THE READING OF HOLY SCRIPTURE
by Father Gabriel Barry, OCD
Our Lord, in the course of His priestly prayer, says that eternal life means to know the one true God and Jesus Christ whom He had sent.(1) Our entire earthly existence can be regarded as a gradual and ever-deepening revelation of God to each one of us. He makes use of diverse means of communication, one of the most important being the Bible, which gives, as it were, a portrait of God in His dealings with men. By reading the Bible, we come to know the character of God, as St. Therese of the Child Jesus has said, The Bible is the history of salvation; it is the story of God making Himself known to mankind. In turn, if we read it in a spirit of faith and prayer, it discovers God's ways to us, and enables us to share in something of His overflowing life and wisdom and joy.
II. HISTORICAL OUTLINE
It can be safely asserted that to a considerable extent, the Bible was meant to be read out loud. In its human aspect, a goodly portion of it belongs to the category of the heroic tales which every ancient nation has preserved. Long before it came to be written down, the Bible was handed on by word of mouth, and narrated around campfires. But in the Bible, the supreme hero was God Himself. After the chosen people were established in the Promised Land, they often came together to hear of the mirabilia Dei - the great exploits of God. Even in Old Testament times the liturgy of the Tabernacle and the Temple was a meeting-place for God and man. The Bible was read there to keep alive the memory of God's deeds, and to prepare the way for the final revelation that was to come in Jesus Christ, the long-awaited Messiah.(2) Every Sabbath, the scriptures were read in the Synagogues and explained to the people,(3) and the word of God grew very deep and intimate in their lives. This was what God Himself had intended. The law was not meant to be something mysterious or remote. His people would not have to climb the heavens to bring it down, nor would they have to cross the oceans to find it. It was written in their heart's deep core.(4)
The custom of reading the Bible at the sacred assembly was kept up by the early Christians. Before celebrating the sacred mysteries, the faithful listened to selections from the Old Testament, which they were now able to penetrate far more deeply than ever before. Little by little, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they were adding on a scripture of their own. First there were the four narration's of the life, death and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, in Whom was fulfilled all that the prophets foretold. Then there was St. Luke's account of the early Church and of its expansion from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. There were also the magnificent letters of St. Paul, whose heart, to quote St. Chrysostom, was the heart of Christ. There were letters from other apostles too, and finally St. John's highly figurative account of the Church in the latter times, experiencing the colossal struggle of evil against good, until Christ's second coming marks the overthrow of Satan. These narratives and instructions were heard by the Christians, day by day and week by week, when they came together for Mass. The Wisdom of God, acting through the prophets and evangelists, descended into their minds to enlighten and guide them. They in turn responded by an ascent of the mind to God; an upward movement which we call prayer. And to express this the Christian assembly often had recourse to the Bible, especially to the book of psalms, for an adequate medium to convey the inward sentiments of their souls.
Over and above the liturgical proclamation of the word of God, the faithful also read the scriptures and reflected on them in private. This was a very natural extension of the public reading of the word of God. In the second letter of St. Peter, we find the following: "While you are waiting (for the coming of the Lord) do your best to lead lives without stain, so that He will find you at peace. Think of our Lord's patience as your opportunity to be saved. Our brother Paul, who is dear to us, told you this when he wrote to you with the wisdom that is his special gift."(5) St. Paul himself has this to say about the value of Holy Scripture: "All Scripture is inspired by God and is very useful for teaching the faith and correcting errors, for resetting the direction of a man's life and training him in good living."(6) He goes on to say that knowledge of the Scriptures is part of the over-all equipment of a Christian and fits him for every branch of his work. All this means that the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, came to be seen as a fountainhead of Christian spirituality and a guide for the way of life that follows Christ. It was a very natural thing to read them at home or in the company of others, so as to maintain contact with the living word of God. As we can see from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, written early in the 3rd century, the reading of Holy Scripture became an important part of the daily program of the faithful. With the growth of monasticism both in the East and in the West, the assimilation of the Word of God through prayerful reading - this was called lectio-divina - was regarded as one of the chief occupations of a monk.(7) But every earnest Christian was expected to open his mind to the word of God, either by direct reading, or if he were illiterate, by imbibing it indirectly through other sources such as sermons, paintings, sculptures. For the reading of Scripture puts men into contact with the salvation which comes through believing in Jesus Christ. And the word that God speaks is living and active, and cuts more cleanly than any two-edged sword.(8) In other words it is an effective way of becoming integrated into sacred history and experiencing in an inward manner the purification and redemption which the Bible recounts in relation to the people of God.
