'A Kneeling Exegesis' :Encountering God in His Word:
Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
"Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by sacred Scripture. For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life"
"Dei Verbum" (On the Word of God), Second Vatican Council, Paragraph 21
I recently read a report concerning an ecumenical gathering of Scripture scholars and academics that was held in Rome at the Pontifical Biblical Institute called the "Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar". The group describes itself as being "composed of Biblical scholars and other academics who seek a "kneeling exegesis" a combination of rigorous academic investigation with deep faith in the Bible as the revealed Word of God."
I so loved the phrase that I was inspired to use it as a title for this article in which I will seek to encourage my readers to fall in love with the Word of God. News of the meeting was quite encouraging to me. It reflects a promising trend, a return, or better yet, a leap forward; to an approach to the Bible in contemporary theological circles that is much more akin to the approach of the early fathers of the unified Christian Church; an approach that is rooted in faith.
I am not a scripture scholar. However, I am a scripture lover. Since my teenage return to practicing my faith, the scriptures have formed the foundation for my relationship with the One whom they reveal. I have several Bibles that are so worn they are almost comical in their appearance. When one looks inside, the copious highlighting covers so much of the text that it appears the original page was yellow. Over the years that I have spent working ecumenically, I have taken delight in the reactions of some of my evangelical Protestant friends who seem surprised that a Catholic would have such a worn Bible.
Yet, if one understands the Catholic approach to scripture (which is also the Orthodox approach) one should not be surprised. The Bible lies at the very heart of the Churches worship, faith and life because it reveals the face of God. The words of the Bible put a praying reader in relationship with Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, through whom we are brought into communion with the Trinitarian God. Thus all the baptized faithful are called into an ever deepening encounter with God through the Sacred Scriptures. Let me share with you some of my thoughts concerning the Bible, and how we can grow in our relationship with the Lord through developing a "kneeling exegesis."
The Book of the Church
The Bible is the "Book of the Church." Christianity is never about simply "me and Jesus". If anything, it is about me in Jesus. We live our lives now as a part of His Body, the Church. Catholics and Orthodox rightly emphasize that to belong to Jesus is to belong to His Church. God did not throw a book out of heaven; He came among us as the Word become Flesh. Through the Incarnation, life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ- and through the working of the Holy Spirit - a new creation has begun.
The Church is not an organizational afterthought that we all put together so that we have a place to study the Bible together and worship. It is the very Body of Christ, the seed of the kingdom that is coming, the plan of God revealed, a new family into which we are reborn through the womb that is the Baptismal font. The Lords' presence continues in His Body, the Church, which is a communion of all the faithful with the Lord. He gave the sacred text to those who are His own in this world by giving it to the Church, the home of those who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and become sons (and daughters) in the Son.
God has entrusted His Word to this Church, this new people who were born from the water and blood that flowed from the wounded side of Jesus Christ. The Bible, the great treasury of His written word, is a gift to this Church. At first it was received by the early Church in the form of the Old Testament books, the Gospels and the letters of the apostles that were "circulated" (that is what the word "encyclical" means) among the early Christian communities. Later, what we have now call the "Bible" was compiled in the "Canon" (the word means "measuring stick"), by the early Church in Council, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This complete text, discerned as to its final content within the Church, is now given to and for the Church. It is meant to govern her life and worship. It is the guide for her continuing mission to carry forward the redemptive work of Jesus on earth as His Body, until He comes again.
It is also, for every Christian, as a son or daughter of that Church, an invitation into an ongoing and ever deepening encounter with God.
For the individual Christian, the Bible is not a formula to be used to obtain some perceived individual "success" in life, but rather a love letter, an invitation from a living God into a relationship with Him, and, in Him with others. It is not some-thing to be used by us, but rather it reveals "Someone", who is to be loved, adored and worshipped. In the words of St. Paul to his disciple Timothy, Scripture is inspired, which in the Greek literally means "God-breathed". It is filled with the very breath, the life of God. This kind of relational approach to the Sacred Scripture is what I call in this essay the way of encounter.
In his letter to Timothy who led the struggling Church of Ephesus, the Apostle Paul reminded him that "... from infancy you have known (the) sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:15-16).
Timothy had a relationship with the Scriptures because He had an intimate loving relationship with the Lord whom they reveal. In short, He had real faith! This allowed the Lord to continue his work within and through him. If we want to understand the Bible and bear its fruit in our lives, we must grow in the same kind of faith that Timothy had. This faith will grow in us as we study the words of Scripture. However, we must also approach the study of the Scriptures in and with faith. The two are inseparable. I believe that this simple but essential insight is part of what is meant by the term used by these Scripture scholars a "kneeling exegesis." It refers to a study of the sacred text that begins with, proceeds through and ends in faith. Let me now share with my readers some of my own experience.
