Tag Archives: Bible

Required Reading

17 Jul

bible

They may have only those books
which are necessary for their religious exercises.
~ The Rule of St. Francis (1221)

I’m just beginning the earliest stages of formation in the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS), and I had an orientation meeting with Sr. Agnes Marie recently. She walked me and Ray, a fellow newbie, through the process – the different stages of formation, from Inquiry to Candidacy to Profession – and gave us some books. A pile of books, really: A formation manual, a volume of prayers and rituals, and a book entitled, To Live as Francis Lived: A Guide for Secular Franciscans. I’d also dusted off my old Breviary and brought it along – the OFS community prays the Divine Office together when they meet – and had tracked down my copy of the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources as well.

A whole shelf-full of tomes – to follow the poor man of Assisi? Don’t get me wrong: As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too many books – which you’d see right away if you visited our home. Still, it seemed ironic that I’d so much stuff would be required to walk in the way of one who required so little.

It reminds me of a scene in The Mission (1986) – do you know that film? Directed by Roland Joffé, it’s a moving tale of courage and conversion that takes place in the jungles of 18th-century Paraguay. There, the Jesuits have established elaborate mission centers (“Reductions”) where the indigenous Guaraní have the opportunity to learn about Christ and become acclimated to European cultural ways.

To our modern ears, that sounds uncomfortably like Western paternalism and imperial conquest, but there’s more to the story – and it’s based on historical events. The real Jesuit Reductions were certainly oriented to evangelization, but they were also a hedge against oppression. At the time, there was no consensus in Europe regarding slavery, and that extended to the colonies. Thus, the Guaraní and other tribal groups were at risk of enslavement depending on where they dwelled: The Portuguese permitted the practice in their territories, but it was forbidden in Spanish colonies – which is where the Jesuits located their Reductions.

At one point, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a reformed mercenary and slave trader, seeks reconciliation with the Guaraní he’d been persecuting as well as with God. After a profound redemption, Mendoza asks Fr. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) how he can demonstrate his gratitude. Mind you, Fr. Gabriel is a Jesuit priest, someone well familiar with libraries and intense study, so you’d expect at least a couple books in response – maybe a treatise on forgiveness and then a copy of The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius.

But, no. The Jesuit pushes a small Bible across the table to Mendoza, and says, “Read this.” As the scene progresses, you hear a voiceover of De Niro reading St. Paul’s “Love” passage in I Corinthians 13 (from a modified King James Version):

Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

São_Miguel_das_Missões_(Brazil)At the same time, on the screen, De Niro’s character interacts with the Guaraní – conversing with them, laughing and smiling with them. It’s stirring depiction of redemptive love in action.

There’s lots more to be said about this film (by all means, see it if you haven’t!), but the message of this particular scene is clear: The essence of the Faith is found in Sacred Scripture – it’s the one indispensable book. “Ignorance of the Scriptures,” wrote St. Jerome, “is ignorance of Christ” (DV #25), and there’s no doubt that St. Francis would’ve concurred – his own revolutionary conversion was precipitated by hearing the Gospel proclaimed to him afresh.

What’s true for Francis is true for his followers. In a 1956 address, Pope Pius XII called the Secular Franciscans a “school of Christian perfection,” which makes so much sense. We want to become saints ourselves, and the Secular Franciscan Order is like an ongoing seminar in which we study and imitate the way of sanctification that Francis himself followed. And, like any school, this one has required reading – actually, a single text. Here’s how the authors of To Live as Francis Lived put it:

The textbook of that school is the Gospel, the inspired faith-vision written down by the Church in the New Testament. This is primary. Any additions such as the Rule and Constitution are merely attempts to make some practical suggestions about carrying out the gospel in the circumstances of the twenty-first century.

There’s a stark parallel to this in The Imitation of Christ with regards to those who prefer pilgrimages to prayer. Thomas à Kempis editorializes that those who constantly flit around shrines and holy places might be missing out on what will truly benefit their souls:

Often in looking at those memorials men are moved by curiosity and novelty, and very little fruit of amendment is borne away, especially when there is so much careless trifling and so little true contrition. But here in the Sacrament of the Altar, Thou art present altogether, My God, the Man Christ Jesus; where also abundant fruit of eternal life is given to every one soever that receiveth Thee worthily and devoutly.

