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The Spiritual Life in the Bible
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
For the opening conference of our retreat I thought I should explain what our retreat will be all about. I am calling it a Scriptural Retreat or the Spiritual Life in the Bible. In our opening conference I would like to briefly explain what we plan to cover during the retreat. Then while we are following this message, we should ask ourselves how we can benefit from making a retreat, on the revealed word of God in the Bible. What is the plan? We shall look during the retreat at what I call the master spiritual themes of the Bible. There wont be too many, approximately one each day and then in each of the conferences during the day we will elaborate, explain and especially see how the teaching of Sacred Scripture applies to our spiritual lives. The larger themes therefore will have a number of subdivisions to touch on other aspects of our spiritual lives.
Why take this approach? First of all because Sacred Scripture is co-equal with Sacred Tradition as the source of divine revelation. In other words, unlike any other kind of writing the Bible has as its principal author God Himself. Surely we want to know what God tells us about the spiritual life. Moreover, and very practically, our spiritual life will be only as strong as our faith and our faith is faith in Gods revealed words found co-equally in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Every insight, every increase of understanding that we get of those revealed biblical words strengthens and deepens our foundation for the spiritual life. Whenever we talk as we so often do about deepening our faith in order to strengthen our union with God I dare say, most of us do not so often ask ourselves what deepening the faith means. Does it mean that our faith becomes two feet deeper?
Deepening our faith principally means growing in our understanding of what we believe. Of course comprehensive understanding of the mysteries is reserved to God alone. That is one reason why heaven is eternal. Throughout eternity we shall grow in our understanding of what on earth we believe. And the popular expression for growing in the understanding of our faith is deeping our faith.
Why then make a scriptural retreat? So we might better understand what we already believe. We keep asking why. Why should we better understand Gods revealed word in the Bible? For the best of reasons, because we are so constantly and frequently in contact with the Bible. It is part of the Eucharistic liturgy. It is the principal content of the Divine Office. It is in all the spiritual masters of the Church the Bible is the principal object of our meditation.
Prayerful reflection. My favorite definition of contemplation is beholding the truth with love. The truth whom we know is God incarnate. He is known only if we can look at Him and not have to keep cerebrating or reasoning, but as one person looks at another whom he or she loves. You understand someone only in the measure that you can look at a person whom you love and enjoy the experience.
But to have the experience of knowing God we must prepare ourselves. Hence a retreat like this.
Finally and at greatest length in this opening conference which we are calling a scriptural retreat we ask ourselves how, how we are to benefit from reflecting on Gods revealed word in Sacred Scripture in order to benefit not only in the short time of a retreat but into our lives on earth and in fact into eternity.
We begin by reminding ourselves that the Bible is the revealed word of God. We are not only to believe in God with our mind. Of course we believe with our minds, but we are to put into practice first with our wills and then with our whole beings. In other words Gods revealed truth in Sacred Scripture is not only to be grasped or even as we are stressing understood with the mind. It is to be lived, lived out at great cost to ourselves.
I would like to make certain practical recommendations on how to benefit from reflecting on Gods revealed word in the Bible so that our spiritual life will be deepened. First I would recommend during the retreat and afterwards to honestly try with Gods grace to understand the meaning of whatever we read or whatever we hear, whatever we reflect or meditate on in Sacred Scripture. The basic hope that I have as the fruit of this retreat is that until the Lord calls us into that eternity, we shall never merely hear or read Sacred Scripture but sincerely try to understand what we have heard or read.
I dare say most of us seldom if ever asked ourselves what do we do when we understand. We stand under that which our mind accepts and make that which we stand under or understand as the principle and foundation of our lives. Let us try never to be satisfied with the biblical words we hear or read but try as much as we can to penetrate into their revealed inspired meaning. All I can tell you is that your spiritual life will change drastically for the better as you honestly try to get beyond the surface of the words of Sacred Scripture and penetrate into what God is telling you.
Second recommendation. I hope that as a result of this retreat we will all know better where to find what we need, when we need it, certain graces from God to enlighten us about His will. Our daily prayer has been and I dare say will be asking God, Lord help me.
When we are asking God for His help what are we mainly requesting? You may be surprised. The principal help we seek is not strength for the will, though God knows we need it. The principal help we need is light for the mind. And where can we find this light for the mind? Mainly in Gods revealed word in Sacred Scripture.
