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Scripture and Prayer

Duncan Mitchell, a member of the Cor et Lumen Christi community, reflects on the importance of Scripture in our life of prayer.

Human life, your life and mine, ultimately consists in coming to know and love God, who desires us and calls us to share His life (Catechism of the Catholic Church:1).

This call finds a most beautiful expression in the Holy Scriptures and draws us into a life of prayer.

When prayer accompanies our reading of the Sacred Scriptures then we can truly enter into a dialogue with God (Dei Verbum:25).

In this article I want to share with you something of the nature of this link between the Scriptures and prayer so that our reading of the Bible might become Spirit-filled and our prayer be fed by the words and revelation of God.

First I want to establish that we are, as it were, made for the Word: the Scriptures provide vital assistance to our prayer so that we can develop greater intimacy with God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Finally, we shall briefly explore how the Bible can provide practical help in our prayer lives and build up our hope and confidence in God. When God sets before his people his Law and the path of life, he reminds them that his word is very near to them, indeed it is already in their hearts and in their mouths (Deuteronomy 30:14).

The great Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar has a wonderful reflection on this relationship. He writes:

“Man was created to be a hearer of the word, and it is in responding to the word that he attains his true dignity. His innermost constitution has been designed for dialogue...Man is a creature with a mystery in his heart that is bigger than himself. He is built like a tabernacle around a most sacred mystery. When God’s word desires to live in him, man does not need first of all to take deliberate action to open his innermost self. It is already there...” Prayer: 23.

Our hearts are made to be tabernacles of the Word of God

Our hearts are made to be tabernacles of the Word of God and, since God has placed this word in our mouths, we can be assured that we are made for dialogue with God.

When we are attentive to the Word, either through reading or listening, then we are truly being ourselves. When we reach out to God in prayer this ‘mystery within our heart’ is able to expand as we open up more of our lives to the action of the Holy Spirit.

The whole of the Bible witnesses to Jesus Christ (Dei Verbum 15, 17), through whom all things were made, and so it is scarcely surprising that we find ourselves and our true dignity within the words of the Scriptures.

Coming to know and imitate Jesus are essential to our vocation as Christians and in our prayer we must meditate upon the life of Jesus and seek to be more like Him. St Jerome reminds us that if we don’t know Christ then we will not be in a position to inherit his promises: “I interpret as I should, following the command of Christ: search the Scriptures, and seek and you shall find...for if, as Paul says, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, and if the man who does not know Scripture does not know the power and wisdom of God, then ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Commentary on Isaiah

When you are reading or listening to the Scriptures, God is breathing his words of life into your minds, hearts and souls

Perhaps much of our experience of powerlessness or failure comes from an absence of knowing Christ. This statement is not meant to be dispiriting or deflating but quite the opposite.

Through reading the Scriptures we come to know Jesus and our prayer can draw on this knowledge to develop greater intimacy with the Lord and help us realise our vocations in a more dynamic way. This is the work of the Spirit who inspires the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16; Dei Verbum:9) and is the one praying within us (Ephesians 6:18). The very word for ‘inspired’ (theopneustos) means literally ‘Godbreathed’.

When you are reading or listening to the Scriptures God is breathing His words of life into your minds, hearts and souls – what an amazing truth and what a power this has to deepen our lives of prayer and bring us more fully into God’s presence.

Indeed, as Jesus tells us, His words are ‘spirit and life’ (John 6:63).

God’s word is ‘swift’ says the psalm (ps 147:15) – it is sent to accomplish God’s purpose and do it in God’s time. The Greek translation of this verse is even more emphatic.

The word used is, ‘drameitai’ and describes the runners in a race and the response of the Father who ‘rushes out’ to meet his prodigal son (Lk 15:20). In Sacred Scripture God is rushing out to meet you and lead you into your inheritance and the forgiveness of your sins.

The Holy Spirit leads us into a profound intimacy with the Father which is able to find expression in Christian prayer. St Paul teaches that when we cry out to the Father our spirit and God’s Spirit are in unity and we proclaim ourselves as sons and daughters of the living God and heirs alongside Christ (Romans 8:15-17).

The Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures, dwells within us uniting us to Christ, calling out to the Father and speaking to us in His own words. Surely, this is why St Ephraim the Syrian said, “Scripture brought me to the gates of paradise and the mind stood in wonder as it entered”.

Mary is completely imbued with the Word of God

Mary is a great example of one who is open to the word. She demonstrates the fruitful relationship between the word of God and prayer most beautifully in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

Writing about how Mary uses words drawn from the Scriptures to praise God, Pope Benedict XVI stated, “Here we see how her thoughts are attuned to the thoughts of God, how her will is one with the will of God. Since Mary is completely imbued with the word of God, she is able to become the Mother of the Word Incarnate” Verbum Domini:282.

Like Mary, through our prayerful way of relating to Scripture, we can treasure the word of God so that it becomes a part of us and brings us into unity with the will of God.

Finally, many of you will be aware that various traditions within the Church have developed methods to assist the faithful in using the Scriptures prayerfully; Lectio Divina and Ignatian prayer are particularly well known. These methods remind us that our prayer is not a Bible Study.

We are not so much seeking after facts about the Scriptures as opening ourselves up to God in prayer. First we read a passage from the Bible so that the word becomes implanted in our minds and hearts.

Next we must meditate upon the Scripture by engaging our thoughts, emotions, imagination and desires (Catechism: 2708).

The purpose of this is for us to “understand the why and how of Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking” (Catechism:2705)

The Bible contains the Words of Life

Such prayerful engagement may be painful or joyous but we should remain with it for as long as it provides nourishment.

This meditation should prompt us to respond in some way: various actions or resolutions may come to mind or provoke the conscience. We should act upon these – the Bible is not a dead letter but contains words of life which means that our lives come to look more like that of Jesus.

Having responded a period of thanksgiving and then more silent contemplation is helpful. Remember how Mary, the sister of Martha, sat at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10).

Jesus commended her for it. Silence ensures that there is some space in us to for God to speak.

Whether our prayer life is very active or more still, the words of Scripture, whether in the liturgy or through private reading, always contain the potential to speak directly into our hearts.

At the mountain of the Transfiguration the Father says, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’ Jesus makes a commitment to us: if we listen to Him and follow his words then we will be secure having built our relationship on solid foundations (Matthew: 7:24-27).

The Scriptures provide food for our lives and prayer a place where we can feed.

Let us together ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’. (Footnotes) 1 Dei Verbum, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. Produced in 1965 this was a document of the Second Vatican Council on the word of God. 2 Verbum Domini.


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