Does lectio divina always have to be next Sunday’s Gospel?
Some times recently I have attended three meetings in one week where we have started each with a lectio divina on the same forthcoming Sunday Gospel. It seems to be fashionable at the moment to limit lectio divina in this way but’ in fact, lectio can be based on any part of Scripture – indeed on any suitable passage of spiritual writing. This is perhaps partly because many catholics are not very familiar with other parts of Scripture – despite the fact that the first reading in the Mass explores many parts of the Bible. An RCIA programme needs to equip prospective catholic Christians to begin to find their way about the whole Bible and to recognise it all as an expression the Word of God. This is an important strand in their spiritual growth, and an essential guide to their Journey in Faith.
Nowadays we are called to be a prophet
At first sight the Old Testament Prophets might look a tough place to start getting more at home with Scripture – but this is not so. Each prophet was on a personal journey in faith and his personal relationship with God was very much along RCIA lines. In the Old Testament this kind of personal relationship seemed to be the preserve of a limited number of holy men and women but the prophet Joel (Joel 3: 1 to 2) tells us that ‘In the last days – the Lord declares – I shall pour out my spirit on all humanity. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old people shall dream dreams, and your young people see visions’. In the New Testament St Peter quotes this very passage (Acts 2: 17-21) to explain what was happening in Jerusalem in the first Pentecost after the Resurrection of Jesus. This is not an obscure bit of the catechism – this is one of the most precious, important and wonderful messages of RCIA – you too have the Spirit – open yourself to his potential and let him flow through you and lead you into all truth.
Isaiah – well now, there’s a real prophet
When Jesus, fresh from 30 days in the Wilderness, chose a passage of Scripture to read when he went back to his home synagogue (Luke 4:16-30) he chose Isaiah 61:1-2. At the end of the reading and in a silence where you could hear a pin drop, he declared ‘this text is being fulfilled today even while you are listening’. In other words ‘this is about me’.
And Isaiah, who lived over 600 years before the birth of Jesus, also describes a ‘servant’ who offered his back to those who struck him (Isaiah 50:6), ‘a man of sorrows acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3), someone whose sufferings and sorrows were ours and who was crushed because of our guilt (Isaiah 53:4-5), and who was given a tomb with the rich (Isaiah 53:9). A prophet was – and is – someone who understands something of the mind of God and who is on a mission to declare God’s message, even if it costs him his life.
We too are called to share in this work. Serious stuff.
If you were to do an RCIA session on Isaiah, a good passage to read would be chapter 6. You might read it in full and spend a couple minutes in silence before reading it again. Whether you proceed to a lectio divina or you decide to move directly to a more directed bible study will depend on what you discern is best for your group. Some points which may arise from the discussion include:
Isaiah heard the voice of God after he had put himself in a Holy Place – in this case the Temple. Church is an obvious Holy Place where we can go to listen to God but can we create a Holy Place in our own homes, or, in a more abstract sense, within our lives?
Isaiah’s first-hand experience of God was, to say the least, awesome, and it made him feel very sinful, very humble and very small.
His humility and the honest acceptance of his inadequacy led to his lips being purified – of being made ready for what God was about to ask him to do
Then God says ‘Whom shall I send?’
And a trembling Isaiah responds ‘Here am I, send me.
What does it mean to our enquirers, candidates and catechumens to be called to be prophets?
Jonah – the Basil Fawlty of prophets
The book of Isaiah runs to 66 chapters and can be a bit much for many neophytes (beyond selected bite-sized chunks as above). But Jonah is only a modest four short readable chapters long and so it’s a good place to start studying a complete book of the Old Testament. You might get your group to read the whole book before the RCIA session, and then ask them to read part of the book aloud before leading a discussion.
The book was written in the 8th Century BC. Whether it describes actual events or is a work of fiction isn’t that important. Neither is it all that important whether it features a whale (not normally found in the Mediterranean) or a Great White Shark or a fictional zoological creation. At one level it’s quite amusing, over the top to make a good story. Jonah is a prophet like Isaiah – but not a very good one. It’s easier to identify with Jonah than with Isaiah – he tends to learn the hard way. Despite the humour in the book, the deeper layers beneath the surface become increasingly profound. Because it deals with God’s forgiveness of those who repent, it is read by Jews on the day of Yom Kippur. This message of repentance and forgiveness is a very profound one which is part of the core of the Gospel message. In the New Testament Jesus likens the three days in the belly of the whale (or big fish) to the three he would spend in the tomb (Matthew 12:40). He also suggests that even the notorious men of Nineveh will sit in judgement on the generation of the religious establishment which rejected him (Matthew 12:41).
Like Isaiah Jonah gets a mission from God – to go to the city of Nineveh (near the modern city of Mosul in present day Iraq) and tell the people that if they do not repent they will be destroyed. The Ninevites were not Israelites. In fact, to the Israelites, they were the enemy and regarded as evil. What is God asking us to do right now?
Jonah responds by running away as far as possible in the opposite direction. Tarshish might have been in Spain – on the edge of the known world – but, if not, it was certainly a long way from Nineveh. When people run away from God they not only make life hard for themselves but for others too. The storm threatens the lives of all the crew. The person running away may also not realise that all the trouble is their fault. In amongst all the mayhem Jonah is asleep. Have you ever run away from God and how did God bring you back?
Jonah admits it is his fault and suggests that they throw him over the side. Looks like King Hezekiah had such a moment (Isaiah 38: 10-15). Have you ever felt that it would be better to be thrown over the side?
The large fish was provided by God to be on hand to rescue Jonah when he finally got to the end of himself. God did not abandon the disobedient Jonah – although the rather uncomfortable way this happened was because Jonah had to discover how to follow the will of God the hard way. Plenty of scope to discuss how this can apply to our lives.
God now repeats the challenge for Jonah to go to the Ninevites and this time Jonah agrees. He preaches to the people of the evil city and they all repent and are saved. You might expect Jonah to be amazed at what God has done through him – but no. Jonah actually disapproves of the fact that God loves the Ninevites as much as he loves everyone. Jonah hates them and was looking forward to them getting destroyed. A key aspect of being a good prophet is to discern the mind of God and to work with him. In Isaiah 55:8 God observes that ‘for your thoughts are not my thoughts’. Which of the teachings of the Gospel do find most difficult to come to terms with?
In the remaining part of the chapters 3 and 4 Jonah’s relationship with God continues to be a difficult one – because he is so stubborn and ill-tempered. He has a lot of difficulty seeing things the way God sees them, yet God never gives up on him and never stops loving him. Of course if Jonah could just fall in line with the sovereign will of God and learn to appreciate God’s wisdom – indeed rejoice in it – it would be so much easier. At the end of the book Jonah still hasn’t quite got it Are you learning to see the world through God’s eyes?