From Elisabeth LeSeur –

September 25, 1899 — No one knows what passes in the profound depths of our soul.  To feel God near, to meditate, to pray, to gather all our deepest thoughts so as to reflect on them more deeply: that is to live the inner life, and this inner life is the supreme joy of life.  But so many moving thoughts and ardent desires and generous resolutions should be translated into deeds, for we are in the midst of human life and a great task lies before us.

It is time for painful effort: one must tear oneself asunder, forsake the realm of thought for that of reality, face action, know that one will either not be understood or be understood wrongly; and that one will perhaps suffer at the hands of humanity for having willed the good of humanity.  We must already have drawn from God an incomparable strength and armed our hearts with patience and love, in order to undertake day by day and hour by hour the work that should belong to every Christian:  the moral and material salvation of his brothers.

(Leseur, Elisabeth. My Spirit Rejoices. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1996.)

Prayer before reading

There are lots of prayers before reading the Scriptures.  I just did a quick Google search, and I found dozens, probably hundreds.  Pick the one you like best.

I talk to God rather plainly, and I say something like, “Father, come to me in the Scriptures, and help me to know You better. Make me tender-hearted to what I learn here, so I might be more fully converted. Amen.”   It varies from day to day.

Point is, do ask God to “open the eyes of your heart” and increase your receptivity to the Message.  The fancy words don’t matter. The intention of the heart does.

Lectio Divina – baby steps

Please, please read through to the end of this post, because I’m about to open with a very controversial statement, here:

I am not a biblical literalist.

The reason for this is simple:  I’m an American, steeped in a culture that still clings to vestiges of Puritan legalism and narrowness of perspective. Puritans left the Church of England because they thought all the splendor retained after the break from Rome was an insult to God — never mind that the Bible is chock full of descriptions of the extravagant beauty associated with worshipping Him. Ignore the beauty and splendor associated with worship of God from time immemorial. We have a purer way … 

The writers of the Bible, however (and remember, the Bible is a collection of Books, not just one Book), were not Puritans. They were Middle Easterners, a people whose culture and manner of speaking and writing are colorful and poetic and… probably quite antithetical in many particulars from our Puritan forebears.

An example of that poetry that no one, not even the most rabid fundamentalist, takes literally is found in the Psalms — 17 and 91, to name two — where God’s love and provision for His people is described through a hen covering her chicks. No one thinks God is a chicken or any other type of bird.  But the first thing a fundamentalist will ask you is whether you take the Bible literally.  He forgets that powerful truths are conveyed through the poetic devices which are never to be taken literally.

Even the anthropomorphic representations of God as a man with hands, feet, eyes, and so on, are metaphor.  But the metaphor gets the point across. That’s what metaphor does.

Much of the biblical narrative is metaphorical.  There are bigger truths to be gained behind the word pictures we read.  So when we read the Bible, we’re going to look at a literal context, yes – but we’re also going to look for a spiritual meaning.  When Israel battles a particular enemy, we may be reading an account of a war that might have actually occurred…  but there’s a spiritual significance to this story, it’s included in the text for our benefit — and our benefit goes far beyond an isolated literal event.  So we’re going to be conscious of that, and we’re going to look for that deeper meaning.

In other words — I may not take the Bible literally, but you can bet your bottom dollar I take it seriously.  Very seriously.

 

Next up: some tips to get more mileage out of your reading.

Meet Your Bible

You’ve got your new Bible, you’re in your favorite chair and you’re ready to get started. Now, I’m going to go on the assumption you’re completely, totally new to this whole business — so many people are wholly unfamiliar with the Bible, these days. If you know more, count your blessings and get to reading. Otherwise..

The Christian Bible is divided into two sections: The Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament tells the history of Creation, the workings of God through His Chosen People, the Hebrews, through their earliest days as a small family, through the various stages of their history, up to about 300 years before the birth of Christ.  The New Testament contains the biographies of Jesus (the Gospels), a history of the very early Church (The Acts of the Apostles), and various letters (Epistles) written to encourage the Church in the various cities where it took a toehold in those earliest days.

The Old Testament contains 46 Books, or 39 if you bought a Protestant Bible.  The difference is a set of works called the “deuterocanon” or the “apocrypha.”  These works were written in a language other than Hebrew, and were eventually ejected from the Hebrew canon for that reason — but they were part of the canon at the time of Jesus’s life, and they are quoted, paraphrased, or alluded to more than 100 times in the New Testament.  In fact, the earliest editions of the King James Bible were required by law to contain these books!  And all Protestant translations contained these books (and sections of a couple of prophetic books still in the Protestant Bibles) until the 1880s!

