No amount of words could ever exhaust the richness of Scripture. Indeed, no amount of words could ever adequately express the beauty and depth found in a single verse of the Bible, manifesting as it does—as a kind of distillation of the divine Mystery as a gift to us, like a drop of dew gathered on the edge of a leaf—the very life and love of God himself expressed and incarnate in human language. It is indeed possible to spend pages and pages on a single passage of the Bible, caught up in the many nuances of meaning, the many rays of light that pour forth from the center, illumining different aspects of life, and magnetizing and drawing us back to the living center. I have tried to find a middle ground between moving too quickly and moving too slowly, between playing and wondering, with abiding stillness before the mystery, in a single passage, and trying to let the mystery remain in silence beyond words, allowing Scripture to simply speak for itself in silence.* I only hope that what I have written will give you little points-of-access, whose trajectory will direct you more deeply into the richness found in Scripture, and into the welcoming embrace of God himself.
For this, in the end, is what matters: precisely that this center is encountered in every verse, indeed in every word, so that the living unity of this center, the living heartbeat of this Love, may speak to us and touch us in the biblical text as a whole. It is this heartbeat, this center, that precisely allows the true simplicity and harmony of divine revelation in the Bible—as well as in the tradition and life and liturgy of the Church—to emerge and to tenderly grasp our hearts. My hope, therefore, has been simply to make contact with this great Mystery again and again, from many different angles, and yet always to draw closer to the convergence-point where all the diverse lines intersect on a single point: in the reconciling Heart of Jesus Christ, in whom we are admitted into the very bosom of the Father, into the innermost life of everlasting intimacy of the Trinity. For this is the center, the inner Reality, that alone gives meaning to all else, without which nothing has meaning, but within which all unseals its authentic beauty, goodness, and truth: that each one of us has been created for one ultimate reason alone, for a gratuitous and playful intimacy with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and with all other persons within the embrace of the Trinity, already in this life and in the eternal consummation of the new creation.
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I take the Church at her word whenever she says that the Bible is the Word of God in human language, and that it is a “living word, piercing to the very division of soul and spirit, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). In other words, the word is God’s own presence among us still, seeing and reading us in the very process in which, in reading it, we seek to see the face of God. And because of this, the Bible is a word not only for the “wise and the learned,” for those who can claim scholarly knowledge or intellectual acumen, but for all, indeed for the littlest and the least, for “those who are like children” (Mt 11:25). In fact, as Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) said, all theology exists not to be enclosed within itself, a kind of exercise in mental self-affirmation or knowledge-as-possession, but rather as a service to the simple faith of the littlest and the least, of the ordinary person, of you and me. Theology exists in order to protect the faith of the simple, and the beauty of precisely this simplicity, this heart-to-heart communion with the God of the little ones.In the last five hundred years, however, theology has become more and more an exclusive practice of those whose profession it is, and it can at times degenerate into a very complicated and un-common-sensical approach to things that can only be known with the heart.
The wellspring of all true theology—in its ancient meaning as lived and spoken by the Fathers of the Church, by Augustine and Jerome and the Gregories, by Bernard and John of the Cross and Bonaventure—is wonder before the mystery. For the word address itself, as I said, to each one of us, and thus we all have the capacity to hear it. How different would our world look if—rather than being so engrossed in pointing out what is wrong with the world or engaging in polemical argument—we devoted ourselves entirely to gazing upon the face of God, contemplating his beauty, and letting this beauty pour forth from this place in all manner of creativity, relationship, word, and action!
Of course, scholarly insights and historical knowledge can aid in protecting, deepening, and unfolding this mystery for all to behold and love. I am not against contemporary methods and insights in the study of Scripture, the so-called “historical-critical method,” nor against “systematic theology” as a specialized field of study. They have their place in this sphere of service to the great mystery and its permeation into the minds and hearts and lives of those whom it addresses. But I have keenly experienced how both can drain the word of its direct, unmediated force, instead interfering either with skeptical prejudice that relegates Jesus to the past, as an historical figure alone, rather than as the ever-living God-made flesh, or with a mesh of concepts and ideas that make the word, and Christianity itself, so specialized that it can only be understood by the trained theologian or scholar (or the “elite” in any other number of ways).
