The pastor's study: Passing from darkness to light and memorizing Scripture

October 22nd, 2018

The beginning of the Easter Vigil is dramatic, and its drama may be remembered even now, at the other pole of the year, during our passage through autumn. Easter Vigil begins Saturday evening, in the dark. The darkness and the subdued solitude and anticipation of the gathered congregation each reflect the 'being dead' of our Lord Jesus Christ. Holy Saturday is the interim space par excellence in the life of the Church — between Christ's death on Good Friday yet before the full celebration of the resurrection that sparks the light of Easter Sunday. So the congregation gathers in darkness and silence, buried away still in the darkness of our Lord's sealed tomb.

Then the inexpressible mystery takes place. In the fathomless darkness, there is light: a small but indomitable spark unto flame. God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. A candle is lit, a large candle, the "Christ Candle" — the congregation's liturgical reenactment of that mystery of all mysteries, that originating mystery of the Christian faith: our Lord's passage from death to resurrected and eternal life. Christ's resurrection appearances are the manifestation and actualization in history of the eschatological reality of Christ's, and our, transformed, spiritual, glorious resurrection.

In the Church catholic, as for Christ her Lord, there is a passage from death to life, from darkness to Light.

This passage from darkness to light also takes place intellectually in the life of the Christian believer — or so teaches 12th century educator-theologian-mystic Hugh of St. Victor. The passage from intellectual darkness to light, from ignorance to a penetrating and illumined knowledge of the Truth, is a Christian's own participation in Christ's burial as it inclines progressively to its terminus in the Light of resurrection. Extending Hugh's thought for today entails the claim that every pastor's hidden labor of study is a participation in Christ's own transitus, in Christ's own passage through death to eternal life. The pastor who takes seriously the part of their vocation to continuing study and theological reflection is, as St. Bonaventure might characterize it, a "true Hebrew," a true spiritual sojourner passing from death in Egypt through the birth canal of the Red Sea and into the luminous and vast if vivaciously arid space of intellectual struggle, temptation and transcendence: the desert. And, like the Hebrews in the desert, it is a continual temptation for pastors and other Christians to neglect the devotion to God that is, especially for the pastor, continued theological study. There are so many things to attend to, so many requests and tasks, and the best of us, I suspect, are quite imperfectly obedient in this regard. Yet the call and the possibility is there, and it is given, again and again: make use of the mind God has given you, and the vast intellectual tools at your fingertips, to continue growing intellectually. Continue participating mentally in Christ's paschal mystery, the better to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, and the better to equip and guide others to do the same.

Now that I've painted all this theologically, let me get specific.

There are several things one needs in order to participate intellectually in Christ's Passover. The first is memorization of Scripture. That's the labor of participation in Good Friday. It is foundational to the others. The second and third pertain to Holy Saturday: one needs a mind made dynamic by well-formed in habits of dogmatic thinking. And one needs to continue probing the borders of one's own theological understanding, growing, constructing, rethinking, seeking greater light. All of these are work. Today I'll say a brief note about the foundational discipline: the memorization of Scripture. Next week, I’ll dive into the second and third disciplines, and make specific reading recommendations.

The foundation: Persisting familiarity with the text of Scripture

For Hugh, one's familiarity with Scripture — which is to say, one's reading and rereading of it such that it is, and remains, available and accessible in one's memory — is the foundation of Christian theological thinking. It is a labor to become, and remain, so familiar with Scripture. Yet, of the three disciplines here discussed, it is the one that pastors most frequently excel at. As my friend Barry, a United Methodist pastor, likes to say: it is good for everyone to go through a Baptist phase in order to learn a lot of Scripture. And many pastors are deeply familiar with the text of Scripture, through intense periods of study while growing in their own faith or during formation. This familiarity with and available memory of Scripture is continually re-formed in a pastor through the engagements with Scripture that make up a normal year: going through the lectionary texts, perhaps, or reading and studying through particular books in the course of preaching; leading Bible studies; reading part of Romans 8 to a person in hospital or hospice care, etc.

Bonaventure points out that having Scripture available in one's memory absolutely corresponds to one's skill, freedom and dynamism as a preacher. To be a virtuoso of the preached word is to have facility with the biblical words written in memory. Evangelical biblical historian N.T. Wright and the late Miltonist and writer Reynolds Price both recommend the discipline of actually memorizing entire books of Scripture. (Price was also proud of the 80 or so odd students who had memorized Milton's poem “Lycidas” following his encouragement over the more than 40 years of his teaching at Duke.) For Hugh of St. Victor, one's memorization of Scripture is a kind of labor, a dying, a participation in Good Friday. Looking back, perhaps you yourself remember — when the words of Scripture's texts were being imprinted in your memory like the nails were being impressed in Jesus' hands.

Next week we'll discuss the second and third disciplines: the dogmatic formation on one's theological thinking habits and the continuing pursuit of light beyond what one has thought and grasped before. Those are both, for Hugh, participation in Holy Saturday's movement into the Light of Easter.

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