The Curious Case of idou: Discipleship as Justice-seeking Beholding
“Seek into the beholding…”—Julian of Norwich
“Don’t think, but look!” —Ludwig Wittgenstein
In his classic The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that, “When Christ calls a man [sic], he bids him come and die” (87). As Christians, we are called to a life of discipleship, of dying to self and learning to follow Jesus as Lord. Each of the Gospels offers us a distinct, and integral, picture of what form that discipleship might take. Markan disciples, for example, are easily recognizable as the ones who consistently do not recognize Jesus. They are, in the language of the day, a little slow on the uptake, always a day late and a dollar short. Matthean disciples, by contrast, appear more sure-footed, confident, upbeat, and seemingly free of the chronic, benighted confusion that plagues the disciples in Mark’s Gospel. But what of discipleship in Luke? How does Jesus’ call to “follow me” manifest itself in this most literary of the synoptics?
As the “gospel of the poor,” Luke’s “orderly account” is frequently presented as setting forth a picture of discipleship as working for justice. Those who wish to follow Christ, must first have their eyes opened to the inequitable social arrangements that oppress, alienate, and marginalize, and then work to overturn those unjust social arrangements in order to help bring about the reign of God. In this vein, Sharon Ringe sees Luke’s Gospel as a call to pursue, “lives of justice-seeking discipleship” (64). Highlighting the Lukan emphasis on the poor and the oppressed, she continues, “it is clear that the heart of the Gospel…is a word of ‘good news’ directed especially to those suffering from poverty and other consequences of imperial structures and policies” (64). Just as Jesus works to overthrown the imperial structures of exclusion and oppression, so are we, as his followers to interrogate and work to overturn mechanisms that perpetuate social inequality. Similarly, Justo Gonzales connects the broader theme of the “great reversal” to the specific instance of working for justice for the poor. He comments, “While the theme of poverty and responsibility toward the poor is central throughout Scripture, and particularly in the Gospels, the Gospel of Luke is noted for its particular emphasis on this theme” (7). Like Ringe, Gonzalez links this Lukan emphasis with the life of discipleship and the recognition that, “poverty is in large measure the result of injustice” (7). This might seem an almost banal statement, but in the context of the affluent Global North, Gonzalez is correct to point out that, “those of us who are more affluent, who have never really known hunger, nakedness, and lack of medical services… look for people who are poor through their own fault, and then claim that we are willing to help ‘the worthy poor,’ but not the rest” (7). Without a doubt, to read Luke’s Gospel as not addressing the economically disadvantaged and the downtrodden is to miss the main thrust of his purpose in writing, and the Gospel as a whole.
However, in this paper I would like to supplement this picture of discipleship as “justice-seeking” by teasing out elements of what might be called the contemplative dimension of Luke’s gospel and its portrait of the form discipleship might take. Drawing on the work of Martha Reeves—an Anglican solitary professed to Archbishop Rowan Williams who writes under the nom de plume Maggie Ross—I will argue that much of our understanding (or misunderstanding) of what discipleship in Luke entails hinges on how (or whether) we choose to translate the word ἰδου (“behold”). Indeed, Ross argues that the whole life of discipleship hinges on precisely this question. Through an examination of this question in the both the Annunciation and Transfiguration, I will demonstrate that discipleship in Luke includes a call to embody the self-giving love of the Trinity in contemplation. Using Luke’s story of Martha and Mary as an icon, I will consider how contemplation and justice-seeking are actually complementary, and mutually enriching aspects of the life of discipleship. Finally, I will offer some thoughts on the relationship of contemplative ascesis to exegesis and in the work of 4th century desert monastic John Cassian for a model of biblical interpretation that blends scripture and prayer, contemplation and action.
The Centrality of Contemplation for the Life of Discipleship
Before looking at the implications of how ἰδου is translated in the Annunciation and Transfiguration, it is first necessary to examine and affirm the centrality of contemplation for the life of Christian discipleship. Only by realizing the important role contemplation plays in forming us to Christ can we begin to grasp the dire consequences of its omission. Recently, in an address to the Synod of Bishops in Rome, Archbishop Rowan Williams had the following to say about the role of contemplation.
Contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.
What strikes me about Williams’ statement is the pure, unabashed forcefulness of his assertion that contemplation is “the only ultimate answer” to the problems we face. Far from being an esoteric form of navel-gazing, stress-reduction, or self-help, contemplation is the very heart of what makes Christianity such a radical and revolutionary path.