My Journey home
I was a teenage hippie. As a young man, I searched for meaning and purpose in my life beyond the emptiness and materialism of the age. My search for truth led me down some strange roads, but eventually they all converged into the Way back to the One who is the "Way, the Truth and the Life", Jesus Christ, and home to the faith of my childhood. One of the first fruits of this encounter was an unquenchable attraction to the Bible. I wanted to continually read it. I also needed some direction on how to grow in my understanding of its meaning for my own life.
In a stop along the road of this journey, I spent nearly two years in a Benedictine Monastery. There, I had the privilege of studying the Fathers of the Church, East and West. I was also introduced to monastic prayer and the ancient Eastern Christian practice called the "Jesus Prayer" or the "Prayer of the Heart". Both of these gifts were given through the instruction and example of a Benedictine Abbott who was himself, a pilgrim on the way. It was also in that monastery that I began what has become an increasingly important and richly fulfilling daily practice of an ancient art of the Christian Church called "Lectio Divina".
This practice, cultivated by Christian Monks, has its roots in the springs of wisdom that are found in the Patristic writings, the treasury of the very early centuries of the Christian Church. The early Christians were Eastern in their approach to the scriptures; they received the sacred texts as a gift and believed that they were a doorway into an ever deepening encounter with the Lord leading into a life of communion with God. This communion was the very meaning and "end", in the philosophical sense of purpose, of human life.
They taught that the Christian vocation was lived as a relationship of love and communion, a "mystery" of faith. The early Christians used this term "mystery" in reference to the faith in order to acknowledge its inexhaustible depth and beauty. They also used the word "mysteries" to refer to what the western Church would later call "Sacraments".
Living the Mystery
The Eastern Christian Church (Orthodox and Catholic) still speaks of the Sacraments as "The Mysteries", from the Greek word "mysterion". It is a word entrenched within Eastern Christian theology. In the Roman Catholic Liturgy we encounter a remnant of this deeper meaning when we hear the priest chant "Let us proclaim the mystery of faith" every Sunday. The word did not refer to what we westerners sometimes think of as some kind of puzzle to be solved. Rather, the early Christians understood the Christian faith as an invitation into an ever deepening relationship of communion with the God who is Mystery. This same God reveals and gives Himself to us in and through Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ we enter into the very Trinitarian communion of love, and, living in Him, we now go into the world to continue His redemptive work until He returns.
The Sacred Scriptures were thus viewed within the context of this communion with the Trinitarian God. This communion begins when we are initiated into the Body of Christ through Baptism. Thus, early Christians did not see themselves as "using" the Scriptures, in the sense that one sometimes encounters today. They received the scriptures as gift. Oh yes, they were used to protect against errant doctrine, to instruct, reprove, evangelize and catechize. However, they were not "used" in some sort of formulaic sense by an individual. Nor did the fathers and leaders of the early Church examine them mechanically in a perceived objectification of the text. Rather, the scriptures were received and read relationally, in communion with God and with His people.
The Sacred words, once received as a gift led Christians into a deeper communion of love with their source, the Living Word of God. Early Scripture scholars were mystics. They did not have an "epistemology", an approach to knowing, that was "infected" by the influence of Rene Descartes or the trajectory borne of the Cartesian approach to knowing. They did not apply some kind of "scientific method" to the Biblical text, in the sense that term is applied to mathematics. Rather, they let the presence of God come to meet them in an encounter with the One who is hidden in the words, the Word who gives Himself as bread to those who feed on His Word. This encounter always presupposed and proceeded from deep prayer.
Because these Early Christians were more influenced by the Jewish approach to knowing -and therefore to "reading" the Sacred Scriptures - they lived as though they really believed that they came to "know" God through them. They prayed in order to open themselves up to His self-revelation. The reading of Scripture was therefore a Way to encounter God. It still can be for each one of us. The practice is a contemplative one, steeped in the dialogue that is prayer. The Christian is invited to approach the Biblical text as actually able to speak to those one who have the ears to hear, the hearts to receive and the desire to plumb its multi-layered beauty because they live in the presence of God.
This ancient practice is kept alive in the Christian monastic tradition, particularly among Benedictines in the West. It is also deeply embedded in the entire Eastern Christian tradition. When I read the writings of the early Fathers of the undivided Christian Church, West and East, I find a beautiful way of exposition of the scriptural text that flows from an intimate relationship with the God who is revealed within the text. The early fathers wrote in an amazing "stream of scriptural consciousness". In their writings they would move from inspired thoughts to actual biblical quotes and back; most often without any reference to the Biblical text. That was because the text was living within them. To use a phrase from my childhood they "knew it by heart." They had an ever deepening relationship with the Lord who is the very source of all that the text reveals.
