Bede is an artist who seeks spiritual wisdom in the Holy Bible.
The Value of Illumination
As a college student, I studied in Italy for a semester. One day in Rome, I went on a solitary excursion. My itinerary included the Basilica of Santa Maria del Populo, where I knew there were two masterpieces by the painter Caravaggio: the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter. I had only seen them in books.
Unfortunately, as I entered the particular side chapel, everything was shrouded in deep shadow! The paintings were barely discernable. I was about to lose heart until I drew nearer and saw a coin-operated lighting system. Even though it has been thirty-plus years, the power of that moment cannot be exaggerated. As the spotlights illumined those gigantic panels, these images' brilliant color and force nearly put me flat on the ground.
If light is essential for viewing artwork, how much more so in reading the Holy Bible! Light makes all the difference. Two people may read the same passage and have quite different experiences. What's the difference? Light. How, then, does one gain more light for Scripture study? Here are five possible means:
- Start early
- Pray before reading
- Use a reading schedule
- Use a good commentary
- Hold on to what is good
1. Start Early
For some persons, a busy schedule precludes the possibility of an early morning Bible study. They have to put it off for the evening hours. This is not ideal, in my opinion. By evening, the day's labor and strain can shroud the mind with a dark curtain of weariness. Hence, one may be inclined to put reading off until the next day. This can be bad news for persons following a reading schedule. Before long, everything gets backed up, and the activity is abandoned.
On the other hand, an early morning study is like a fresh breeze. The soul's curtains are wide open, and the mind is more receptive to the light. With a clear mind, there are fewer distractions to contend with, and one may better perceive the Lord's voice.
As St. Augustine says, "When we pray, we speak to God, when we read, God speaks to us." How can one hear the voice of God if preoccupations darken the mind? Hence, the early morning often provides the best conditions, such as peace and quiet, which open wide the curtains.
2. Pray Before Reading
Reading the Bible without first asking for God's help is like walking into a dark forest without a flashlight. Since the Bible is sometimes hard to understand, it is wise to ask for light.
As will be seen ahead, the persons who have best explained the Bible in history were often holy men and women and very close to God. Therefore, it is of great benefit to beg for light before reading. "Every good gift and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change." (James 1:17) So, let us ask persistently.
You can use your own words or a prayer such as this: "O most merciful Redeemer, friend, and brother, illumine my mind that I may I understand the power of these sacred words. May I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more sincerely."
3. Use a Reading Schedule
Using a reading schedule for studying the Bible is of immense value. It provides the necessary discipline and motivation to stick with it. It also gives a sense of orderliness, which comforts the soul. However, there are several factors to consider before choosing a schedule.
First, stay away from one-year schedules! A one-year schedule involves too much pressure, and people often give up—I know from experience. Gradually distilled Scripture passages work best. The mind retains more when there is a sense of relaxation. Tense pressure, as though one were cramming for a final exam, can turn Bible study into an exercise of misery rather than enjoyment.
Hence, a two-year schedule for the whole Bible is ideal. The following two-year schedule is for use with the Catholic Bible, which contains 73 books. It is in chronological order and has a daily reading from the Old and New Testaments. These two-year and three-year schedules are for use with the Protestant Bible, which contains 66 books. However, these latter schedules are not in chronological order, nor do they have a reading from both the Old and New Testaments each day.
Another method is to have an extended schedule for specific books. The ancient art of lectio divina, Latin for "divine reading," involves going through specific books of the Bible at a very slow pace. Abbott Michael Casey, OCSO, from Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia, recommends spending three to six months on simply one book, such as a Gospel or book of the Old Testament. This procedure is bound to produce excellent results, whereby the sacred words are woven deep into the soul.
Here are a few recommended long-term schedules for the Gospels: this schedule goes through the Gospel of St. Matthew in 144 days; this one covers the Gospel of St. Mark in 70 days; this schedule goes through the Gospel of St. Luke in 108 days, and this schedule goes through the Gospel of St. John in 77 days.
4. Use a Good Commentary
Have you ever visited a museum and had the benefit of a guided tour? Then you know how it makes all the difference. The guide points out aspects of art that could not be seen otherwise. In like manner, the Bible may be compared to an immense museum of priceless art. Having a guide to open one's eyes is highly recommended.
