notre dame montreal

Reading the Bible

The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley

 Read any good books lately? Have you read the Good Book lately? I sat next to a woman on the train the other day who was reading the Bible through as she commuted, and I must admit to be slightly astonished and very impressed. I can’t concentrate on anything more demanding than a Dick Francis on the train and even then I forget who the characters are.

St Paul speaks to us in the passage today about the need for Christians to stay true to the scriptures “which will bring both truth and wisdom” and help the believer stay faithful to God. Paul uses the wonderful phrase “All scripture is God Breathed”. Isn’t that beautiful? The fact that I had never seen the phrase before in all the years I have been reading it set me thinking about how we read the Bible.

Should we read it as a whole, right through to the end? Well I think everyone should, at least once or twice in their lives. It gives us a sense of knowing the Bible as a totality: from the huge sprawling narrative that is the history of the Jews and their struggle to maintain their identity and obedience to God. We then read on through the Law givers and the prophets, to the much shorter time scale of the life of Jesus and the writings of the early Christian believers. Some of the most wonderful language, stories and ideas in literature are contained in the Bible, and what is more they are “God breathed”.

Should we read it book by book? It is helpful to set yourself a Lent or Advent task of reading through a Gospel or set of epistles and trying to get a good grasp of the book. Perhaps we, as a church, should set ourselves to read Matthew, which will be the set lectionary book for the year which starts in Advent?

But what I want to talk about today is reading a fairly short passage in depth. This practise of focussing on a passage in a very concentrated way is called “lectio divina” Holy reading” was perfected by St Benedict and is still practised in Benedictine spirituality today. Reading with God as we might call it, begins with cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to hear "with the ear of our hearts" as St. Benedict wrote. When we read the Scriptures we should try to imitate the prophet Elijah. We should listen for the still, small voice of God (I Kings 19:12). This gentle listening is an "atunement" to the presence of God in that special part of God's creation which is the Scriptures. In order to listen to God’s word deeply we need to make time to read properly, not with the radio on or with half an eye on the weather forecast, but with focussed attention. It need not take very long. It isn’t about the amount of time you give but the quality of time. It means that you have to stop doing everything else. This is very hard for some people who rush about madly (like me) but will be easier for others who are perhaps more contemplative by nature or are at a more leisurely phase in their lives.

In lectio we read slowly, attentively, gently listening to hear a word or phrase that is God's message for us that day. We may find that there is a word or phrase which speaks to us in a personal way; which “jumps out” at us as never before. This is God communicating and we must allow ourselves time to absorb the meaning. I am told that in ancient times a cow chewing its cud was a symbol of the Christian pondering the Word of God. This is a wonderful image, because it conjures up the slow, ponderous chomping of a cow in a field, unhurried and calm. So we must chew over what we read, memorize it, gently repeating it to ourselves, allow it to interact with us. The lectio divina is a two way process, not something that we do alone, but that God participates in with us. Benedictine author Fr. Luke Dysinger describes prayer as a loving conversation with God, when we are invited into His embrace. We can allow the words we have absorbed change and heal us. Just as one of the priests will consecrate the elements of bread and wine at the Eucharist in a few minutes, God invites us to consecrate our most difficult and pain-filled experiences to Him, and to apply to them the healing word or phrase He has given us in our reading.

The final part of the process of lectio divina is resting in God. It is a kind of wordless communication, letting go of our own words; this time simply enjoying the experience of being in the presence of God.

Hugh of St Victor said that God should write his words on the tablets of our hearts. By that he was referring to the wax tablets, which in Medieval times, were engraved with important documents, as a way of preserving them. These days, when people copy a CD, they “burn” it, etch it forever onto the disk. So when we read scripture, in this specially focussed way, we must allow it to burn into us, to become part of who we are.
Since I decided to talk to you about Holy Reading I have been trying to practise it in my daily prayers. And, I must frankly admit, it is so difficult for me. It is hard to control the mind, which darts away and rushes onto other matters. I have found myself wrestling, struggling with the technique. Like someone trying to pitch a tent in a high wind, it is very difficult to anchor one’s thoughts. And that makes me all the more convinced that this kind of deeper Bible meditation is something I am lacking, and maybe some of you are too. When Jacob had finished wrestling with the angel, he felt like he had not achieved much, but he was changed forever by the experience. He had encountered Heaven and the will of God in his angel and I am convinced that through the living word of God, we can too can encounter God and be changed, moved on by the experience. Amen