But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about contemplation? Maggie Ross calls contemplation “the work of silence,” which she describes as,
the process of arriving at interior stillness at the deepest level of our core silence, especially receptivity to what transpires out of sight of the observing I/eye (self-consciousness)…. Humans have long understood that while self-consciousness—the awareness that we are aware, the observing I/eye—seems to distinguish us as humans from animals, its elision opens us to the divine. To realize our full humanity, we must put on divinity. To realize our divinity, we must put on the mind of Christ (the work of silence). To put on the mind of Christ means a kenotic relinquishing of the contents of our self-consciousness—experience, perspective, interpretation, emotion, imaginative stereotypes, and projections—into silence so that we may be sprung from the trap of our circular thinking. This breakout is salvation, for everything we call “law” arises from insecurity underlying the world of illusion we create with our self-consciousness, driven by its fear of death (Heb 2:15)(“Jesus in the Balance: Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century” 156).
Elsewhere, in an essay titled “Apophatic Ordinary” Ross identifies this practice as the “way of the poor,” which she describes as “mundane…and simply involves the repetition of a word or phrase, concentration on breath, counting, visualization, or similar device” (460). This, “way of the poor” is “arduous and often boring, requiring…rigorous pursuit. However, … [it] can open the practitioner to more sustained apophatic consciousness, to prolonged periods where stillness and silence seem to become complete, and time drops out of mind” (460). Tracing the roots of the “way of the poor” is difficult, but it was certainly in evidence by the 3rd century in the lives and sayings of Desert mothers and fathers. In the Christian East, it is enshrined in the hesychastic practice of the Jesus Prayer, collected in the Philokalia—an anthology of texts on the life of interior prayer compiled from patristic sources on Mount Athos, and later translated into Russian. In the West, this practice is perhaps most powerfully embodied in the anonymous 14th century English classic The Cloud of Unknowing, but it also forms the foundation for the work of Carmelites St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. Ultimately, of course, the “way of the poor” traces itself to the pattern of unrestrained self-offering that is the very stamp of Jesus’ life itself –“for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
The Curious Case of ἰδου
With at least a preliminary understanding of the centrality and practice of contemplation established, we can now turn our attention to the consideration of the little word at the heart of this essay—ἰδου. In 1946, Objectivist poet Louis Zukofsky wrote,
a case can be made for the poet giving some of his [sic] life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man [sic] can perhaps resolve. Those who do not believe this are too sure that the little words mean nothing among so many other words (10).
A similar case can be made for the little word ἰδου—a demonstrative participle that appears fifty-six times in Luke’s Gospel and is usually employed as a way to prompt attention in readers or listeners (Friberg 202). As we shall see, in the hands of Maggie Ross ἰδου becomes nothing less than an expression of the very heart of the Gospel itself, the key to putting on the mind of Christ. In her recent Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, Ross makes a sustained and convincing argument for how our collective amnesia about the true meaning of beholding is indicative of a much deeper loss of the Church’s contemplative heritage—its grounding in the regular, disciplined practice of self-forgetful silence.
If the silence and the beholding… are not acknowledged and understood, we cannot interpret any of the texts that refer to the processes of the interior life, including Scripture. For example, in the Bible the imperative form of the world ‘behold’ has more than 1300 occurrences in Hebrew and Greek. After God has blessed the newly created human, the first word he speaks to them directly is ‘Behold’ (Genesis 1:29). This is the first covenant, and the only one necessary; the later covenants are concession to those who still will not behold (10).
Here Ross presents us with the striking image of beholding as covenant. The implications for discipleship could not be more clear—to “seek into the beholding” as Julian of Norwich counsels us. To miss the call to contemplation implicit in ἰδου is also to rob the Gospel of its revolutionary power, its capacity to transform, and to treat it as form of merely spectatorial information-as-entertainment.
Needless to say, according to Ross the translators of the NRSV seem to be completely tone-deaf to the theological implications of ἰδου. Taking Matthew’s “great commission” as her test-case she argues,
In the NRSV the word ‘behold’ appears only 27 times in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, and not at all in the New Testament. Without the ‘behold’, how are we to understand the end of Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Behold! I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (28:20)? For it is in the covenant of beholding that the risen Christ is with us until the end of time. The movement of beholding Christ is a lived recapitulation of the en-Christing of Philippians 2:5-11. The word the NRSV uses in Matthew 28:20 instead of ‘behold’—‘remember’—has nothing of this covenant of engagement or self-emptying (10).