In using a commentary, I've often thought, "How in the world did he think of that—that's ingenious!" As mentioned, God often gives certain individuals an abundance of light to understand and explain the Scriptures. They may be saints or simply renowned teachers who were deeply prayerful persons.
I have made use of various Protestant and Catholic commentaries. Both have good aspects, but the very best commentators, in my opinion, are the Church Fathers. They may be compared to superb museum guides who don't simply convey dry facts but who enliven the text with profound insights.
"That seems reasonable but there are so many Church Fathers—which one is best?" Good question. Since there are so many, St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274) did us an enormous favor. He put together a massive compendium of commentaries on the Gospels by the Fathers. It's called the Catena Aurea, or "golden chain." All of these volumes are available in pdf format: commentary on Matthew, commentary on Mark, commentary on Luke, and commentary on John.
As mentioned above, the Fathers ingeniously discovered hidden meanings in apparently trifling details. For example, chapter 4 of John's Gospel contains the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. After the woman becomes convinced that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, she leaves her water jug to share the good news with her townsfolk.
What's the significance of her leaving her water jug? St. Augustine explains,
The circumstance of the woman's leaving her water jug on going away, must not be overlooked. For the water jug signifies the love of this world (i.e., concupiscence), by which men from the dark depth, of which the well is the image . . . draw up pleasure. It was right then, for one who believed in Christ to renounce the world, and, by leaving her water jug, to show that she had parted with worldly desires.
The Catena Aurea is loaded with such insightful observations.
5. Quod Bonum Est Tenete
"Hold on to what is good," says St. Paul (1 Thess. 5:21). What's the point of studying the Bible if I forget everything after an hour or even ten minutes? Consider Jesus' description of the various kinds of soil that receive the seed, that is, the word of God. Some soil is rocky, others are full of weeds, and others are good and supple. Jesus explains, "As for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance." (Luke 8:15) So, how does one "hold on to what is good?" Here are four possible ways:
Rumination: Have you ever seen a cow or deer "chew the cud?" It's a fascinating and complex activity. The food they eat first goes to the rumen, one of the four compartments of their stomach. Later, in a moment of relaxation, they regurgitate the food that's been fermenting in the rumen and chew on it. Thus, they maximize all of the nutrients contained in the food. To "ruminate" on Scripture involves a similar practice whereby one chews on the text and juices out the essential nutrients.
Meditation: One form of meditation involves using the imagination to bring the scene alive. For example, you may meditate on the Storm at the Sea (John 6:16-21) by bringing the scene into your imagination. You hear the howling wind and see the apostles struggling against the waves; it's dark and scary. Then Jesus appears, walking on the waves, and calmly says, "It is I; be not afraid." By contemplating biblical scenes in your imagination, they become part of your soul.
Journaling: Some people find it beneficial to keep a Bible journal. This practice is good because Scripture then assumes more personal meaning. In addition, it's a preferable option to scribbling in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures deserve reverence and shouldn't be marred with jottings. A journal can collect these annotations.
"Take words with you." (Hos 14:2): It's a recommended practice to take a particularly striking phrase or inspiring word from your study of Scripture. This is the essence of holding on to what is good. For example, you may recall the phrase "It is I; be not afraid." (John 6:20). This phrase, repeated through the day, can serve as a lamp for your path.
Fr. Jacinto describes the benefits of reading Scripture in the following video.
Your Word Is a Lamp for my Feet (Psalm 119:105)
Who doesn't feel the world's darkness at times? I sometimes encounter people who are worried or discouraged: "why is there so much injustice?"; "what's going to happen in the future?" Sadly, some people simply give up for lack of light in their lanterns. This great misfortune need not happen. God's word contains an abundance of fuel for even the darkest path. As St. Peter says, "You will do well to be attentive to this [prophetic message] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." (2 Pet 1:19)
Everyone needs this light to journey unto our Home above. Spending time each day in the Bible is a great means to gain this light. May the Lord shine on our path and lead us to his Kingdom!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Bede