Learning to Read the Bible
I would like to begin by quoting to you a wonderful incident recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
"An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, the deacon, saying, 'Arise and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza'. (This road is desert.) And he arose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of Candace, queen of Ethiopia, who was in charge of all her treasures, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, sitting in his carriage and reading the prophet Isaias. And the Spirit said to Philip, 'Go near and keep close to this carriage. And Philip, running up, heard him reading the prophet Isaias, and he said, 'Dost thou then understand what thou art reading?' But he said, 'Why, how can I, unless someone shows me?' And he asked Philip to get up and sit with him.
Now the passage of Scripture which he was reading was this: 'He was led like a sheep to slaughter; and just as a lamb dumb before its shearer, so did he not open his mouth. In humiliation his judgment was denied him; who shall declare his generation? For his life is taken from the earth.'
And the eunuch answered Philip and said, 'I pray thee, of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself or of someone else?' Then Philip opened his mouth, and, beginning from this scripture, preached Jesus to him.
As they went along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, 'See, here is water; what is there to prevent my being baptized?' And Philip said, 'If thou dost believe with all thy heart, thou mayest.' And he answered and said, 'I believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God.' And he ordered the carriage to stop; and both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, and he baptized him. But when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, but he went on his way rejoicing" (Acts 8:26-40).
There are two reasons why I have quoted this passage. It teaches us first of all that we ought to read our Bibles, and secondly, that we must try to understand what we are reading. In the following pages I want to give you some hints on reading the Bible. So imagine that you are the queen's minister, and I the deacon Philip. I am sitting next to you in your carriage and teaching you, and the subject of our lesson is: "Learning to read the Bible."
1. Take up your Bibles
Take up your Bible and read what it says on the cover: "The Holy Bible, or, perhaps, "The Holy Scriptures." The word Bible comes from the Greek word biblion, which means book. And that is significant. Obviously, this must be a very special book to merit the plain title: "The Book." The words, "The Holy Scriptures," tell us that this is a holy book, a divine book, authored by God Himself. It is a book, therefore, which we must handle with great reverence. It must surely be with clean hands and with clear eyes and a pure heart that we address ourselves to the reading of "Holy Scripture."
Let us now open this book and see what it contains. There are all sorts of things in it, but the whole book is divided into two main parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Both these parts contain writings or books which are holy and inspired by God. The Old Testament was written before, and the New Testament after, Christ's coming. In all there are 72 books in the Bible, 45 of them in the Old Testament, and 27 in the New. But you must not imagine that they are all equally lengthy; some of them are quite short, containing only a few verses. It would only confuse you if I tried to teach you too much at once, so in this article I will confine myself to the New Testament.
Take a quick look through the pages of the New Testament. First we have the four Gospels, or accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. These are followed by the Acts of the Apostles, which give a history of the primitive Church, showing how it was established and governed by the apostles. Next we have the epistles, or letters of some of the apostles: 14 epistles of the apostle Paul, of which the epistles to the Romans, Corinthians and Hebrews are the longest; then seven epistles of the other apostles: two of St. Peter, three of St. John, and one of the apostle Judas (Thaddaeus). These seven books are often called the "Catholic Epistles," because, with the exception of the two last epistles of St. John, they are addressed to all Christians, unlike the epistles of St. Paul which are addressed to communities or individuals. The word catholic means universal. Finally, we have the Apocalypse, or Revelations, of St. John, which is the only prophetic book of the New Testament. As a Bible-reader you should make yourself familiar straight away with the names of these books and get to know the order in which they occur. You should take a pride in being able to find the book you want with the least possible delay.
2. Spiritual preparation for Bible reading
It is useful to have a facility in finding your way about the various books of the Bible, but if you are going to read this divinely inspired work, it is much more important that you should prepare yourself spiritually.
What makes this book so very different from every other book is that it has two quite distinct authors: a human author and a divine author. The human author is the person who wrote or dictated the book, for example, an evangelist, or one of the apostles, Paul, James, Peter, John, or Jude. The divine author is the Holy Spirit. But you must not think that the human author was quite passive, and only wrote down what the Holy Spirit dictated. Far from it; the two authors worked according to their own respective natures although the human author was not aware of the divine influence he was under.
Suppose we take an epistle of St. Paul as an example. Paul is seated in his prison in Rome. He has much to occupy his mind. He is wondering how his Christian communities are faring without him. He is weak in body through lack of proper food, and uncertain in mind as to the outcome of his trial. In addition, he is disappointed at the news that certain Christians have proved false. Suddenly the door opens, and who should enter but the president of his favorite Church in the Greek world, the Church of Philippi. He brings money, food and comfort, and tells Paul how the Christians of Philippi are getting on. He tells him about the sort of lives they are leading, their perseverance and their aspirations and desires. He tells him, too, of the loving concern they feel for him, their father and teacher.
Paul is moved to tears. He calls his secretary (his scribe) and tells him to sit down and write at his dictation. Then he dictates the epistle which we call the Epistle to the Philippians. Doubtlessly he first prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance in teaching, admonishing and comforting that Christian community. But he did not know that the Holy Spirit was also going to be an author of this book, that He was going to guide and direct the words of His apostle and preserve his letter from every kind of error, that He Himself was going to speak in this letter to the entire human race in every age.
