The fourth and final volume of the remarkable commentary series Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, written by Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis, OCSO, was published recently by Ignatius Press. It was written over the course of nearly four decades and is nearly 3,000 pages in length. More importantly, it is the result of an unusual combination of scholarship, literary erudition, deep spiritual insight, and keen theological knowledge.
“‘Fire of Mercy has become a classic of Catholic culture,” states Fr. John Saward, “It is certainly original, like no other meditation on the Scriptures you will ever read.” And Sister Wendy Beckett says, “This is a biblical commentary with scholarship and, above all, a prayerfulness that is a great gift to the Church.”
As a layman, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis obtained his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Theology from Emory University. Once a Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of San Francisco, he is now a Trappist monk at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass., having been ordained a priest in 2013.
He corresponded recently with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his commentary series.
CWR: As you note in the Prelude to this final volume, you began writing this commentary in 1983 at the age of 37. Going back those many years, why did you choose the Gospel of Matthew? What attracted you to the first Gospel?
Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis, OCSO: My answer is rather banal: I happened to begin writing a Matthew commentary simply because it’s the first book in the New Testament!
In 1983 I had my first sabbatical leave from teaching, and I was supposed to write a book on “the Catholic prophecy voice” in literature, using as examples the writings of Flannery O’Connor and Léon Bloy. I began working on this official project in the morning, and as a personal activity I had decided to read the whole New Testament in Greek from beginning to end.
As I began reading Matthew, I began to scribble down little notes to myself, an old reading habit I have. Gradually, isolated words and phrases became sentences, and sentences became paragraphs, and before I knew it I found myself writing a book!
CWR: And what did you plan at that time? Did you expect it to be four volumes and some 2,000+ pages long? How did it evolve or grow?
Fr. Simeon: For the record, the sum total is actually closer to 3,000 pages! I could never have imagined writing any book even 300 pages long, much less a work in four volumes of such extravagant bulk.
I honestly have to say that the text grew in my hands through no desire of mine like foam in a bathtub. When I realized that I was actually writing a book, I decided on a very simple plan: I would simply proceed one verse at a time, making plenty of leisure to contemplate the original Greek text of that verse and trying to articulate the thoughts, emotions, and desires those particular words evoked in me. Nothing more complex than that. There’s a saying by Gregory the Great about this phenomenon: Verbum crescit cum legente, that is, “The Word grows with the reader”. I believe quite literally that, as Jesus says, the Word is a seed that God plants in our heart. If we do the best we can to be attentive, to open our deepest being up to receive this seed, then we do become “good earth” and the Word will grow in us and produce fruit.
That mystery occurs, I think, in the soul of every God-seeker, only in my case I was prompted to record the growth of the Word in my experience by writing down what I was being shown in each verse. You do this consistently enough and you will eventually end up writing 3,000 pages! Though bulk obviously isn’t everything, still that number of pages, though totally unforeseen by me, does bear witness to the inexhaustible depths of God’s Word and the unsuspected capacity of the human soul to welcome it and allow it to grow with a will of its own. Remember that the whole text of Matthew’s Gospel is only between 30 and 40 pages long, depending on the edition.
CWR: How did your own journey from a married professor of literature and theology to a Trappist monk-priest inform how you researched, studied, and wrote this work?
Fr. Simeon: As you mentioned, I began writing this work when I was 37 years old and, as it turned out, it took me another 37 years to complete it! Radical changes take place in any human life over such a period of time.
In a sense, writing this commentary, struggling with the deepest meaning of the Word over these many years much like Jacob wrestled with the angel, was the one activity that provided continuity in my life when almost everything else in it was in flux. Daily contact with the Word helped me little by little to unify parts of my person which had been kept in different compartments. Greater intimacy with the Word gave me the courage to move away from the public persona I had long cultivated in the academy and allow a more interior self to emerge.
