passages.

METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: Thank you. I too have been please to talk with you. And let me share with you a text from the Service Book for the Lenten Season–the Triodion. “The springtime of the Fast has dawned. The flower of repentance has begun to open. Let us sing to the Giver of Light.” Now, here we notice first of all that Lent is spiritual springtime. Not winter, but spring. The world of nature is coming alive round us during the Lenten season. And this should be a symbol of what is to happen in our own hearts. The dawning of springtime.

And then, in that text, it goes on to speak of repentance as a flower, that is opening. We shouldn’t just have a negative idea of repentance, as feeling sorry, gloomy and somber about our failings. But repentance, rather, is new hope. An opening flower. How our lives can, by God’s grace, be changed. And then we go on: Let us sing! Lent is a time for joy, not gloominess. Let us sing to the Giver of Light! Lent is a time of Light, not darkness.

FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Thank you, your Excellency, God bless you. It’s been wonderful to talk with you.

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