But that is what we mean when we say that the book is inspired. It reflects the radiance of the Holy Spirit. The two authors thus work together. The human author does not suspect that his book is a divinely inspired book, that it is sacred Scripture. He is merely concerned to write to the Church at Philippi to the best of his ability. It never enters his mind that his letter to the Philippians will be read aloud in God's Church in every age to come, and that millions of Christians will listen to it and accept it as the word of God. And yet every word that St. Paul writes or dictates is the word of God Himself, the word of the Holy Spirit.
Actually, therefore, St. Paul is merely God's instrument in writing the letters ascribed to him. As the human author, he is conditioned by the time and circumstances in which he writes. He is thinking merely of his favorite Church. But God sees further. In this letter He speaks to all men everywhere and in every age. Admittedly, when we read the Bible, it is the human author that we think of first. We are following his line of thought, and it is only thus that we can fully understand the Epistle to the Philippians, for example. The more we know about St. Paul in his imprisonment and the more we know about his favorite Church, the better will be our understanding of the meaning of this letter.
But we must not stop there, for this is no mere historical document. Exegesis, the science of biblical interpretation, is concerned with all these matters; but you, the Bible-reader, would more profitably direct your attention to the divine author. For the moment leave aside the temporal aspects of this letter; as you listen to it, ask yourself: What is God telling me in these words? For this epistle is really and truly the word of God.
Believe me, all that I am telling you here is of supreme importance. If you do not rise from the human to the divine author, if in these human words you do not hear and recognize the sacred word of God, then you will never, never, become a true Bible-reader. However much we respect St. Paul for his wisdom and holiness, if we thought that his Epistle to the Philippians represents merely his own words and ideas, we would never occupy ourselves with them as much as we do. But knowing that this epistle is the word of God, and that St. Paul's words are merely the instruments of the Holy Spirit, we receive them with the utmost reverence and say: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
I have now given you the first key that you will need for opening this treasure-chest of Scripture. Whenever you begin to read the Bible, first say to yourself reverently and earnestly: God is now speaking to me. Yes, this is every bit as much the word of God as when God first promulgated the ten commandments on Mount Sinai amidst thunder and lightning. Then the people were so terrified and beside themselves with panic that they said to Moses: "Do thou tell us the message; we are ready to obey thee. Do not let us hear the Lord speaking; it will cost us our lives" (Exod. 20:19). It is the same God who is speaking to us whenever we open our Bibles, but He does not speak to us in thunder and lightning. He speaks as Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). In Holy Scripture the great, almighty God speaks to us in human fashion.
But for us Christians there is something far more intimate still in God's word to us in Holy Scripture, for God is our father. The Scriptures are His letter, a father's letter to his children who are living far from home, in a land that is not their own. Do you realize what that means? Imagine yourself living away from home in some far-distant country, and every now and again a letter reaches you from home. Would you not treasure such a letter? You would carry it about with you, surely, and read it over and over again. It would have a tremendous influence upon your life. We should put ourselves in that position when we begin to read the Bible, and say to God: "Speak, Father, for your child is listening."
The Scriptures are also the word of Christ, the Son of God, our elder Brother. In the Gospels we have a great many of Christ's actual words, but, quite apart from that, the whole of Scripture is a kind of Incarnation. Jesus Christ comes to us in His word. As the Son of God He is the very Word, the Logos, of the Father. Every word of Holy Scripture is, as it were, an image of this Word of God. Hence, when we read the Bible we are in a certain sense like the Mother of God, who bore "the Son of the eternal Father" in her womb. That is why our Savior puts the hearer of God's word on a par with His own Mother. When the woman in the gospel praised Christ's Mother saying, "Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the breasts that nursed thee," Jesus replied: "Rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it" (Luke 11:28).
As often, therefore, as we Christians open the sacred Scriptures, we are united with Christ, and like His holy Mother bear the Word of God within us. Think how carefully Mary wrapped her divine Child in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger. Think how tenderly she nursed her Babe and looked after Him. We must do the same with every word of Scripture, as though it were the divine Child Himself. It is with a mother's care and love that we must read the sacred Scriptures.
But the Holy Spirit, the third Divine Person, is also intimately connected with the Bible. He, as we know, is its author. He inspired it, shed the light of His divine radiance upon it, and kept it from error. He too is our teacher. It is He who teaches us to understand the sacred Scriptures. Hence, before you begin to read the Bible, always remember to say a prayer to the Holy Spirit. There is a beautiful prayer which reads:
"Come, Holy Spirit, enlighten my heart and my understanding. Help me to recognize the eternal truth as I read it, to love God more fervently, to serve Him more loyally; through Christ our Lord. Amen."
The Bible, as we know, is true and free from all error, but that does not mean that it cannot possibly be interpreted in a wrong sense. Indeed, there is hardly a false teacher who does not appeal to the Scriptures in an effort to bolster up his errors. That is why the Church, the custodian of the Scriptures, guards them so jealously, lest they be distorted and falsely interpreted. The Holy Spirit will see to it that they are always kept free from error and interpreted aright.