Why exhaust ourselves making pilgrimages if we’re not already attending to the Real Presence awaiting us in the churches right where we live? Similarly, there’s no point in reading erudite studies on Christology and thick books of theological reflection if we’re not first putting in our time with meeting Him in the written Word itself.

There’s no question that Sr. Agnes knows this – and lives it! Giving us baby Franciscans a pile of books wasn’t meant to frame the formation process as a course of study – by no means! The history and theology, bylaws and ceremony are important, but only supplemental. What is truly needful is an openness to the Holy Spirit and an eagerness for Christ – whom we encounter in Word and Sacrament. St. Francis himself pointed the way, and that Way is laid out for us in Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels. They’re our essential reference, and they’re entitled to a reserved spot on the top of our “to-read” stacks.
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Put Down the Missalette Already!

15 Mar

Songwriters put notes on paper.
That’s not music. You make the music.
~ Guitarist Tommy Tedesco of The Wrecking Crew

Let’s say dreams come true, and I get to see Van Morrison in concert somewhere, somehow, some day. Aw, man, Van-Morrisonit would be so great – a once in a lifetime opportunity! I doubt I’d sleep the night before, and I’d be checking on my ticket every hour or so – to see if it was still there, still real.

Then, the moment would arrive: I’m there in the audience, the instruments are tuning; the microphones are getting the “check, check, one, two” treatment – and it begins. Van kicks off the first song…

…and I drop my eyes to some wireless gadget in my lap, Google the lyrics, and read along as Van is singing on stage.

Right? Noooo, of course not! I’d soak it all in – a total immersion, listening to and watching a great songwriter give voice to his own compositions, himself, in person! They’re songs I mostly know already by heart anyway, but even if I didn’t, why would I waste that exquisite privilege by reading along?

That’s what I think of when I go to church and see folks with their noses in the missalettes – those little booklets in the pew that contain all the readings and parts of the Mass. Worse still is when their eyes are glued to iPhones or other gadgets as they follow along on apps while the lector drones on pointlessly up front.

It’s like every college student’s worst nightmare: A professor that flashes one PowerPoint slide after another, reading them word for word. Then, as if to purposely add insult to injury, he’ll sometimes pass out lecture notes with the slides already on them. Torture.

“The readings from the Word of God are to be listened to reverently by everyone,” the General Instruction explains, “for they are an element of the greatest importance in the Liturgy.” Catch that? Listened to, not scanned, not perused. In the liturgy, the Word of God is meant to be uttered and received. Here’s more from the General Instruction:

When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel.

The lector thus becomChurch-Pulpites another alter Christus, parallel to the priest who will confect the Eucharist and give us Jesus to eat. Dei Verbum makes this parallel quite explicit by insisting that in the Mass, the Church “unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.”

So the lector’s job really is a vital one, but we treat it as if it were purely functional – a task that is required by the rubrics, yet largely irrelevant since we have the text so readily available, usually right there in the pew. “A reading from the First Letter of…,” the lector begins, which ought to put us on the edge of our seats. It’s Christ himself, after all, announcing his Word – the Logos, his very divine Self, enunciated for us, for me!

And yet, what’s our typical response? “Ho-hum (*yawn*), maybe I’ll grab the missalette and read along.”

That’s wacko.

Don’t get me wrong: Reading Scripture for ourselves isn’t bad, and the Church has never asserted anything even close to that – despite the lingering anti-Catholic canard to the contrary. Indeed, there’s no question Gutenberg did all of Christendom a huge favor by inventing the printingannunciation-mid press and making the Bible easily and universally obtainable. Yet personal Bible reading ought to be reserved to times outside of Mass, and particularly around Mass – like, for example, a family coming together to read the Gospel before church, or reflecting on it at home afterwards.

When we’re at Mass, however, we should skip the missalette altogether lest we fall into what is essentially a Protestant approach to the Liturgy of the Word. In keeping with the Reformation precept that everyone should interpret the Bible for himself, many Protestants bring their own Bibles to church and read along as the Scriptures are read. It’s as if they’re checking up on the reader’s accuracy and precision – almost like rabbis peering over the shoulder of a young boy reading the Torah at his bar mitzvah. But if we’re reading, we’re not really listening, and the Liturgy of the Word becomes just another cerebral exercise instead of an incarnated, holistic epiphany.