(A word of warning: the second source, above, is Protestant, and isn’t exactly honest about what motivates or inspires the Catholic Church. But I figure an admission about their own history has to be taken seriously, so I’ve included it.)

Each Testament is divided into Books. You see, the Bible isn’t one Book, it’s a small compact library: history, law, poetry, prophecy, biography, letters…   Each Book has its own author (or authors), and its own purpose.  But there is an overlying theme to the whole: God’s revealing Himself to humankind, and calling them to sanctify themselves to Him.

Take a little while to thumb through your Bible. Begin to get a sense of where things are.  The Book of the Psalms are about as close to the center of the Bible as it’s possible to get.  The histories and Law come before; the prophetic works follow, and the New Testament.  Let your eyes wander through the pages. Read a few verses here and there.  You’ll notice that different books have a different tone or voice.

By the way – those chapter and verse divisions are a relatively new invention. They aren’t perfect markers for divisions of thought and topic in the text, but they do help us keep our place. Just be aware you don’t have to be slavishly confined to them when you read, okay?

So for a couple of days, just relax and browse, and develop a sense of how your Bible is arranged, and what it “sounds” like as you read.

Remember: lectio is not a competitive sport.

 

 

Beginning a Bible Study – Part Two

Part Two: Other Considerations

In Part One, I gave you my ideas about choosing a translation for your personal Bible reading.  But translation is just the first step in the decision-making process. When you get to the bookstore, you’re going to find a vast array of publishing differences within each translation:  print size, cover type, paper thickness…  cost.

You can actually buy a paperback NAB for less than $7.00.  Sounds like quite a deal, doesn’t it? It is… until you discover that the fine newsprint pages tear easily when you turn the pages, and the spine of the book is glued and the whole thing comes apart easily.  Then you’re going to set the thing back on the shelf and what good will that do anyone?

By the same token, unless you’re Daddy Warbucks, you don’t want to run out and spend a couple hundred dollars on your first Bible, either. Even if you were Daddy Warbucks, I wouldn’t recommend throwing money away like that; it’s bad stewardship.

You can get a decently-bound vinyl (imitation leather) cover NAB, or a quality paperback RSV, new, for less than $20.00.  That’s probably a reasonable place to start.

You see, there’s an aesthetic consideration to this business.  You want the Bible to feel good in your hand while you’re holding it. You want it to feel balanced.  You want the cover, whichever you choose, to feel pleasing to your fingertips.  A cheaply-bound Bible will have you clutching at it, trying to prevent it falling to the floor in a scattering of loose pages. A cheap cover feels tacky to the hand. You’ll find yourself fidgeting with it, and that will distract you from reading.  It will create in your subconscious mind an aversion to reading, which defeats the purpose (but the Enemy would delight in).  A quality paper cover or a well-made “imitation leather” cover will feel secure and comfortable as you hold it; you almost won’t notice it at all. And that’s good.

And since no one has money to waste in this day and age, I do recommend going with one of those options while you get started. Once you know you want to stick with a particular translation, you can invest in a quality leather-bound Bible for … a bonded leather Bible RSV, Compact Edition (be warned: SMALL PRINT) can be bought new for less than $30.00. The prices go up from there.  Ignatius Press has a leather-bound RSV that feels like butter, it’s so soft and pliable, and it just drapes in your hand in the most luxurious manner…  Sigh.  I don’t have that one.  I have a mid-sized, standard-print bonded leather RSV and a heavy, real-leather Douay.  They’re not luxurious, but they are very comfortable, and they are standing up well to the hard use I give them.

I also have a leather-bound Compact Douay that I tuck into my suitcase when I travel.  But compact Bibles have small print, and I’m almost at the age of having to abandon that one, even with bifocals (I’m too impatient to hold a magnifying glass).

So – those are the things I think about when recommending a Bible to someone.  Take your time. You don’t have to sneak in and sneak out (one hopes) as if buying a Bible had become an illicit activity. Stand there a minute – or sit, if the store is courteous enough to have chairs – and handle the Bibles.  Read from them – a Psalm, a portion of a Gospel. If you find yourself reluctant to stop once you’ve started, that’s a very good sign you’ve found a good Bible for you, but the whole point here is to feel comfortable, not intimidated by reading.  Okay?

 

Next up: How to read this new Bible.

Beginning a Bible study – Which Bible?

PART ONE:  Choosing a Translation

 

“Which Bible should I buy?”  was a common question I encountered when I was managing the bookstore, five years ago. I still hear it fairly regularly, now.  With several translations and multiple features vying for attention and purchase dollars, there are a lot of choices available, and those choices can be daunting.

The answer is simple, however: you should buy a Bible you will read.