It is most important, therefore, that we come to the reading of Holy Scripture with the proper dispositions of soul. The Bible is no storybook, nor is it just another pious book intended merely to edify. It is the holy word of God, the letter from our heavenly Father, the image of Christ the eternal Word. The Holy Spirit is its author and also the pledge of its genuineness. Prepare, then, to read the Bible with great reverence. "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
3. Our difficulties begin
You now begin to read the Bible, and at once you meet with difficulties. You may have thought that you would only need to open the Bible, and straightway you would be enraptured with the beauty and nobility of God's word. It is not so. The Bible is rather like a hard nut. Before you can reach the sweet kernel inside, you must somehow crack the tough shell which contains it. This will take time. Everything that is worth having has to be worked for. A great amount of effort is needed before we can rejoice in its possession. Take a popular song. It is "at the top of the hit parade," and you like it as soon as you hear it. But very shortly you grow tired of it because there is really nothing very much in it after all. On the other hand, a piece of classical music, like a Wagner opera or a sonata or a symphony, will not appeal to you at once. You have to hear it often, and then you begin to like it more and more.
It is just the same with the Bible. It is not just a storybook. There are some novels which you can open and enjoy straight away, as soon as you begin reading them. But when you first open the Bible it may seem to have very little appeal. You will find yourself saying things like, "I know all that already," "I have no idea what that means," or again, "That does not seem very interesting." You will then be tempted to put the Bible away and forget about it. But remember that the Bible has a hard shell and it is worthwhile learning how to pierce it. So I will try to help you by clearing some of these difficulties out of your way.
(a) "I know all that already"
You begin by reading the Gospels and come across certain passages which you know already from your school days or from having heard them read in church on Sundays. You then say to yourself: "There's nothing new in that; I know that already." But do you really know it already and is it enough in life just to know a thing already? You already know the beauties of nature. You have seen mountains, flowers, the forest and meadows, and yet you can never be satisfied with seeing all these glories of creation. When we love something, we are not satisfied with just knowing it; we desire the possession of it forever. It is the same when we encounter God or Christ in the Bible. We no longer ask whether we know this narrative already. We want to hear it and to read it again and again.
And do we really know it? Much of what we learned at school meant very little to us at the time. It is only later on in life that we begin to grasp it fully. When as a child you heard the story of the flood, for example, or of Joseph in Egypt, or of the birth of Jesus, you understood little beyond the external events. It is only now that you can penetrate below the surface and get to know the fuller meaning of these events. Scripture is the word of God, and this is so profound, so supremely great, that we can never say: "There is nothing new in that." On the contrary, the deeper we penetrate, the more mysterious and inscrutable it becomes.
As a Christian, therefore, never say, "There is nothing new in that," for that would merely betray how low a value you set on the Bible. The Bible is not like a newspaper to be read through once and then tossed aside. We must read it again and again. We can never exhaust its riches.
Never shall I tire of reading
In that Book beyond all worth
Of the life my Lord was leading
When He lived with men on earth;
How the children gaily thronging
Came attracted by His charms,
How they gazed on Him with longing
As He took them in His arms;
How He came with loving kindness
To the sick to work their cure,
Healed their palsy, healed their blindness,
He the friend of all the poor.
How the sinner unrejected,
Hoping for some faint relief,
Found forgiveness unexpected,
Mercy far beyond belief.
Never shall I tire of reading
Of His love for human kind,
Love all earthly love exceeding,
Radiance of th' eternal Mind.
Shepherd of the flocks He tended,
Sought the sheep who chanced to roam,
Lovingly His arms extended,
Welcoming the sinner home.
How can I, my sins confessing
Sins that should your anger earn
Reading words such love expressing,
Fail to love you in return?1
Yes, "never shall I tire of reading" this sacred Book. You will not really be reading the Bible properly and treasuring it as you should, until you feel yourself drawn to read it again and again, even when you know it well already.
Let me tell you of my own experience. Although as a priest I had a good working knowledge of the Gospels and the rest of Holy Scripture, it was only in 1917, in the stress of war, that God called me to a deeper understanding of the Bible. I read the Gospels again, and it all seemed quite new to me, as though I were then reading it for the first time. The same thing must happen to you. Every sentence of Holy Scripture must be just as new to you as though you had never read it before. It is this impression of newness which is characteristic of the Bible; and that is what I want you to experience for yourself.
(b) "I have no idea what that means"
That was our second objection. In reading the Bible you will often come across passages which you do not understand. I am quite ready to admit that there are many difficult passages in the Bible, especially in St. John's Gospel, St. Paul's epistles, and the prophets of the Old Testament. That is quite true. But even these difficulties are no real obstacle to the reader. First, you must not be surprised when the Bible seems difficult. Does a child understand everything that his father tells him? Surely not; and yet he never tires of talking to his father. It is the all-wise God who is speaking to us foolish children of men, the God before whom the greatest intellects are dumb. Obviously, there will be much in Holy Scripture that we do not understand.