Not only does the omission of ‘behold’ impoverish our understanding of the life of discipleship Ross argues, but it also threatens to diminish our understanding of Christ’s presence in the world by reducing it to the status of mere memory. She continues,
It debases the text and raises the question, ‘How is the risen Christ with us until the end of time?’ Does he flit about like Caspar the ghost saying, ‘Catch me if you can’? The word ‘remember’, among other faults is one-sided and dualistic. It seeks to circumscribe and control. It struggles unsuccessfully to express what is implicit in the word ‘behold’. The NRSV has taken a restatement of the first covenant of Genesis and turned it into an isolated memory that reduces those whom Jesus leaves behind to orphans, abandoned and alienated (10-11).
What Ross says here about Matthew 28:20 certainly applies to Luke’s Gospel as well. In what follows I will examine two cases where the omission and/or mistranslation of ἰδου presents major problems for the life of discipleship properly conceived as beholding—the Annunciation and the Transfiguration.
ἰδου and the Annunciation
Interestingly, the word ἰδού occurs three times in the Annunciation (1: 26-38)—in 1:31 in the Angel’s address to Mary, in 1:36, and in 1:38 as part of Mary’s fiat. Neither the NRSV nor the NIV translate ἰδού, and the NJB renders it with an overly analytical “look.” It is important to recall Ross’ insight that “behold” is not just an imperative (“Hey!” “Yo!” “Heads up!”), or even an impassioned call to attention. Rather beholding is a way of contemplative being-as-adoration that plunges us to the very depths of self-forgetfulness in silent, loving communion with the Triune God. Indeed, Ross argues us that by cooperating with grace the practice of beholding is what births the Word of God within us:
Behold! You shall conceive. It is in the beholding itself that Mary conceives, and we also. It is in this self-forgetful beholding, this eternity of love gazing on Love, of Love holding love in being, that all salvation history occurs. The words in the sentence that come after ‘behold’ in the angel’s announcement are for those who do not behold, who are still chained by the imperious noise of those who wield power and control by means of fear of death. The Word yearns with the promises of God, if only we will turn and behold and, in that beholding, be healed. Behold: behold, and all the rest will be added unto you. ‘Behold,’ says the angel. It is in the consent to behold, the fiat, that our fear is transmuted to love (25).
This same dynamic of consenting to the beholding can be seen in v. 36 where ἰδού prefaces the Angel’s words about Elizabeth. Here, the NRSV renders ἰδού with the phrase “and now” which fails to capture the full scope of beholding as contemplative receptivity to God’s will. Thus, to leave ἰδού untranslated is to drastically and tragically (but very predictably) lower the bar on what is entailed by costly discipleship.
Later in the Annunciation there is the question of how ἰδού is translated with regard to Mary’s fiat. The NIV translates v. 38 as, “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Again, ἰδού is simply not translated. The NIV translation misses something of the spirit of the RSV’s translation, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” This latter gestures at a way of being, a way of life, not captured in the NIV’s translation. Beholding is a gift of the entirety of oneself to the Other. By leaving this untranslated it risks turning a radical gesture of self-emptying love into a statement of bland assent—“Heck, sure, why not.” In a very real sense, Mary is telling us that if we would like to birth Christ in our lives, we need to behold as she beholds. What is more, the NIV’s version misses important resonances to Jesus in Gethsemane (and Luke’s yoking of incarnation and passion) that have crucial implications for the life of discipleship. For it is here that we see Mary’s beholding, her fiat, is intimately tied to Jesus’s obedience to the will of the Father in Gethsemane.
Following Seim, I think reading Mary’s fiat merely as a kind of submissive assent to patriarchal dominance risks misses the ascetical/contemplative dimension of her, “Yes” to God (and the attitude of beholding she embodies) and turns the action of the Holy Spirit into a kind of occupying army. Without question, the Annunciation has been used for the purposes of some very bad theology whose primary purpose is to maintain existing systems of power and control, but limiting our reading of the Annunciation to the realm of the social and political risks overlooking the profound theological truth of which this episode speaks. As Seim points out, in Luke, “The Spirit marks out God’s total right of disposal, but it does not reduce humans to puppets. Individuals can choose to respond positively or negatively, but the Holy Spirit is given only to ‘those who obey God (Acts 5:32)” (102). Thus Mary represents an ascetical ideal—or, better, an icon—of true discipleship whose “role is signaled by her obedient relationship to the word of God” (103). A similar point is made by the Irish Benedictine Dom John Main is in his essay, “The Other-Centredness of Mary”:
If Mary became so valuable a symbol of prayer for the early Church Fathers it was because they were inspired by their own experience of the interiority of the Christian mystery. In Mary they saw a reflection, indeed the ideal, of their own experience. They responded so warmly to Mary, the mother of Jesus, because they knew that every Christian is called to bring Jesus to birth within him or her (165).
