Saint Ignatij Brianchaninoff
When you study the Gospel, don’t look for pleasure, don’t look for excitement, don’t look for brilliant thoughts. Seek to find the infallible holy truth. Don’t be satisfied with studying the Gospel to no real avail. Study it practically. Strive to carry out its commandments. Since it’s the book of life, study it with your life.
Don’t believe that it’s by chance that the four Gospels begin with Matthew and end with John. Matthew teaches us more about how to fulfill the divine will and the teachings which are appropriate for those beginning to make their way on the path of God. John has more to do with the manner of union with God, with people being renewed by God’s commandments. This union is achieved by those who have already advanced along the path to God.
When you open the holy Gospel, remember that it’ll determine your eternal state. We’ll all be judged by it and will either be saved or punished eternally. ‘Those who reject me and do not receive my words have a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge them on the last day’ [Jn. 12, 48].
God has revealed his will to this insignificant speck of dust which is called a human being. The book in which his all-holy and redemptive will is recorded is in your hands. You can either accept or reject the will of your Maker and Savior. Your eternal life or eternal death depends on you yourself. So weigh up how much care and wisdom you need to show. Don’t play games with eternity.
Pray to the Lord with a contrite heart, so that he’ll open your eyes to see the miracles concealed in his law in the Gospel. The Word of God opens the eyes of the soul and heals it from sin in a wondrous manner. The cures of the body effected by the Lord were simply illustrations and proof of the cure of the soul. They were necessary confirmation for people whose minds were blinded by pleasures of the flesh. Read the Gospel with great veneration and attention. Don’t consider any passage to be of lesser importance and don’t pass over any part without reading it properly. Every dot in the Gospel radiates life. Indifference to life means death.
When you read about the lepers, the cripples, the blind, the lame and the possessed that the Lord healed, recollect that your soul, which is sorely wounded by sin and is in thrall to the demons, is like those sick people. Learn from the Gospel about their faith. The Lord will heal you, too, if you turn to him with faith, as they did, and entreat him ceaselessly to cure you.
In order to find yourself in a position to receive divine healing, you have first to acquire the right spiritual disposition. Healing is provided to those who have an awareness of their sinfulness and who take the decision to leave it behind. The Savior’s of no use to the proud righteous- in essence, the sinful- who don’t see their offenses.
Being able to see the sinfulness, the fall of the whole of the human race, is a gift from God. Ask him for this gift and, when it’s granted, the Gospel, the book of the heavenly Physician, will become much more comprehensible.
Try to make the Gospel more familiar to your mind and your heart. Let your mind be borne upon it, let it live in it. In this way, all of your activity will be more easily inspired by the Gospel. This can be achieved by all of us if we delve more deeply into it and study it meticulously.
Saint Pachomius the Great, one of the most famous of the early Fathers, knew the Gospel by heart. Later, as a result of divine inspiration, he encouraged his disciples to do the same. In this way, the Gospel accompanied and guided them always and everywhere.
Why is it that modern Christian teachers don’t adorn the minds of innocent young children with the Gospel and instead stuff them with Aesop’s fables and other extraneous knowledge? [Saint Ignatij was writing in the 19th century. What on earth would he have made of the state of education today?].
What happiness, what wealth there is in memorizing the Gospel. You see, we can’t be sure to foresee the changes in our life-style that will occur or the disasters that might befall us in the course of our earthly life. But if the Gospel’s committed to memory it can be studied by the blind, it accompanies inmates to prison, it converses with the farmer in the field, it counsels the judge on the bench, guides the merchant in the market-place and comforts the sick at times of tedious insomnia and profound loneliness.
Don’t however, take it upon yourself to interpret the Gospel and other books of Scripture on your own. These were written by prophets and apostles, not arbitrarily but under the illumination of the Holy Spirit. So, if they weren’t written randomly, it makes no sense to interpret them irresponsibly. The word of God was written by the Holy Spirit, with the prophets and apostles as his agents, and has been interpreted by the holy Fathers. Both the ability to record the word of God and to interpret it are gifts from the Holy Spirit. This is all that the Orthodox accept. This is all that its true children accept. Those who interpret Scripture subjectively reject the interpretation of the Fathers, which was guided by the Holy Spirit. And those who reject the interpretation of the Scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in effect reject Scripture itself. And so it comes about that the word of God, which is the word of our salvation, becomes a deadly two-edged sword for those who interpret it lightly. They themselves put to death their own souls and make them liable to eternal punishment. The Lord says: ‘On whom shall I look except those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my words’ [Is. 66, 2]. This should be our attitude to the Lord and the Gospel, wherein he is to be found.
Abandon your sinful life; leave behind earthly antagonism and love of pleasure. Reject your life, that is your egotism, and then you’ll be able to approach and understand the Gospel. ‘Those who love their soul will lose it’, said the Lord, ‘but those who don’t take into account their life in this world, will keep their soul for eternal life’. This is why, for those who love their self and aren’t prepared to renounce it, the Gospel’s closed. They read it, but the words of life and of the Holy Spirit remain an impenetrable curtain for them.
When the Lord was on earth in his most-holy human body, lots of people saw him, while others didn’t. What good is it for people to see with the eyes of the body, as the animals do? How is it that people see with the eyes of the body, as do all animals, but don’t see with the eyes of the soul, of the mind, of the heart. There are plenty of people today who read the Gospel, but don’t know anything about it. It’s as if they’ve never read it at all.
The Gospel can be read only with a clear mind and, as Saint Mark the Ascetic pointed out, it is understood in proportion to the rapport we have with it and the extent to which we apply the commandments contained in it. Nevertheless, any accurate and perfect knowledge of the Gospel can’t be achieved through our own efforts; it’s a gift from God. Once the Holy Spirit comes and abides in his true and faithful servants, he makes them perfect students and staunch observers of the Gospel. The Gospel contains a description of the new person, the Lord who comes down from heaven and is God ‘by nature’. His holy kin, those who believe in him and become like him, are gods ‘by grace’.
Those of you who wallow in the mire of sins and find pleasure there, raise your heads and gaze upon the clear heavens. That’s where your place is. God places such a high value on you that he’ll make you gods. Yet you reject this value and degrade yourselves to the level of the beasts- indeed, the most impure among them. Come to your senses. Get out of the filthy morass. Wash yourselves in tears of repentance. Cleanse yourselves with confession. Adorn yourselves with contrition. Raise yourselves to heaven. ‘While you have the light’, that is the Gospel, wherein Christ is veiled, ‘believe in the light so that you’ll become children of the light’.