In this kind of "kneeling exegesis", this way of encountering God in the Bible, one finds a path to the very heart of the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. This approach to the Bible has not been all that common in some of the contemporary exegesis of the West. Instead, it has adapted another approach, though not without some value, which is bent on dissecting, parsing, stretching on a rack and somehow "solving" the text as if it were some kind of puzzle. What the participants in this conference referred to as a "kneeling exegesis", is much more in keeping with the earlier Christian tradition of exegesis. I also believe that its growth within contemporary biblical scholarship is a sign of hope for much needed and authentic biblical scholarship in this millennium.
This way of encountering the Lord in His Word is cultivated. It is a relational way of approaching the Sacred Scriptures. It involves the practice of meeting the Lord in His word and being changed and taught in that encounter. It also informs a rhythmic way of life, steeped in the practice of the presence of God throughout the day. Full participation in the rich and beautiful pattern of the Liturgical life of the Church, filled as it is with the Biblical texts that are arranged for the faithful daily, can help us to develop this kind of rhythm.
This way of loving, giving, receiving and living, of offering ourselves to the Lord, who, offered Himself to us and for us, brings us into contemplation. Contemplatives live in the present moment and find the eternal revealed in a daily relationship of love. They seek to live in the word so that the Word can live in them. This is the essence of the Christian vocation and it beckons us all. Prayerful living opens our eyes to see the "bread on the trail" of our daily lives, left there so that we can find the way to the Fathers house. This Lord who is our Bread knows our real needs more fully than we ever could.
In the prologue to his "rule", the "way of life" that great founder of Western monasticism, Benedict of Nursia offered to guide the monks who walked with him to hear God's words and attend to them with the "ear of our heart." This kind of a relational approach, of loving the scriptures because they bring us into an encounter with the Lord, is cultivated through practice. He writes in His Rule:" What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide - that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom." (1 Thess 2:12).
The steps of this kind of "Lectio Divina" are simple but profoundly deep. Let me quickly mention them as I conclude.
Mother Teresa once wrote: "God is the friend of silence, in that silence he will listen to us; there he will speak to our soul, and there we will hear his voice. The fruit of silence is faith. The fruit of faith is prayer, the fruit of prayer is love, the fruit of love is service and the fruit of service is silence. In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Silence gives us a new way of looking at everything. We need this silence in order to touch souls. God is the friend of silence. His language is silence. 'Be still and know that I am God'."
The first step of Lectio Divina is to "hear" and this is done through "lectio" or reading the biblical text. This kind of reading is not like what one does with a newspaper or a book, or even what many actually do with the Bible. Rather, it is done in the Spirit, in prayerful worship and reverence, in the grace of the encounter, learning to listen in silence. It is done out of prayer, in prayer and for prayer. It is done in a spirit of silence, contemplation and meditation. "Lectio" is listening for that whisper of God for us, this day, that daily bread on the trail of our life.
Then, once we read and hear the text, we meditate on that word or passage, realizing that the very breath of God is in that wonderful bread of Life. This is why I love to remind modern Christians that the Greek word for "inspiration" actually means, "God-Breathed". The same breath through which God breathed His life into Adam, that same breath that was breathed by Jesus Christ, after His Resurrection, upon His disciples, that same breath, is present in this wonderful treasure of His written word.
When we meditate upon the word we can breathe in the very life of God.
Next, in relationship with the word we have read and meditated upon, we pray. We converse with the Lord. We offer ourselves to God, pouring ourselves out, with absolute honesty, holding nothing back. We consecrate ourselves, setting ourselves aside and telling the Lord that He is our all in all, our love, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. We make ourselves transparent and honest, offering our pain, our brokenness, our failings; we give ourselves to the One who has given Himself to us. We enter into a holy exchange.
Then contemplation begins.
In love with God, filled with His word, we now rest in His presence, like the beloved disciple John did at the table, placing our heads on the Lords chest, overjoyed to be with Jesus. Our intimacy with the Lord is a relationship where words are no longer even necessary. Nothing needs to be said because we are now in the loving embrace of the Living God. In Him we are changed, converted, transformed by love, taught, and re-awakened.
We have been given a treasure from heaven in the Word of God, the Bible. How we approach reading, receiving, hearing, studying and being formed by that Word is somewhat dependent upon us. Even while we are reading, studying or praying the Scriptures alone, we are living in the communion of the Church. I have tried in these reflections to express some thoughts on how we can encounter God in His word through a "kneeling exegesis", a study that is rooted in a life of prayer.
For me, such a "kneeling exegesis" or "way of encounter" has helped me, over many years, to grow more deeply and profoundly in love with the Word who is made flesh.
Deacon Keith Fournier is a Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia who has been married for thirty years. A graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law, He served as a human rights and constitutional lawyer for twenty five years. He currently serves as the Senior Editor for Catholic Online and is a Contributing Editor of Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports. His latest book, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life", from Thomas Nelson Publishers, will be available in book stores at the end of the month
Third Millennium, LLC
http://www.catholic.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580
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