If we take Mary’s disposition as embodying an ascetic attitude of discipleship—a kind of contemplative openness grounded in beholding—then this passage contains within it a powerful call to ascesis. In a Church where silence is often our greatest fear, busyness and speed our default setting, and mystery too often scoffed at as a symptom of romantic soft-mindedness, Mary’s courageous assent to be transformed in God is truly radical. Mary is the icon par excellence of human-divine cooperation (συνεργός), and she foregrounds the seriousness, and the awesome fearfulness, of what true discipleship entails—giving birth to Christ in our lives. The Annunciation teaches that each of us is highly favored of God. Each of us is a God-bearer. Each of us is called to carry the life of God in our own humanity.
Maintaining, or reclaiming the place of beholding in our reading, interpretation and enactment of the Annunciation also speaks to what might be called the performative, or embodied nature of Scripture. Ellen Charry has done wonderful work in explaining the pedagogical and formational place of doctrine. In her work By the Renewing of Their Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, Charry argues that doctrine, far from being just a dusty set of abstract principles to be pondered by those among us with too much time on our hands, is actually something that shapes, and orients the trajectory of the Christian life (for better or for worse). Doctrine matters (i.e. makes materially manifest) because it impinges upon, molds, and directs the way we as Christians live our lives of discipleship. Similarly, Mark McIntosh has astutely observed the manner in which mystical texts need to be read and interpreted in the context of spiritual practice. He writes of the,
profound link between intelligibility and contemplative discipline or discipleship. The meaningfulness of mystical texts is, in other words, less like the meaningfulness of proposition and more like the call the take up one’s cross and follow Jesus into the apophasis of Gethsemane and Golgotha. The textuality of mystical experience should no more prevent us from seeing this practical dimension to interpretation than does the textuality of the gospels themselves (135).
A close examination of the meaning and role of ἰδού as beholding gestures in the same direction and highlights to degree to which the “practical dimension to interpretation… in the gospels” has indeed been overlooked all too regularly. Read in light of Ross, Charry, and McIntosh’s work, the Annunciation is a text that demands not just to be read, but enacted, performed, and embodied. Clearly understanding the role of ἰδού helps us to avoid what John Dewey calls the “spectator theory of knowledge” that is part of the ill-fated “quest for certainty.” Rather than reading the Annunciation as a text to master, control, figure out, and finally dispense with (like Pilate, “washing our hands of it!”), understanding the significance of ἰδού as beholding helps us recover a sense of the Annunciation as the story of each one us, the story that takes our individual stories, breaks them open, and tells them back to us as the life of the Indwelling Trinity. In a time when many of us are scratching our heads and wondering what to do about declining membership and dwindling attendance, Dom John Main reminds us that the vitality of the early Church stemmed from just such a willingness to actually embody the kenotic receptivity of Mary.
It was the essence of the vitality of the early Church that it understood from such a depth of personal knowledge the real meaning of ‘purity of heart’ and knew it as the fruit of ‘poverty of spirit.’ Because it was understood with such clarity and immediacy it could be proclaimed with courage and authority. They understood poverty of spirit as that condition of other-centredness in the human spirit which allows it to realize, become aware of its union with the Lord Jesus (166).
Perhaps, then, learning to put beholding to work in our lives, our parishes, and our world will usher in a new era of vitality sadly absent in some corners of the Church.
ἰδου and the Transfiguration
Like the Annunciation, ἰδού also plays a significant role in how we read, understand, and practice the Transfiguration. Since the Transfiguration takes place in the context of prayer, and beholding is a fundamentally contemplative, prayerful stance before God and creation, it is especially important to examine the question of ἰδοὺ in the various translations. Not surprisingly perhaps, ἰδοὺ in 9:30 is left untranslated in both the RSV and NRSV. Only the NASB preserves this as “behold.” Again, such an omission is especially glaring when a prayerful stance of beholding seems to be what allows the reader/hearer (in a moment of dramatic irony) to “see” Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus, while the disciples (unable to behold, to stay awake, to attend) miss the conversation.
