Category Archives: Prayer

Scripture as Food: Eating the Sacred Page

We have all heard that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deut 8:3 ESV) But this principle is developed further by several texts in Scripture and by quite a few important biblical commentators. For example, we find Ezekiel eating a scroll of God’s words (Ezek 3:3) and again, we find John eating a scroll in Revelation 10:10.  Also, the prophet Amos famously says, “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the land– not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” (Amo 8:11 ESV) If we can have a famine of God’s word, then in some way, God’s word is food for us. It is a source of spiritual sustenance. But this idea grows even further.

For example, Pope Francis delivered a great St. Ephrem quote in his motu proprio today, about the great variety of ways of interpreting Scripture:

“Who is able to understand, Lord, all the richness of even one of your words? There is more that eludes us than what we can understand. We are like the thirsty drinking from a fountain. Your word has as many aspects as the perspectives of those who study it. The Lord has coloured his word with diverse beauties, so that those who study it can contemplate what stirs them. He has hidden in his word all treasures, so that each of us may find a richness in what he or she contemplates” (Commentary on the Diatessaron, 1, 18).

So, I suppose that St. Ephrem here focuses on thirst rather than hunger, but still, it’s the same idea. But wait, there’s more!

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, is talking about the “daily bread” we pray for and explains it like this:

“One may also see in this bread another twofold meaning, viz., Sacramental Bread and the Bread of the Word of God” (Source: Expositio in orationem dominicam)

Pope Benedict XVI, in his apostolic letter, Verbum Domini, points to the hunger and thirst we have for God’s word, relying on Amos:

May the Lord himself, as in the time of the prophet Amos, raise up in our midst a new hunger and thirst for the word of God (cf. Am 8:11). It is our responsibility to pass on what, by God’s grace, we ourselves have received. (sec. 91)

St. Maximus of Turin, in contemplating Jesus’ quotation of Deut 8:3 in Matthew says:

“So, whoever feeds on the word of Christ does not require earthly food, nor can one who feeds on the bread of the Savior desire the food of the world. The Lord has his own bread; indeed, the bread is the Savior himself.” (ACCS, NT Ia, p. 60)

St. Ambrose, in commenting on the manna in the wilderness tells us

“This is the heavenly food…And this is the Word of God which God has set in orderly array. By it the souls of the prudent are fed and delighted; it is clear and sweet, shining with the splendor of truth, and softening with the sweetness of virtue the souls of those who hear it.” (Ambrose of Milan, Saint Ambrose: Letters, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, trans. Mary Melchior Beyenka, vol. 26, The Fathers of the Church [Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954], 117.)

St. Gregory the Great offers to parse the distinction between Scripture as food and Scripture as drink:

When the apostles see their souls starved of the food of truth, they nourish them with the banquet of God’s word. And so it is well said: to eat and drink with them, for Sacred Scripture is sometimes solid food for us, and sometimes drink. It is food in the more obscure passages, since it is broken into pieces when it is explained and swallowed after being chewed. It is drink in the more straightforward parts since it is absorbed just as it is found. (Robert Louis Wilken, Angela Russell Christman, and Michael J. Hollerich, eds., Isaiah, The Church’s Bible [Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 2007], 444.)

Got that? The Scripture food when it is obscure and you have to chew it up before swallowing, but it is drink in the easy, straightforward passages that you only have drink down easily.

St. Jerome himself insists:

 “The flesh of the Lord is true food and his blood true drink; this is the true good that is reserved for us in this present life, to nourish ourselves with his flesh and drink his blood, not only in the Eucharist but also in reading sacred Scripture. Indeed, true food and true drink is the word of God which we derive from the Scriptures” (Commentarius in Ecclesiasten, III: PL 23, 1092A quoted in Verbum Domini, n. 191).

We see in all these comments a shared idea, a common thread: that Scripture is a form of spiritual sustenance akin to the Eucharist. When we read Scripture, we eat Scripture. Of course, we’re not talking about ripping the pages out of your Bible and cooking them up into a stew, but a spiritual eating in which your “soul is satisfied as with fat and rich food” (see Ps 63:5). We have a need–a hunger or a thirst–for God, for spiritual life, for communion. Scripture is given to us in order to satisfy that hunger. So, um, eat up! And Happy Feast of St. Jerome!

Mental Labor – Helpful on the Path to Holiness?

There is a great article on spiritual theology in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. When it comes to explaining the “Means for realizing the Christian ideal” it suggest five activities that will help us head in the right direction: prayer, self-denial, labor, suffering and the virtues. I found the segment on labor to be curiously enlightening–partly because preachers seem to avoid the topic of work for the most part and partly because way fewer people in American society do manual labor than formerly. Most of us are doing some form of mental labor. Here’s the passage from the Encyclopedia:

(3) Labour, also, is subservient to the striving after perfection. Untiring labour runs counter to our corrupt nature, which loves ease and comfort. Hence labour, if well-ordered, persistent, and purposeful, implies self-denial. This is the reason why the Catholic Church has always looked upon labour, both manual and mental, as an ascetic means of no small value (cf. Cassian, “De instit. coenob.”, X, 24; St. Benedict, Rule, xlviii, li; Basil, “Reg. fusius tract.” c. xxxvii, 1-3; “Reg. brevius tract.”, c. lxxii; Origen, Against Celsus I.28). St. Basil is even of the opinion that piety and avoidance of labour are irreconcilable in the Christian ideal of life (cf. Mausbach, “Die Ethik des hl. Augustinus”, 1909, p. 264). Source: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14613a.htm

I have often heard of manual labor being something that can help one pray. I mean, the monks take “Ora et Labora” as their motto, that is, “Pray and Work.” But their work is usually farm work, cheese making, or even brewing. Only a few monks engage in the “mental labor” of handling the monastery finances or theological scholarship. But in our time, as I  mentioned above, most of us are engaged in mental labor–whether that be computer programming, organizing business deals, investing, accounting, advising, etc. From attorneys to customer service representatives to money managers to theologians, many, many people are doing mental labor rather than manual labor. But I don’t think most of us assess our mental labor as an “ascetic means of no small value.” But maybe we should.