I can tell by my greater use of the pronoun “I” in the later volumes: whatever I said I felt the freedom to utter more and more as the individual man and Catholic believer that I am, with my own sensibility and history, without having to take refuge behind some more impersonal, academic voice that speaks in the safer “we” of the scholarly community. Except for my insistence on the literal meaning of the actual Greek words used in the Gospel, which required careful consultation of good dictionaries, I must say I never did much conventional “research” to write these volumes.
One does not have to do second-hand research to receive the Word of God in the depth of one’s soul. Only a little humility, much spiritual thirst, and a loving disposition are required. These are the essential qualities needed to show up at what is basically an intense encounter with the living God, mediated by the drama of Christ’s incarnate presence among us.
CWR: There are, of course, numerous commentaries on all of the Gospels and other New Testament books. But yours is unique, in my reading, because it combines academic rigor, insights from the Church Fathers, and a deeply mystical and contemplative approach that is never sentimental but is strongly pastoral. Do you think that is a fair and accurate description? How do you hope readers will see and understand your approach?
Fr. Simeon: Yes, I think that is a fair and accurate description. In fact, you probably give me more credit than I deserve. All of the elements you list are, for me, not at all aspects of any “method” I might have set out to practice, but rather aspects of my own person, education, interests and passions.
As a teacher the only “method” I was ever able to follow was, simply, to share with my students something that I loved and admired, explaining to them why this was so. I always found foreign to me the dichotomy that is often imposed in higher education between the personal convictions and human makeup of the teacher, on the one hand, and the objective requirements of the academic discipline, on the other. Even though I did not do it consciously as a matter of deliberate choice, I suppose that my commentary is a reading of Matthew carried out in communion with the whole Christian tradition, and yet also from the perspective of one person’s living experience of the Mystery of Christ active in his own life. We do not create ourselves. Just as we receive physical life from our parents and social identity from a particular human group, so too do we receive spiritual life from the womb of the Church. We cannot speak about the Word and its meaning in any consequential way until we have first spent a great deal of time and energy listening to how others have experienced the Word throughout the centuries.
And wherever the Word is present and gladly embraced, there we encounter a locus of beauty and delight. This is why I often quote poems in the course of my commentary, or allude to paintings or music, because I delight in seeing the great creations of human art crystallize chorally around the luminous Center of Creation: Christ the Word. I would hope readers of my commentary sense in my words an invitation to delve with deliberate joy into the rich treasure house of the Word, which is the world of God’s Heart. In the end, the only purpose of my writing is provoke prayer by staging an intense encounter between my readers and the enthralling presence of God in Christ Jesus.
CWR: The Liturgy and the Eucharist are central to your commentary, especially in this final volume, which covers the final three chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. Can you reflect on those two, intertwined realities?
Fr. Simeon: As just stated, my chief goal in writing this commentary is to call attention to God’s dynamic presence among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is present to us in many ways: in our historical memory; in the faith that we profess; in the body of the Church; in the persons we daily encounter, especially the most needy; in moments of authentic prayer; in the words of Sacred Scripture.
However, to various degrees all of these modes of Jesus’ presence are mediated by some reality other than, simply, himself and ourselves. Most direct and purest communion with Jesus is objectively achieved in the Holy Eucharist, according to his own ineffable design. We may say that the whole thrust of Judaeo-Christian revelation, from the first line of Genesis, can be defined as the eternal God’s incredible desire to share his divine life with us, poor creatures that we are. Jesus’ name “Emmanuel”, “God-with-us”, is the perfect summary of this truth. And Jesus’ presence to us in the Holy Eucharist, together with holy Communion as the consummation of the Eucharistic sacrifice, is the unsurpassable and definitive form of God’s presence to us in Jesus. There is no mystery anywhere in heaven or on earth that is more paradoxical and unfathomable than God’s desire and plan to become the food of his creatures.
Now, Christ’s refracted presence in the many words of Sacred Scripture and his utterly simple and real presence in the consecrated bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist are not two realities but one, two aspects of the same central Mystery. This is why every Mass consists of a Liturgy of the Word and a Liturgy of the Eucharist. These two parts of the one Eucharistic Liturgy are inconceivable without one another. First, our minds, hearts and wills are illuminated and moved by the divine force of the inspired words. Then, in a second movement, our prepared and awakened hearts can consummate the mystery of union with the living Christ, promised by and prefigured in the written Word, in the reception of Communion. Both kinds of presence are intrinsic aspects of the Incarnation.