A related issue to the question of beholding centers around whether or not the disciples were actually asleep or not. The issue is nuanced by Luke’s generally more generous portrayal of the disciples when compared to Mark (Brown). Were they just a little sleepy? About to nod off? Or did they fall asleep and awaken to “see his glory” in v. 32? Craddock argues that, “The three apostles were not privy to that conversation [between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah], because they were in a deep sleep” (124). Indeed, he calls “kept awake” and “erroneous translation” (134). Johnson, too, renders the verse as, “had been overcome with sleep” (150). This seems the preferable translation as it is closest to the Greek—ἦσαν βεβαρημένοι ὕπνῳ—and preserves a strong parallel with the “Gethsemane sleep.” He writes, “As at the agony of Jesus (22:45) the disciples sleep, so that they miss the topic of conversation. And they see the vision (of glory) only as it ‘withdraws from them’” (153).
When we consider the question of the disciples’ sleepiness in the context of beholding as contemplation, however, Craddock and Johnson’s arguments are even more convincing. Since beholding entails a kind of non-grasping, relaxed attentiveness, it becomes clear that at least one reason why the disciples might only catch a glimpse of the vision as it fades away, is due to a lack of wakefulness. The Transfiguration becomes not just an event that reveals who Jesus is (in response to Herod’s question in 9:9), but also about who the disciples are. That is, the Transfigured Jesus whom the disciples behold (even if just for a moment as the vision recedes as it were) shows them who they really are. Again, the temptation is often to read Scripture as if it were about someone else. After all it is far safer and easier to keep this account as a story about Jesus, something we can logically understand and conceptually grasp according to what Heidegger calls “calculative reasoning.” In so doing, however, we treat the text as a spectatorial performance that makes few real demands upon us as disciples. Seeing the role of beholding in the Transfiguration aids us in hearing the Gospel’s costly call to “put on the mind of Christ.”
Much of the thrust of the above is brought out in Eastern Orthodox interpretations of the Transfiguration. It is the ascetic tradition of the Christian East that drives home the implications of the Transfiguration for the individual life of discipleship most powerfully and consistently. Linking the Transfiguration with the experience of the Taboric light in hesychastic prayer, the Christian East (beginning especially with Byzantine theology and culminating in the thought of St. Gregory Palamas) reads this event as revelatory not just of Jesus’ true identity as fully divine and fully human, but also of our true identity as gradually revealed through the process of theosis. Echoing Augustine’s sermon 272 on the Eucharist to new catechumens we might say that the Transfiguration calls us to, “Be what you see. Receive what you are.” Drawing on the work of Maximus the Confessor (580-662)  Eastern Orthodox scholar and theologian David Bradshaw writes,
Maximus makes a similar point in his discussion of the Transfiguration. According to Maximus it was not, properly speaking, Christ who was transfigured when he was seen in glory; it was the disciples, who were momentarily enabled to see him as he truly is. "They passed over from flesh to spirit before they had put aside this fleshly life, by the change in their powers of sense that the Spirit worked in them, lifting the veils of the passions from the intellectual activity that was in them." Again it is the passions that must be overcome before true vision can occur--though in this case "the veils of the passions" are removed momentarily by a miraculous intervention of the Spirit.
In a reading that strikingly reminds us of Charry’s linkage of doctrine, the life of discipleship, and spiritual formation, Bradshaw demonstrates how the Christian East explicitly links the Transfiguration to the life of disciplined ascesis. For Maximus, the Transfiguration contains within it a path toward God, a telos. Momentarily overcoming the “waking sleep” of the passions in a graced encounter with the Transfigured Lord, the disciples behold their own deified nature in the human-divine person of Jesus. Bradshaw goes on to suggest that the Transfiguration as a microcosm of the ascetical life also points entails a new vision of creation. He writes,
Of the many layers of meaning in the vision itself, the one that concerns us here relates to the garments of Christ. Maximus finds in these a symbol "of creation itself, which a base presumption regards in a limited way as delivered to the deceiving senses alone, but which can be understood, through the wise variety of the various forms that it contains, on the analogy of a garment, to be the worthy power of the generative Word who wears it." The physical creation is the garment of the Word, from which the Word itself shines forth to those who are able to see” (Bradshaw)
Ultimately, Bradshaw’s reading of Maximus suggests that the end of the path of ascetical practice is seeing the Transfigured Christ in every moment of creation, and in every encounter.
