How to Read the Bible Like Saint Andrew of Crete
Lent has begun. You finish the work day exhausted, stumbling into your darkened church. As you struggle to clear your mind of the worries of the work day, and the troubles that will meet you tomorrow, strange sounds enter your head:
“The place of bodily Eve has been taken for me by the Eve of my mind in the shape of a passionate thought in the flesh, showing me sweet things, yet ever making me taste and swallow bitter things.”
The words warp your tired brain, twist your imagination, sending you to your knees not necessarily in repentance but utter confusion.
What is St. Andrew of Crete doing in his Great Canon? Is he trying to confuse and bewilder? No, he is moving us through the Scripture using the moral sense of Scripture.
What is the moral sense of Scripture? When the Church reads the Scripture, she doesn’t see only the apparent sense of the text. She sees multiple levels of meaning, bringing the reader into deeper communion with Christ.
There are four main senses the Church uses when encountering God’s word. There is the literal, the typological, the anagogical, and the moral. The literal is the apparent literary meaning that one gets when reading the text. The typological is seeing the characters and events as images and reflections of Christ, His Church, and His saints. The anagogical is seeing the completion of all things fulfilled in the Kingdom of Heaven.
St. Andrew dips into the three above, but in his Great Canon, he is primarily using the moral sense. This sense allows you to discover the people and places of Scripture as instruments of repentance. In the moral, we find ourselves mired in sin, but there is hope because the goal of the moral is union with God and the transformation of ourselves into His image.
Examples will clarify what St. Andrew is doing. In the beginning of the Book of Joshua, Joshua leads the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land. After this miraculous crossing, Joshua memorializes the event by stacking up twelve stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The moral sees beyond the physical event. The stack of stones becomes the Christian placing remembrances of God’s events in his or her life so as not to forget and wander away from God’s presence. The stones are also a reminder that the Christian should be a living stone, reminding the world of God’s presence.
An example in contrast is the city of Jerusalem throughout the Scriptures. In the literal sense, Jerusalem is the physical city. In the typological sense, it is the Church. In the anagogical, it is the kingdom of heaven, and in the moral, it is the Christian.
As a final example, before jumping into St. Andrew’s canon, let’s examine one event that St. Andrew will touch upon—the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob, exhausted from fleeing from Esau, makes camp in a deserted lonely place using a rock as a pillow. He is awakened from his sleep with a vision. It is a vision of a ladder reaching from heaven to earth, with angels ascending and descending, and at the top of the ladder, the Lord Himself speaks to Jacob. The Church reads this and sees God comforting Jacob and giving him hope. It is also a type of the Theotokos as the ladder that brings God to humanity. The moral view sees the ladder as the Christian struggle toward union with God.
To deeply understand the moral way of reading Scripture, there is no better teacher than St. Andrew, and his canon is the textbook. There are three basic approaches that St. Andrew takes.
- Communion with Sinners. St. Andrew will see himself in the sins of the people in the Biblical story. More times than not, he will gaze upon their sins and condemn himself for being a greater sinner, a chief of sinners.
- The Example of the Righteous. He looks at the righteous and sees how far removed he is from their way of life, and lunges toward them as a goal for his life.
- The Mercy of God. In spite of the deep condemnation of self, St. Andrew won’t allow it to lead him into despair. But the spotlight the Scripture shines on his soul forces a cry to God, trusting in His mercy to save.
Here are a couple of examples from St. Andrew’s canon.
“‘I have killed a man to the wounding of myself,’ said Lamech, ‘and a young man to my own hurt,’ he cried out wailing. But you, my soul, do not tremble, while polluting the flesh and defiling the mind.”
Lamech can be found in the world before the Flood, when life was violent and humanity was increasingly depraved. Depravity ran so rampant that the spark of salvation was quickly fading. The way of repentance was disappearing from the earth, and Lamech is an example. Not only does he kill, he does so indiscriminately for minor offenses then boasts of such violence. St. Andrew encounters Lamech and likewise sees the damage his sin is doing to his own soul.
Here’s another from Genesis:
“You know, my soul, of the Ladder shown to Jacob reaching from earth to Heaven. Why have you not clung to the sure step of piety?”
We referenced this story of Jacob’s ladder earlier, and St. Andrew echoes what others like St. John of the Ladder have seen in this story. The ladder is the path of piety whereby the soul unites himself to God. Yet, it spite of the salvation God offers, St. Andrew weeps for the many times he rejects that path rather than clinging to it.
Lest you think St. Andrew is only dipping in the Old Testament, here he pulls from the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan: “The priest saw me first and passed by on the other side. Then the Levite took a look at my sufferings and disdained my nakedness. But stand by Me, O Jesus…”
St. Andrew takes the story of the Good Samaritan beyond the need to love one’s neighbor. His soul is the wounded man, wounded by his own sins. Nothing could save him, so he cries out, to the one who truly is the Good Samaritan, “Stand by me, O Jesus.”
St. Andrew plumbs the depths of Scripture, pulling out characters and events that force us back into Scripture. He mentions everyone from Noah’s sons to Esau, to Reuben, Job, Hophni, Phineas, Dathan, Abiram, Hosea, and the Judges.
During Lent, Old Testament readings take center stage. Let St. Andrew’s Canon be the doorway to our Lenten Old Testament readings. Read prayerfully like St. Andrew. Read with an eye not to doctrine or theological musings but toward repentance. Take your soul on a journey through the Scripture, finding the dirt in your soul and letting God wash it clean.