Moreover, the Bible is a book from an era that is long since passed. It comes from a country that is foreign to us, and was written in a language that is not our own. And yet even this is no hindrance to reading the Bible. We must realize, of course, that no one can be proficient all at once. You will learn gradually to understand the language and idiom of the Bible. What strikes you as being obscure today, and unintelligible, will be quite plain to you in a year's time.
An important point to remember is this: you must think over quietly what you do not understand, and if it still seems difficult, remember that God may not want to enlighten you about that just at present. Rejoice in what you do understand, and have enough humility to acknowledge your own limitations. But you can be sure that everything will become increasingly clearer to you. You will gradually understand more and more. I can assure you from my own experience. It was just those passages which at first seemed most difficult and unintelligible which later gave me the greatest insight into the meaning of Scripture, and caused me the greatest spiritual joy.
And I can give you another assurance. It is characteristic of the Bible that it somehow adapts itself to the readers' powers of understanding. It has a childlike message for the child; it speaks in simple language to the uneducated; to the wise it reveals its deepest treasures.
Thus no special skill is needed in order to understand the message of sacred Scripture. It may indeed be hidden from the worldly-wise, just as the mystery of God's kingdom is hidden from them, but the Christian who lives by faith and grace receives a heavenly wisdom from God, and with the help of this he can penetrate into the deep mysteries of Holy Scripture. Time and again you will notice how the worldly-wise find all sorts of objections to religion and the teaching of the Bible, whereas the simple, unschooled Christian has no difficulty in understanding it.
I have known simple serving maids, farm laborers and ordinary country folk to read the Bible with great edification and insight. I would go so far as to say that the more unsophisticated a man is in respect of worldly wisdom, the more immediate and uninhibited is his understanding of the Bible. It is we Christians who are the truly wise men of this world as St. Paul assured us.
We must not grumble, therefore, we must not be impatient, if we do not understand all that we read. Skip through those passages which you find difficult, and savor those which God chooses to make plain to you. And never forget that we have the Holy Spirit. He is our great interpreter of the Bible. Every word of it is due to His authorship. It is He who will open the senses of the soul and make us "truly wise, for ever rejoicing in the consolations He gives us."
(c) "That does not seem very interesting"
In reading the Bible you will often meet passages which fail to interest you or to have any very clear message for you. That again need not surprise you. The Bible is a book for all ages and for all men. There are passages which apply to some and not so readily to others. But that is easily remedied. No one is obliged to read everything in the Bible.
It has been the Church's policy from the beginning to make a wise selection of passages from the gospels and epistles which she directs to be read out at Mass on Sundays. So you too are entitled to do the same, and miss out those passages which do not interest you. Have a pencil by you when you are reading a book of the Holy Scriptures and bracket off the verses which you find difficult and uninteresting. There is just one comment I would make. It is this. Later on, when you have penetrated deeper into the meaning of the Scriptures, you may find that even these passages will delight you.
There is one principle which should be your practical guide throughout life. Never worry about the negative aspect of things. Always look at the positive, the joyful side. If you keep to that philosophy you will greatly lighten the burden of living. That applies equally well to the Holy Scriptures. At the beginning at least, pass over whatever spoils your enjoyment of the Bible. In time these difficulties will disappear of their own accord. Draw your nourishment and your joy from those passages which appeal to you, and you will find as time goes on that there will be more and more such passages to delight in.
4. Of what practical use is Bible reading?
Now that we have set aside the apparent obstacles to Bible reading, let us turn to the positive aspects of Holy Scripture. What profit do we get from reading the Bible? Clearly, if I am not convinced that there is great spiritual benefit to be had from reading the Bible, I will be most disinclined to submit myself to the discipline which regular Bible reading demands.
Now my contention is that reading the Bible has all sorts of advantages for one's spiritual life. Let us then see what these are.
(a) Conversing with God
The Scriptures, as we have seen, are really and truly the word of God; God is speaking to us in the Bible. And by that I do not mean that God once spoke to somebody many years ago and we are now reading His words. Reading the Bible is not like reading an old letter from a friend. The Bible is the living, actual word of God to me and to you. When you are reading the Bible you are not just reading something which God spoke in the dim and distant past. God is speaking to you now. Bible reading is a conversation with God; we are actually in contact with Him, and how greatly ought we to prize that fact! When you say your prayers you are speaking to God; when you read the Bible God is speaking to you not as a stern judge, but as a Father.
How fortunate we are to be able to hear God's words! And what does He say to us? He tells us all sorts of things. The Bible speaks to us about our true homeland in heaven and about our Father. It is our consolation in this earthly valley of tears. When we feel low and depressed, one single word of the Bible can often serve to raise our spirits. "Though I should walk with the shadow of death all around me, I will not be afraid of any harm" (Ps. 22:4). Kant once said that this one verse had afforded him more comfort than all the books in the world.
St. Paul too had something similar to say about the practical value of Holy Scripture: "Whatever things have been written (in Scripture) have been written for our instruction, that through the patience and the consolation afforded by the Scriptures we may have hope" (Rom. 15:4).