Clearly, the implications of such a vision are not just limited to the individual. A community that took such a vision of Christian life as theosis seriously would place a strong emphasis on ascetical practices. The parish would be seen primarily as a place for spiritual formation, and the priest as a spiritual mother/father guiding parishioners along the path from image to likeness. Borrowing St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s appellation for the Cistercians, we might say that the parish on this model would be seen primarily as a “School of Love.”
Martha and Mary
At the beginning of this essay, we remarked that Luke’s Gospel is often read as embodying a very particular form of what Ringe calls “justice-seeking discipleship.” From examination of the role of beholding in the Annunciation and Transfiguration above, it should be clear that a fully-realized portrait of Lukan discipleship needs to include the contemplative dimension. More often than not, however, social justice and contemplation are seen opposing poles of the Christian life. Indeed, in the Catholic tradition entire orders are devoted to pursuing either the “active” life or the “contemplative” life. Contemplation and action are effectively severed from each other to the mutual diminishment of each.
It is Luke’s particular genius to hold contemplation and action together. After all, Luke’s Gospel is the place where we hear both the “good news to the poor” with its themes of radical reversal, and encounter Jesus so often at prayer before major events of his ministry. In the story of Martha and Mary, we find an inclusive, non-binary, mutually-enriching model of discipleship as contemplative-action set forth. While it might be tempting to see Mary’s choice of the “better part” as a tacit valorization of the contemplative life over the active life, what such a reading overlooks is that Jesus is not critical of Martha’s activity per se, but of the divided and distracted nature of her action. That Jesus repeats Martha’s name twice, is a perfect illustration of this point. Jesus is not so much scolding Martha for her loose tongue, as calling her back to the present moment of/as beholding, which includes both action and rest, movement and stillness, speech and silence. The point is not to reify one pole of experience over the other, but to examine closely the relationship we have with our experience regardless of the particular content. If that relationship is grasping, anxious, and controlling we are clearly out of alignment with where Christ calls us to be whether we happen to sitting at his feet or busy preparing a meal.
Turning once again to Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent address to the Synod of Bishops in Rome, we find Williams—with his characteristic grace, and thoughtfulness—making a similar point. Williams begins this section of his address with the reminder that contemplation serves a crucial role in making us aware of all the ways our action is in the service of the self (I’m reminded here of C.S. Lewis’ quip somewhere in The Screwtape Letters, "She's the sort of woman who lives for others—you can always tell the others by their hunted expression.") Williams writes,
Contemplation is an intrinsic element in this transforming process. To learn to look to God without regard to my own instant satisfaction, to learn to scrutinise and to relativise the cravings and fantasies that arise in me – this is to allow God to be God, and thus to allow the prayer of Christ, God’s own relation to God, to come alive in me. Invoking the Holy Spirit is a matter of asking the third person of the Trinity to enter my spirit and bring the clarity I need to see where I am in slavery to cravings and fantasies and to give me patience and stillness as God’s light and love penetrate my inner life. Only as this begins to happen will I be delivered from treating the gifts of God as yet another set of things I may acquire to make me happy, or to dominate other people.
This is a crucial and absolutely necessary first step on the road of discipleship and truly responsible social action. We need to see all the ways our habit of “doing good” are really in service to our craving for ego-aggrandizement. But to stop there is to turn the Christian life into a different sort of self-aggrandizement, the Romantic valorization of self-discovery and inner experience. Williams is quick to add that the insight into our own sinfulness with which we are faced in the silent stillness of contemplation leads directly to a life of justice-seeking social action. This time, however, it is action founded on self-giving love, rather self-seeking love. He continues,
And as this process unfolds, I become more free—to borrow a phrase of St Augustine (Confessions IV.7)—to ‘love human beings in a human way’, to love them not for what they may promise me, to love them not as if they were there to provide me with lasting safety and comfort, but as fragile fellow-creatures held in the love of God. I discover (as we noted earlier) how to see other persons and things for what they are in relation to God, not to me. And it is here that true justice as well as true love has its roots.
Citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prison Letters, Williams issues a bold and powerful pronouncement of the integral relation between contemplation and social action. It is a long section, but one worth reading in its entirety since it captures the broad sweep of Williams’ call for discipleship as contemplative action. He writes,
The human face that Christians want to show to the world is a face marked by such justice and love, and thus a face formed by contemplation, by the disciplines of silence and the detaching of the self from the objects that enslave it and the unexamined instincts that can deceive it. If evangelisation is a matter of showing the world the ‘unveiled’ human face that reflects the face of the Son turned towards the Father, it must carry with it a serious commitment to promoting and nurturing such prayer and practice. It should not need saying that this is not at all to argue that ‘internal’ transformation is more important than action for justice; rather, it is to insist that the clarity and energy we need for doing justice requires us to make space for the truth, for God’s reality to come through. Otherwise our search for justice or for peace becomes another exercise of human will, undermined by human self-deception. The two callings are inseparable, the calling to ‘prayer and righteous action’, as the Protestant martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, writing from his prison cell in 1944. True prayer purifies the motive, true justice is the necessary work of sharing and liberating in others the humanity we have discovered in our contemplative encounter.
It is precisely this delicate holding together of action and contemplation in the life of discipleship to which Luke’s Gospel calls us. We neglect one to the detriment of the other. Maggie Ross, sensitive to the same problem, puts it with characteristic bluntness and brevity, “…the kingdom of heaven cannot be manifest among you until it is manifest within you. Beholding entails all the moral and ethical outward behavior that Jesus teaches” (Writing the Icon of the Heart 11). While I am uneasy with a linear model of discipleship that attempts to routinize the work of the Holy Spirit in lock-step fashion—first contemplation, then action—Williams and Ross both remind us that without a regular and disciplined “beholding the depths” the face we present to the world is one of our own making, not the one God would have the world encounter.
Ascesis and Exegesis
As a way of bringing this essay to a close, I would like to circle back to a remark of Ross’ that I quoted early on in the piece. In her discussion of central place of beholding, Ross makes the seemingly off-hand comment that, “If the silence and the beholding… are not acknowledged and understood, we cannot interpret any of the texts that refer to the processes of the interior life, including Scripture.” That last phrase—“including Scripture”—is what intrigues me here, for it seems to be advancing the rather bold claim that the practice of contemplation/beholding is integral to the reading and interpretation of scripture. What is more, she seems to suggest that without a proper grounding in the regular and disciplined practice of contemplation, interpretation of Scripture risks missing the ways in which the encounter with Scripture is a transformative encounter with the living word that seeks to conform us to itself. If this is true (and surely this is at least in part what we mean when we call the Bible “scripture”), then a recovery of beholding has implications not just for the life of Christian discipleship as discussed above, but also for how the Christian disciple engages with scripture. In what follows, I would like to briefly think about the implications of Ross’s claim for how we interpret scripture and to suggest that her insights resonate deeply with what might be termed a patristic model of interpretation, particularly that of John Cassian (360-435 A.D.)—desert-dweller, student of Evagrius of Pontus, and author of The Institutes (a significant source for St. Benedict’s rule) and The Conferences (whose Conferences IX and X are esteemed as classics of interior prayer).
Cassian is a classic early example of what we might now term a “spiritual seeker.” Born in modern day Romania, he spent time as a monk in Bethlehem and, eager to encounter a depth of spirituality not readily available, set out with his companion Germanus to the deserts of Egypt. There he encountered the colorful characters who populate his Institutes and Conferences—the gritty, down-to-earth, one-liner dropping monks living austere lives in common consisting of manual labor, recitation of Scripture and psalmody, and ceaseless prayer (Chadwick 11). As Owen Chadwick writes in this introduction,
The end of the monk is continual prayer. For this he went into solitude. This is the purpose of his cell. The aim is the constant direction of the mind toward God, undistracted by thoughts or by passions. There the quest for purity of heart is necessary to a right prayer. The possession of purity of heart is necessary to perfect prayer (11).
One of the aids to “perfect prayer” Cassian discovered in conversation with the monks of the Egyptian desert was the regular reading of Scripture. Indeed, in his essay “Scripture, Self-Knowledge and Contemplation” Douglas Burton-Christie highlights way in which John Cassian provides the reader with a,
veritable phenomenology of the early monks’ biblical spirituality, laying bare with keen psychological insight: the precise character of the challenges facing the monks as they explore the inner world; the process by which the monks grow in self-knowledge and the contemplation of God; and the role Scripture plays in the process (340).
