Encountering the Lord in Scripture.
We know the stories: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau. We know the words: “God so loved the world.” “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people.” “God is love.” We even know the commandments: “You shall not kill.” “Honor your father and mother.” “You shall not covet.”
Because so many of us grew up with these stories and commandments, they have woven themselves into the fabric of our lives. Have you ever noticed, for example, how readily words and phrases from the Bible trip off our tongues? How easy it is to say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “Pride goeth before the fall.”
Living and Effective. That’s a lot of biblical knowledge, isn’t it? But in God’s mind, it’s just the beginning. He wants his word in Scripture to have a far greater impact on us. He didn’t intend the Bible to be just a rule book to guide us in our lives. No, he intended the Bible to be one of the most powerful ways for us to encounter him personally. He wants to speak to each of us, individually and deeply, as we ponder his word in Scripture.
Unlike any other book ever written, the Bible is “living and effective” (Hebrews 4:12). Because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, Scripture has the power to bring us into the presence of the Lord. It has the power to pierce us, console us, enlighten us, and refresh us—all because God himself speaks to us through it. As Moses once told the Israelites, God’s word
is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?” Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?” No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart. (Deuteronomy 30:12—14)
So God has written his words in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). This means that every time we seek him in Scripture, our hearts can respond with encouragement, hope, and trust that God truly is with us. As St. Augustine once prayed, “O Lord, you pierced me with your word, and I loved you.”
Today! Many centuries after Moses, one of the psalmists reminded the people about Israel’s checkered history during their desert wanderings:
Oh, that today you would hear his voice: Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah in the desert. (Psalm 95:8)
God had spoken clearly and dramatically to their ancestors on Mount Sinai centuries earlier, and yet the psalmist seems to take it for granted that God could speak to them again “today.” Clearly, there could be no “today” if God were not still speaking to his people. There could only be “back then, when God spoke to Moses”—or in our case, “back then, when Jesus walked the earth.” But God is still speaking . . . even today.
So how do we hear God’s voice today? What can we do to make sure that we come out of prayer or Mass and say, “God spoke to me today”? One answer comes from the Book of Psalms, the Bible’s own guide to prayer. At its very outset—the first two verses of the first psalm—we see a recipe for hearing God and knowing the blessings of his presence:
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather, the law of the Lord is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1—2)
As the psalmist says, the key to hearing God speak through the Scripture is “meditating” on his word. It happens as we read a short passage slowly and prayerfully, focusing on the words and the pictures they paint in our minds. As we do, thoughts and messages begin to come to us, thoughts and senses that lift up our hearts, give us direction, or just show us how deeply God loves us.
The Art (and Science) of Listening. While contemplation and meditation may sound like a free—flowing exercise in imagination, experience shows that we do better with a set approach that will keep us focused on the Lord and his presence.
For instance, don’t assume that you can meditate on a Scripture passage when you’re driving your car, running errands, or taking a jog in the park. Of course the Spirit can put his words on our hearts anywhere and anytime, but the more you focus your attention on God, the more clearly you’ll be able to hear his voice. So choose a time when you are most alert. And find a place that is both comfortable and free from distractions or clutter.
When you sit down to meditate on a passage from Scripture, be careful not to choose a reading that is too long. The goal of meditation is not to memorize or examine a part of Scripture but to listen to God. And for that, less is more. Many people choose one of the readings from the daily liturgy. Some choose to focus on just one or two verses from the reading. Others choose to pray through one psalm each day.
Once you have gathered your thoughts and calmed your mind, read the passage. Take your time. Be deliberate and careful. Read it over several times until you feel comfortable with what the verses are saying. If you come across a puzzling word or phrase, turn to your Bible’s notes or a trusted commentary for help. Don’t spend too much time on this. Do only what is necessary to resolve any confusion, and then get back to prayer.
Don’t try to force anything in your meditation. Instead, be open to any impression that the words make. The Holy Spirit may stir your heart with new hope as you meditate. You may be filled with a deeper sense of gratitude or love for Jesus. Maybe you will feel moved to take some kind of action, perhaps to thank someone, to mend a relationship, or to help someone close to you.
No matter what the Holy Spirit says or how he says it to you, his words will always be accompanied by a sense of immediacy and intimacy. This is not something that we can manufacture. It is a gift we can only receive with gratitude and humility. It comes only as we calm our racing minds and wait to hear what God wants to tell us.
Why Meditate? Writing in the prologue to a new German Bible aimed at young Catholics, Pope Francis encouraged his readers to ask some questions as they read the Scriptures. “Has he touched me in the depths of my longing? What should I do?” he urged them to ask. “Only in this way can the force of the word of God unfold. Only in this way can it change our lives, making them great and beautiful.”
As for himself, the Holy Father described his own approach to daily Scripture reading: “Often I read a little and then put it away and contemplate the Lord. Not that I see the Lord, but he looks at me. He’s there. I let myself look at him. And I feel—this is not sentimentality—I feel deeply the things that the Lord tells me. Sometimes he does not speak. I then feel nothing. . . . But I remain patiently, and so I wait, reading and praying.”
St. Jerome, one of the Church’s greatest Scripture scholars, described his experience in a similar way:
What food, what honey could be sweeter than to learn of God’s providence, to enter into his shrine and look into the mind of the Creator, to listen to the Lord’s words at which the wise of this world laugh, but which really are full of spiritual teaching? (Epistle to Paula, 30.13)
Pope Francis and St. Jerome are telling us how deeply the Scriptures can touch our hearts. They are telling us that when we read Scripture and meditate upon it prayerfully, we begin to see Jesus as the pearl of great price and the path for our lives (Matthew 13:46; Psalm 119:105). We experience a longing in our hearts to stay close to Jesus no matter the cost. All because the Holy Spirit has taken our “head knowledge”—our insights into God—and filled them with his grace. What was once in our minds has moved into our hearts, and it has given us the joy of knowing Jesus, the peace of experiencing his salvation, and a desire to love God in return for everything he has done for us.
God loves to speak to us. He loves to reveal his truth, confirm his love, and teach us his ways. May we never tire of listening for his voice and receiving his revelation!