We live, in fact, in a world in which theological ideas are wreaking havok on the unity of the Church and the simplicity and transparency of her faith—whether in the extreme of radical traditionalism or the extreme of relativistic liberalism. In both cases, knowledge is power, knowledge is control, knowledge is possession. But in all truth, knowledge is none of these things; rather, knowledge is vulnerable relationship; knowledge is intimacy with reality as it communicates itself to me. Thus the only adequate disposition before the Word of God, as before reality itself, is a humble, poor, and simple listening of my whole being to what approaches me from the outside. And as I allow it to communicate itself to me, I come to know it, deeply and intimately, not with a knowledge born merely of the head, of discursive reason or argumentation, but of the heart. This attitude allows us to abide “at the heart of the heart” of the Church and of reality, at the core of the mystery of God’s Love given in Christ. This is the expansive center in which all the diverse lines of partial truth converge in the all-enfolding catholic fullness, and from which all flows to illumine and permeate every aspect of life, culture, relationship, and society.
This book, in all of its weakness and limitation, seeks to offer precisely this: an approach to the Word of God that is fueled entirely by virginal receptivity, wonder-filled openness, and obedient docility…by the attitude of Mary, the first and fullest recipient of the Word of God given to humanity. Indeed, the reason that the Word of God, written over two-thousand years ago, can address us with full force today, with complete contemporaniety, is that it lives within the bosom of Mary-Church, the Mother and Bride in whom we are all conceived, born, and carried throughout this life unto the consummation of union with God in eternity. The Church, indeed—realized in her full transparency in the Catholic Church but also present in varying degrees of intensity wherever truth, goodness, and beauty are found—is the true recipient of Scripture, and also its custodian.
God birthed the Church from the opened side of Christ on the Cross and brought her fully to realization in the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, precisely so that we must never bear the terrible burden of reading and interpreting the word and will of God alone, in isolation. Rather, we find ourselves always already held in the certainty and expansiveness of the Church’s understanding of her Bridegroom, which she gives also to us to be our own. And this undertanding is not merely the sum total of the thoughts and reflections of all who have called her Mother and her God their Lord; rather, it is the intimate knowledge that the Bride has of Bridegroom, indeed a participation in Christ’s own knowledge of himself and of the Father, entrusted to humanity and protected, preserved, and unfolded throughout history until the end of time. The Church is the subject of the word, the one whom God addresses; but she is also the one in whom and through whom God addresses us. Thus in letting our littleness be cradled in her immensity, our folly in her wisdom, our frail aspirations in her ardent desire, our weak fidelity in her perfect communion with God, we can be sure of “abiding in the truth” (2 and 3 Jn), and of having, ourselves, a deep and sure and constant communion with the living God, with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who are pleased to communicate to us, in and through the Church in whom we are adopted and sheltered, a full participation in the intimacy of their own divine life.
What an awesome gift! What a loving God! Before such a gift, before such a love that not only communicates itself to us but also gives us the space in which to receive and reciprocate the gift securely, we can only respond with wonder, awe, gratitude, and praise! Indeed, God wishes for us to live our lives in a ceaseless eucharist of thanksgiving for this wondrous gift, to live in the Garden of the Word of Scripture, indeed in the Church who is the custodian of Scripture, yes, of the very life of God itself, in the lighthearted play and unbounded delight that are born from knowing oneself so deeply loved and so totally cared for.
