I was struck by the directness of the message from the holy man: “To have a meaningful spiritual life, you must read Scripture.”
That was the simple, straightforward advice an Episcopal monk named John-Julian gave to me and a gathering of others during an afternoon spiritual retreat I attended several years ago. (Yes, some monks and nuns are Episcopalian. Not all monks are Catholic).
“Sacred texts are very much alive, they are continually new,” John-Julian explained. “When you read a passage of scripture -- and you may have already read the passage countless times -- notice there will be something there you’ve not noticed before, often relating directly to your life today.”
The Bible can, of course, be read for historical or literary knowledge and instruction, he said, but the Bible also can be read in a way that transforms our inner, spiritual lives. It can be read allegorically.
While some people believe the traditional way of interpreting Scripture is to read its texts literally, as “the inerrant word of the Lord,” in fact, this method of interpretation is not traditional. By contrast, the practice of reading any sacred text “in a spiritual sense” – allegorically -- has been an accepted and even encouraged formative discipline in most wisdom traditions for thousands of years.
When we allegorize scriptural texts, we allow the texts to become dynamic. Concrete details can become abstract -- metaphors for a different time -- and may often pertain directly to our own experience. We engage in allegory, for example, when we imagine our personal connection to the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt into the Promised Land, contemplating ways we have been freed from “bondage” in our lives.
The Rev. Marek Zabriskie, rector of St. Thomas Church in Whitemarsh, PA, recently initiated The Bible Challenge, a challenge to read the Bible in one year’s time. In 2012, he edited a book by the same name, making it easy to follow which passages to read each day, one through 365.
Most days require only about 15 minutes to a half an hour of time, reading three chapters of Hebrew scripture, one psalm and one chapter of Christian scripture each day. Thousands of individuals, in 27 countries worldwide, are taking up The Bible Challenge.
Whether we read scripture every day, or ponder spiritual writing occasionally, we would be wise to honor another sage piece of advice I received that day from John-Julian:
"See what happens when you read passages of scripture slowly, meditatively, allowing them to be active and dynamic in you. Remember, as you're reading the sacred texts of Scripture, those sacred texts may also be reading you."