The article provides a few references on the topic. Here are the quotes I could find:

Rule of St. Benedict, article 48 (I’ve bolded the parts that equate “reading”/mental labor with work. Monks were required to read during the work periods of their day. Note also that reading was an ascetical practice for Lent.):

Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading. Hence, we believe that the time for each will be properly ordered by the following arrangement; namely, that from Easter till the calends of October, they go out in the morning from the first till about the fourth hour, to do the necessary work, but that from the fourth till about the sixth hour they devote to reading. After the sixth hour, however, when they have risen from table, let them rest in their beds in complete silence; or if, perhaps, anyone desireth to read for himself, let him so read that he doth not disturb others. Let None be said somewhat earlier, about the middle of the eighth hour; and then let them work again at what is necessary until Vespers.

If, however, the needs of the place, or poverty should require that they do the work of gathering the harvest themselves, let them not be downcast, for then are they monks in truth, if they live by the work of their hands, as did also our forefathers and the Apostles. However, on account of the faint-hearted let all things be done with moderation.

From the calends of October till the beginning of Lent, let them apply themselves to reading until the second hour complete. At the second hour let Tierce be said, and then let all be employed in the work which hath been assigned to them till the ninth hour. When, however, the first signal for the hour of None hath been given, let each one leave off from work and be ready when the second signal shall strike. But after their repast let them devote themselves to reading or the psalms.

During the Lenten season let them be employed in reading from morning until the third hour, and till the tenth hour let them do the work which is imposed on them. During these days of Lent let all received books from the library, and let them read them through in order. These books are to be given out at the beginning of the Lenten season.

Above all, let one or two of the seniors be appointed to go about the monastery during the time that the brethren devote to reading and take notice, lest perhaps a slothful brother be found who giveth himself up to idleness or vain talk, and doth not attend to his reading, and is unprofitable, not only to himself, but disturbeth also others. If such a one be found (which God forbid), let him be punished once and again. If he doth not amend, let him come under the correction of the Rule in such a way that others may fear. And let not brother join brother at undue times.

On Sunday also let all devote themselves to reading, except those who are appointed to the various functions. But if anyone should be so careless and slothful that he will not or cannot meditate or read, let some work be given him to do, that he may not be idle.

Let such work or charge be given to the weak and the sickly brethren, that they are neither idle, nor so wearied with the strain of work that they are driven away. Their weakness must be taken into account by the Abbot.

John Cassian, Institutes of the Coenobia, Book X, chapter 24 on the ascetical value of manual labor:

LASTLY, Abbot Paul, one of the greatest of the Fathers, while he was living in a vast desert which is called the Porphyrian desert,[374] and being relieved from anxiety by the date palms and a small garden, had plenty to support himself, and an ample supply of food, and could not find any other work to do, which would support him, because his dwelling was separated from towns and inhabited districts by seven days’ journey,[375] or even more, through the desert, and more would be asked for the carriage of the goods than the price of the work would be worth; he collected the leaves of the palms, and regularly exacted of himself his daily task, as if he was to be supported by it. And when his cave had been filled with a whole year’s work, each year he would burn with fire that at which he had so diligently laboured: thus proving that without manual labour a monk cannot stop in a place nor rise to the heights of perfection: so that, though the need for food did not require this to be done, yet he performed it simply for the sake of purifying his heart, and strengthening his thoughts, and persisting in his cell, and gaining a victory over accidie and driving it away.

St. Basil explains a lot about the ascetical value of work in his Longer Rules, Regulæ fusius tractatæ (Discussed in this book: E.F. Morison, St. Basil and His Rule, Chapter IX, “The Monk at Work” here: http://archive.org/stream/basilsrule00moriuoft/basilsrule00moriuoft_djvu.txt).

Ah, and here’s a link to the Mausbach book on the Ethics of St. Augustine, p. 264.

The main point of all this is that labor can be a means of sanctification and that “mental labor” — reading, research, email, thinking, meeting — can be just as sanctifying as manual labor.

Online Chapels

This has to be the weirdest thing I have seen all week. I came across an institution touting its “online chapel.” I thought to myself–what the heck is that?! Isn’t a chapel a place to pray and worship. How on earth could such a place exist in the cyberspace environement?

So then, following the path of any avid internet user (and yes, I do mean that with all the negative connotations), I Googled “online chapel.” And as could be expected, I found many online chapels. Most of them seem to be only lists of prayers or Bible readings. But rather than advertising their prayer lists as prayer lists, these websites label themselves “online chapels.” Some of them have icon pictures and what not. A few are blogs.

So, I must ask, what is a chapel?

A chapel is a building for prayer. The architecture of a chapel is designed (under good circumstances) not only to provide covering but to actually elevate worshippers hearts to God in prayer. It is a place characterized by silence, beauty, stillness and peace. It is a place where the senses can be quieted to listen for the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.

A chapel is not an LCD screen with prayers listed on it.