In all life's situations, whether you be lighthearted or sad, always go to the Bible; go, that is, to your heavenly Father. He will raise you up; He will tell you what you should do. For the Bible is the one book that is invariably true, invariably frank. It does not flatter you, it does not hide anything from you. It tells you the truth, complete and unadorned. Make a hard and fast rule, therefore, to read the Bible for a quarter of an hour every day. It will be your time for conversing with God. "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
(b) Formation of character
There is a German proverb which says: "Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are." We are all strongly influenced by our surroundings. That is why it is so important for a child to be brought up in a good environment and be kept away from evil companions. If, therefore, we constantly associate with God in the Holy Scriptures, we will most certainly be influenced for good and kept on the path of virtue. Bible reading forms our characters. Nothing could be clearer. Listening to God's words every day, you will bring your life into conformity with them, and strive to put them into practice. The Bible will be your rule of life.
And, as you know, it is a very high ideal that the Bible sets before us. It teaches us virtue and nobility of character. It aims at bringing the best out of us, curbing our selfishness and our passions: the lusts of the eyes, the flesh, and the pride of life. For thousands of years now the Bible has been man's great educator. And you too can be educated in this school, provided you attend it regularly every day.
A twofold work goes on in this school: the work of a father and of a mother. With what infinite patience and loves does a mother try to keep her child on the path of virtue. However willful or disappointing her child may turn out to be, she always knows how to set things right again. But the father too has his part to play. Sometimes he has to be stern and even chastise his child. The Bible has both these roles to play. Sometimes, as our Savior said, "God's word is a seed," planted in the soil of our hearts. It is small and seemingly insignificant, like a grain of wheat. You cannot actually see it grow. You have to wait a long time for it to germinate. Then, gradually, it becomes a plant and blossoms and brings forth fruit.
That is one way in which God's word in Holy Scripture sets about educating us. But there is also another kind of education. St. Paul says: "God's word is a sword." Sometimes, as we read the Scriptures, the word of God comes upon us like a warrior armed with a sharp sword to strike us down and make new men of us.
I can give you plenty of examples of this. There was once a most fierce persecutor of God's Church. He flung Christians into prison and had them tortured and put to death. One day he was actually on his way to a great city to hound out some more victims, when God's word came to him, saying: "Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?" And this great persecutor of God's Church answered: "Who art thou, Lord?" The reply came: "I am Jesus, whom thou art persecuting." In this instance the word of God was a sword. It pierced Paul, and made of this persecutor of Christians a disciple of Jesus, an apostle and teacher of the Gentiles.
Here is another example. There was a man who had a most saintly mother; even so he fell into bad ways, and all her warnings and entreaties were of no avail. He got deeper and deeper into sin, ensnared by his own passions. Even when he was brought to his senses by the preaching and example of a holy bishop, those passions of his would not let him out of their grip. And so he was torn this way and that, and did not know what to do.
One day he was sitting despondently in his garden, holding in his hands a copy of the Holy Scriptures. Suddenly a shout reached his ears. A small boy somewhere in the vicinity was calling out: Tolle, lege "Take and read, take and read." Believing this voice to be an exhortation from God, he decided to open the Bible, convinced that the first passage on which his eyes fell would be the divine answer to all his doubts and difficulties.
He opened the book and read: "The night is far advanced; the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk becomingly as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 13:12-14). Immediately peace came flooding into his torn soul, and he knew what he must do. He believed that God had given him his answer. He went off, was baptized and became a saint. This was the great bishop and doctor of the Church, St. Augustine. Once again the word of God had become a sword, to wound and to heal, to separate the good in him from the bad.
In this life we will never know how many men have been turned back to God by a word of Holy Scripture. In your case the word of God will normally be a seed, slowly germinating and growing provided it does not fall on stony ground, or by the wayside, or in the midst of thorns. Make sure that it falls on good ground, and the word of God will gradually nourish you and transform you. One day perhaps, if you "meditate on God's law night and day," a word from the Bible may, by God's special grace, become a sword to change you suddenly into a new man. St. Paul says: "The word of God is living and efficient and keener than any two-edged sword, and extending even to the division of soul and spirit, of joints also and of marrow, and a discerner of the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).
(c) Getting to know Christ
St. Paul once said that he had no desire to preach on any other subject but Christ crucified. To the Galatians he wrote that he had depicted Jesus Christ crucified before their eyes (Gal. 3:1). It is part of our religion to learn to know and love Christ better. He must be "our life," He "the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me" (John 14:6). He is the ideal Man on whom we must model ourselves. We must follow in His footsteps. In all life's situations we must keep our eyes fixed on Him, and ask ourselves: What would Jesus have done in my place?
Now, what better opportunity have we for learning this strong faith in Christ, this knowledge and love of Christ, than that afforded by the Holy Scriptures? The Bible presents us with a living image of Christ. When I read the Gospels, the living Savior stands before me. I hear the words He says, words that will never die away. "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." I watch all His actions, His miracles; I observe Him as He prays to the Father, and see His obedience and His filial devotion. "Never shall I tire of reading, in that Book beyond all worth, of the life my Lord was leading, when He lived with men on earth." Let us, then, read the Gospels again and again and make them the subject of our meditation.