Owing to the exaggerations and abuses which crept in during the 17th century, Bible reading, for a long time, became suspect among Catholics. But that phase has past. The Second Vatican Council, following the initiative of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XII has sought to give new life and meaning to this age-old practice. The reform of the liturgy includes a much wider variety of passages from the entire Bible.(9) Likewise the Constitution on Divine Revelation contains an admirable chapter on the place which the reading of Scripture holds in the life of the faithful.(10)
III. HOW TO READ WITH PROFIT
Before going on to discuss this in some detail, it is necessary to dispose of some serious misunderstandings. The direct reading of Sacred Scripture, no matter how commendable, is not an absolute necessity for salvation. There are many documents in the Church's magisterium which makes this clear.(11) If Bible reading were indispensable to salvation, there would be no hope for the millions of upright but unlettered Christians who have belonged to the Church from its earliest days.
Secondly, contrary to what was formerly believed and is still sometimes asserted, the Church has always recommended her children to read the Bible. For good reasons, the Council of Trent imposed a number of restrictions, and issued warnings against the almost exclusively Bible-centered type of Christianity which Protestants were putting forward. But at no time was the reading of the Bible prohibited. On the other hand we cannot deny that Bible reading has been abused. Many a time and oft, history has shown that even the worst heresies have based their claims on some text of Scripture. Every sect that has grown up under the name of Christianity from the earliest times has appealed to the Bible to justify itself. Even in apostolic times, this was evident. The second Letter of St. Peter ends with an exhortation to avoid misinterpretations of the sacred writings. The author, referring to the letters of St. Paul, says that there are points in them which are hard to understand, and which ignorant Christians and unbalanced people distort, in the same way as they distort the rest of Scripture.(12) Good Christians will shun this. In particular, while not denying for one moment the special efficacy of Bible reading in building up the Christian life within us, we must be on the alert concerning any quasi-miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit to guide us infallibly to the authentic meaning of some texts. Only the Church's magisterium has that prerogative.
Let us now consider how to read the Bible. For the sake of example, many of the references are made to the letters of St. Paul, but the principles hold good of any part of Holy Scripture.
Now for those who wish to read the Bible with profit, the first thing to make sure of is a good translation. We are fortunate that in our time, these abound. Each one can select whatever version he likes; the Jerusalem Bible, the New American Bible, Good News for Modern Man, the Anchor Bible, the Authorized Version, the Chicago Bible, Phillips' New Testament in Modern English, the New Oxford Bible, etc., etc. All are highly commendable and each has its own special quality. But for general introductions and terse notes, the Jerusalem Bible has yet to be surpassed.
There are two passages in the New Testament that should be read and reflected on before we turn to reading the Scriptures. The first is the story of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus.(13) Probably no other event in the New Testament brings home more clearly how Christ speaks to the heart of each one. And yet He does so, very delicately and very undramatically. The other text is from the Acts.(14) It is another wonderful story of how God speaks through the inspired word.
Now take up any one of the books of the Bible. It is best to begin with the shorter ones, so perhaps the Epistle to Philemon is a good starting point. But before you actually begin to read, be sure to ask the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that He may open our minds for the understanding of God's inspired word. Then begin to read.
Read slowly and prayerfully. Even after one sitting, you will discover that this short letter, one of the shortest "books" in the entire Bible, was occasioned by a definite set of circumstances, but it goes far beyond these. It is an object lesson in tact, understanding, Christian love and quiet firmness. Now you can turn to the introduction and fill in some of the details about this composition. A glance over the notes in the Jerusalem Bible or in the appropriate pages of the Jerome Commentary will help to clarify the meaning of obscure references. Then read the letter again, this time with your mind on the Divine Author of the letter.
In order to understand something of this divine authorship, some acquaintance is necessary with the teaching of the Church. One cannot do better than read the decree of Vatican II on Divine Revelation. Other official enactments of the Holy See are to be found in a convenient form in the booklet entitled: Rome and the Study of Scripture,(15) In particular, the encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu is to be recommended.
