ON EATING AND DRINKING THE WORD OF GOD
St. Caesarius of Arles, has a piece on "On Eating and Drinking the Word of God".
"For as the cows wander through the fields and the meadows and go through vineyards and olive groves and from the leaves and grass they graze on provide milk for the calves; so ministers assiduously reading the Word of God on the wide hills of the Scriptures should from the herbage they gather provide spiritual milk for their children... Not alone do cows seek out their young calves, but these also come running to them and often so buffet them on the udders with their eager heads, that, at times, if the calves are big they seem to lift their mothers from the ground. But this the mothers contentedly suffer; for they desire to see their calves grow strong".
This would seem a perfect if not very elegant picture of how we should read the scriptures: indiscriminate eaters, trampling down vineyards and olive groves, making a nuisance of ourselves to get at true nourishment. But then allowing ourselves to be robbed of the fruits even it this meant being buffeted and battered in the process. It is interesting that the "indiscriminate eating" referred to in the passage is indiscriminate eating "on the hills of Scripture".
There is a real danger in our approach to the Word of God as we become selective in what we take from the Scriptures and work from a censored version of the Bible, or pick only passages which present the "in" theology of the present moment. We need to sally forth from time to time into the highways and the byways of the Bible and sample the more unattractive sides of it. How often have I opened a passage and said that this surely has no relevance for today, only to find in teaching, or at a prayer meeting, that it was the very text needed to open up whole new vistas to us. The truth can be revealed to us through the most unlikely channels and in the most unlikely places and we need to be alert to its appearance where we least expect it.
The Word "Flushes us out"
But for this to happen we need to chew thoroughly on the Word of God ourselves. It is only the grasses which have been turned into milk, after all, which are of any use to the calves. This can sometimes be a painful process indeed as we come to know the pruning effect of the Word (cf. John.15:2). Like the scroll the seer of the Book of Revelation was asked to eat, the Word of God can be as sweet as honey in the mouth but sour in the stomach (cf. Rev.10:8-11). It can indeed be a "two-edged sword, dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow" (Heb. 4:12) so that it cuts away our selfishness.
"What is actually happening? In the course of listening to God's Word, either with others or in my private reading, I have suddenly been struck by a particular saying. My heart has been wounded, punctured by this Word. And now I cannot cast this Word off any more. It gives me pause. I dwell upon it, stand guard over it. I take it and repeat it slowly in the silence of my heart, I 'rock' it to and fro in this interior region of myself, I 'ruminate' upon it, 'chew it over', I let it soak right into my heart. It amounts quite literally to a 'flushing out' of the heart".
At the present time there is a great increase in the use of the Bible and a proliferation of commentaries and books of all kinds on it. It is true that the reading of the Scriptures must be solidly based on the literal meaning of the text. We cannot understand what the Word of God is saying in the here and now unless we know the historical context and forms of literature through which the human authors expressed that Word in the first place. Today, as never before, the literal meaning of the text is wide open before us. But precisely because this is so we can be tempted to stop there. There is a beautiful Jewish story told about an old Rabbi who had a very promising young student of the Scriptures. One day the student came to him with an air of great achievement on his face. "Rabbi", he said, "I have been right through the Bible". "That's all very well, my son", replied the Rabbi, "But has the Bible been through you?"
I think we need to discover again the spiritual meaning of the text which was so much to the fore in the time of the early Fathers and in medieval times. There is probably no need to revive the subdivisions of the spiritual sense of which they were so fond: the allegorical, the tropological and the anagogical senses. But we would greatly benefit from a renewed interest in the truths behind these subdivisions, namely: the truth to be believed, the truth to be done and the truth to be hoped for. We receive "information" about God and his ways with humanity from the Scriptures but, more importantly, we come to the Bible to be more and more "formed" as God's children and to receive the promise of his life with us.
Whether we sit alone at the Lord's feet then, Like Mary of Bethany, or share in the experiences of others in a group sharing of the Scriptures, our pondering of the Word should lead us more and more into the mind of God for the world today. It should help us to think with his thoughts; to have our hearts beating in tune with his will. It is from out of this space that we can speak a word which is his and not our own. It is a function of the Spirit to lead us to the table of the Word and to make us drink at the fountain of living water. One of Catherine of Siena's names for the Spirit was that of "Waiter": in the "Dialogue" she has the Father say: "I am their table, my Son is their food and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from me, the Father, and from the Son, waits on them." Being held as we are at the table of God's love, we gradually take on the mind of Christ (Phil 2:1-11) and are able to pass on to the world his way of acting.
Word in action
This involves not mere talk but a strength which issues in the type of action which any given situation demands from us. The words Jesus spoke were not mere empty sounds. They were efficacious in action. It is interesting to note that when Mark's Gospel reports Jesus as "teaching" the people, Matthew, in precisely the same incident each time, reports him as "healing" (cf. Mt.14:14/Mk.6:34; Mt.19:2/Mark. 10:1b; Mt.21:14/Mk.11:17-19). His words were not just empty words; he spoke with a power which set free. For example, in the episode of the man with the withered hand (Mk.3:1-6), Jesus commanded the man to do the one thing he could not do with a withered hand: stretch it out. But the spoken authoritative word of Jesus cut through this impossibility. He was the new place where the dynamic activity of God was present in the world.
Others too know the power of the efficacious word coming from a deep pondering on the Word. When spoken to themselves and to others, it could bring about the impossible. Thomas Aquinas (in his meditation on 1 Cor.2:4) suggests that the preachers of the Gospel should preach as Jesus did, confirming their message either through healings and miracles, or living such a holy life that it could be explained only by the power of the spirit.
If this seems far from many of us, we have all at least experienced times when words of ours have given power, consolation, encouragement, correction, healing or whatever, way beyond anything we could do by ourselves. To become more consistent in our openness to such possibilities, perhaps what we need is a renewed determination to feed at the table of God's Word and to drink of its wisdom so that we can become the prophetic people our times so desperately need.
“On Eating and Drinking the Word of God” first appeared in Dominican Ashram, June 1983