But there are other books, too, of Holy Scripture which have a great deal to tell us about Christ. His great disciple, Paul, is continually writing of the majesty of Christ, of His love for us, and of our union with Him in grace. In fact there is no book of the New Testament which does not have wonderful and profound things to tell us about Christ. When you are reading the Bible, therefore, continually pause and ask yourself the question: What has this passage to tell me about Christ? You are like a painter who must paint a picture of Christ in your soul. Nulla dies sine linea let no day pass without adding another line, another stroke of the brush, to this picture. Make it your life's work to paint this image of Christ in your soul.
(d) But not the Bible alone
We must beware of exaggerating. In the Bible we have indeed a great treasure, but it is not the greatest treasure the Church has, nor yet the only one. It is into this mistake that so many of the sects have fallen. Apart from the Bible, we Christians have yet another approach to God. It is the worship of the Church, with her sacraments, and especially the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. These things bind us yet more intimately with Christ. The greatest thing in Christianity is, not faith, but grace; the grace which makes us children of God.
Grace is given to us first of all through baptism. It is nourished and brought to maturity through the Eucharist. The Bible and the Eucharist together form the path along which God has willed that we Christians should walk, and from the very earliest times the Church has united these elements in the Mass. In the Mass of the word (the Foremass), she sets the Bible before us; in the Mass of the Sacrifice, the Eucharist. Thomas a Kempis calls these two things the two tables set up in the treasure-house of the Church. They are our light and our food; two necessary means for earthly and spiritual life. We must therefore always unite the Bible and the Eucharist. In the Eucharist the Son of God of whom the Bible speaks, and who speaks to us in the Bible, becomes the food of life.
5. Aids to Bible-reading
Our first task was to remove the stones from our path; by which we mean everything that might hinder us from reading the Bible. Then we considered the greatness of the Bible itself. Let us now gather our aids around us, and see what we need to have if we are to read the Bible as we should.
The first thing necessary is to have a love of the Bible "love kindling faith and pure desire, love following on to bliss."2 Nothing great was ever achieved without love. If we realize what the Bible is, we would learn to love it more and more and feel continually drawn to it. We would never want to be without the Bible.
(a) The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is our first companion and aid. He, as we know, is the author and originator of Holy Scripture. He must therefore also be our helper if we are to read the Bible with profit. We must pray to Him, therefore, before we begin to read, and pray to Him once more after we have finished reading. It is He who will prepare the soil of our souls to receive the word of God. It is He who will make it germinate and grow. He will be the sunshine and the rain, to make this plant grow sturdy, taking in the nourishment He supplies and yielding an abundant harvest for the Christian life.
The Holy Spirit is the best teacher of the Bible. He will enlighten our understanding so that we may grasp the meaning of God's words. He will fire our hearts with joy and longing and wholesome sorrow for sin. He will indicate those passages of Scripture which are important for us and our lives. He may fix a certain passage of Scripture in our minds, constantly drawing our attention to it, so that we may derive much profit from it. Our first companion, then, is the Holy Spirit; His is the help that we must assure before all else.
(b) The study group
A further aid to Bible reading is the study group. However much trouble you may take in preparing yourself to read the Bible profitably, you will still have much to learn. Nobody can be proficient all at once. You are still only a beginner, but the priest who leads the study group has spent years studying the Bible. It is his constant occupation. Moreover, in virtue of his ordination he has a special grace enabling him to proclaim God's word properly. Submit to his teaching, and he will show you how to understand those passages of Scripture which you find difficult. He will reveal to you the deeper meaning of God's words. The aim and object of any Bible study group is to teach you to read the Bible for yourself. So never miss an opportunity of attending such meetings.
If none such have as yet been formed in your parish, see what you can do about starting one. Discuss the matter with your parish priest or the curate, and see what can be arranged. Contact your friends whom you know to be regular Bible readers. They will form the best nucleus of any study group, for their minds are already attuned to the right way of reading and understanding the Bible. They will also cooperate better than other people in taking part in the discussion and asking questions. Believe me, the Bible study group is a very great aid to Bible reading.
(c) Your friends
Those friends of yours who share your taste for Bible reading can be of great assistance to you in learning to understand the Bible. "The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart." If you really have a great love of Holy Scripture, you will want to talk about it to your friends, and perhaps now and again two or three of you can meet together to discuss the Bible and read it among yourselves. The value of such discussion can scarcely be exaggerated.
You will find that it will help you to understand the Bible better and to persevere in your resolve to read it regularly. In reading the Bible together, you will very likely come across some passages which you cannot understand very well without further guidance. Make a note of such passages, and when you have collected a number of them together, go to see your parish priest and ask him to elucidate them for you. He will be only too willing to help you all he can.
(d) Your pencil
Here now is a fourth aid to Bible reading: a pencil and a notebook. These are invaluable. If you have your own Bible and obviously you will have, if you are going to be a Bible reader never read it without having your pencil and notebook handy. Read the text slowly and mark the verses which appeal to you by drawing a line along side of them in the margin. Put a question mark by those passages which you have difficulty in understanding, and put brackets around passages which you quite fail to understand. Then write down the gist of what you have read in your notebook. You can also write out in full the passages which strike you as being especially beautiful, and learn them by heart. In a very short time you will have a treasury of Bible passages which you have discovered for yourself. These will be an unfailing source of inspiration to you in all the situations of life.
