Column: Have you heard the good word?

by Father Mark Goldasich

Jesuit Father Richard Leonard tells this little tale about nine-year-old Joey who was asked one day about what he’d learned in religion class. “Well, Mom,” said Joey, “our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his engineers build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved.”

“Now, Joey, is that really what you teacher taught you?” his mother asked.

“Well, no, Mom,” replied Joey, “but if I told it the way the teacher did, you’d never believe it!” (Found in Father Richard’s book, “Preaching to the Converted.”)

Sometimes I wonder about the role of the Bible in the prayer lives of Catholics. How many people in the congregation on a typical Sunday morning are like Joey, not believing the Scriptures because they really don’t understand them?

The month of February is filled with celebrations — Black History Month, Candlemas, Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day, Ash Wednesday. It’s also Catholic Press Month. In addition to encouraging people to be faithful readers of Catholic publications, like The Leaven of course, it’s also an excellent time to steer people toward the Catholic book par excellence: the Bible.

Last weekend’s first reading featured Ezra reading and interpreting the book of the law to the people. Presumably, the vast majority of people at that time were illiterate; the only way they could approach the Scriptures was by hearing them read aloud. And it was said the people “listened attentively.”

On a typical Sunday, how attentively do you listen to God’s Word? After Mass, could you name which biblical books the readings that day came from? What value and importance do you place on the Liturgy of the Word at Mass?

I did a sneaky thing at last weekend’s Masses. I asked the lector to read the shorter version of the second reading, where St. Paul describes the body of Christ. During my homily, I talked about the place and importance of the Scriptures at Mass. Then I asked a simple question: “How many of you, when the lector did the shorter version of the second reading, said, ‘Woohoo! That should cut a little time off of Mass today!’” Let’s just say that there was plenty of nervous laughter and sheepish grins all around.

One reason people may not value the Scriptures is that they simply don’t understand them or don’t know exactly how to use them in prayer. Catholic Press Month would be a great time to begin an exploration and study of the Scriptures.

In my column about Christmas gift books, I mentioned one by a former classmate of mine, Stephen Binz, entitled “Conversing with God in Scripture: A Contemporary Approach to Lectio Divina” (Ijamsville, Md.: The Word Among Us Press, 2008; 150 pgs.; $11.95). It’s a short, very accessible, well-written and practical introduction on how to make the Bible a vital part of our prayer life. Binz explains the stages of “lectio divina” or “sacred reading.” Essentially, he reminds us that God has begun a conversation with us through the Bible, and we are called to enter into and continue that conversation.

If you want to try out a very bare bones version of lectio divina, follow these steps:

1. Read the coming Sunday’s Gospel before attending Mass. It’s listed, for example, in the box in Father Mike Stubbs’ column below. (If you don’t own a Bible, this month would be a perfect time to get one.) Take your time reading the passage.

2. Read Father Stubbs’ commentary to dig deeper into the reading.

3. Spend a few moments talking to God about this passage. What are you feeling? What questions do you have? What images come to mind?

4. Stop talking — really — and sit quietly in the presence of God. (This is very hard to do.)

5. Think about how you can put this Scripture passage into practice in your daily life.

The people of the Bible, for the most part, could not read, but were attentive listeners. We’re just the opposite: We can read, but we’re not so good at listening, especially when it comes to God’s word. The practice of lectio divina — reading, pondering, praying, contemplating and living God’s word — can move us from the skepticism of little Joey to a humble and informed belief.

Try it. I think you’ll like it.

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