To stop at the historical aspects of St. Paul's letters is to miss their central message. They are not just monuments of antiquity; they are above all the word of God speaking not only to the immediate readers of these letters but to all Christians for all times. So we must be continually asking ourselves: What is God saying to me in these words? What should my response be to Him? St. Paul's words represent not only his own ideas but those of God Himself. A study of some of the aforementioned encyclicals will give some idea how this can be. But there is no final explanation; it is all part of the mystery of God's Wisdom becoming incarnate. So whenever we begin to read Holy Scripture, our prayer must be that of the prophet Samuel: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
Having read one of St. Paul's letters, we can now turn to another. The letter to the Philippians is a good one to put second place. Here we must do the same as before, first getting familiar with the text, then filling in the background from notes or an introduction, then returning to the actual letter again. The same approach should be used with the entire Bible. But by way of example, let us concentrate on the letters of St. Paul. What we have done so far is only a beginning. It merely introduces us to the main outlines of St. Paul's thought and makes us familiar with the text. The next step is to trace the development in St. Paul's thought. To do this, it will be necessary to approach the letters in their chronological order. There has been a great deal of discussion about this point, but the main outlines of the order in which St. Paul wrote his letters is fairly certain now. It may be found in any good commentary, e.g. The Jerusalem Bible.(16) It is also desirable to make some acquaintance with the Acts of the Apostles. The greater part of this book is concerned with St. Paul's missions, and it gives much, though not all of the background of the letters. Vice versa, the Letters supply many details which are not mentioned in the Acts. Though cast in the form of an historical narrative, the Acts is truly a book of theology; it is sometimes referred to as "the Gospel of the Holy Spirit," because it presents the Spirit working in the Church during the decades which followed the Ascension of the Lord. Even a cursory reading will show the predominant part played by Paul as the instrument of the Holy Spirit. It will also show that the letters were only one facet of his prodigious activity.
Reading the Letters in this fashion enables one to see how St. Paul's thought developed with the years. It also helps one to get some insight into his pre-occupations. The problems he encountered in preaching the gospel led him, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to develop his thought, to deepen it and expand it more exactly. To give one instance, the failure of his preaching in Athens brought to him a fuller appreciation of the mystery of the cross, "the triumph of failure." This in turn led on to the significance of the resurrection; not just its apologetic value but its inner meaning in the life of the Church and of everyone in the Church.
At this stage, it is well to begin to note and collect some of the key passages from the letters. A notebook and pen is a valuable help in understanding the Bible. In ancient times, one of the first tasks assigned to a novice was to copy out for his own use, the more important parts of the Bible. This, as well as providing him with a text for a good part of his life, also served to impress the basic ideas of the Bible on his memory. The invention of printing has rendered obsolete the making of manuscripts, but it has not dispensed us from the obligation of learning from the holy Book. One of the best ways to do this is still by means of the pen and paper. It is a good practice to write out in full the most striking passages of St. Paul's letters. Perhaps the best way to begin this is to keep an eye to the themes that come up and recur in his writings. In a short time, one has a golden treasury of passages, which will be an unfailing source of inspiration and guidance for everyone. "As Christians, we should have our minds well stocked with beautiful quotations from the Bible, especially from the New Testament. These should be our daily companions. They give us strength, comfort and inspiration. When you come across these passages again, it will be like meeting old friends. You will see them in a new light."(17) The truth is that every passage in Holy Scripture contains far more meaning than what meets the eye; in fact there is depth after depth, which reveals itself according as our spiritual capacity expands. That is why a commentary which confines itself to historical details and technical matters, no matter how accurate it may be, can never touch more than the surface of St. Paul's teaching. What we need above all is an understanding of the spirit and heart of the Bible.
At this stage, a theme-book can be very helpful, on the condition that we ourselves have first read and in part digested the main passages from St. Paul which speak of those magnificent teachings. Like all great geniuses, St. Paul thought and wrote very intensely. His teaching is extremely original, compact and concise. Also his writings are full of digressions and unexpected parentheses. "The richness of his thought charges his words with an explosive power; it dazzles us with intuitions which we admire but make our heads swim because of their concentration."(18) To obviate the need of heavy application, a set of volumes like Bible Themes,(19) or The Key Concepts of St. Paul,(20) or The Living Thought of St. Paul,(21) may be used at this stage. They enable us to study certain important passages grouped together round a central theme in didactic order.
Naturally, one begins by studying the dogmatic themes elaborated by St. Paul; these are the well-springs. Without knowing what he says about redemption, the Church, baptism, justification, the second coming, etc., it is impossible to understand the rest. We must also recognize that in a very true sense, St. Paul continues the themes of the gospel, developing them and applying them to the gentile world.