Whatever else will be the fruit of this retreat, I sincerely hope you will start using the Bible in a way that perhaps you had never done before: to find there in Gods revealed words the light you need to know His will and how to do it. Some of the most saintly souls that I have dealt with as a priest have been those who found in Sacred Scripture an exhaustless treasury of divine grace enlightening their minds as only God, who is the author of the Bible, can teach us. It is no coincidence, it is not chance but part of Gods providence that our lives should light on just this passage or that we hear just these words in the Bible at this time. God knows what we need every moment of our lives, and He uses Sacred Scripture to teach us what we need at the very moment that we need it. May I therefore suggest. No I am recommending that you get into the habit of using Sacred Scripture as your daily source of meditation.
Saint Thomas Aquinas does not hesitate speaking of Sacred Scripture as a kind of sacrament. You know what the essence of a sacrament is. A sacrament is that which confers the grace which the sacrament signifies. God knows exactly what we need every moment of our lives. He uses the Bible to teach us what we need to know every time we open the Scriptures. What am I saying? He wants to teach us whatever we need to know provided we use what I am calling the sacramental revealed word of God as our daily source of enlightenment for the mind and of inspiration for the will.
I may have said this to you before. But important things are worth repeating. I strongly recommend as one of the results of this retreat that you decide to memorize certain parts of the Old and New Testaments. I want to think the Holy Spirit would be specially pleased if you even decided what parts of the Bible you will memorize. Over the years one of my favorite Lenten mortifications has been memorizing long parts of the Bible.
Pray the Scriptures. What am I saying? Use the Scriptures and you do not always need have to have the text in front of you. In fact until the late fifteenth century, before moveable type was discovered, people just did not have a copy of the Bible, or family Bibles on the shelf. There might be a copy of the Scriptures in church next to a reading stand and the manuscript was chained down, for the obvious reason that the Bibles were all priceless handwritten manuscripts.
Over the centuries, listen to this, consecrated souls might memorize the Bible, and in monastic communities it was not unusual for the monks and nuns to know not just some rare portion but many who knew the New Testament by heart. Frankly they had to, by quoting in Gods presence favorite passages over the years, in the many hours they spent in reciting the Divine Office. No acts of adoration, of gratitude, of sorrow for sins and of asking God for what you need to know are more pleasing to Him than using the inspired words of Sacred Scripture.
My final recommendation. I recommend jotting down, even daily, the insights you receive from God and from your prayerful meditation on or reflective prayer in using the Scriptures. During my own two year novitiate when I entered the Society of Jesus this was our rule. One hour of meditation, before Mass each morning, then we went to Mass, had breakfast, at the sound of a bell for fifteen minutes after breakfast jotted down the insights which the Holy Spirit gave us during our meditation on the Scriptures.
All I can tell you is that I would not be here speaking to you now unless, thank God, over the years what I am recommending to you I have been doing myself.
I thought I would end with a short quotation from the dialogue of Saint Catherine of Sienna. This is Our Lord speaking to Catherine. She is complaining about those who read the Scriptures but seem to get nothing out of them, Christ has an explanation. Let me show you, He tells Catherine, how dark these people are. Holy Scripture is light by itself. So many of my chosen ones, especially priests and religious, would draw from it the supernatural light that I want to give them, provided they read the Scriptures properly disposed. Christ goes on, those who read the Scriptures or may even know them by heart. They may be biblical exegetes but these wretches Christ calls them neither see nor understand anything but the outer shell, the letter of Sacred Scriptures. Why? Because of their bloated pride and lust. No one but a mystic would dare write those words. People who are either proud or lustful read the Scriptures and get nothing from them. Why? Because their spiritual taste is disordered, corrupted by selfish love and pride.
We close our first conference. During this retreat I trust I will share it with you some useful insights on how to profit from Sacred Scripture in the spiritual life but underlying everything we said and implying in every recommendation we make is this presupposition. Sure the Bible is Gods revealed word, sure it is the Holy Spirit speaking but we shall benefit from the light He shares and derive the strength He offers only if we use holy writ properly disposed. It may be the last recommendation you would expect me to make. And of myself I doubt if I would have made it, at least not in these words. The only one who derives the benefit that God intends to give us through His inspired word are those who are truly humble and chaste. Chaste in body, humble in spirit.
Dear Lord what treasure is hidden to the chaste and humble of heart in your revealed wisdom. Dear Savior give us the grace to use the Scriptures properly disposed. Teach us dear Jesus that only the chaste and the humble on earth will learn your secret. And only they in eternity will enjoy your presence. Amen.
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