“Then the voice which I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, ‘Go, take the scroll which is open in the hand of the angel …’ So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, ‘Take it and eat;’ … And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it.” (Rev. 10:8-10)
What a peculiar command: take and eat the scroll! Perhaps this command seems odd, but searching the Bible and the writings of the saints, we realize that this is a common way to speak about the Word of God. The prophet Ezekiel was given the same exact command (Ez 3:1-4) and the prophet Jeremiah said, “When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart, because I bear your name, Lord God of hosts.” (Jer 15:16) Saints such as St. Thomas Aquinas compared meditating upon the Word of God to an animal chewing cud because sometimes we have to “chew on,” or wrestle with, the Word of God to receive deeper insight and grace. It takes patience, perseverance and an attentive heart that listens for the voice of God. Like our mother, Mary, we have to ponder the events of Jesus’ life in our hearts again and again. (cf. Lk 2:19) Even Jesus himself said that his food was to do the will of his Father. (Jn 4:34)
It is very easy for us to understand the Eucharist as spiritual food that nourishes our soul, but we probably do not think of the Word of God as food as well. We must remember that Jesus is the Word of God (Jn 1:1) – more specifically, the Word made Flesh. (Jn 1:14) Consuming the Word of God, through reading and meditating upon sacred Scripture, is also food for the soul. The Word of God is not simply ideas or truths but it is a Living Word. It is true spiritual nourishment because it is a real encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity.
NOT JUST FOOD BUT RELATIONSHIP
In “Unleash the Gospel,” Archbishop Vigneron reminds us that “One who is in love desires to know more and more about the beloved. Since all Scripture speaks of Christ, immersing ourselves in the word is a way to deepen our initial encounter and grow in our relationship with him.” (Marker 2.2)
Archbishop Vigneron makes it clear that the Word of God is not only an encounter with Jesus, but it is a way to a deeper relationship, a way to fall in love with him. To meditate on or pray with the Word of God is to enter into a loving dialogue with God, which requires both listening and responding. In our rich Catholic Tradition, different methods of praying with Sacred Scripture have developed over the centuries. I want to highlight three of these practices to help us deepen our friendship with Jesus. I will only mention the first two briefly, pointing you to other resources to learn more, and I will spend more time on the third method.
The first method is lectio divina, which means “divine reading.” This involves focusing on a smaller portion of sacred Scripture (e.g. the daily Gospel) and spending more time reflecting, pondering and “chewing” on that passage. Archbishop Vigneron outlines the four steps of lectio divina in his pastoral note, “The Power of the Word of God.” Lectio divina aims both at deeper understanding of the meaning of sacred Scripture and hearing God’s word for me personally this day.
The second method is Ignatian, or imaginative, prayer. Ignatian prayer uses the gift of your imagination to place yourself within the Gospel scene. Each of us has spiritual senses which correspond to our physical senses. This method of prayer, guided by the Holy Spirit, engages each of those senses. As you are immersed in the Gospel, the Holy Spirit helps you to see the face of Jesus, to hear his voice, to be touched by his healing grace and power, to taste his love and to smell the fragrant aroma of Christ. (cf. Eph 5:2) Over time Ignatian prayer helps you to see Christ in all things as you go about your day. The best way to learn this method is to attend an Ignatian retreat. Locally, Manresa Jesuit Retreat House offers individually directed Ignatian retreats. There are other places that offer longer and more intense retreat experiences such as Broom Tree Retreat Center in Irene, South Dakota.
The third practice is lectio continua, or continual reading. This very simply means reading larger portions of the Word of God at a time.
For centuries, illiteracy, lack of access and a different understanding of the role of Scripture in the life of a disciple made it rare for Catholics to read the Word of God on their own. While there can always be a concern about incorrect interpretation—because Scripture is written in various literary forms and expressing language from previous ages—we have nothing to fear when we read the bible with the light of the Church’s authentic teaching in the Magisterium.
My personal goal is to read four chapters daily; this takes about fifteen minutes. But committing to even one chapter a day will bear fruit. There may also be days when you decide to read for a longer period of time. Thirty minutes of reading the Bible can be just as powerful as spending 30 minutes in eucharistic adoration. Do not worry if you do not understand everything that you are reading. Simply by reading the bible you are encountering Jesus and absorbing his presence. The Word of God will “seep into your bones” and will shape your mind and heart. Without even intending to do so, you will start to ponder the Word and to think with the thoughts of the Bible. You will take on the mind of Christ. The result will be that Jesus’ love will radiate and pour forth from your very being.
After proclaiming the Gospel at Mass, the priest or deacon prays these words quietly, “Through the words of the holy Gospel may our sins be wiped away.” Upon learning this prayer as I prepared to be ordained a transitional deacon, this prayer provoked questions like, “What does that really mean? Isn’t confession the way our sins are wiped away? How does the Gospel wipe away sins?”
Sacred Scripture not only teaches, enlightens and strengthens us but corrects us and convicts us of sin. (2 Tim 3:16-17) Yet, the Word of God corrects with gentleness by letting the light of Christ shine upon areas of our life that need to be brought to Jesus for conversion. Our Father does not seek to condemn us but to help us grow in holiness and to grow in the likeness of his Son. We in turn must make a decision to respond by surrendering our faults and imperfections to the Father through Jesus, and by humbly asking for the grace to change our lives accordingly.
Constant contact with the Word of God helps us to be attuned to the voice of God and the will of the Father for our life. It shapes our attitudes and enables us to recognize his voice over so many other competing voices. The more we read the more we recognize attitudes, lies and habits that are not from God, and the more we recognize God’s inspiration, truth and consolation. (cf. 1 Cor 2:13-16) As that conversion takes place, we slowly begin to enter more deeply into the mysteries of Christ’s life, and into the very mystery of God, the Holy Trinity.
GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT
St. Paul taught the Romans, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Rm 12:2) If we are constantly exposed to the Word of God, we will be better able to discern the thoughts and promptings that are from God. We will take on the very mind of Christ! However, if the culture shapes our thoughts and minds, then that is what becomes our norm and rule of life. We will measure and judge everything in life by the ways of the world rather than by God’s guidance and direction.
When I received the ministry of Lector in seminary, Archbishop Michael Byrnes reminded us of the adage “garbage in, garbage out.” If we feed our souls with garbage, like some of the things we take in through the internet, television or social media (or whatever the source of the garbage may be), then garbage is what is going to come out of our heart through our words and deeds. On the other hand, if we are feeding our souls with the Word of God daily, then it is Jesus whom we will share in our conversations and in our actions. As we read and pray with Scripture, we enter more deeply into the very life of God. Like Mary, when we say “Yes!” to the Word of God, Jesus begins to become “en-fleshed” or incarnate in our own lives. We become Christ’s eyes, hands, and feet in this life!
The Word of God is food for the soul: take and eat!