Sacred Scripture was meant to be received aurally in the liturgy, in the same way that classic iconography depicts the Blessed Mother receiving the Word of GoXIR404562d via a dove entering her ear. In fact, we call that blessed event the Annunciation because it was St. Gabriel’s “announcement” that itself realized the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception. “Come and gaze upon this marvelous feat,” St. Athanasius attests, “the woman conceives through the hearing of her ears!” We’re called to do the same during the readings at Mass: To imitate Our Lady in receiving the Lord through hearing a proclamation, much as her cousin Elizabeth “received” an encounter with Jesus the moment she heard Mary’s greeting at the Visitation.

And the missalettes? Should we ditch them outright? I wouldn’t go that far, for there are circumstances when they do come in handy – and are even necessary. For instance, those who are hearing impaired have to rely on missalettes when there are no sign language interpreters or amplification devices available. Plus, let’s face it, sometimes it’s not easy to understand certain lectors, even if you want to. I know for myself that if I’m up front reading, and I see folks reaching for their missalettes, I automatically assume that I’m doing a lousy job – that my “proclamation” is not “audible and intelligible” as the Catechism says it should be.

Still, I probably shouldn’t be so hard on myself, because I know that many of us grab the missalette and open it up out of habit, regardless of how good the lector is. What I’m suggesting, I suppose, is that we should break that habit, and experience the Liturgy of the Word as it was mehandicappedant to be experienced: Through our ears.

Think of it this way: When you go to your local library branch with an armful of books and videos to return, do you ever hip-bump the blue handicapped button and wait for the door to open automatically – even though you’re not handicapped? I know I do, and that’s not so bad, right? But here’s the bad part: It’s now a habit for me, even when I don’t have an armful of books. Yup, it’s true, I’ll whack that blue button out of sheer laziness, especially if I have a contingent of kids with me. What ought to be an extraordinary, occasional use of an assistive device has become ordinary and routine.

This Lent, why not add to your fasting regimen by abstaining from missalette use completely and trust your lectors to convey the Word of God to you. By the time Easter rolls around, I’m guessing you won’t go back, for you’ll have discovered how much more you can get out of Mass when you truly “hear, contemplate, and do in the celebration” (CCC 1101).
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Ranking God’s Word

28 Sep

Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught,
either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.
~ St. Paul to the Thessalonians

A former student of mine is thinking of becoming a Catholic, and she had a question for me. “I don’t understand the deuterocanonical books,” she ventured. “If the Catholic faith is supposed to be a fulfillment of the Jewish faith, why do Catholics accept those books and the Jews don’t?” She’d done her homework, and was troubled that the seven books and other writings of the deuterocanon had been preserved only in Greek instead of Hebrew like the rest of the Jewish scriptures – which is part of the reason why they were classified, even by Catholics, as a “second” (deutero) canon.

MTE5NTU2MzE2MTcyNDg2MTU1My student went on. “I’m just struggling because there are a lot of references to those books in Church doctrine, but they aren’t considered inspired Scripture. Why did Luther feel those books needed to be taken out?” she asked. “And why are Protestants so against them?”

The short answer sounds petty and mean, but it’s true nonetheless: Luther jettisoned those “extra” Old Testament books – Tobit, Sirach, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the like – because they were inconvenient. The Apocrypha (or, “false writings”), as they came to be known, supported pesky Catholic doctrines that Luther and other reformers wanted to suppress – praying for the dead, for instance, and the intercession of the saints. Here’s John Calvin on the subject:

Add to this, that they provide themselves with new supports when they give full authority to the Apocryphal books. Out of the second of the Maccabees they will prove Purgatory and the worship of saints; out of Tobit satisfactions, exorcisms, and what not. From Ecclesiasticus they will borrow not a little. For from whence could they better draw their dregs?

However, the deuterocanonical literature was (and is) prominent in the liturgy and very familiar to that first generation of Protestant converts, so Luther and company couldn’t very well ignore it altogether. Consequently, those seven “apocryphal” books, along with the Greek portions of Esther and Daniel, were relegated to an appendix in early Protestant translations of the Bible.