As Christians, surely, we should have our minds well stocked with beautiful quotations from the Bible. These should be our daily companions. They can give us strength, comfort and inspiration. When you come across these passages again passages which you have marked and entered in your notebook it will be like meeting old friends. You will see them in a new light and have the satisfaction of realizing how much you have advanced in your understanding of the Bible since last you met them. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of having a pencil and notebook by you when you read the Bible.
(e) The Bible itself
You have one final aid to Bible reading: it is the Bible itself. The Bible explains the Bible. When you first begin reading it, you find yourself in an entirely new world. Its language, its style, are strange to you, and many of its expressions are unfamiliar and unusual. You have to get used to this new world and the customs and practices which are described in it, and the best way to do this is to read the Bible regularly. One passage explains another, with the result that in a year or two you are quite at home in the Bible.
Even though the human authors write independently of one another, the divine Author, the Holy Spirit, is the same. The books of Holy Scripture do not contradict one another. On the contrary, they supplement and explain each other. Thus from the regular and constant reading of the Bible you will derive such wisdom and spiritual insight, that you will scarcely need any other commentary or aid.
These, then, are your aids in Bible reading. With these to support you, you can go courageously on your way. Do not be deterred if at first you find you do not understand very much. Things will gradually become much clearer and plainer to you. Gradually you will learn to overcome your inability to understand, and the feeling of strangeness and mystery. Persevere in your reading, and soon you will come to love the Bible more and more. It will be your lifelong companion.
6. Various kinds of Bible readers
Having made your preparations, you can now begin to read the Bible confidently and with a good heart. There are various kinds of Bible readers. First we have the intellectual, the theologian. He begins by examining the particular book he intends to read, inquires into its author, the author's purpose in writing this book, and so on. He pauses at every verse, consults a commentary, and does not go on reading until he is quite sure that he understands what the passage means. We call this method of Bible reading "exegetic," and I would not recommend it to you while you are still a beginner. Later, perhaps, you will want to penetrate deeper into the precise meaning of the various texts of Holy Scripture, but there is no need for you to do so at the outset.
Another type of Bible reader just goes ahead and reads it; not, of course, cursorily, as though he were reading a novel or a newspaper, but sentence by sentence, without pausing very long to inquire into the exact meaning. The advantage of this method is that you can pass quietly over those passages which you do not understand or which do not interest you, and concentrate on those which you do understand. Try to get a general picture, and defer a deeper understanding of the texts until later.
The quickest and easiest way of learning to understand the Bible is to set about it in the same way as you set about learning the geography of your own country. You remember how you were taught at school. First your teacher impressed upon you the general shape of the country by drawing an outline of it on the board and naming the boundaries. Then he took his blue chalk and drew in the great rivers, like the Mississippi and its tributaries. Then he marked in the big cities, like New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco. Then with brown chalk, perhaps he put in the principal mountain ranges and peaks, so that you had some idea of the relief of the country and its main contours.
I can well remember my own schooldays, how we had to be able to draw the map of Austria by heart, putting in all the more important features. After that it was a comparatively easy task to learn the names and positions of the remaining rivers, towns and peaks. Thus in a very short time we found we had a good working knowledge of the geography of our own country.
The same method can be followed in learning to find your way about the Bible. First of all you have to get the broad outline of a given book. You must learn what its main features are. You read the text a little at a time, think over what you have read, and then pass on. Meanwhile, pencil in hand, you mark the passages which appeal to you most, put question marks against those passages you have difficulty in understanding, and make notes in your Bible notebook. Proceed leisurely through the Bible in this way, leaving the difficult passages for later study.
Never read too much at a time. Ten minutes or a quarter of an hour is quite enough to begin with. When you come across a passage which you like particularly, dwell upon it for a short time and turn it over in your mind. Put a mark against it, or copy it out in your notebook. This is a method of Bible reading which I thoroughly recommend.
There is now a third kind of Bible reader; the person who not only reads through the Bible, but who also meditates upon what he reads. This is a method which you too will gradually be able to acquire once you have accustomed yourself to the second method I described. If, for example, you have made a note of any striking passages that you may have met in your reading the evening before, then on the following morning you can meditate on such passages for a quarter of an hour or so, or think about them on your way to work, or while taking a quiet walk. In this way you will begin to delve deeply into the meaning of the Scriptures and savor their wisdom and their beauty. You will be thrilled by these texts of Scripture. They will be with you all day long.
Take, for example, such texts as, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, if he suffer the loss of his own soul?", or, "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that those who believe in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting" (John 3:16). Who knows? Some such passage may perhaps become a sword in God's hand to pierce you to the heart and make a new man of you. You may find that your reading of the Bible will pass imperceptibly into prayer. Then speak with God, speak with Christ. Make answer to God's message with a wholehearted, "Here I am, Lord; take me." Select each day a prayer, a motto, from the Bible, and make it your own.
- Take up your Bible with great reverence, saying to yourself: God is now speaking to me.
