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Never the same Bible twice

Sacred Scripture far excels all other knowledge and teaching. It sets forth what is true; it calls readers to the heavenly country; it changes the hearts of readers from earthly desires to embrace things above; by its obscurer statements it exercises the strong and by its humble strain speaks gently to the little ones; it is neither so shut up that it should be dreaded nor so open to view as to be contemptible; use of it does not weary: the more it is meditated on the more it is loved; by its lowly words it assists a readers mind and uplifts it with lofty meanings; in a way it grows with the persons reading it; uninstructed readers find it familiar and yet the learned find in it something always new.(Gregory, Morals on Job, Bk. 20, 1:1)

Gregory found the same point made allegorically in the great vision in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, where, after the four living creatures, wheels are seen (vv. 15ff), and after a difficult description of the wheels, the prophet reports this:

19 When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. 20 Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the life was in the wheels. 21 When those went, these went; when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up together with them, for the spirit of life was in the wheels.

Gregory had already interpreted the living creatures to represent preachers of the Gospel and the wheels were the Sacred Scriptures, so that when it came to v. 19, he could say:

The living creatures go when holy men understand from the Scriptures how they are to live morally; they are lifted up from the earth when the holy men are suspended in contemplation. And because each one of the saints, the more he makes progress in the Scriptures, the more they make progress in him, it is rightly said: When the living creatures went, the wheels also went, and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels also were lifted up with them, because the Scriptures grow with the one who is reading them... The wheels are not lifted up if the living creatures are not lifted up, because unless the minds of those reading them make some progress upwards, the Scriptures lie in the depths, not understood....Wherever the spirit of the reader goes, there the Scriptures are lifted up, because if in them you seek to see and to sense something lofty, those same Scriptures grow with you, and with you rise toward loftier places. ...The wheels follow the spirit because the words of Scripture, as has already been said several times, grow in accordance with the understanding of those reading them. (Gregory on Ezekiel, Bk. I, Hom. 7, 8; PL 76, 843ff)

Even if one does not wish to follow Gregory in his allegorical flights, the insight is valid. What the Scriptures--or any other writing--can say to readers varies with their experience, learning, knowledge, wisdom--not to mention holiness. Susan Gannon reminded us yesterday that one never reads the same book twice, and that holds for the Bible, too.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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It is difficult today to understand how allegory so charmed people in earlier times. At its best, it tends to be ponderous and plodding, requiring an extra layer of interpetation to explain what was intended to explain. Living creatures and wheels? Please, holy writer, just say out what you mean, and let's get on.Sacred Scripture far excels all other knowledge and teaching. If that's what you believe, St. Gregory, fine. But it's only a step from there, and I believe you were one of those who took it, to neglecting and rejecting other knowledge and teaching. And as a result, much of the learning and literature of the ancient world was lost, granted it was another set of religious enthusiasts that finally burned the library at Alexandria. Today that contempt for secular knowledge lives on as vigorously as ever in fundamentalist religion, threatening catastrophe.Susan Gannon's reminder that we can't read the same book twice is the valuable flip side of the statement of Heraclitus that "you can't step twice into the same river." This time we're the river.

John: Of course, the problem of layers of interpretation begins with the prophet himself, with those four living creatures and those wheels within wheels. Read any commentary on Ezekiel.

Yes, that's who I meant by "holy writer." It's a different kind of writing with a different purpose, of course, but compare the leadenness of allegory with the airiness of any Homeric simile, one of which is worth a bale of the other.Just my opinion, needless to say.

According to Piaget proportional thinking (of the type A is related to B as C is related to D) is one o the highest rational skills. People usually can't do it until they're about 12, and many people never learn to do it. Since metaphors are proportional thinking, it seems to me that that speaks well for the abilities of the illiterate peasants who were 'the little people' that Gregory speaks of. the people hwo were taught by using metaphors. Interesting that illiteracy doesn't prevent high level thinking.

Most of us are little people. We thrive on simplicity. Contemplating an allegory, following it down its various paths, re-reading the same text again and again, deepening it in our memory and understanding and imagination, are every bit as human an activity as spinning verbal algorithms through ponderous volumes of science and philosophy. Some people are highly verbal and some are not. The Church - at least as I understand it - is for everyone, not just the highly literate.

Well said, David Smith. Yes, one of the wonderful things about allegory, especially moral allegory, is the ease with which readers can enter it so imaginatively as to apply the dramatized message creatively to their own problems. Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" surely has shaped the consciences of generations of readers who have seen their own struggles and conflicts in the perils and rewards encountered by Christian in his journey. It's hard to imagine readers taking up the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" in quite that spirit.When looking for a Christmas gift for my grandniece, now eight, who has read the Narnia books, I ended up with a French "serious comic strip"-style story of the life of St. Paul, and a strategy game concerning his journeys. Maybe a children's Bunyan next year.

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