When Jesus preached about the Good Shepherd, describing both his heart and ministry, he said this, “the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him [a stranger], because they do not recognize the voice of strangers” (John 10:41b-42). Jesus desires to speak into your life. This dialogue of friendship and love familiarizes us with the heart of the Heavenly Father and the move of the Holy Spirit. The Word of God, then, is not so much a book as a Person drawing us into a love relationship, a communion, a fellowship in the Spirit. Like anyone who desires to love and be loved, they reveal themselves to their beloved. In Sacred Scripture, God reveals Himself to you and me. In Sacred Scripture, we encounter a living word of God, a love letter, wherein God reveals Himself not for a specific few, but for everyone. Throughout the centuries, the Church renewed herself by returning to the richness of the Scriptures. When we look at the lives of the saints like Francis of Assisi and Philip Neri, just to name two, they impacted the Church by opening their lives to the Holy Spirit and living out the Gospel. Francis of Assisi changed his entire life after hearing words of the Gospel proclaimed in his hometown church. The living word of God transformed him into a force of radical Gospel living in the Church. That’s the power of God’s living word. God desires each of us to become clothed in purity and to live the Good News in the merciful, charitable power of the Holy Spirit. And, as in the past experiences of renewal in the Church so today, our time of renewed love of God and living like Jesus begins with our imbibing the Sacred Scriptures. This is not a call to scholarship, but a call to intimacy. It is not a call to apologetics, but a call to a deep love affair with the true and only living God ultimately revealed through Jesus Christ. Saint Jerome put it this way: Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. With so many people trying to tell us any number of things in our TV shows, radio, news or social media, we need to familiarize ourselves with the voice of the Good Shepherd all the more. If you’ve never taken the Scriptures seriously, now is the time, this is the day, this is the hour. If you’ve allowed incorrect notions about reading the Scriptures like a fear of not understanding what you read, or the fear of misinterpretation, or even the lie that reading the Bible is for the other churches, then it really is time to let those go, because they only hold you back from the love of God ready to be poured into your heart. If a doctor tells us to take medicine twice a day for health, we do it. I am no doctor, but I know that we have a Divine Physician who wants a daily regimen of his truth received by us daily. You can do this. I want to write a few suggestions on how to go about entering into the prayerful reading and study of Scripture to help simplify this important threshold moment for the Church in our time.
- If you’ve never really taken time to read the Bible, I would suggest beginning with the Gospels (first four books of the New Testament). Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, very direct, and lays the groundwork for a lot in Luke and Matthew. Pick one of the Gospels and just start reading it. Don’t worry about understanding everything. Just capture the flow of the Gospel and note what they speak about who Jesus is and who we are called to be as disciples.
- I would suggest purchasing a Catholic study Bible. There are many versions out there. I use the New American Bible Revised Edition. But, there are others. Remember, this is about your study, not Fr. Bearer’s. So, find the one you will read and one that fits your needs, what you’re looking for, and what helps you the most. We don’t need to become Scripture experts, just disciples who listen to our Lord speaking to us through the Scriptures.
- Write in your Bible. This might be harder for some, because some people are afraid that it is wrong to scribble notes in the Bible or underline verses. But, God’s word is for you. It’s a love letter. Underline the verses that move your heart, write notes in the margins, note connections that you find. Some pages of my Bible have notes scribbled all over the place. This helps me engage the text, remember insights better, and, when I return to those passages, it’s easier to leap into them again. Develop your own way of reading. But, stay engaged with the text.
- If you have the money and a way to download an audio version of the Bible, this can be very helpful. A lot of Scripture is meant to be heard and makes more sense when listened to rather than read. The poetry of the Scriptures can come to life in a solid proclamation. This also helps to bring God’s word into your walks, car rides, and downtime. My audio Bible is on my phone and I can take it wherever I go. It’s been a great way for me to keep God’s word “at the ready” like a mini-retreat whenever the Spirit moves me.
- Study Bibles usual have notations in the text that indicate where verses connect to other Scripture passages throughout the Bible. This can be a great way to slowly move into the world as it is, as the Bible reveals it, and gain a broader familiarity with the Scriptures. The connections between all the books of the Bible can sometimes be awe-inspiring. And, the good news here is that many have done the work for us, we just piggyback on their scholarship and follow the trail they’ve trod.