- Before you begin reading, pray to the Holy Spirit, the Author of Holy Scripture. He will give you a proper understanding of the word of God.
Prayer before reading: "Come, Holy Spirit, enlighten my heart and my understanding. Help me to recognize the eternal truth as I read it, to love God more fervently, to serve Him more loyally; through Christ our Lord. Amen."
Prayer after reading: "My God, I thank you for your divine word. May it be a lamp to shed its radiance on my pathway through life. Teach me to treasure it in my heart, that it may bring forth fruit unfailingly. Through Christ our Lord. Amen."
- Then say to God: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening"; or perhaps, "Speak, Father, for your child is all attention."
- Now read slowly, thinking over each verse and keeping God in mind. We two are together now, God and I. He is speaking to me and I am listening.
- The Imitation of Christ has this to say about the reading of Holy Scripture: "If you want to profit from your reading of Scripture, read with humility, simplicity and faith. Willing consult and hear with silence the words of the saints; and let your joy be in the parables of the ancients" (I, 5).
- In reading the Gospels, identify yourself with the scene that is being described. See your Savior standing before you and put yourself in the person of one of the characters the young man raised from the dead, the leper asking for a cure. Take their words upon your lips: "Jesus, son of David, take pity on me." Spiritually we are in exactly the same plight as these men. That is one way in which you can bring the Gospels into your everyday life.
- Whenever you read about Jesus Christ, look on Him with love and ask yourself: What is this passage telling me about Him? Thus every day you will be able to add to Christ's image in your soul. Nulla dies sine linea let no day pass without adding another stroke of the brush, another detail, to the picture of Christ.
- Consider everything that Jesus says as addressed personally to you.
- In reading an epistle, do not think of it as, for example, St. Paul's letter to the Philippians, but as the Church's or God's personal message to you. Each passage of it is addressed personally to you, as though no one else existed.
- Make a collection of important Bible texts, the sayings of Christ, and key passages from the epistles, and learn them by heart. Each day select one of these passages as your motto, your short ejaculatory prayer for the day.
- During your morning or evening reading of the Bible, make a note of a verse here and there, a parable or a scene, and return to it in the course of the day. Repeat the verse to yourself, or think for a moment or two on the Biblical scene. In this way you will become inwardly recollected. Continually return in your thoughts to the Mother of God, of whom it was said: "Mary kept in mind all these things, pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).
- Make a firm resolution to read the Bible for ten or fifteen minutes each day, and keep to it. Tell your confessor that you have made this resolution. Perseverance is absolutely necessary if you are to become a true Bible reader.
- You should be so read in Scripture that every time you come across a quotation from the Bible it will be like hearing the joyous strains of some well-loved patriotic song.
- A most rewarding practice is to read the Bible in the company of a friend who shares your interests, or to talk over with your friend what you have read. Two heads are better than one. You will find that each of you sees things from a different point of view, and so you will be able to help each other to a fuller and more fruitful understanding of the Bible.
- Ideally we should return to the practice of family Bible reading. The father and mother should read the Bible with their children and take this opportunity of talking to them about religious things. These family Bible readings will remain as a lifelong memory in their children's minds. An Italian Cardinal once said: "It is my belief that our country would once more be really Christian if there were a crucifix in every home, before which the whole family gathered to read a page from the Gospels" (Cardinal Nasalli-Rocca of Bologna, 1925). Try to put that into practice.
- The Holy Scriptures must be related to the Eucharist, the Bible to the liturgy. Divorced from the liturgy the reading of the Bible may easily lead to sectarianism, but the Bible and the liturgy together will lead you directly and surely to God. In the Bible you receive Christ's word; in the Eucharist, Christ Himself. If you would receive them both, then in your heart you would hear the word of Holy Scripture as Christ's word, who is your Bread of life. That is why the Church likes to choose as her Communion chant a text from the Bible usually a text from the Gospel thereby showing us that the Bible is made actual in the Eucharist.
- Read what Thomas a Kempis has to say in the Imitation of Christ about the connection between the Bible and the Eucharist: "In this life I find there are two things especially necessary for me, without which this miserable life would be insupportable. While I am kept in the prison of the body, I acknowledge myself to need two things, food and light. Thou hast, therefore, given to me, weak as I am, Thy sacred body for the nourishment of my soul and body, and Thou hast set Thy 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 Thy sacrament is the bread of life. These also may be called the two tables set on the one side and on the other in the treasury of the holy Church. One is the table of the holy altar, having the holy bread, that is, the precious body of Christ; the other is that of the divine word, containing holy doctrine, teaching the right faith, and firmly leading even within the veil where is the Holy of Holies. Thanks be to Thee, Lord Jesus, Light of eternal Light, for the table of holy doctrine which Thou has given us by the ministry of Thy servants, the prophets and apostles, and other teachers" (Imitation IV, 11).
- Timeo lectorem unius libri I respect the reader of a single book. That is an ancient proverb. There is no need to have any particular regard for the avid reader who gets through a novel a day, but mark well the Christian whose daily reading is from the one book, the Bible.
- Translated from the German: "Immer muss ich wieder lesen," a poem by Luise Hensel.
- Christina Rosetti (1830-94).
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