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The book (scroll) that John received and ate was the Word of God, that is, intelligible revelation; “book” suggests that the message that God gives us to live has meaning, plot, and purpose. We do not come to God by guesswork. The image of eating the book is set in opposition to an aloof objectivity that attempts to preserve scientific or theological truth by eliminating as far as possible personal participation. Eating a book takes it all in, assimilating it into the tissues of our lives. Readers become what they read. If Holy Scripture is to be something other than mere gossip about God, it must be internalized. Most of us have opinions about God that we are not hesitant to voice. But just because a conversation (or sermon or lecture) has the word God in it, does not qualify it as true. St. John is not instructed to pass on information about God, he is commanded to assimilate the word of God so that when he does speak it will express itself artlessly in his syntax just as the food we eat, when we are healthy, is unconsciously assimilated into our nerves and muscles and put to work in speech and action.
St. John borrowed his image from Ezekiel, who had also been given a book and commanded to eat it (Ezek2:8-3:3). Jeremiah also “ate” God’s revelation (Jer15:16), a diet that issued in sentences of tensile strength, metaphors of blazing clarity, and a prophetic life of courageous suffering. If we are in danger (which we certainly are) of succumbing to the widespread intellectualizing and marginalizing of the Scriptures in regard to our actual day-by-day living, these three rough-and-tumble prophets—John, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah —responsible for the spiritual formation of God’s people in the worst of times (Babylonian exile and Roman persecution), can convince us of this gut-level necessity: Yes, eat this book.
The Christian community has expended an enormous amount of energy and intelligence and prayer in learning how to “eat this book” after the manner of John on Patmos, Jeremiah in Jerusalem, and Ezekiel in Babylon. We do not have to know all of it to come to the Table, but it helps to know some of it, especially since so many of our contemporaries treat it as a mere aperitif.
Scripture as Text: Learning What God Reveals
Our lives are important in spiritual formation—they are, after all, the stuff that is being formed—but they are not the text for directing the formation itself. Spirituality means, among other things, taking ourselves seriously. It means going against the cultural stream in which we are incessantly trivialized to the slave status of producers and performers, constantly depersonalized behind the labels of our degrees or salaries. But there is far more to us than our usefulness and our reputation, where we have been and who we know; there is the unique, irreproducible, eternal, image-of-God me. A vigorous assertion of personal dignity is foundational to spirituality.
There is a sense in which we can never take ourselves too seriously. We are serious business, indeed. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14). But it is possible to conceive of ourselves too narrowly for there is far more to us than our genes and hormones, our emotions and aspirations, our jobs and ideals; there is God. Most, if not all, of what and who we are has to do with God. If we try to understand and form ourselves by ourselves, we leave out most of ourselves.
So the Christian community has always insisted that the Holy Scripture that reveals God’s ways to us is the basic text for our formation as human beings. As we read this book, we come to realize that it is not primarily informational, telling us things about God and ourselves, but formational, shaping us into our true being.
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