- Sometimes we need Scripture passages that speak directly into a situation we’re in at a given moment. The trouble can be finding verses for those times, even if we’ve been reading and praying with the Bible. Those times are great opportunities to use an online search engine and type in something like “Scripture passages on hope” or “Scripture verses for faith.” This isn’t “cheating,” and it’s a great way to find new treasures in the Bible.
- There are parish groups that study Scripture. You are welcome to join one of those groups. BUT, you can also invite your friends to read a book from the Bible - like any other book group - and meet to pray and talk about it. Start a home group of friends; don't wait for someone else to do that; it doesn’t need to be a parish “event”. Sometimes we won’t know if a friend is open to something like that unless we ask. You could use FaceTime, Zoom, Google Hangout and the like to help facilitate it, too.
- Sometimes one of the books of the Bible really speaks deeply to us. I know there are a couple books that particularly grab my attention. Don’t ignore that. God might be inviting you to really devour one of the books of the Bible. Read it again and again. Outline it. Take notes on it. Buy a commentary on the book and let that help (look into the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture from Baker Academic publishing). It is said that St. John of the Cross had the entire Gospel of John memorized and he would pray it aloud as he walked. I don’t have an entire book of the Bible memorized (not even close! I struggle with keeping verses straight), but that goes to show how God can anoint a book especially for you. Go after it!
- Pray with the Bible as you study it. We do need to familiarize ourselves with Scripture, and that will involve times of study and pondering. But, the Scriptures summon us to pray. God desires that we read Scripture in the same Holy Spirit who inspired those books. Use Lectio Divina (there’s a ton of resources online to help with that, just use a search engine to look it up), use parts of Scripture as new mysteries of the Rosary (devotions are meant to be used creatively and flexibly, it’s not breaking any rules; have fun), or use artwork to help, icons, draw your own pictures, even find a kids coloring book of Scripture passages, whatever it might be that helps, try it out. Pray, pray, pray.
- The Sunday and daily Mass readings can be a great launchpad into God’s word. You can use any number of smart phone apps to check out the Mass readings, or you can go on the USCCB website. I would suggest that you still go to a handheld, actual Bible and find those texts in your Bible. Read the sections before and after them to get a sense of what’s going on in the sections we get at Mass. Use all the tools in your study Bible to follow the bread crumbs throughout the Scriptures to see the interconnects and allow its richness to shine upon your reading. Go with the flow of the study. Let go of any “goal” and just see where the Scripture passages lead you to pray, ponder, and rest in the Word.
- Spend some time memorizing Scripture verses. Unfortunately for us, people have used Scripture passages they’ve memorized to debate us or challenge us in unloving ways. Don’t let the bad example of a few rob you of the great benefit of having Scripture passages in your back packet that enrich, console, and edify you. When you find verses of Scripture that speak to your heart and mind, jot it down on a sticky note and put it in your bathroom, car, or cubicle. Keep a few Scripture verses in your smart phone’s Note section. However you might go about it, just go for it, do what helps. It is amazing how God will use those specific words from Scripture to speak to you throughout the day. Remember that Beatles song or album that you have memorized, or that entire Mel Brooks movie? Imagine if you put that brain power to work with Scripture! All we have to do is take the time to commit some of His words to memory.
- In the end, there’s no substitute for patience, time, and continued discipline. If we start reading the Bible as if we need to finish it in one sitting or have everything figured out in a couple weeks, we will get discouraged before long and quit. But, if we take a longterm approach, go bit-by-bit, learn a little bit at a time, study on a flexible routine that takes into account the surprises and ebb and flow of real life, it will amaze us what God can do with the time and effort we sacrifice for His word. Give it time. Be patient with yourself and God. And, be willing to set other things aside for that time with the Scriptures. There’s just no way around it. If we haven’t been in the practice of entering God’s word, it will mean a change in our routine. But, it is so worth it.
In giving these twelve different ways to start reading Scripture, I am not suggesting that someone has to do all twelve nor am I under the impression that I’ve summed up all the ways to start reading the Bible. Your journey into the Scriptures will be unique, and that’s okay. Let the Good Shepherd teach you the texture of His voice. Then, when He speaks to us in our day, in our work and prayer, we will recognize His voice.