When reading or listening to Scripture, we often find ourselves so caught up in various details that we lose sight of the meaning which we are meant to receive from the text. We should know that there is a practical point to all Scripture, that there is something in it which can help us in our lives. This is why the spirit of the text, the intended meaning of the text, is more important than the text itself. In and of itself, when the spirit behind the text is ignored, Scripture leads us to a dead end. For, if we embrace Scripture without engaging its spirit, we will find ourselves burdened beyond belief by the letter of the text. When we are so focused on particular details relating to the means by which the intention is brought forth, instead of the intention itself, we close themselves off from the Spirit which inspired that intention. And this is a grave travesty, because it is the Spirit which gives life, not only to us, but to the text itself, infusing it with a meaning that makes it more than a dead letter.
Hearing Scripture, being able to provide scholarly exegesis on it, showing off what we know through such endeavors, does us no good if we do not first seek the Spirit which inspired the text and embrace it. We need the Spirit. We do not need the text. People who can’t read can still have the Spirit and come to know what they need to know through it. The Spirit can teach us with or without the text, though of course, this does not mean Scripture is worthless. It provides us a common foundation for our faith, so long as we understand its proper use and its limitations. When we engage Scripture, we must do so properly. We must not let ourselves be drawn away from the intention behind the text. We must not get caught up in all the details. Thus, Abba Sisoes told Abba Ammoun that so long as Ammoun focused on the words of Scripture, he was focused on the wrong thing, that is, on showing off to others what he knew instead of learning from the Spirit what he did not yet know. For this reason, Ammoun was told to become pure in spirit so that he could listen to the Spirit:
Abba Ammoun of Rhaithou asked Abba Sisoes, ‘When I read the Scriptures, my mind is wholly concentrated on the words so that I may have something to say if I am asked.’ The old man said to him, ‘That is not necessary; it is better to enrich yourself through purity of spirit and to be without anxiety and then to speak.’
Abba Ammoun was so concerned about glorifying himself that he, for a time, ignored the Spirit. He wanted to be able to speak to others, to prove himself to them by the way he could answer any difficult question people had after reading of Scripture. But desiring to do this made him anxious. No matter how detailed his explanations were, no matter how much he had to say when asked to say something, all he had to use for his answer came from the letter of the text. There was always something lacking in what he had to say and he knew it. The solution was to go beyond all those details which he embraced, to ignore them, and instead to seek after and heed the Spirit. He needed to get beyond the letter of the text. He needed to develop his own spiritual condition, to become pure in spirit. Then, he would be able to speak without such anxiety for he would be able to speak from experience and not mere theory. He would be able to speak words of life as he would have such life within him. He would be able to answer questions truthfully, and simply. He would not have to show off so as to appear to know more than he did.
Thus, Abba Sisoes wanted Abba Ammoun to realize the truth of Paul’s words: “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:5-6 RSV). So long as we focus on what we can get out of a text by our own diligent research and understanding, we will rely upon our own limited competence and so will have reason to be anxious when asked about the spiritual truths contained in Scripture. For people can and will raise difficult questions which we might not be able answer. We fear being made to appear as fools when we think ourselves wise. So, many of us seek solutions through scholarly pursuits. Though they can help, they will never be enough. By themselves, they provide us nothing of the Spirit which we need, which is why so many scholars are spiritually dead inside. Once we get out of this trap, once we stop trying to show off, and just follow the lead of the Spirit, our anxiety will vanish and we will be able to offer far more than we ever did by scholarly pursuits alone.
If we find our focus on Scripture hinders our engagement with the Spirit, we should silence our minds so as to embrace the Spirit; then, having grace perfect us and enlighten us, we will be able to properly engage Scripture. Without such grace, we risk turning it into a dead letter that leads to our own spiritual demise. Of course, this is a common problem. Even holy men and women, like Abba Ammoun, needed to be reminded of this truth.
 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 216 [Saying of Sisoes 17].
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