Take and Read: Meeting God Through the Scriptures

by Paul Zilonka, C.P.

Paul Zilonka, C.P. with studentWhen St. Augustine of Hippo wrote his mid-life autobiography which he referred to as "Confessions," he spoke of an experience that is not unique to himself, but something repeated day after day all over the world. Augustine admits that he had been resisting the call of God to conversion, especially in his personal struggle with chastity.

While he was wrestling intensely in his heart with his desires, he heard the voice of a child nearby singing lyrics which sounded like "Take it, read it! Take it, read it!" (Book 8) Augustine sensed in these words a personal invitation from God.

After going into his house, Augustine picked up the Scriptures and began to read what we now know as Romans 13:13-14: "....not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh."

Augustine says that from that moment forward his direction was set, conversion took hold. Christ, through the letter of Paul written hundreds of years earlier, had spoken so forcefully to Augustine that peace flooded his heart, giving him courage.

Even allowing from some poetic exaggeration on Augustine's part, this recollection testifies to an experience that is not reserved for the ancient church nor for canonized saints. Scripture is a privileged means God uses to call us where we might hesitate to go. For Augustine, Scripture sounded a call to battle in the core of his being. The fruits of his conversion would benefit countless millions of Christians as well as others who would find in his philosophical odyssey of life a road map of their own search for God. But Augustine clearly says that God speaking to him in Scripture made that profound change in his life possible.

Therese of Lisieux, a 19th century contemplative nun, had such a different background from Augustine. Faced with terminal illness in her early 20s, she has left us her own striking testimony to the power of Scripture. In the autobiography she composed with great suffering in the last months of her life, Therese wrote of her confusion about the value of her life. At times, her tone borders on what appears to be severe depression. The honesty of this young woman is one more example that our naive view of the saints as untroubled in their faith and personal relationships is often based on ignorance of what was really going on in their lives.

Therese describes how she was reading 1 Corinthians 12 where St. Paul describes a list of spiritual gifts associated with roles of leadership and service in his first-century community. "Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration and varieties of tongues." (I Cor 12:28)

Therese does not hide her feeling of inadequacy and distress that, despite being in the convent for several years, she does not find herself included in Paul's list. Having given her young life to God, even receiving permission to enter the convent earlier than was normal, and now facing an excruciating death within months, she wonders what it all means. Scripture disturbs her rather than consoles her, until she reads further.

A few verses later, the Apostle to the Gentiles writes that love is the more excellent way which should animate everyone whether or not they might exercise one of those spiritual gifts for the benefit of the community. Paul even claims that the most dramatic self-sacrifice becomes meaningless if it is not an expression of love.

This idea captures Therese's imagination with such force that her words practically leap off the page. "I have discovered my vocation. In the midst of the Church, my mother, I shall be love, and therefore I shall be all things."

I would venture to say that, like Augustine and Therese, all of us can recall how some word of Scripture took hold of us, either to confront or console, to bring clarity in our muddled search for God and the meaning of our life, or to disturb us out of spiritual lethargy.

God inspires us through Scriptures in a hundred different ways, whether it is only a sentence on a religious greeting card or a longer portion of the Gospel we have read leisurely. Radio, television and video productions have significantly multiplied opportunities for experiencing the Bible with great spiritual benefit.

The Second Vatican Council document on the Sacred Liturgy reminds us of various ways in which Christ is present when we come together for worship. Focusing on the biblical readings, the Council document affirms our belief that Christ "is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church."(SC 7)

At the Eucharist or other public celebrations of the Scriptures today, we are not unlike the townspeople of Nazareth gathered in their synagogue long ago to listen to Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor...."

At the conclusion of the assigned portion for that sabbath, Jesus said to them, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:18, 21) This statement of Jesus sparked quite a mixed response. Initial sentiments of admiration eventually boiled up to destructive feelings of rejection of the role Jesus was claiming in their lives.

What about you? Do you experience Christ speaking to you when the Scriptures are proclaimed in worship? Have the voices of children or the impassioned words of the apostle Paul led you to discover new strength from the bible?

Today is a perfect time to spend a few moments recalling how God has spoken to you through the Bible.

Above: Father Paul Zilonka, C.P. at St Mary's Seminary with Deacon Jeff Hubbard, who was subsequently ordained as a priest of the Diocese of Ogdensburg in New York. Fr Zilonka is a graduate of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and Gregorian University in Rome. Photo: Province Perspectives Newsletter, April 2005

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