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.”
This is all quite impressive, but in our heavenly Father’s mind, this “formation” aspect of Scripture is just the beginning of what he wants to do through his word. God didn’t create us simply to be upright people with well-ordered lives. He didn’t intend the Bible to be just a rule book to guide us while he watched from afar. He wants to have a relationship with us. He wants to speak to us here and now—and he does it through Scripture.
Unlike any other book ever written, the Bible is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Scripture has the power to bring God himself into our lives. Listen, for instance, to Moses as he addresses the Israelites just as they are about to enter the Promised Land. He tells them that the word of God . . .
is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
God has written his words in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), and every time we seek his voice in Scripture, our hearts 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.”
Many centuries after Moses exhorted the Israelites, one of the psalmists reminded his people about Israel’s checkered history during their desert wanderings:
O that today you would listen to God’s voice! Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me. (Psalm 95:7-9)
God had spoken clearly and dramatically to their ancestors on Mount Sinai centuries earlier, and yet this psalmist seems to take it for granted that God wanted to speak to them again “today,” and every day. 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.
So how do we hear God’s voice today? What can we do to ensure that we come out of prayer or Mass and say with great confidence: “God spoke to me today”? To find an answer, we need look no further than the Book of Psalms, the Bible’s own guide to prayer. At its very outset—the first two verses of the first psalm itself—we see a recipe for hearing God and knowing the blessings of his presence:
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. (Psalm 1:1-2)
The key to hearing God speak to us in Scripture is the art of meditation. It is found in the practice of reading, studying, and dwelling prayerfully on a passage from Scripture until we hear God speaking to us personally through those words.
While it may seem at first as if meditation is free flowing and without any form, experience shows that we do better with a set method or approach to keep us from unfocused wool gathering. Don’t assume that you can meditate on Scriptures when you’re driving your car, running errands, or taking a jog in the park. The more you focus your attention on God, the easier it will be 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.
Whatever passage you choose, be careful not to make it too long. The goal of meditation is not to memorize or examine a part of Scripture but to listen to God speak to your heart. And for that, less is more. Many people choose one of the readings from the daily liturgy. Others choose to work slowly through a gospel or a New Testament letter.
Once you have gathered your thoughts and calmed your mind, go ahead and read the passage you have chosen. Take your time. Be deliberate and careful in your reading. 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 a commentary or your Bible’s notes for help. But 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 still and listen for God’s voice. Listen for any impression that these words make. Are they stirring your heart with hope? Are they pointing out an area of darkness that you need to bring into the light of Confession? Are they comforting you or encouraging you or filling you with a sense of gratitude and love? Are they moving you to take some kind of action, whether in dealing with a habit of your own or in helping you with a close relationship?
No matter what God 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, humility, and love. It comes only as we calm our racing minds and wait to hear what God wants to tell us.
In his 1893 encyclical letter, Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo XIII wrote, “Sacred Scripture is not like other books. Dictated by the Holy Spirit, it contains things of the deepest importance, which in many instances are most difficult and obscure. To understand and explain such things there is always required the ‘coming’ of the same Holy Spirit; that is to say, his light and his grace” (5).
With these words, Pope Leo taught that when the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and reveals the truths of God, this revelation has the power to change us. The “light and grace” of God open our minds and our hearts to his presence and help us to see him in a new and awe-inspiring light. As we meditate on Scripture, the Spirit gives us a glimpse of God as he truly is: all-powerful; absolutely holy; and perfectly wise, loving, and just.
St. Jerome, one of the Church’s greatest Scripture scholars, described his experience of the Holy Spirit in Scripture this 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)
For our part, 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 heart 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, giving 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.
Brothers and sisters, God loves to speak to the deepest part of our hearts. 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!