St. Basil: Don’t Just Read the Bible

The Church fathers wrote with a clarity and richness that seems wholly unique to their age. I recently came across this quote from St. Basil about reading Scripture—specifically the gospels—which is a perfect example:

Every deed and every word of our Savior Jesus Christ is a canon of piety and virtue. When thou hearest word or deed of His, do not hear it as by the way, or after a simple and carnal manner, but enter into the depths of His contemplation, become a communicant in truths mystically delivered to thee.

There is so much theology packed into those two sentences that would later be unfolded and expounded upon in later centuries, but I have never seen it put so brilliantly and succinctly. St. Basil’s exhortation to ‘enter into the depths of His contemplation’ seems to anticipate the later development of contemplative prayer in the Church, most recently the practice of centering prayer. He is calling upon us to not just read Scripture, but to read it in a contemplative spirit, in which our whole being is engaged in the act of reading—not just our mind. In other words, he is telling us to read it with the same Spirit with which it was written, to read it with the eyes of sight as well as faith—which transcends reason to encompass the very depths of our being.

St. Basil’s words recall what Jesus said to his disciples in John 6, after the disciples remark that his words on the Eucharist are a ‘hard saying’: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” Indeed, like our encounter with Christ in the Eucharist, we also encounter Him through Scripture. It is a total encounter that must engage our entire being. When we read the Bible we should not read it as we read ordinary books. We must not merely read, but we must hear these words as Jesus is speaking them to us through the Holy Spirit. This is exemplified by Mary, who, as Pope Benedict XVI put it, “became pure hearing” so that “she receives the Word so totally that it becomes flesh in her.”

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on and A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at

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