Q: Archbishop J, how do we read the scripture?
The Bible is a love letter from God. If we understand this, we understand how to approach it. In its entirety, it is a communication of love from a passionate lover who desires us to know the radical nature of His love for us. This is the place from which we approach Sacred Scripture. This is the disposition of heart. This is why we read the Word of God.
The author of the first letter of John says:
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us
(1 Jn 4:9–12).
It is that God and that love which we seek to encounter when we read Sacred Scripture. To encounter God, we must first have the desire. We also need faith: because God first loved us, we can, with full confidence, throw ourselves into God’s hands.
We also need to understand the Bible—its books, its different styles of writing and how to approach each book.
When you pick up a newspaper, you do not read the editorial the same way you read the front page, and you certainly do not read the comics the way you read the letters page. We recognise that the style of writing in each case is different and we accommodate the difference.
We have often heard that “the Bible is the Word of God”. Well yes, this is true. However, I like to remind people that the Words on the page of your Bible are not God or God’s words, in a literal sense. Rather, through reading these words we are allowed to enter through the sacred portal where we encounter the Word—Jesus Christ. The primary purpose of reading scripture is to encounter Jesus Christ, the living Word that comes from Heaven so we may have life.
Lectio Divina or ‘Sacred Reading’ is an ancient way of reading scripture. It is a method which Fr Michel de Verteuil CSSp (June 5, 1929– January 5, 2014) explored and came to embrace through his ministry with the lay apostolate and as director of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Centre. His initiative helped to spread Lectio here at home, in the Caribbean, Ireland and, indeed, throughout the world by means of the Internet and his writings.
Through this divine reading we seek to encounter Jesus Christ. In this method, we ask God to send the Holy Spirit so we might listen attentively to how He intends to speak to us through the text. We ask for the right disposition towards His Word.
Meditatio: First, we read the text of Scripture slowly and prayerfully savouring each word, each thought, each movement in the text. The first reading is for understanding the text in its entirety; to explore the words, structure of the sentences and the meaning they convey.
Then we read the text again; this time listening for the word that speaks through all the words we read, usually, a word or phrase that tugs at our heart. Notice and savour it. Stay with it and ask God to show you His purpose in this word for your life today.
This is the meditatio or reflection. At this stage we are engaging God and paying attention to the movement of God through the words we read. If you are in a group say aloud the word or phrase that struck you.
Oratio: We read the text again, this time as a prayer—a conversation between God and us. We see in the substance of the text the story that speaks to our story, the word that speaks to our soul. Here, in the silence of our heart, we respond to God. Using words, gestures or sighs respond to God in any way that you are led. This begins the conversation which is prayer.
If you are alone, stay in the conversation as long as you can, going back and forth with God. Use the text and its structure to begin the conversation but allow it to take you in any direction that the Spirit leads.
Contemplatio: In the midst of the conversation, you will feel an impulse to move to silence. Do not be afraid, go into the silence and wait there a while with God. It is here, in the contemplatio, that God speaks to your soul and allows you the grace to move to a new place in your relationship with Him. Stay here as long as you can and know it is where God and you meet, where the Holy Spirit speaks to the depths of your spirit.
As St Paul says, “For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11). Allow the Holy Spirit to lead you into the depths of God.
Ignatian method: St Ignatius gives us another method of reading scripture. Read the text slowly and prayerfully a few times. Through your imagination, place yourself in the text as if you were there in that biblical scene.
Listen, see, hear, taste, and smell the world that emerges. Place yourself in the scene as one of the characters in the text. Enter into that character’s role and dialogue with the others in the text.
Live there for a while and engage those in the text and ultimately engage God. This, you may realise, has the same four steps of the Lectio Divina: Lectio—reading; Meditatio—reflecting; Oratio—prayer; leading to Contemplatio—contemplation, resting in God’s presence.
The Bible is a love letter from God to you. Cherish it and engage it, expecting to encounter the living God.
Listen to the Ascension Press podcast ‘The Bible in a Year’. This approach to studying scripture allows you to see its unity. Or visit the Augustine Institute website, formed.org, which also lays out the Bible to be read in a year. And, Bishop Robert Baron has published the gospels with notes and comments and beautiful pictures to assist your reading. Choose one way to enter into scripture as prayer and commit this year to incorporate Scripture into your daily routine.
Hebrews 4:12–13; 2 Timothy 3:16–17