Eventually, in the 19th-century sometime, many Protestant Bible publishers starting dropping the appendix altogether, and the modern translations used by most evangelicals today don’t even reference the Apocrypha at all. Thus, the myth is perpetuated that nefarious popes and bishops have gotten away with brazenly foisting a bunch of bogus scripture on the ignorant Catholic masses.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin with, it was Luther and Calvin and the other reformers who did all the foisting. The Old Testament that Christians had been using for 1,500 years had always included the so-called Apocrypha, and there was never a question as to its canonicity. Thus, by selectively editing and streamThomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale_1805_croppedlining their own versions of the Bible according to their sectarian biases (including, in Luther’s case, both Testaments, Old and New), the reformers engaged in a theological con game. To make matters worse, they covered their tracks by pointing fingers at the Catholic Church for “adding” phony texts to the closed canon of Hebrew Sacred Writ.

In this sense, the reformers were anticipating what I call the Twain-Jefferson approach to canonical revisionism. It involves two simple steps.

  • Step one: Identify the parts of Scripture that you find especially onerous or troublesome. Generally, these will be straightforward biblical references that don’t quite square with the doctrine one is championing or the practices one has already embraced. Mark Twain is the modern herald of this half of creative textual reconstruction: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me,” Twain wrote, “it is the parts that I do understand.”
  • Step two: Yank the vexing parts out. It’s what Thomas Jefferson literally did when he took his own Bible and cut out the passages he found offensive – a kind of “scripture by subtraction” in the words of religion professor Stephen Prothero.

The reformers justified their Twain-Jefferson humbug by pointing to the canon of scriptures in use by European Jews during that time, and it did not include those extra Catholic books – case closed! Still unconvinced? Today’s defenders of the reformers’ biblical reshaping will then proceed to throw around historical precedent and references to the first-century Council of Jamnia, but it’s all really smoke and mirrors.

The fact is that the first-century Jewish canon was pretty mutable and there was no universal definitive list of sacred texts. On the other hand, it is indisputable that the version being used by Jesus and the Apostles during that time was the Septuagint – the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures that included Luther’s rejected apocryphal books. SCORE: Deuterocanon – 1; Twain-Jefferson Revisionism – 0.

But this is all beside the point. It’s like an argument about creationism vs. evolution that gets funneled in the direction of whether dinosaurs could’ve been on board Noah’s Ark. Once you’re arguing about that, you’re no longer arguing about the bigger issue of the historicity of those early chapters in Genesis. The parallel red herring here is arguing over the content of the Christian Old Testament canon instead of considering the nature of authority itself and how it’s supposed to work in the church, especially with regards to the Bible.

Jesus - Mat 11,28I mean, even if we can settle what the canon should include, we don’t have the autographs (original documents) from any biblical books anyway. While we affirm the Church’s teaching that all Scripture is inspired and teaches “solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings” (DV 11), there are no absolutes when it comes to the precise content of the Bible.

Can there be any doubt that this is by God’s design? Without the autographs, we are much less tempted to worship a static book instead of the One it reveals to us. Even so, it’s true that we are still encouraged to venerate the Scriptures, but we worship the incarnate Word – and we ought not confuse the two. John the Baptist said as much when he painstakingly distinguished between himself, the announcer, and the actual Christ he was announcing. The Catechism, quoting St. Bernard, offers a further helpful distinction:

The Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word is incarnate and living”.

Anyway, with regards to authority and the canon of Scripture, Mark Shea couldn’t have put it more succinctly than his recent response to a request for a summary of why the deuterocanon should be included in the Bible:

Because the Church in union with Peter, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) granted authority by Christ to loose and bind (Matthew 16:19), says they should be.

Right. The Church says so, and that’s good enough.

For it’s the Church who gives us the Scriptures. It’s the Church who preserves the Scriptures and tells us to turn to them. It’s the Church who bathes us in the Scriptures with the liturgy, day in and day out, constantly watering our souls with God’s Word. Isn’t it a bit bizarre to be challenging the Church with regards to which Scriptures she’s feeding us with? “No, mother,” the infant cries, “not breast milk! I want Ovaltine! Better yet, how about some Sprite!”

Think of it this way. My daughter Margaret and I share an intense devotion to Betty Smith’s remarkable novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s a bittersweet family tale of impoverishment, tragedy, and perseverance, and we often remark how curious it is that Smith’s epic story receives so little attention.

I was rooting around the sale shelf at the public library one day, and I happened upon a paperback with the name “Betty Smith” on the spine. I tookbetty-smith a closer look: Joy in the Morning, a 1963 novel of romance and the struggles of newlyweds, and it was indeed by the same Smith of Tree fame. I snatched it up for Meg.

