Many saints have written about the Scriptures, but St. Augustine may have summed it up best: “The Holy Scriptures are our letters from home.” Augustine could speak from experience. His own conversion happened after he had heard a voice calling him to “take up and read” the word of God. When Augustine opened up the Bible, his eyes fell on a passage that spoke directly to the immorality of his life. He was cut to the heart and brought to repentance. This “letter from home” changed his entire life. Although our experience may not always be as dramatic as Augustine’s, we too can experience God speaking to us in a personal way through Scripture.
Because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Bible is different from any other book. It can penetrate our hearts and reveal our own inner thoughts and intentions to us (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 11:34). It can pierce through the fog of our cluttered minds and bring us clarity—about ourselves, about God, or about how he wants us to live. Best of all, it can remind us that we belong to God’s family and that our true home is in heaven.
But what good is a letter from home if we never read it? In this article, we want to explore how we can hear God speaking to us through Scripture and identify some tools that will help us understand what he is saying through his word.
Making Space for God’s Word. The first step is really quite simple—read it! Make time to read God’s word every day. But for a variety of reasons, that can be a challenge. Life can be so busy that it’s hard to find a time that works consistently. We might lack the discipline to carve out the time. Or we might need help blocking out interruptions. For some people, reading Scripture early in the morning with a cup of coffee might work best. Others may decide to read in the evening, when everything is quiet. Still others may prefer going to an empty church after dropping children off at school or during their lunch break. Any time works, as long as we do it.
But it’s more than just making the time. In order to hear God speaking to us, we need to sit still and listen. Many concerns and tasks preoccupy us during the day, and these racing thoughts can keep us from receiving God’s messages, even when we are trying to be quiet and prayerful.
Augustine must have struggled with this too. He wrote,
Let us leave a little room for reflection in our lives, room too for silence. Let us look within ourselves and see whether there is some delightful hidden place inside where we can be free of noise and argument. Let us hear the Word of God in stillness, and perhaps we will then come to understand it.
Sometimes we are at a loss for which passage to pray with. There are plenty of options, and all of them are valuable. For example, you might choose to pray with the Mass readings for that day or for the coming Sunday. Or you might take a single Gospel, like Mark, and ponder a few verses each day.
Whatever passage you choose, begin by inviting the Holy Spirit to be with you as you read. Ask him to help you understand the passage and apply it to your life. Sometimes, a word or phrase may stand out to you. Other times, you may find a sense of peace or hope as you read. Or perhaps you will begin to understand something about Jesus in a new way. Remember too that even if you don’t hear anything at all, God is still at work in your heart as you soak up his word.
Tools to Help Us Understand. Mechanics and carpenters often repeat the phrase “Use the right tool for the job.” They know that they can work much more quickly, easily, and effectively if they have the right wrench, saw, or drill. Chefs operate on the same principle when they select just the right knife or saucepan.
When it comes to hearing God in Scripture, we have several tools at our disposal, and each of them can be helpful. Let’s take a look at two of them. You may find one approach easier or more helpful than the other. But whatever you decide, remember that God wants you to succeed! He thirsts for you. He longs to reveal himself through his word and to teach you how to respond to him.
Ignatian Meditation. In the sixteenth century, Spanish priest Ignatius of Loyola began teaching people a more personal way to read Scripture. In this type of prayer, Ignatius—the founder of the Jesuit order—taught people a few steps to help them use their imagination to “fill in” the biblical scenes.
The first step is to collect yourself and invite the Holy Spirit to be with you. Ask him to help you come to know Jesus as you read. This kind of prayer can help you settle your heart and put aside any distractions that might get in the way.
The next step is to read through the passage you have chosen. Read it slowly and carefully. Try to discover the context of the passage—for example, what has led up to the event described and what follows it.
Next, imagine the place where the scene has occurred. What does it look like? What are the sounds and smells? What is the mood of the people and what expressions do they have on their faces? For instance, if you were reading the story of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33), imagine being in the boat yourself. What do the blowing winds and pelting rain feel like on your face? What are the other apostles doing? You could even put yourself in the place of someone in the scene—maybe Peter, or one of the other apostles.
After imagining the scene, begin a conversation with the Lord. If something struck you, tell him about it, or ask him why it moved you. This could lead to insights about your own life. Perhaps Jesus is calling you to “get out of the boat,” but you are afraid he won’t rescue you if you begin sinking. Perhaps you are doubting God’s care for you. Be honest and tell the Lord how you feel.
Finally, sit quietly and listen for his word to you. You might want to write about your experience or share it with someone.
Lectio Divina. We have the desert fathers, mothers, and monks of early Christianity to thank for lectio divina, or “sacred reading” of Scripture. This ancient practice follows five simple steps. And of course, we always begin by asking the Holy Spirit to be with us.
First, read a passage of Scripture slowly and carefully (lectio). Use your Bible’s footnotes or a Catholic commentary if you need help. Next, linger on a sentence or phrase that strikes you, and reflect quietly on the meaning of that passage (meditatio). Let the words sink deeply into your mind. Next, in prayer, talk with God about the passage (oratio). “Lord, how does this verse apply to my life?”
The goal of lectio divina goes beyond reading and understanding God’s word; it’s to bring you in touch with God himself. So these last two steps are crucial. First, in the silence of your heart, rest in God’s presence, contemplating the goodness he has shown you in his word (contemplatio). Then decide how you will respond to what God has shown you (operatio). How will you live out the word that has come alive?
Praying the Psalms. Praying the psalms is one of the earliest practices of praying with Scripture. Among the 150 psalms in the Bible are prayers of lament, thanksgiving, praise, repentance, and petition. These ancient prayers are a treasured part of the Church’s liturgy, but you can also pray them as a way of speaking to God personally, just as you would speak with a friend.
True friendship means that you can be yourself with someone. You aren’t afraid to express yourself. And that’s good to know, because Jesus calls us his friends (John 15:15). So let the psalms guide you as you bring your burdens, your complaints, and your disappointments—as well as your gratitude and joy—to the Lord.
Praying with the psalms works two ways: it not only helps you speak to God, but it also helps you hear his voice. Maybe you sense that God is using a particular verse to tell you about his comfort or encouragement. Or maybe he will give you insight into a troubling situation or help you identify a sin that you need to ask him to forgive. He may even give you greater hope that he is bringing good out of a difficult or tragic situation!
A Strong Bond. Just as every letter you receive from a friend deepens your bond with them, every time you pray with the Scriptures draws you closer to God. Every verse quenches your thirst a little bit more. That’s because you’re not just reading a book; you’re reading a letter from home. And not only that, but the words you read are bringing you life. So as you set aside the time to “take up and read,” be confident that the Holy Spirit will help you to know, ever more deeply, the One who never stops thirsting for you.