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Hearing God Speak

On September 30 next year we celebrate and mark the life and death of the great scripture scholar St Jerome. He was a hermit, private secretary to Pope Damasus I and established a monastery in Bethlehem. He is especially well known for his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate – he is a Church Father and a Doctor of the Church.

St Jerome speaks to us about the subject most dear to his heart – the Scriptures, and especially the art of listening to God and hearing him speak to us, one to one, heart to heart, person to person.

For St Jerome the Bible wasn’t a dead book, simply an ancient manuscript, a huge tome gathering dust, a relic or an artefact – no, for him it was the living, breathing, word of God.

Of course, St Jerome understood the Bible this way because the Scriptures say this of themselves. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it so beautifully and eloquently:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13).

To be fair, this text of Scripture from the Letter to the Hebrews is both beautiful and powerful but also overwhelming and a little scary. We don’t tend to think of the Bible as a ‘two-edged sword’ or that it can penetrate deeply into the deepest, darkest recesses of our being, dividing, judging, but also healing and restoring. The Bible should have a warning message on it – something like this: ‘Be careful – if you read the Bible with an open heart, God will speak to you and change your life. You have been warned.’

‘Be careful – if you read the Bible with an open heart, God will speak to you and change your life. You have been warned.’

St Jerome was familiar with St Paul’s advice and exhortation to St Timothy about the Scriptures: ‘From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

For St Jerome, to be ignorant of the Scriptures was to be ignorant of Christ, and he understood the Hebrew Scriptures as being fulfilled in the New Testament. He famously said: ‘Jesus is latent in the Old Testament but patent in the New.’ He taught that prayer was speaking to God but reading the Scriptures was the moment when God speaks to us. He saw the sacred text in terms of water – a stream or ocean or lake – shallow enough for a baby to drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians and scholars to swim and play without ever reaching the bottom. However, at the very heart of the impulse to read the Bible, to study the Scriptures, to devour and feed on them, is God’s grace giving us the wisdom to listen and hear God’s voice. St Jerome was confident that those who seek the Lord in the Scriptures find the Lord in the Scriptures. He said. ‘It is our part to seek, his to grant what we ask, ours to make a beginning, his to bring it to completion, ours to offer what we can, his to finish what we cannot.’

We don’t hear too much these days about the ‘grace of revelation’, but the Bible sheds light on an internal or interior process which enables us to grow in our love and understanding of Scriptures. We encounter the ‘grace of revelation’ at work in two key Scripture readings – Matthew 16 and Ephesians 2. In Matthew 16 we discover St Peter blessed in a way that his own understanding and judgement could never have grasped (flesh and blood) when he received the ‘grace of revelation’ which made him proclaim of Jesus of Nazareth: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ Jesus confirmed that this insight, this revelation, this light, was an anointing from the heavenly Father. This blessing, however, isn’t reserved for St Peter alone – indeed, this gift or grace of revelation is the fruit of our baptism through which we received every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1).

The blessing of God the Father is vital in reading the Scriptures and receiving a grace of revelation. A grace of revelation means that we are given a personal insight or understanding into the Scriptures, God’s plan for our lives, a challenging situation or difficulty we are going through. The key is praying to the Father for this blessing, and God in his mercy has even given us the prayer. We find it in Ephesians 2 and we can make it our own. It is truly a beautiful prayer: ‘I kneel before the Father, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth derive its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.’ (Ephesians 3:14-21).

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith

God speaks to us through a grace of revelation – yes, of course, God speaks in ‘many and varied ways’ (Hebrew 1) – through the course of our days, conincidences (there are no coincidences – just God’s providence), through people, events, circumstances, etc. However, through reading the Bible, opening ourselves up to the living and breathing word of God, the heavenly Father draws near and speaks to us. The Fathers who drew up Dei Verbum, one of the major constitutions of the Second Vatican Council reflecting on this interior process, said: 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. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: ‘For the word of God is living and active’ (Heb. 4:12) and ‘it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified’ (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13). (Dei Verbum 21)

‘The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body’ (21).

  1. ‘Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful’ (22).
  2. ‘…And so the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology’ (24).
  3. ‘Therefore, all the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study, especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word’’ (25).
  4. ‘…Prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for ‘we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying’’ (25).

Make knowledge of the Scriptures your love … Live with them, meditate on them, make them the sole object of your knowledge and inquiries.

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