The other day, Meg thanked me for the book, and asked me to be on the lookout for others by Smith. “It wasn’t nearly as good as Tree,” she said, “and I don’t expect any of her others to be as good. But I want to read everything she wrote because Tree was so wonderful.”

See, she wants to get to know Betty Smith because of what she encountered in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And all we have are her books and other writings; Betty Smith herself is gone.

But Jesus isn’t like that. We have the book, yes, but we have more. We still have the Word himself.

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A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

Off the Grid…kinda’

27 Oct

I suppose this is a sequel of sorts to my post about getting “Off the Grid” and fostering silence in our busy lives. A version of that post appeared on Catholic Exchange, and it generated a response from one “Mugger Malcolmridge.” Here’s Mugger’s comment in full:

Richard, I’m very much in agreement with you regarding the value of silence. But why listen to NPR?

As they used to say on Monty Python, “It’s a fair cop.”

Alright, I admit it: I listen to NPR — lots of it. Diane  Rehm, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Car Talk on the weekends. I also listen to Rush Limbaugh from time to time. And the audio from the PBS NewsHour on WSND in the evenings.

Plus, I read the Wall Street Journal daily. And the South Bend Tribune on the weekends. And The Economist. And The Utne Reader when I can get it. And The Week.

That’s a lot, I know. But then, I’m not a monk. I’m a dad. With a job. I have kids to raise. I vote.

“Mugger” was right to challenge somebody who urges silence and detachment from worldly media noise while quoting stories from NPR and major newspapers. And I’m grateful, of course, that he took the trouble to make any kind of response to my post, positive or negative. (Thanks, Mugger, btw).

But I feel compelled to defend myself: The call to silence and detachment for those of us in the world is a relative one.

Recently, a friend reminded me of a familiar saying attributed to Karl Barth:Barth_Writing

Pray with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other.

Profound, yes, but apparently Barth never actually said those exact words. What he did say, though, was more subtle, and even more profound.

Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.

That’s a quotation lifted from a 1963 interview in Time, and here’s some more:

A theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash.

Barth was suggesting that Christians not only pray with both Bible and newspaper in hand, but also to do theology that way, yet always with an eye toward the Bible first. We need to know and understand the world we inhabit and hope to minister to, true enough. Nevertheless, that knowledge and understanding must be framed and informed by our knowledge and understanding of Divine Revelation.

This is something the Carthusians have always known and practiced, and why I imagine St. Thomas More so readily adopted their spirituality to his busy secular life. On the one hand, the Carthusians are bound by their charism and their Statutes to cut themselves off from things like NPR:

[G]reat abnegation is required, especially of the natural curiosity that men feel about human affairs.

We should not allow our minds to wander through the world in search of news and gossip; on the contrary, our part is to remain hidden in the shelter of the Lord’s presence. We should therefore avoid all secular books or periodicals that could disturb our interior silence.

That’s all well and good, of course, and certainly understandable given their cloistered and rigorously detached vocation. Nevertheless, the Cathusian Statutes continue:

The heart, however, is not narrowed but enlarged by intimacy with God, so that it is able to embrace in him the hopes and difficulties of the world, and the great causes of the Church, of which it is fitting that monks should have some knowledge.

If it’s true that even Carthusian monks should have some knowledge of the world, how much more so those of us who actually live and function in it. And, if I may be so bold, this is especially true for those of us blessed IGS12with children who require guidance and instruction and familiarization regarding the world they themselves will have to inhabit and navigate.

Still, and in deference to Mr. Malcolmridge, it’s true that we Catholics, lay and religious alike, have to be cautious with regards to the degree to which we sully our souls with the things of the world. Here, too, the Carthusians guide our way forward:

Nevertheless our concern for the welfare of men, if it is true, should express itself, not by the satisfying of our curiosity, but by our remaining closely united to Christ. Let each one, therefore, listen to the Spirit within him, and determine what he can admit into his mind without harm to interior converse with God.

No doubt, I listen to my radio more than I need to, and I could probably skip the newspaper from time to time in favor of more time in prayer. In silence.

All true. But it’s a matter of balance, and not complete abstinence. Even the Carthusians, in their solitude, know what’s going on in the world. We do well to follow their example.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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