A while ago I was reading a work called On the Spiritual Law, by St Mark the Ascetic, a monk of the 5th century. St Mark was talking about reading scripture, and so he has something to say about how we hear the readings in a liturgy of the Word. But he also says something about how we respond. Here’s what he said: “When reading the Holy Scriptures, someone who is humble and engaged in spiritual work will apply everything to himself and not to someone else”. So what happens when we apply today’s readings to ourselves and not to someone else?
The reading from Acts says they were worshiping the Lord and fasting and completing their fasting and prayer, they…sent them off. That’s not just a historical note that the early Christian community used to fast and pray. It doesn’t mean that someone we know should do a lot of fasting and praying. Especially fasting. No. Someone who is engaged in spiritual work will apply that to himself and ask if there is something he can spare his stomach in order to be true to material poverty and a counter-cultural life. That would be more in keeping with what we’ve been hearing in Michael Casey’s article which is being read in the refectory.
But there are also wrong ways to apply the reading to yourself. One is the Pharisaical approach: “Lord, I thank you that I am not like Br M. Wolfdown who supersizes all his portions.” Another wrong way is mentioned by St John Climacus. That’s to think to yourself, “I’d love to take two portions of that strawberry shortcake we had last Sunday, but I better stick to one, or people will stare at me”. Climacus calls that “hypocrisy of the stomach”. Or, as some of us might say to ourselves, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”
Jesus has a similar message in today’s Gospel, about not thinking that the readings are full of good advice about what other people should do. If anyone had a right to criticize other people, it was our Lord, who knew the hearts of all. But in today’s Gospel he explicitly says, I did not come to condemn the world. When hearing this passage in the Holy Scriptures, someone who is humble and engaged in spiritual work will apply it to himself and think, Our Lord did not condemn the entire world: who am I to be critical of my brother, or talk negatively about him to others? That is a failure to love.
The Eucharist is what gives each of us the strength to apply the readings to ourselves and go deeper in our call to love. It does no good to think of other people’s failings when we hear the Scriptures. Let us have only God and his Love in our memory, in our mind, and in our hearts, and no room for anything else.