Peter Somi, Oratorical Festival Judges' Choice, 2012
"The Bible Fills Us With Eternal Joy"
Perhaps the most influential Father of the Church under Islamic rule, St. John of Damascus, saw theology as a system which, when viewed in the appropriate way, explains the truth about God in a rational and coherent manner. He explained and elaborated on the Christian faith in his writings in response to Islam, he composed hymns to edify the faithful, many of which are still used today, and he defended the true faith against Iconoclasm. In his dogmatic work, On the Orthodox Faith, St. John writes, “The Bible is a scented garden, delightful, beautiful. It enchants our ears with birdsong in a sweet, divine and spiritual harmony, it touches our heart, comforts us in sorrow, soothes us in a moment of anger, and fills us with eternal joy.” As we continue to face the challenge of understanding and hearing the Scriptures in our own lives, his words remain relevant today. The Bible continues to enchant us, touch our hearts, comfort us, soothe us, and fill us with eternal joy, while we struggle to discern God’s will.
The Bible “enchants our ears with birdsong.” It enchants us and delights us. It brings us peace, but it also instills awe. The Bible is filled with great deeds and acts of love. What is most delightful, however, is the fact that all these great deeds involve human beings, not superheroes. Whether through Noah building an ark or Moses leading a whole nation out of slavery, God is acting through people like us, people who have as great a potential to love as to sin. Abraham was a simple nomad; the Apostles were poor fishermen; and St. Paul was a Pharisee who persecuted Christians. God’s awesomeness and might is not diminished by imperfect human beings. In the Book of Exodus, God parts the Red Sea by the hand of Moses. As we hear in the canon of the Feast of The Cross, “Verily, Moses having struck horizontally with his rod, cleaving the Red Sea and causing Israel to cross on foot, then having struck it transversely, bringing it together over Pharaoh and his chariots, did trace the Cross.” We today are capable of the same righteousness, the same love, and the same virtue that Abraham, Moses, David, all the Prophets, and the Apostles were filled with. We are just as capable of loving as those great men and women, since we are all created by God. It is our similarity to these men and women that makes the Bible so enchanting and relevant to us today.
The Bible “touches our heart” – it inspires us and stirs emotion within us. It opens and enlightens our heart; it brings about change and repentance in our lives. One Bible passage that inspires and enlightens me is Matthew 16:24–25: “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.’” Here, Jesus is being honest – He is telling us the reality of the world. If we give over our life and give ourselves to helping our neighbor, we’ll never run out of life; it will be everlasting now and after death. By the same token, if we hold onto our life, keep it to ourselves, and do not share it, life will terminate; it will cease to exist. Our Lord is not saying that this is easy. He states that each of us must bear his own cross, just as He had to bear his. Jesus is explicitly inspiring us to persevere and serve others. It is by denying ourselves and submitting to God’s will – echoing Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane – that our hearts are opened.
The Bible “comforts us in sorrow” – it eases the pain of suffering. The Bible enables us to relate to people who suffer just like us. The Prophet Job was a righteous man who lost his wealth, his children, and his physical health. Our Lord, who is as human as He is divine, suffered rejection, torments, beatings, crucifixion, and death. The Bible also encourages us to keep persevering when we endure hardship. We are reassured that God is with us, and that God will deliver us from suffering, as found in Ezekiel 37, God’s restoration of the dry bones. St. John recalls the message of hope found in Ezekiel when, at the Funeral Service, we chant, “I called to mind the Prophet as he cried: I am earth and ashes; and I look again into the graves and behold the bones laid bare….” Here, even at the time of death, we are given hope that God will infuse life into us, that He will deliver us from sin, death, and suffering, and that He will not abandon us.
The Bible “soothes us” – it relaxes us, calms us, and massages us. The most soothing aspect of our faith is heard in the Bible – the Feast of the Resurrection. The Resurrection is the promise that ultimately reassures us, relaxes us, and gives us a chance to take a deep breath. Through it, Jesus Christ tells us that life, not death, is the end. This soothing is expressed in the Psalm verse sung on Pascha: “This is the day which the Lord hath made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.”
In the Bible, we are instructed not to be anxious and not to worry about earthly matters, such as food and clothes. Essentially, the Bible is telling us, “If we have faith in God, we will be OK.” This is most eloquently heard in Isaiah 41:10, when God exclaims, “Far not, for I am with you. Do not go astray, for I am your God who strengthens you; I will help and secure you with my righteous right hand.” The soothing Bible allows us to “lay aside all earthly cares,” as sung in the Cherubic Hymn in the Divine Liturgy, which we sing almost immediately after hearing the Epistle and Gospel readings of the day.
The Bible “fills us with eternal joy” – it helps us find happiness. This happiness is not the same vacillating happiness seen during a concert or sports event. This happiness is the presence of God in our lives. This happiness does not come right away, but must ripen and mature. The tool which facilitates such maturation is the Bible. It is like a map or a GPS. It is something we rely on for direction on the path to true happiness. It instructs us on how to live a selfless life – one of humility, fruitful actions, and virtue. It provides us the examples of Jesus Christ and holy men and women to follow. As St. John of Damascus exclaims, the Bible “irrigates our soul.”
Having said that, we need to be constantly reminded that the Bible is not an end, in and of itself. Instead, it is the means to an end – achievement of eternal joy and salvation. The Bible is worthless if we fail to apply its messages. Just as it is meaningless to irrigate fruit and not harvest it, so is it meaningless to learn how to find joy, but take no action to achieve it. As St. James writes, “Faith without works is dead” (2:14).
Ultimately, St. John is right to call the Bible a scented garden. It is delightful and beautiful. It smells good, tastes good, and feels good. It is pleasant to look at and hear. It helps ease our pain and gives us hope. It inspires and awes us. We are called to take on and maintain this scent every day of our lives. God calls us to spread this enchantment, comfort, and joy to our neighbor. God calls us to apply the messages of love found in the Bible – by serving our God and our neighbor. And when we do, only then can we say that we have reaped the fruit of our souls, that the Scriptures have irrigated within us.
Peter Somi, 18, is from St. George Cathedral in Worcester, in the Diocese of Worcester and New England.