George Herbert, the sixteenth century Anglican Priest and Poet wrote about the Country Parson that it was on the words of scripture ‘that he doth both suck and live.’ I like the image of ‘sucking’ the goodness out of the Word. It has echoes of the collect through which we ask God that we might ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ scripture, that by the ‘comfort and inspiration of the Holy Spirit we may attain at last to everlasting life.’ This ‘chewing over’ or turning over of scripture in the mind and heart is also known by the name of ‘lectio divina’ –‘ holy reading’.
It is a reminder to our generation who enjoy the printed word as ever present and ever accessible that the words of Holy Scripture are precious – they are a treasure trove of multi –faceted light filled diamonds of beauty and truth. To return to the digestive theme – they are finely crafted dishes of the rarest and purest ingredients. This leads me to offer some thoughts about reading the Bible.
There are two contrasting ways of placing oneself in the light of God’s Word through Scripture. One is to set about reading large chunks of it; biting off more than one can chew! One suggestion is to take one of the Gospels and read it as one would a short story or a long article, and then do the same with another book of the Bible. This can help in completing and confirming often fragmentary knowledge; it will also lead the reader into seldom visited parts of the Bible. Both of these benefits will be a certain source of light and encouragement. I am not a great advocate of beginning on page one and then ploughing on; that seems to me a slightly unintelligent way to approach scripture – as much of the material in repeated in from Exodus through to Deuteronomy and in the history books. It is far better to take one book and get to know it well. Another good exercise is to get to grips with the Passion Narratives of the Gospels in their entirety, and for reading ‘around’ other scripture passages we hear on a Sunday.
The other way is the masticating way. To begin select a morsel – perhaps from the readings for next Sunday and read through them as if they were a menu. When something appeals (or appals) one’s spiritual appetite carefully select it and then read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it; ‘suck and live’ in it. It need only be a verse or two – something to carry and chew over in the heart and mind. Let it become part of your continuous mental reflection. In this way it will open and deepen your prayer moment by moment. St Ignatius Loyola had good advice about this kind of prayer. He suggests that if such prayer is nourishing one should stay with it until one is ‘satisfied with its goodness’. There is no need to rush at these things; this is not an agenda to complete but a whole menu to savour. It takes time. As the waiter might say ‘enjoy’!