The NAB – the New American Bible – is the official text of the Catholic Church in the U.S.  It was chosen by the USCCB for all our official liturgies – the Mass and the Divine Office.  It is straightforward, plain and direct.

Frankly? I don’t like it. The NAB reminds me, in its plainness and its attempts to be simple, of the TEV (Today’s English version), also known as the Good News Bible, that came out while I was in high school.  Wildly popular for a few months, possibly because of the cute little stick-figure “illustrations” that had been so popular in the New Testament release, known as Good News for Modern Man, it was actually translated from the original language to accommodate a third- to fifth-grade reading level.  A lot of us found it (and the paraphrased Living Bible) a good starting place for Bible study and daily devotional reading…  but we very quickly outgrew it.  By simplifying the translation so rigorously, much of the color and richness of the biblical language were lost, and simultaneously much of the meaning of the Scriptures.

There’a huge difference between these -

Good News Translation (GNT) Revised Standard Version (RSV)
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need. 1 A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want;
2 He lets me rest in fields of green grass and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water. 2 he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters;
3 He gives me new strength. He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised. 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me. Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me
5 You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me; you welcome me as an honored guest and fill my cup to the brim. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.
6 I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life; and your house will be my home as long as I live. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Scripture taken from the Good News Translation – Second Edition, Copyright 1992 by American Bible Society. Used by Permission. (The Good News Translation – The Holy Bible Online) Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. (Revised Standard Version – Holy Bible)

And you can compare these to the NAB:

New American Bible (NAB)

(Change)

Psalm 23

1 A psalm of David. I The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
2 In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me;
3 you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name.
4 Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage.
5 II You set a table before me as my enemies watch; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.

There’s a vast difference between “deepest darkness” (TEV),  “dark valley” (NAB), and “valley of the shadow of death” (RSV), to offer only one example.

Which leads me to the RSV, my comparison text, above.  The RSV gets a lot of criticism from fundamentalists because it is a product of the National Council of Churches, which fundamentalists see as apostate.  Certainly I’m no fan of that organization, myself. But they did a good work on this translation, with representatives from all the major American churches on the editorial and translation boards.

What I like about the RSV is that the language comes much closer to the original languages’ meanings than the NAB. When you read it, you get a better idea what the text actually says. In addition, the RSV was translated not so very long ago, so the language used is not so heightened or “academic” as to be daunting or off-putting.  It’s a good translation, all-around. And it’s one I gravitate towards because the heightened language reminds me that I am encountering something and Someone far above myself. That’s a good thing.

There’s also the Douay-Rheims.  The Douay was translated at the English Catholic colleges in Douai and Rheims, in France, pre-dating the King James Version by roughly 30 years (so much for the assertion that the Catholic Church didn’t want the laity to know the Scriptures!), and it’s been updated on nearly the same schedule.  The very popularly-known KJV, the one that fundamentalist preachers are mistakenly given to claiming is the “1611 King James Bible!” was updated in the 1830s. The Challoner edition of the Douay dates to the 1740s and ’50s, and allows for a modernization of the language (and attention to some highly Latinate portions of the original Douay translations).

The language of the Douay is very heightened, according to the style of the period.  Many people find it off-putting.  As an English major, I am not only comfortable with the Douay, I really, really like it.  When I’m reading for prayer, for lectio divina, it’s the translation I’m more likely to pull off my shelf.

And here’s Psalm 23 in the Douay:

Dominus regit me. God’s spiritual benefits to faithful souls.

[1] A psalm for David. The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing. [2] He hath set me in a place of pasture. He hath brought me up, on the water of refreshment: [3] He hath converted my soul. He hath led me on the paths of justice, for his own name’ s sake. [4] For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me. [5] Thou hast prepared a table before me against them that afflict me. Thou hast anointed my head with oil; and my chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly is it!

[1] Ruleth me: In Hebrew, Is my shepherd, viz., to feed, guide, and govern me.

[6] And thy mercy will follow me all the days of my life. And that I may dwell in the house of the Lord unto length of days.

Quite the difference, eh?

What’s more, the Thomas Nelson Company, publisher of fine Bibles for generations, published a little pamphlet, a few years back, comparing available Bible translations, and scored the Douay highest for accuracy of translation from the original languages!

That might not matter so much to you as it does to many, if you’re only beginning a personal study — or the practice of lectio divina –for the first time. And so I recommend you either pop in to your local bookstore — preferably a Catholic bookstore! — and pull the Bibles off the shelf and browse through them.  See which translations you feel most at home with. Because a Bible you feel daunted by or disappointed in is a Bible you probably won’t read.

Tomorrow: Other considerations (Price, for one)
Thanks to Bible Study Tools for the comparison between TEV and RSV, above — BibleShark for the NAB — and DRBO for the Douay)