In sum, my words in this book, born of “reading in and with the Church” (and thus being indebted to her for absolutely everything), seek to foster this disposition in the reader, creating a space, in the Garden of the Word and the Church, where, with light and playful and tender hearts, receptive in softness and malleable in surrender, we can receive anew the awesome mystery of God’s love given in Christ, and, rooted and found in this mystery with all love, may come to know the breadth and width and height and depth of the love of God, and be filled, yes, be filled with the utter fullness of God himself (cf. Eph 3:14-21).
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I have experienced from early in my life the fact that the Word of God, even in its written form, is not a mere book of history or a collection of ideas, but rather the external manifestation of a living Person—the eternal Word of the heavenly Father, who in the fullness of time became flesh to espouse the whole of humanity and indeed the entire universe to himself. And while acknowledging and benefiting from what can be useful in theological concepts and historical ideas (for example Greek philosophy was providentially arranged by God to protect biblical revelation from being misconstrued, and protected the true ontological facts of the Incarnation and Redemption, which are not mere myths or spiritualistic signs, but historical facts that change the very nature of reality itself), I am writing as a “little one” for “little ones,” writing simply in order to help, in whatever tiny way, to open up a space at the heart of the Garden of the Word where we can rejoice and play together as little children. My desire and care, therefore, is to encounter him anew, in all the radiance of his beauty, and to play and rejoice and dance in the sheltering embrace of his undying love.
And yet even as I play and rejoice in this Garden of the Word, I am also aware that the written word itself, as beautiful as it is, will not be necessary once the shadows of this life have passed. The words of Saint Augustine come to mind:
Nevertheless, since the days in which we are now living are still dark compared to the light which we shall see, hear what the apostle Peter says. He speaks of a voice that came from the Supreme Glory and said to the Lord Christ: You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. This voice, he says, we heard coming from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain. Because we ourselves were not present there and did not hear the voice from heaven, Peter says to us: And we possess a more certain prophetic word to which you do well to attend, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
When, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ shall come and, as the apostle says, bring to light things hidden in darkness and make plain the secrets of the heart, so that everyone may receive his commendation from God, then lamps will no longer be needed. When that day is at hand, the prophet will not be read to us, the book of the Apostle will not be opened, we shall not require the testimony of John, we shall have no need of the Gospel itself. Therefore all Scriptures will be taken away from us, those Scriptures which in the night of this world burned like lamps so that we might not remain in darkness.
When all these things are removed as no longer necessary for our illumination, and when the men of God by whom they were ministered to us shall themselves together with us behold the true and dear light without such aids, what shall we see? With what shall our minds be nourished? What will give joy to our gaze? Where will that gladness come from which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, which has not even been conceived by the heart of man? What shall we see?
I implore you to live with me and, by believing, to run with me; let us long for our heavenly country, let us sigh for our heavenly home, let us truly feel that here we are strangers. What shall we then see? Let the gospel tell us: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. You will come to the fountain, with whose dew you have already been sprinkled. Instead of the ray of light which was sent through slanting and winding ways into the heart of your darkness, you will see the light itself in all its purity and brightness. It is to see and experience this light that you are now being cleansed. Dearly beloved, John himself says, we are the sons of God, and it has not yet been disclosed what we shall be; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.i
In heaven we will no longer read the Bible, just as we will no longer need the Sacraments, immersed as we will be in a direct and unmediated contact with the very life and love of the Trinity, which will utterly permeate our entire consciousness and the whole of our existence. My intention in writing, therefore, is simply to try to touch the mystery of eternity at the heart of historical time, and to reach out to the ravishing mystery of God’s innermost life which alone gives meaning to all of human life, and which will be our eternal consummation and our everlasting gladness. Thus, I am trying to read the Bible, not so much from the bottom-up, that is, from our earthly perspective trying to gather together the disparate strands through reasoning and thinking, but from the top-down, from the white-hot light of the Trinity’s Love, in which the strands are seen as simple irradiations of this single light expressed in human language and life, and tracing their way back to the undivided source, in which, in the eternal consummation at the end, all will be one within the dance of intimacy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
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I have said, in accord with Saint Augustine, that the written word of God will pass away at the end of time. This is true, indeed, of the entire structural, institutional, and sacramental life of the Church within this world. What will remain then is nothing but the unveiled heart, the vulnerable core of personal love rendered utterly transparent to divine love and intimacy: intimacy with the divine Persons of the Trinity, and the intimacy of every human person in the whole of humanity made one within the divine embrace. Indeed, it is in some way true that, already in this life, we can taste the sweet silence of the Word in the midst of the word, the Truth of which all ideas speak and which gives them their substance; we can know Him, we can know the Three-in-One God who is fullness of Being, of Intimacy, of Love, and who communicates life to all things and gives them meaning, while drawing them all back into the abundance of his own uncreated life.