In the past, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, we fell into the habit of thinking that the Bible was the Protestant thing while the Eucharist was the Catholic thing. Such a dichotomy proved disastrous for both. This is why I devote the whole introduction to this fourth and final volume of my Matthew commentary to showing the essential, life-giving relationship between the written Word of God in Scripture and the living Word of God in the Eucharist, and why we absolutely depend on both simultaneously for dear life!
CWR: Matthew’s Gospel is a deeply Jewish text, and you refer constantly back to the Old Testament and to the essential Jewish context. What sort of connections to the Old Testament do you try to emphasize throughout?
Fr. Simeon: Matthew exceeds the other three Gospels by far in his number of citations from the Old Testament. We cannot understand the answers unless we know what the questions were in the first place, and we cannot understand the fulfillment of the promises God’s makes unless we know what those promises were.
The so-called “Old” Testament is essential to Christian faith. In order to emphasize its permanent relevance, it would probably be better to call it “the Hebrew Scriptures”, or “the First Covenant”. Although there surely exists a quantum leap between the Covenants due to the unparalleled nature of the Incarnation, there is a good reason why both Testaments, together, comprise the one Holy Bible. Without the first revelation to Israel, Christianity would be like a tree hanging in mid-air, without rich soil nourishing its roots. The Jewish soil keeps Christian faith grounded in history and the particularity of space, time and traditions.
The first thing the Gnostic heretics did in the early Church was to reject the Old Testament as obsolete, and every spiritualistic movement since has tried to do the same thing. The Christ’s human nature as incarnate God is a Jewish nature, with everything that implies. The evangelist Matthew was especially aware of all this. It is almost certain that his Gospel was originally written in Aramaic and that he wrote for a community that consisted largely of Judaeo-Christians. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not some universalistic, intellectual construct floating in the speculative imagination; he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who has a history of involvement with the human race through the vicissitudes of the Jewish people. We cannot be Christians unless we become Jews spiritually, as Pius XI strikingly observed. Anti-Semitism is, by definition, a negation of Christianity. Without its Jewish substance and roots, Christian faith becomes pure, disembodied Gnosticism, with dire theological and political results.
So Matthew, in every line of his Gospel, focuses on the reality of an incarnate God, who has taken on real Jewish human flesh and entered the battleground of human history. The incarnate Word reveals that the God Jews and Christians worship has a heart, demands the involvement of faithful, reciprocal love, and ultimately delivers a judgment upon the quality of life of those he has created with such lavish wisdom and care. All of these traits are rooted in the Jewish theology of Torah and the Prophets, and Jesus of Nazareth is the living bearer, in his person, of the whole of Jewish revelation.
As Jesus says in Matthew, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17). Obviously, “the law and the prophets” is shorthand for the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures.
CWR: As you’ve worked on this commentary, what has perhaps surprised you most? Are there aspects of Matthew’s Gospel that you think are overlooked? Misunderstood?
Fr. Simeon: I think I have been most surprised by Matthew’s keen psychological penetration, and the extent to which the emotions play into the life of faith. This is not something we usually look for in any of the Gospels, much less in the one most given to demonstrating, from the Old Testament, Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Son of God.
And yet, go to almost any miracle story (e.g. the stilling of the storm, 8:23-27), almost any intense encounter with Jesus (e.g., the Canaanite woman, 15:21-28), and especially almost any scene in the Passion narrative (e.g., Peter’s denial of Jesus, 26:69-75), and you will see how crucial emotions and human psychology are in our relationship with God. This surely has to do with the Evangelist’s purpose in writing the Gospel in the first place: he does not intend to write an objective history book, or to produce clear, philosophical arguments demonstrating the truth of Jesus as Redeemer. Rather, I believe he intends to move the whole being of his readers—heart, mind, will, and emotions—to cling to the person of the incarnate Word in an intimate embrace, much as Peter clung to him for dear life as he was sinking in the waters (14:25-31).
