Sometimes St. Paul seems downright condescending!
For whereas for the time you ought to be masters, you have need to be taught again what are the first elements of the words of God: and you are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. (Hebrews 5:12)
There are some things in scripture which are like “strong meat”;
the prologue of Saint John’s Gospel for example, or when Saint Paul says,
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Strong meat indeed. He continues,
About this we have much to say which is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.
Now, I know that in comparison to these passages there are others in scripture which are much easier to understand. These passages are “milk.”
A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you…
A passage much more readily understandable, though still inexhaustible in its depth.
So I can understand that St. Paul’s use of the meat and milk metaphor is primarily referring to the relative accessibility of various teachings in Scripture. Some teachings are meat and others milk.
But with the “rule of charity” with which St. Augustine bids we interpret all Scripture, I would like to extend the metaphor.
Before doing so, we might pause just a little to appreciate Saint Paul’s use of the food metaphor in his teaching. I find this comparison absolutely spot on, compelling, delightful and persuasive. I count myself among the Hebrews whom St. Paul justly rebuked for their slowness and dullness, but when St. Paul talks food, I am completely on board. To my way of thinking, he could not be any clearer!
In other words, to those of us who are ‘not quite there’ yet with respect to our spiritual understanding, to those of us who are not intellectually mature, St Paul says,
You need milk, not solid food; for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature…
And this brings me to my point.
In comparison to scripture, which in its transcendent wisdom is all meat, even the very best of Greek literature and philosophy might certainly be compared to milk!
Ordinarily, I would prefer to compare the literature of Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides to a fine Bordeaux. Among the pagan authors, Homer would be the Chateau Margaux!
The literature of the Greeks is wine in contrast to the tasteless literature of our own contemporaries, which could only be compared to water. ( Although I hate to insult water by the comparison – would Diet Soda work better?)
I would be remiss not to treat my readers with a few sips of this wine!
Through the Greeks we learn that the meaning of our suffering is not suffering, but the meaning of suffering is truth! As the watchmen says in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon,
Zeus has led us on to know, the Helmsman lays it down as law that we must suffer, suffer into truth.
And similarly, his chorus of elderly Athenians teach us that no matter how much grief there is in the world, the good will win out in the end!
Sing a song of sorrow, a song of sorrow, but the good prevails!
And what better encomium of marriage could you find than what Homer teaches us through the mouth of Odysseus,
for there is nothing better in this world than that man and wife should be of one mind in a house. It discomfits their enemies, makes the hearts of their friends glad, and they themselves know more about it than any one.
Or who can not be moved by Sophocles’ denunciation of the root of all sin, Pride, when through the mouth of the prophet Tiresias he says,
All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.
Nonetheless, as wise as the Greeks are, the wisdom of man is, comparatively speaking, childish in comparison to the wisdom of God.
A man is called childish compared to God; just as a boy, in comparison to a man. (Heraclitus, DK 79)
And so it seems to me that the wisdom of man, found predominantly in Greek literature, is aptly compared to milk, the stuff of which children are made.
I don’t mean to disparage the wisdom of man by calling it milk. Every child needs milk and so every intellectual child needs Greek literature.
I don’t know much about milk except that, somehow, if a child drinks enough of it and for a long time, he will soon be ready for meat and other solid food. Don’t ask me how. Milk is wonderful, there is evidently something incredibly nourishing about it. The point is that the literature of the great pagans stands in just the same way to the developing souls of men as does milk to the bodies of children.
And so, as St. Thomas points out,
…it should be noted that sacred doctrine is, as it were, the food of the soul: ‘With the bread of life and understanding she shall feed him’ (Sir. 15:3) and in (24:29): ‘They that eat me shall yet hunger, and they that drink me shall yet thirst.’ Sacred doctrine, therefore, is food and drink, because it nourishes the soul.
And so we might ask:
Do you wish to dispose yourself towards the nourishment of the solid food that is Sacred Doctrine?
Do you wish to feast on the meat of Holy Scripture?
If your answer is yes to both these questions, then by all means imbibe at length, and in great quantity, the milk that is pagan Greek literature!
Wonderful little essay!