Reading sacred texts is not the same as reading regular texts, books, magazines, newspapers. In fact, in many ways, it works in almost the exact opposite way. Working on sacred texts, with their often difficult language is not simply a work of increasing our vocabulary, or polishing our syntax, even though having a better vocabulary and being able to write with ease and grace are indeed valuable skills to learn. Working on the language of sacred texts is at the deepest levels about working on self.
When we approach the numinous, when we are before the Burning Bush, we remove the sandals of language and are struck dumb. At that level there is a momentary stopping of the constant inner babbling. But we are still a word in God’s lips. We have always been one – God called us forth from the nothing through the Word.
So work on sacred texts at its deepest level is work on self, and work on self is, traditionally, described in the language of purification. It is a process of refinement, of removing the excess, of filtering out impurities, until only the essence is left. This essence is a potent distillation of our body, mind and soul.
Nowadays everyone takes multivitamins. These multivitamins are small little pills which can be easily swallowed, but they carry within them the distilled essence of a variety of minerals which can be found scattered and diluted in plants and animals. What the multivitamin does is it condenses all of these beneficial elements into one small and potent pill. For example to consume the equivalent amount of vitamin A in one pill a person would have to eat two or three carrot sticks, a cup of spinach, some asparagus spears, some broccoli, plus some apricots and peaches. This is to match one ingredient in a multivitamin. I am not saying don’t eat your veggies, this is not about diet, and there are many other side benefits to eating all those things which a pill cannot equate. But that is for another discussion.
In a sense, when we reach our Burning Bush, when we reach this deep core of silence, we are left with just the multivitamin of our selves. To get there we will need to purify our bodies, our spirits, our minds, our souls. We will need to distill them to their most basic essences. Everything which is not beneficial will have to be discarded as pulp.
There are four ways by which we practice this purification and condensation. These are:
- Prudence – that is, right perspective and thinking. This is the inner language – the words we think before we speak. Practicing prudence means we learn to take into account our prejudices, and to weigh carefully our words, and our actions. In the Rule of Benedict this kind of skill is the next to last rung on the ladder of perfection! It states: “The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and that he be not noisy in his speech. It is written, ‘A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’ (Sextus, Enchidirion, 134 or 145)“
- Justice – that is, right social actions and relationships. To be just is to be able to discern how a relationship needs to be pruned or corrected to enable the Holy Spirit to move more freely, more abundantly within and through the lines of connection between people. This heals Creation in profound ways and accelerates the Second Coming. Justice is living in Isaiah 40. Where every action is making the way clear for the Lord. “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”
- Fortitude – that is, right effort (perseverance). A common error many fall into is called the Sunk Cost Fallacy. This is the kind of error that says that if you have gone so far you might as well keep going. If you invested so much money you might as well keep spending. If you have put so many years on a relationship you might as well keep going. Accepting our “sunk costs” is very painful, it is humiliating. It requires a lot of fortitude to be able to pull out of such a trap. Perseverance is not about effort, about keep it going no matter what. It is about the right effort, orthopraxis.
- Temperance – that is, right intention and internal relationships. While we control our external actions and words with prudence, we control our internal drives and desires with temperance. It is not a case of self-denial, but a question of appropriate indulgence. There is a difference. If we begin with the premise that the Lord our God is a good and loving God who creates a good and loving world, then pleasure, joy, peace, happiness, are all good and natural states to live in. In fact it is pain, sorrow, sadness, and death which are a result of the Fall. Temperance is to return our inner lives to that ideal back in the beginning. The first work in temperance is to understand the right and wrong ways to be a human being. The second and final step is to chip away everything that is sub-human in us.
It might seem strange that all these practices are required just so we can get to some texts with difficult language, but this is because we are, at our deepest core, words, or a word. And not just any word, not a symbol, or some abstraction. For the Word was made flesh. So there is never a separation between words and body, thoughts and actions, feelings and imagination. It is all embodied, because the Word was embodied.
Working with language, then, is also a good way to move deeply into our essence. The work is clearly outlined in James’ epistle chapter 3. The brother of Our Lord says: “Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.” He then goes on to outline the external, observable fruits of what he calls the “taming the tongue”: “Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom.”
So when talking about words and language James goes on to point out about living a life filled with mercy and good actions. What has that to do with words? Everything! But only if we understand the Word that resides in our core, the Name which is our sacred and secret name, the Logos which is our very essence. It is all connected. So here we have a beginning of a way of training ourselves to go deeper into language. Scriptural language, sacred texts, are sacred not because they are printed in special gold ink, or because the pages are made from discarded angel feathers. They are sacred because their specific arrangement of thoughts and even sounds vibrates at the deepest core of our Word – they are in harmony with the Word.
What happens when you strike a tuning fork? It vibrates at a certain frequency. If you place that fork next to another one which has a similar pitch the second fork will also begin to respond in kind. This is what happens with sacred texts. We need to learn how to read sacred texts with an ear to these subtle vibrations. We need to be purified so that we can notice these vibrations and cooperate with them, enhancing the harmony, amplifying the response.