Getting in to Scripture

I developed my love of the scriptures long before I became a Catholic  in the seventies. Indeed my familiarity with Scripture helped me to make the transition. I noticed that the Mass, the Catechism  and the Office were full of scripture. I encountered some Catholics who knew the scriptures much better than I did, and many more who did not, but who were keen to know more.

Some RCIA enquirers may come from another Christian tradition and already know their way around the Good Book. The majority, however, will simply not know where to start, and introducing them to it needs to be an important part of the RCIA programme.  

A Bible study is led by someone who knows something about it, has prepared it in advance and can provide input before facilitating the very thoughtful session of sharing and discussion which usually ensues.

Many people think that the Old Testament is boring and irrelevant to the Christian faith. In the following example I seek to convince enquirers that this is not so.

The story of David and Bathsheba is a tale of sin and repentance. It also can offer an introduction to the  scriptures. In the New Testament David is described as a man after God’s own heart’ (Acts 13:22) by St Paul in a sermon to Jews in Antioch in Pisidia. The Jews at Antioch would know about this, for they, like Jesus, were steeped in scripture. I find it’s useful to get everyone to look at the passage in Acts and pick out the key verse. It’s not usually a good idea to get someone to read out the whole passage – it all gets a bit like school, the leader of the group loses pace and everyone else loses the thread of the amazing story. But people might want to look at the passage at home if they find it interesting. Most people are surprised that the Scripture is interesting and challenging. We’ve already introduced St Paul, where Acts comes in the Bible and  the sort of thing you find in Acts.  We also introduced the idea that the New Testament draws on the Old, often giving it a new slant, and deeper meaning.

But who was David, the man after God’s own heart?

I used to think that the story of David and Bathsheba was surely something which everyone had heard of, yet a surprising number of people have not, or, if they have, do not realise its significance. Second book of Samuel 11:1-27 and 12:1-15 tells a tale of lust, temptation, sin, cover-up and murder. Again I like to get everyone to find it, pick key points out of it and suggest they might like to read it in full at home. There’s a lot of scope to discuss how David was in denial. Enter Nathan and a lot of scope to discuss what repentance really means. But there’s more. Psalm 50 or 51 (depending which bible you use)  starts ‘Have mercy on me’ and we have a fascinating insight into David’s reaction when the full aweful enormity of what he had done hits him.  He confesses his sins and his repentance was far reaching, profound and sincere. He realises it needs to be far deeper than just saying ‘sorry’. He recognises his need for conversion, to turn around and let God change him. ‘Create in me a clean heart’ he says.  Then he asks ‘Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall speak out your praise’. He lives in a world where animal sacrifice was part of religious practice but he utters the profound words ‘sacrifice to God is a broken spirit’, a flash of forward-looking words which  could so easily have come from the New Testament, before returning, in the final verse,  to the world of 1000BC  and animal sacrifices again.

The short answer to why he was a man after God’s own heart was given in Acts 13:22 where St Paul says that he would do the will of God. The long answer is that David had a personal relationship with God. He believed his sin had spoilt this relationship. Yet as psalm 51 (50) unfolds we sense that he goes through sorrow for sin and repentance to forgiveness and a restored relationship with the God he loves.

The discussion which might develop from this Bible study often goes right to the heart of the Christian’s relationship with God. It also provides a biblical context in which to explore the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Lectio divina  (divine reading) is led by the Holy Spirit himself. Any human leader is there to help to develop the prayerful atmosphere at the beginning and maybe to discern when to end the session. In an RCIA context the leader may need to take care that the group knows what it’s about and is in a spiritually ‘safe’ environment. People often use the following Sunday’s Gospel as the subject of Lectio divina but it could be any part of the Bible – or, indeed any other suitable spiritual writing. Strictly speaking in Lectio divina the group listen to a passage being read aloud and then sit prayerfully in silence allowing the words to sink in, peacefully discerning what the Holy Spirit is saying to them. After thoughtful reflection the passage is read again followed by further reflection. One may also do Lectio divina alone as prayer..  

The way Lectio divina is often carried out at the moment often involves sharing of thoughts between the people during the reflection. The sharing of the thoughts of one person feeds into the reflection of the group. This can be very effective, indeed very wonderful, but there still needs to be a lot of silence amongst the sharing of what the Spirit is saying through the Word of God.

Lectio divina is not a Bible study, nor teaching nor is it instruction. It’s not a debate, not an opportunity for people to express their own opinions nor an intellectual exercise about doctrine. It is a form of spirituality. The participants need not know very much about the passage in advance – although it does help if there is some general understanding of scripture.  

The idea of opening yourself to the Holy Spirit in prayerful silence  will be a new idea to many RCIA group members. People who are used to it develop gifts of discernment. To introduce Lectio divina to ‘beginners’  the passage needs  be short – perhaps one of the scripture texts from the Office (Habakkuk 3:17-19 works well). The leader needs to establish the prayerful silence carefully. It may be, at first, only a few minutes. Then, and only then, the leader may invite people to share the thoughts that came into their minds. As the group grows into Lectio divina the periods of silent reflection may increase with time but much depends on the discernment and sensitivity of the leaders. The members of the group need to learn. The leaders help them to do so – but cannot do it for them.

Learning verses of Scripture  In the bibles which the Gideon’s leave in hotel bedrooms there are lists of verses to read in particular circumstances, such as depression, uncertainty and anxiety. I’ve heard of Christians reciting verses and calling it ‘sword practice’, for the word of God is powerful, like a two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). If you find yourself slipping into being judgemental it might be helpful to remember that Jesus said ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged’ (Matthew 7:1). If you are tempted to gossip remember that St Paul said ‘Love does not rejoice in wrong-doing but finds its joy in the truth’(1 Corinthians 13:6).  If you are feeling pleased with yourself after putting a £20 note in the collection,  remember that St Paul also said ‘Though I should give away to the poor all that I possess – and even give up my body to be burned – if I am without love it will do me no good whatever’ (1 Corinthians 13:3).  And if you find yourself saying ‘I’ve every right to be annoyed’ remember that St James says ‘God’s saving justice is never served by human anger’ (James 1:20).

When Jesus was tempted in the desert (Matthew & Luke Chapter 4) he used verses of scripture to defend himself. The devil also cited  scripture for his purpose, although it was always in a misleading context which Jesus could always see through. Learning verses is a powerful weapon against temptation as part of a growing understanding  of the context in which they are placed.  

A facet of growing in reverence  for the scripture as the precious Word of God