Burton-Christie points out that the challenges of contemplation—being still amid torrents of distractions, observing the endless hijinks of ever-wandering mind—form the primary context for understanding Cassian’s hermeneutic (340). For the Desert fathers and mothers, one of the primary ways of anchoring the wandering mind (what Cassian calls discursus instabiles), is to fasten it upon a short verse from Scripture. Gradually, by returning again and again to the verse, the mind is lead to, “cast away the multiplicity of other thoughts, and restore itself to the poverty of a single verse” (Cassian 10:11). Initially, the primary function of Scripture is to anchor the mind, and help it to attain a degree of stability, and singleness of focus. Turning the phrase over and over the monk is brought to a place of poverty of spirit and simplification.
However, something else begins to happen as the monk works to maintain this constant recollection. What at first appeared as a rather instrumental, even mechanical use of Scripture, reveals itself to be a part of a,
sophisticated hermeneutical circle involving Scripture and contemplation…. Up to a certain point, the monk must recite, memorize, meditate, and ruminate upon Scripture in order to safeguard, as it were, his very life…. As the heart is purified, as one grows in self-knowledge, the contemplative awareness of God’s presence becomes more and more vivid. And as the experience of contemplation grows, the mysteries of Scripture are revealed and these texts take on more meaning. Finally, from this more profound appropriation of Scripture, the monk is led ever deeper into contemplation (344).
What is fascinating about Cassian’s scriptural hermeneutic is that it suggests both a way of contemplative practice pursuant of the goal of purity of heart, and a way of interpreting Scripture. Cassian and the Desert mothers and fathers agree that the mysteries of Scripture can only be apprehended in the context of contemplative practice and contemplative practice only reaches its most exalted heights when grounded in Scripture.
Thus, Ross and Cassian both point to a way of reading Scripture that situates it in the context of prayer in community in light the Triune God’s ultimate desire—to draw us evermore deeply into the Triune life. This is not, of course, to say that historical-critical methods do not have their rightful place, only that Scripture needs to be read within the context of the ultimate desire of the Triune God to offer us a share of the divine life. In this broader frame, it makes good sense to see contemplation, prayer, and the work of costly discipleship as integral to interpreting God’s Word. Just as it has become commonplace to speak of “kneeling theology” as a way of holding together the integrity of theology and spirituality, so might we also think of Ross and Cassian’s contemplative scriptural hermeneutic as an “ancient future” mode that places scriptural interpretation and exegesis in the context of prayer, liturgy, and the life of the Church.
Conclusion: “The Purpose of Exegesis is Exegeting Life.”
In the above we have seen how the important place of the practice of beholding has been elided from two centerpieces of Luke’s Gospel—the Annunciation and the Transfiguration—by the mistranslation, or simple omission, of the seemingly innocuous little word—ἰδου. Through a consideration of the story of Martha and Mary, we have seen that Luke’s Gospel contains a call not just to social action, or to quiet contemplation as ends in themselves, but to a truly transformative holding together of action and contemplation as the true embodiment of Trinitarian self-giving Love in the world. Finally, we have seen that Ross’s call for a recovery of the practice of beholding has implications for how the disciple engages scripture. In ways reminiscent of John Cassian and other patristic exegetes, Ross seems to gesture towards a kind of premodern-postmodern approach to engaging Scripture that honors its ecclesial function and its transformative power in the context of spiritual disciplines and regular ascesis. What one might call “beholding scripture,” is, then, linked to the title of Luke Timothy Johnson’s recent lecture here at VTS—“The purpose of exegesis is exegeting life.” Only to the degree to which we are transformed by our encounter with the Living Word can we say that we have “understood” what a particular passage might “mean.” As the Collect for Proper 28 has it in the Book of Common Prayer, “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen” (236).
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 In her book Charry argues for what she calls the “aretegenic” function of doctrine. That is, doctrine serves a virtue-shaping function in the divine pedagogy of theological treatises (19).
 Rowan Williams has called the recent rediscovery of Maximus in the work of Staniloae, Balthasar, Thunberg and Pelikan of “potentially universal significance” (585).
 Though the moniker “theological interpretation of scripture” is so widely and variously used as to be almost an empty cipher, I do hear fruitful resonances between the “approach” of Ross/Cassian and the work of Henri de Lubac, Stephen Fowl, and Matthew Levering.