A question arises from this: Why, if Scripture is passing away, spend so much time reading and trying to understand it? If the word is frail and imperfect, then why should one expend hours meditating upon it, trying to be touched by it, to be affected by it, and to explain it to others? It is true, after all, that the word of God incarnate in Scripture, as beautiful as it may be, is also tied in with the limits of time and space, and with the imperfect historical expression that is possible within our fallen world bound by human frailty and the confines of culture and milieu, etc.
The answer lies precisely in the fact, as I hinted above, that there is a Word within the word—and I don’t mean a kind of Gnostic word for the “great ones,” for the wise and illumined who know how to extract the kernel of “divine knowledge” from the fading appearance of historical truth. I mean rather, in a certain sense, the exact opposite: there is a living and eternal Word present in every single particle of the written word of God, and in every action of God throughout the history recounted in the sacred books of Scripture. And this Word seeks to communicate himself to me, to unveil before the eyes of my heart the ravishing beauty of his face, and to draw me into deep and lasting intimacy with himself. To get in touch with this eternal Word—this word who is the only-begotten Son in the bosom of the Father, and in him with the self-communication of the Father and the Holy Spirit too—to get in touch with this Word is, in the very heart of my meditative contact with the written word, with the ideas, etymology, philosophical underpinnings, and theological currents present in the biblical text, to touch the very throbbing heartbeat of God himself.
This is the true and abiding purpose of reading Scripture. It is not a matter of either-or—either I read Scripture and remain stuck in the realm of empty intellectual knowledge, bound only to the “head” and far from the visceral truth of the heart, or I surpass the written word into the realm of the “heart” and leave behind conscious contact with the written word that God gave to unveil himself to us. (Though it is true that, as one matures in prayer, one may desire to read less and less of Scripture, and simply to rest in abiding silence in the presence of the inexpressible mystery of the Trinity’s love incarnate in Christ and active in our world.) A deepening contact with the living Christ in the text and beyond it does generate within me a kind of holy restlessness, a restlessness to pass into the definitive state that awaits us in heaven, in which the fragments of the divine presence communicated in Scripture give way to the everlasting banquet of perfect consummation. Nonetheless, the word of Scripture, just like the Sacraments and the entire life and teaching of the Church, have been given to us, not to distract us from this eternal homeland, but precisely to give us a foretaste of it, indeed a living-already of the very reality that we will live, in the undimmed and unmediated light of the Trinity, for all eternity.
*Indeed, this has been my intention, but I ask the reader’s generosity, as this book has become the subject of many “digressions” which I thought it important not to restrain. These are trains of thought born of contact with Scripture and the living of the Gospel which, while at first apparently unconnected, lead back to the biblical text anew with deeper insight, understanding, and expansiveness of heart. They are important and helpful (I hope) because it is often those things that we think we already know which can interfere most with a deep listening of heart, or certain apparently unconnected aspects of the text which can prove a kind of key to unlocking deep meanings present within it.
iFrom A Treatise on John, 35.8-9. In the Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings for Tuesday of the Thirty-Fourth Week in Ordinary Time.