Didymus the Blind – Memorizing Scripture and Spiritual Discernment

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Dr. Peter Steiger | 25 August 2020

We are grateful to Dr. Peter Steiger, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Chaminade University of Honolulu, to share some of his work on St. Didymus the Blind, patron saint of OCCM. Professor Steiger's research has focused on the early Christian biblical scholar and theologian, Didymus the Blind. Specifically, how this renowned Christian teacher incorporated philosophical ideas from Plato and Aristotle into his commentary on the bible.

In his dialogue Phaedrus (274e-275b), the Greek philosopher Plato has his main character Socrates repeat the ancient Egyptian myth concerning the invention of letters and writing. According to that myth, the god Theuth went to visit the divine king Thamus in Thebes to present numerous inventions so that the king could sanction or censure their usage. When Theuth presented his crowning achievement, the invention of written letters, he claimed that it would make people wiser by improving their memories. However, Thamus censured writing harshly, and argued that the use of letters would have the opposite effect – it would produce forgetfulness in those who learned to write because they would begin to trust in external letters rather than making what they learn a part of themselves by inscribing memories on their own soul. Therefore, those who mastered writing might have the appearance of wisdom but would lack wisdom in their soul.

Nowadays, due to the prevalence of computers, memorization is less encouraged in some educational settings. Indeed, it seems that fewer Christians consider it important to be able to quote lengthy bible passages, though other religious traditions still encourage believers to memorize important prayers, proverbs, injunctions and doctrines. But perhaps memorizing scripture was never something the majority of Christians did so well, which is why Didymus the Blind became so famous. His astounding ability to quote any passage from the bible by memory amazed his students and gained him wide respect among bishops, monks, lay people and even non-Christians. And his memory of the bible enabled him to effectively explain obscure passages of the sacred scriptures and to oppose the unorthodox doctrines proposed by heretics. Though few of us will become a living bible concordance like Didymus, perhaps there is still a good reason for us to try to memorize God’s Word.

In his commentary on Zachariah (chapter 11:12-13), Didymus argues that the silver pieces mentioned in the passage spiritually refer to various ideas and doctrines that present themselves to us from innumerable sources, some of which are good and holy, and others which originate from a dark, evil place. For this reason, the Lord says “throw them into the smelter and see if it proves true… I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, into the smelter,” (Zach. 11:13). The blind scholar explains that the meaning of prophetic words “can be established and proven from reference to many passages in scripture.” And he then points out that any idea we perceive, whether it be suggested by someone else or arises within our own mind, “should be cast into the house of the divinely inspired scriptures and the smelter within it for their dissonance to be proven.” But St. Didymus housed the divinely inspired scriptures within himself, since by divine grace he was able to use his memory to fashion a dwelling place for God’s Word and Spirit, just as St. Paul so often exhorted for all Christians. In this case, the smelter is the Spirit of Christ alive in our hearts, which is so keen that it is able to spiritually test thoughts and proposals presented to us for their consistency with the gospel. Today we are bombarded with so many conflicting ideas that spiritual discernment has become a gift of the Spirit every mature Christian requires. Memorizing portions of the bible will aid in this discernment. And as Phaedrus argues, our soul is immortal, so what we inscribe there will enter eternity with us; in heaven Google will be inaccessible, but all we will need to remember is God’s Word in our soul to sustain us forever.