Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live. – Gustave Flaubert
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. – James Baldwin
Sit in a room and read–and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time. – Joseph Campbell
For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. – Romans 15:4
So maybe, after reading the first three essays in this series on sacred scriptures, you’ve decided to begin reading the source documents for the world’s great Faiths. How do you go about it?
This is no simple question.
Just sitting down and reading these books in sequence from front to back may not always work for everyone. Why? Because they’re written in styles you may not be used to; because the archaic language they speak in may initially baffle you; because the complex stories they tell may confuse you; because they may seem to come from another age and time. At first, reading the sacred scriptures might seem like hard work, wading through unfamiliar terms and names and concepts. At first, the scriptures may seem opaque, refusing to give up their meanings easily. At first, reading the sacred scriptures every day might give you spiritual indigestion, like too much rich food consumed too quickly.
But don’t let that stop you from beginning, since the sacred scriptures have so much to offer:
The purpose of God in creating man hath been, and will ever be, to enable him to know his Creator and to attain His Presence. To this most excellent aim, this supreme objective, all the heavenly Books and the divinely-revealed and weighty Scriptures unequivocally bear witness. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 70.
The message of the prophets, the revelations of the sacred scriptures have no other aim but the knowledge of God, and the unity of mankind. – Baha’u’llah, quoted by Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 1, p. 5.
When you begin, you might want to consider these four guidelines for reading the sacred scriptures from the Baha’i teachings. First, don’t try to read too much too quickly:
Pride not yourselves on much reading of the verses or on a multitude of pious acts by night and day; for were a man to read a single verse with joy and radiance it would be better for him than to read with lassitude all the Holy Books of God, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting. Read ye the sacred verses in such measure that ye be not overcome by languor and despondency.
Lay not upon your souls that which will weary them and weigh them down, but rather what will lighten and uplift them, so that they may soar on the wings of the Divine verses towards the Dawning-place of His manifest signs; this will draw you nearer to God, did ye but comprehend. – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, pp. 73-74.
The prime requisite is the eagerness and love of sanctified souls to read the Word of God. To read one verse, or even one word, in a spirit of joy and radiance, is preferable to the perusal of many Books. – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, pp. 126-127.
Second, read for the inner meaning of the words, rather than their outer significance:
…in every age, the reading of the scriptures and holy books is for no other purpose except to enable the reader to apprehend their meaning and unravel their innermost mysteries. Otherwise reading, without understanding, is of no abiding profit unto man. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 172.
Do not satisfy yourselves with words. Seek to understand the meanings of the scriptures hidden in the heart of the words. It is difficult to comprehend the words of even a philosopher; you can then see how difficult it is for one to understand the word of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 7, pp. 147-148.
Third, read widely and look carefully for common themes and teachings—try not to focus all your attention on one book or one Faith:
Read the gospel and the other holy books. You will find their fundamentals are one and the same. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 50.
Thou didst ask as to acquiring knowledge: read thou the Books and Tablets of God, and the articles written to demonstrate the truth of this Faith. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 190.
Fourth, try to understand the holy books with your heart as well as your mind:
It is easy to read the Holy Scriptures, but it is only with a clean heart and a pure mind that one may understand their true meaning. Let us ask God’s help to enable us to understand the Holy Books. Let us pray for eyes to see and ears to hear, and for hearts that long for peace… The Spirit breathing through the Holy Scriptures is food for all who hunger. God Who has given the revelation to His Prophets will surely give of His abundance daily bread to all those who ask Him faithfully. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 57-58.
Once you start reading and understanding the sacred scriptures, you’ll want to make it a lifelong practice.