Sunday, January 24, 2010

Seven Hints on Reading the Bible

(Third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on Sunday, January 24, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Nehemiah 8: 1-12; Luke 1: 1-4; 4: 14-21.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday 2010]

The following was found in an old book, written on a scrap of paper:

This book contains the mind of God, the state of [humans], the way of salvation, the doom of sinners and the happiness of believers. Its doctrines are holy, its precepts binding. . . . Read it to be wise; believe it to be safe; and practice it to be holy. It contains light to direct you; food to support you; and comfort to cheer you. It is the traveler’s map; the pilgrim’s staff; the pilot’s compass; the soldier’s sword; and the Christian’s charter. Here heaven is opened, and the gates of hell disclosed. Christ is its grand subject; our good its design; and the glory of God its end. It should fill the memory; rule the heart; and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently, prayerfully. It is given to you in life, will be opened at the judgment, and be remembered forever.

“This book,” of course, is the Bible—the inspired word of God.

It helps us to understand the mind and the will of the Creator of the universe; it lays out for us the path to heaven; it brings us wisdom and comfort and all those great benefits I just shared with you.

Which brings up the obvious question: If the Bible is so wonderful (and it is!), why do so few people actually read it on a regular basis?

You would think they’d want to read it at least as often as they read the newspaper! After all, in the newspaper, they normally get the mind of Satan, a bunch of lies, and a lot of stories that cause them to experience anger, confusion, discouragement and maybe even despair. And yet I know many people who never read the Bible, whose day is not complete unless they put themselves through the self-inflicted torture of reading the Providence Journal—preferably with a cup of coffee in their hand.

Perhaps some don’t read Scripture simply because they’re lazy, or because their lives are not centered on God and the things of God.

But I think many others never crack open their Bibles because they get intimidated! They get intimidated at the thought of trying to find their way through such a massive book—which is really a collection of 73 separate books! And some of those books have several different types of writing contained in them.

To be completely accurate, the Bible is a library under one cover! It’s a library with many different types of literature in it. And that presents a problem for people who are trying to understand a particular line or passage. They have to try to figure out what part of the library they’re in, before they can accurately interpret what they’re reading! Are they in the history section, or the poetry section, or the apocalyptic section, or the legal section—or some other section? You don’t interpret a proverb like you interpret an apocalyptic writing; you don’t interpret historical writing like you interpret a parable or a letter.

But even though there are many difficulties associated with reading the Sacred Scriptures, the benefits do make it well worth the effort—as we heard a few moments ago.

The power of God’s written word is evident in today’s first reading and today’s gospel. In that first reading, the Jews who’ve come back from exile in Babylon hear the Bible—part of what we now call “the Old Testament”—read to them for several hours. They had not heard it proclaimed in that way for a very long time, and the truth of what they hear actually moves them to tears!

Then, in today’s gospel, Jesus reads a passage from Isaiah 61 in his hometown synagogue, after which he tells the people in no uncertain terms that he is the fulfillment of the text! He offers a few more comments, and some members of the congregation respond by hauling him off to the edge of a cliff and trying to throw him over the edge!

Ah yes, the truth of the Bible consoles, but it also convicts and challenges!

When we accept the conviction and challenge, and allow the word to change us, we grow in our faith; we become better disciples; we become holy. When we don’t accept the conviction and challenge, we become angry like those people in the Nazareth synagogue.

Let me now offer you some practical hints on reading the Bible for prayer and for spiritual nourishment (not for study—that would be a separate topic). Perhaps these hints will help you overcome any hesitation or intimidation you’ve felt in the past about reading the Sacred Scriptures.

Hint number 1: Start with the book of Psalms and the New Testament. The psalms are prayers—prayers that Jesus himself used as a practicing Jew. There are 150 of them. They say there’s a psalm to match every human emotion and circumstance. Most, in fact, are labeled in that way: “Prayer for help against oppressors”; “Prayer for guidance . . .”; “Prayer of Repentance”; “Thanksgiving for God’s blessings”—those are some of the titles given to various psalms in the New American Bible.

My suggestion is to pray one psalm per day. Flip through the book of Psalms until you find one with a title that relates to what’s going on in your life at the present moment, and pray it.

Then read one other passage of Scripture, starting in the New Testament (since the New Testament is easier for us Christians to understand).

This brings me to hint number 2: Don’t try to read massive quantities of Scripture all at once. That’s like overeating (spiritually speaking). If you’re going to read Scripture for prayer and meditation, it’s best to focus on one small section at a time.

This was my approach when I started reading the Bible as a teenager. Now please don’t misunderstand me, I was not a super-holy young person by any means. I was pretty normal in that regard. But after I lost my father at age 14, the thought occurred to me that there were probably things in the Bible that could help me deal with my grief and with everything else I was going through at the time. And I was right. I found lots of things in the Scriptures that helped me.

My format for reading was simple. I put my Bible on my nightstand and put a bookmark at chapter 1 of Matthew’s gospel (since that’s the first book of the New Testament). And before I went to bed at night I read one small section. Not a whole chapter—just one little section of a chapter (most chapters of Scripture are divided up into several sections). And over the course of many months I went through the 4 gospels and much of the rest of the New Testament.

Now, did I miss a few nights here and there? Yes—I will not tell a lie. But for the most part, I was faithful to this practice—and it made a big difference in my life.

Which brings me to hint number 3: Get into a routine! Find a time and place for reading Scripture that works for you and really try to be faithful to it. For me, as a teenager, it was right before I went to bed. Had I tried to read Scripture regularly at some other time of the day, I probably would have found 1,001 reasons not to do it.

Hint number 4: Consider using a meditation format like the one I sometimes use with our teenagers at youth group. Every once in awhile I’ll invite the teens who come on Thursday night to meditate on a story from one of the four gospels. I’ll read the story to them slowly 3 times. The first time I ask them to just listen. When I read it to them the second time, I tell them to listen for a word or phrase that really strikes them—a word or phrase that they find meaningful. Then, when I do it the third time, I ask them to think about what God might be saying to them through the story.

You’d be surprised at some of the deep insights they get through this kind of spiritual exercise.
You could do something similar on your own.

Hint number 5 is material in nature: Make sure you read from a Catholic Bible that has footnotes, or that you have access to a Catholic Bible commentary. These can help you to understand difficult verses.

And finally, hints 6 and 7. Number 6: Underline or highlight lines that really speak to you—lines that really “hit home,” so to speak. And hint 7: Try to memorize as many of those lines as you can!

St. Paul calls God’s word “the sword of the Spirit,” and for good reason. When we’re experiencing a temptation or a difficulty in our lives, we can gain power over it by calling to mind the truths contained in the Bible. For example, when I’m tempted to do or say something I shouldn’t, I often call to mind 3 short lines of Scripture that I’ve underlined in my Bible and memorized over the years: 1 John 4: 4—“Greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world”; Philippians 4: 13—“I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me”; and 2 Corinthians 12: 9 where God says to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for in your weakness my power reaches its perfection.”

Calling those Scriptures to mind makes a big difference in how I handle the situation I’m dealing with. God gave us the sword of the Spirit to guide us in good times, and to help us in temptation and trial—but we have to choose to read it and to put it to use.

May these 7 hints motivate us all to do that—every day.