The dogmatic teaching concerning our union with Christ in His Mystical Body implies a whole Christian morality. Again, taking his stand on the revelation of Jesus Christ, St. Paul elaborates a wonderful code of Christian living. Just what does is mean to live "in Christ?" To be a "child of God?" This is the second great pre-occupation of St. Paul, to train his converts to live in a manner worthy of their calling. This message applies not only to those who sat at the feet of Paul, but to every one of us as well. After the Lord Himself, Christianity has never produced as great a teacher as St. Paul. In the Letters, the moral teaching is placed usually, though not invariably, at the end. It is in the form of directives, rules and exhortations for his converts. Here are a few samples, and the list could be greatly lengthened:
1. Christian living is based not on fear but on faith, hope and love.(22)
2. Love is the central of all Christian morality.(23)
3. A teacher must inculcate the Christlike way of life by his own example.(24)
IV. CHRISTIAN HOLINESS
Anyone who reads St. Paul's writings in the spirit in which they are written will soon be concerned in the whole idea of Christian holiness. Just what does it mean? How do I become holy? How can I deepen my prayer and my apostolic efficacy? These are the type of questions that pre-occupied the mind of St. Paul himself in relation to his new converts. Here are some of the answers he comes up with:
1. "Be imitators of me, as I am of Jesus Christ."(25)
2. Everyone is called to holiness and love.(26)
3. Holiness means sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ.(27)
4. It means being "in Christ," an expression that St. Paul uses over and over again.(28)
5. Christian holiness has a paschal quality about it; it is a redemption from slavery, a journey to the promised land. And the Blessed Eucharist is the manna with which we are fed.(29)
6. Christian spirituality, as expounded by St. Paul is permeated by love, for "God is love."(30)
7. Christian holiness flourishes in the Church which is the "greater Christ" or His mystical body.(31)
8. Christian holiness expresses itself in thanksgiving, peace and joy.(32)
9. Christian holiness is characterized by its eschatological outlook. That is to say, it finds an unfailing source of hope and courage in knowing that the Lord will come again and that His coming will not be long delayed.(33)
In connection with Pauline spirituality, it is very commendable to make a collection of Pauline prayers. Almost every letter is replete with them. Their depth and beauty and sincerity are such that only a man who really knew God could have written them. They can form a very solid basis for our own daily prayer.
When reading St. Paul's letters, you must continually ask yourself; "what is this passage telling me about Jesus?" Because in fact each passage is addressed to you as part of the great Church of Christ. God's wonders are enacted in the soul of each one, and every passage is addressed to you as if no other existed. In this way, we should be able to grow more Christlike every day.
It is an excellent thing to look to the Blessed Mother "who kept all these things in her heart."(34) She is a perfect model of those who reflect on Holy Scripture and in this as in so many other ways, she wants to help each one. It is part of the role assigned to her by God.
It is a good thing to make a resolution to read the letters of St. Paul -and other parts of Holy Scripture - for an average of 10 to 15 minutes each day. It should be a prayerful reading; not concerned with covering many pages but rather in penetrating and savoring their depth. If possible, another period should be provided for the study of St. Paul, using whatever aids and commentaries you can find. This is how one becomes familiar with the spirit of Holy Scripture and indeed with its words too. The Fathers of the Church were so deeply read in Holy Scripture that almost every sentence in it recurs in their writings. The same is true of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa. They were so immersed in it that very often they did not seem aware of quoting it consciously.
It is also highly commendable for small groups to study and read the Bible together. But every leaning towards Pentecostalism, illuminism must be firmly opposed. Read I Cor. 12-14 to see how St. Paul discouraged the Corinthians who set so much store by these strange interventions. St. Paul would have them look for "faith, hope and charity," especially for charity. This problem admittedly is not as simple as this might imply, but see, Enthusiasm, Chapter I, by Ronald Knox for a further treatment of the case.
V. BIBLE READING IN RELATION TO THE CHURCH
Like everything else in life and religion, Bible reading can become imbalanced and defeat its own end. To prevent this, it must always be situated solidly within the authority of the Church, and related to the Blessed Eucharist and to our Lady. This is how St. Paul would have it done. We have already mentioned the role of Mary in understanding Holy Scripture. Regarding the Blessed Eucharist, we cannot do better than quote the following passage from the Imitation of Christ:
"In this life, I find there are two things especially necessary for me, without which this life would be unsupportable. I acknowledge myself to need food and light. You have given me your sacred body as nourishment for my soul and body, and you have set your word as a lamp to my feet. Without these two, I could not well live, for the word of God is the light of my soul, and your sacrament is the bread of life. These may also be called the two tables set on the one side and the other in the treasure house of the Holy Church. One is the table of the holy altar, having the holy bread, which is the precious body of Christ. The other is the table of the divine word, containing holy doctrine, teaching the right faith, and firmly leading even within the veil which is the Holy of Holies. Then thanks to you, Lord Jesus Christ, light of Eternal Light, for the table of holy doctrine, which you have given us by the ministry of your servants, the prophets, the apostles and the other teachers."(35)
This means that the liturgy and the Bible together lead us surely to God. In the Bible, we receive God's word; in the liturgy, we receive Christ Himself. By accepting them both, we hear the word of holy Scripture, be it St. Paul or any other, as truly Christ's word, the living word of God.
