“I felt I was late to come to the knowledge of Christ; studying the Bible appeared such a daunting task. In desperation, I asked the Lord to give me either a long life to have enough time to study the Bible well, or enough wisdom to grasp its hidden meanings. In his everlasting generosity, God gave me both.” Fr. Matta el-Meskeen (Matthew the Poor)
The visit of the Holy Father to Egypt at the end of April to support and encourage the persecuted Coptic Orthodox, Catholics and other Christians of Egypt and to promote dialogue and peace between Christians and Muslims has reminded me of how much my own spiritual life has been enriched and deepened by a Coptic Orthodox spiritual writer, Fr. Matta el Meskeen.
Fr. Matthew (1919-2006) was a well-to-do pharmacist, who at the age of twenty-nine gave away all of his possessions and became a monk. After a few years in a desert monastery, he moved farther into the desert and lived for twelve years as a recluse and was a key player in the spiritual renewal of Coptic Orthodox monasticism in the 1970’s and was the spiritual director of the then Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Shenuda.
I first encountered him in the early 1980’s in the pages of the Coptic Church Quarterly (which is, unfortunately, no longer being published). In 1984, a collection of some of his spiritual writings were published under the title of “The Communion of Love” (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press). In the introduction to this book, the late Fr. Henri Nouwen wrote “All that Fr. Matta says is guided by the question: How do I make God the center of my life?”
The twenty short chapters begin with an essay on how to read the Bible, followed by reflections on the birth of Jesus, his passion, death, resurrection, Pentecost and the Holy Spirit and the place of the Mother of God in the life of the Church. He concludes with his reflections on Christian unity.
But for me, over the past thirty years, it has been Fr. Matta’s first essay on how to read the Bible that has been a great help in beginning to make Christ, particularly as he speaks in sacred scripture, the center of my life as a disciple.
One of the major goals of the Second Vatican Council has been to deepen and intensify our encounter and engagement with the Word of God as revealed to us in sacred scripture. As noted in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum: “… such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting font of spiritual life.” (21.DV)
In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council Fathers directed that “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s Word.” (51 SC)
Like many Catholics after the Second Vatican Council, the “richer fare provided … at the table of God’s Word” was an encouragement to learn more about sacred scripture. But academic knowledge about the sacred texts and their history, context and theology was just the first (if vitally necessary) step in being drawn more deeply into God’s Word so that it could begin to become for me “strength for [my] faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting font of spiritual life.”
Fr. Matta in his teaching “How to Read the Bible,” notes that in the scriptures, God is speaking to each one of us personally. But he cautions: “Take heed how you hear the Gospel. It seems that the Lord wants to say that we hear with our hearts rather than our ears, and that the inner life affects the word of God, either killing it, or making it live and thrive.”
Thus, listening to the voice of God in scripture is difficult, not because his words are somehow obscure or hard to grasp but because we are disposed to resist them.
He writes: “If you ask, ‘How can I acquire an ear that can hear the voice of God?’” I would answer, “Prepare yourself first to receive His demands and requests and directions, and be ready in your heart to carry them out, no matter what the cost. Immediately you will have an ear that hears the voice of Almighty God.”
What a starting place for listening and responding to the Word of God! What is it that I don’t want to hear? What in God’s word, especially in the commands and teaching of Jesus, do I, in the hidden depths of my heart, refuse to obey? What are the attitudes and values, contrary to the gospel, that I hold onto which prevent the Divine Word from taking root in my life?
In order for the word to take root in my heart, I must root out the disobedience to Jesus’ command to love God and love my neighbor. As a sinner, I shut the ears of my heart to the commands that the Lord is speaking to me in the sacred text because I will have to die to my own will and conform myself and my actions to God’s will.
Fr. Matta proposes that “No one can hear the voice of the Son of God except [the one] who opens his heart and mind to understand his language, whose words and tones are made of love, tenderness, kindness and fatherly care, no matter how cruel life and
its circumstances may appear to be.”
Fortunately, I don’t have to already be a saint in order for God’s word to abide in my heart. Just the opposite! Instead, I need in humility and trust to confront my inner resistance to God’s will, ask God to have mercy on me, a sinner, and for the grace to learn how to speak in his language and not my own.
I love how he concludes his teaching on how to read the Bible. After describing the beautiful and reverent rites surrounding the proclamation of the Gospel in the Mass, he writes:
“He who has tasted the power of the Gospel in his life does not consider this excessive, but does even more to show his veneration.
There are those who always fast to read the Gospel.
There are those who, when they read the Gospel alone, always kneel.
There are those who always read it with weeping and tears.
God’s directions to us are most often given through the reading and hearing of the Gospel, when we are in a state of humility and when we pray with an open heart.”