To me, this is the iconic paradigm of authentic faith. It isn’t until our emotions tell us that we are about to perish that we finally make the desperate leap of faith that lands us in the arms of Jesus.
CWR: If you could highlight just a few insights or thoughts on the Passion of Christ, as described by Matthew, what might they be?
Fr. Simeon: First of all, what is most impressive to me is the deliberateness with which Jesus goes to his Passion and Death. Matthew bends backwards to stress continually that everything that is happening to Jesus can happen only because Jesus exercises full freedom in handing himself over into the hands of his persecutors.
This, in turn, underscores the theological truth that the world is redeemed by the purity of Jesus’ self-surrender out of love and not by any kind of magical power or intellectual superiority. From this self-surrender, as defining the essence of the Passion and Death, there follows Jesus’ silence in the face of his judges and persecutors. In this, he is not behaving as some kind of Stoic, showing the power of mind over matter, the ability to conquer pain by an interior strength. No; his silence demonstrates that the incarnate Word, after he has spoken many human words and performed many good deeds of healing and compassion, must ultimately become muted by human opposition in order to blossom as the transcendent, luminous Presence of God loving the world beyond all words, arguments, or temporal human victories.
Another aspect that greatly struck me in Matthew’s Passion narrative is manner in which, during the crucifixion and its aftermath on Golgotha, the Evangelist manages to portray a world reverting to chaos (through the symbols of darkness at noon, the earthquake, the desolate landscape, and sheer human cruelty) at the death of him who is, by divine nature, the very Center of the Universe. How extraordinary that Matthew portrays this chaos on Golgotha, which takes us back to the elemental tohu webohu of the first page of Genesis, in order to prepare the way for the new Creation by grace as a result of Christ’s death and his pouring out his Holy Spirit on the chaos through his final agonizing cry from the Cross!
CWR: Any final thoughts?
Fr. Simeon: This reflection on the way Matthew portrays a chaotic state of affairs on Golgotha is very relevant, it seems to me, to our contemporary social and cultural landscape. Religiously, socially, politically, our culture has lost its center. Things are spinning out of control. I am not only thinking of explicit religious faith as a communal reality but, at a more fundamental level, I am thinking of things like common courtesy and the ability for people to disagree without hurling rhetorical bricks at one another. The generational gap, and the resulting inability of older and younger people to understand and coexist joyfully with one another, has gone quite beyond the parameters of the normal.
I don’t think I need to belabor all the obvious aspects of our social dysfunction at this moment of our history as a nation. We have no patience for others because each one cares more and more exclusively for his or her own goals and desires. We find boring or irrelevant, or even a potential foe, anyone who is not like ourselves. How can we live through this cultural situation with a measure of calm, generosity, and even creativity? Each of us needs to find a center to our lives, something that will make our existence cohere meaningfully on a day-to-day basis. We must adopt some recurring “practice”, no matter how simply and modest, that will help us establish a modicum of peace and light and nourishment at the core of our existence. From this core we might then be able to move outward in our lives to accomplish the good purpose we have set before us, engaging the world and others with assurance and imperturbability.
We cannot derive interior order from the surrounding disorder. It seems to me that, at least for serious Christians and all those ardently searching for the interior path of spiritual vigilance, a daily encounter with the person of Jesus in the Gospel would provide a source of nourishment and stability to counteract the centrifugal whirlwind of our society. Focusing quietly on Jesus’ words a few minutes a day, pondering the impact of his presence on my mind and heart, trying to find light in the often disconcerting thrust of Jesus’ thoughts, and, above all, allowing our whole being to be flooded by the regenerative power emanating from his Heart: I believe that such a practice can prove extremely helpful in transforming what can at times be a very frustrating daily struggle into a more hopeful spiritual warfare, in which we feel steadily supported and accompanied rather than grimly alone.
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