One other short quote from the Imitation of Christ:
"If you want to profit from holy Scripture, read with humility, simplicity, and faith. For holy Scripture must be read in the spirit in which it is written."(36)
Here is a very lovely prayer that we can use to open or end our scripture reading:
"Blessed God, you have caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning; grant that we may in such wise read, mark learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our savior, Jesus Christ. Amen."
And two other notable and applicable quotations:
"Everything belongs to you; the world, life, death, the present or the future, all is yours. For you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God."(37)
"Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth. Mine are the nations, the just are mine, and the sinners too. The angels are mine and the Mother of God, and all things are mine. And God Himself is mine and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me."(38)
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Article 4.
2. Learning to Read the Bible, by Pius Parsch, Liturgical Press.
3. Water in the Wilderness, by T. C. Chifflot, Herder and Herder.
4. In the Redeeming Christ, by F. X. Durwell, Sheed and Ward, (Part II: Sacrament of Scripture).
5. Monastic Spirituality, by C. Peifer, Sheed and Ward, (Chapter 7).
6. Enthusiasm, by Ronald Knox, (Chapter 1).
1. John 17:3.
2. cf. Hebrews 1:1.
3. Acts 15:21.
4. cf. Deut. 30:10-14.
5. II Peter 3:15-16.
6. II Tim. 3:14.
7. cf. Peifer, Monastic Spirituality, pp. 292 ff.
8. cf. II Tim. 3:14; Hebrews 4:12.
9. Constitution on the Liturgy, paragraphs 16, 24, 35, 48, 51, 56 and 91.
10. Constitution on Divine Revelation, paragraphs 21-26.
11. cf. Chifflot, Water in the Wilderness, p. 15, citing other texts from Denzinger.
12. II Peter 3:15-17.
13. Luke 24:13-35.
14. Acts 8:26-40.
15. Grail Publications, by St. Menrad's Abby, Indiana.
16. New Testament, pp. 255 and following.
17. Pius Parsch.
18. Francois Amiot.
19. Thierry Maertens, OSB.
20. Francois Amiot.
22. Galatians 5:5-6; I Thessalonians 5:8.
23. Col. 3:4; Eph. 5:1-2; Philip. 2:5; I Cor. 13:1-7; Galatians 5:14; Ibid 6:2; Romans 13:8-10. 24. I Thess. 2:7; Galatians 4:19; I Cor. 4:15; Ibid 9:20-22; 2 Cor. 12:15; Ibid 11:28-29; Romans 9:3; Philemon 10:16;
25. I Cor. 11:1; Galatians 1:1, 15.
26. Eph. 1:5, 44; I Thess. 2"12; Gal. 5:24; 6:15; 2:9; Eph. 4:22-24; I Cor. 6:9-10; Phil. 3:14-18; Gal. 5:12; I Cor. 18:2-6.
27. Eph. 1:5; 2:4; Gal. 2:20; II Tim. 2:11; Romans 8:17.
28. Romans 8:29; 6:4-23; Eph. 2:5-6; Phil. 3:10-11; Col. 3:4.
29. Phil. 3:12-15; I Cor. 11:29; 10:16; 5:7.
30. Gal. 2:20; Romans 5:7-8; I Tim. 1:12-14; II Cor. 4:10-12.
31. I Cor. 12:4-18; also a great part of the letter to the Ephesians.
32. I Cor. 15:57; I Thess. 5:18; Ephes. 5:20; Col. 3:17; Phil. 4:4-7; Col. 3:14-15.
33. Col. 3:1-4; etc.
34. Luke 2:19.
35. Book IV, chapter XI.
36. Book I, chapter I.
37. I Cor. 3:21-23.
38. St. John of the Cross: Prayer of an Enamoured Soul.
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