IF ANYONE LOVES ME HE WILL KEEP MY WORD, AND MY FATHER WILL LOVE HIM AND WE WILL COME TO HIM. (John 14: 23). As Jesus prepared his intimate circle of disciples for his departure from their sight, first through death and then, after the resurrection, by his Ascension, he stressed the importance of his teaching which he refers to as "my word". Jesus' words even during his life time had a distinctive character of authority and great charm. Men who heard him were fascinated by his speech and drawn to him by the grace attached to his words."No man ever spoke as this man does", said the officials sent to arrest Jesus (John 7:46). The congregations that heard him explain the Scriptures in the synagogues "bore witness to him", St. Luke records, "and all marveled at the charm of the words that came forth from his mouth" (4:22). After his death, Jesus was remembered not only for the wonders he had worked but also for his teaching. On the way to Emmaus, Cleophas and his companion spoke of "Jesus of Nazareth who became a prophetic man, powerful in deed and in word before God and all the people (Luke 24: 19)."
Subsequent to our Lord's Ascension, when he was no longer living among his circle of followers, teaching them God's ways and giving directions for their conduct, his words were recalled with loving care. Special efforts were made to remember not only the general drift of his instructions, but his very language. His manner of speech, the very words he employed became sacred memories. Those best placed to keep his memory alive because of their prolonged, intimate association with him during his public life were held in particular honor. When a successor to the place left vacant by the defection of Judas was to be chosen, a major condition for the choice was direct, personal acquaintance with the Lord and exposure to his words during his time of public ministry. Peter explained that "It is necessary that one from among the men joined to us during the whole time that the Lord Jesus came and went in our midst, beginning with the baptism of John to the day he was take up, be a witness of his resurrection with us." (Acts I: 21, 22)
Following the Ascension, the apostles came to realize that, while Jesus continued to live, glorified, in the presence of the Father, his presence persisted both in his words and in the sacraments he had instituted when among them. Accordingly, they gave great attention to recalling the occasions when he spoke to them about his mission, and sought to recall his own way of expressing himself. The meaning of much of what he had taught them escaped them at the time; it was beyond their capacity. Later they came to recognize its significance, as St. John points out: "And so, when he was raised from the dead his disciples remembered that he said this to them and they believed the Scriptures and the word that Jesus spoke to them "(2: 22).
They began to experience a fresh power of conviction as they came to realize the truth of the Lord's statement after he had multiplied the loaves: "The words I speak to you are Spirit and life." (John 6: 63) Dwelling on the words of Jesus they discovered was a way of entering into communion with him that put them in touch with his Holy Spirit. He himself remained in a mysterious manner present in his words; he lived in them. Taking them into the heart was a way to live in his presence; by faith in them they felt new life welling up from within. It was this experience that impelled them to preach, teach and spread the knowledge of God revealed by their master with such conviction as to persuade multitudes. The living word of God became a source of newness of spirit in the early Church. The Spirit of Jesus had come to them causing their own words to take on a vitality and force that served to spread the life of the risen Savior to others. The word was a source of community and fellowship in the same values; above all it functions as a source of faith that resulted in a communion with the Lord.
Words by their very nature serve as vehicles of affect; they carry as it were the feelings of their author, and the manner of their connections, the choices that determine their use give out indications of personal characteristics as well as conveying information. This is especially true of the spoken word, for speech consists of more elements than the words employed, and the tones, the timing, the attitudes of the body that accompany verbal exchanges are at times clear indications of the message intended than are the specific words that are employed. Even written words, when read with sensitivity to the context and to the specific features of the author's style, serve to communicate besides the information intended by their author, attitudes that include emotion and dispositions of the heart and which, when properly understood, alone give the full and specific meaning of a passage.
These characteristics of language and of words in particular led the early Christian exegetes to read the sacred text with attention to the less obvious meanings of the Bible. They found further justification for this concern for the hidden sense of the Gospels and other inspired works in the example of Jesus and of St. Paul. The Lord himself was a master at language which, while appearing straightforward and simple, contained meanings that quite eluded the understanding of his hearers. His manner often confounded his opponents in this way, and his disciples as well frequently could not grasp his meaning until after his resurrection. One example is his statement: "Destroy this temple and in three days I shall raise it up again." Only after being enlightened by risen Lord's presence were they able to see in this saying a prediction of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
There are any number of reasons why so much of the Bible must be read with an eye to the deeper, hidden meaning of the text, but surely a major one is that all talk about God falls short of his nature. God is by nature transcendent in his infinity and his absolute goodness. This, by definition, means that he goes beyond all created beings; he is greater than any created thing or device can convey. He is measured by nothing save his own being. Words, being human devices in the service of communication among persons, cannot adequately reflect God's nature as it is in itself; they can only intimate truths concerning his being, point to the specific quality of his divine being which is revealed by some analogy with appropriate created reality.
A second reason for the need to explore the sacred text for its more hidden sense is that God speaks to us not only through human agents by means of words but as well by the events of history and the acts of men and women. St. Gregory the Great had already remarked on this feature of the Bible: "Holy Writ by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery" (Moralia xx.1 cited by Aquinas in the Summa Theologica I.10, ET Cincinnati 1947, p. 7) . God's Providence is always at work in the world, operating through history as well as through created nature. St. Thomas Aquinas noted this explicitly in speaking of the senses of Scripture. He goes on to account for the multiple meanings of the inspired text.
The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not ly by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification.... That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. (loco cit.)
Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote of the challenges facing the attempt to communicate what is not only hidden but is essentially ineffable. He give the reasons why this task is beyond human powers. "For human thought, and still more for human feeling and experience, God's presence and absence in the world are an unsearchable mystery. It would seem that we can think of it solely in dialectical, mutually invalidating statements."(New Elucidations, cited by Paul Murray, O.P., The Word into Words, Communio XXVIII, p. 4. I follow this article rather closely in the following paragraphs.) In the opinion of a modern theologian, Bernard managed somehow to achieve the translation of this dialectic between God's immanence and transcendence of which von Balthasar speaks. The abbot of Clairvaux quite deliberately uses the word experience (experientia) repeatedly as he attempts to speak of the ineffable encounter with the Word, though he is aware of the problems of conveying such a personal happening to others. In an arti cle that appeared this month, Fr. Paul Murray has commented on the problem involved in speak ing of the experience of God and expresses his views on Bernard's attempts to convey what it entails and its fruits.
Of all the great Doctors of the Church, Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth century mystic and reformer, is probably the one who uses the term "experience" most often, and uses it to the greatest effect (op. cit., p. 7).
In the sermon in which St. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke most openly of his own spiritual life, he , shows the effect of inner experience on the person who encounters the Word in prayer. He is keenly conscious that what he attempts to speak of is in essence ineffable. His attempts to con vey its nature and especially its significance is nowhere more vividly portrayed than in the Ser mon 74 on the Canticle of Canticles. He introduces his words with an apology:
Now bear with my foolishness for a little. I want to tell you of my own experience, as I promised. Not that it is of any importance. But I make this disclosure only to help you... I admit that the Word has also come to me- I speak as a fool- and has come many times. .(Sermon 74.5 cited by Murray, op. cit., p. 7)
Penetration into the mysteries of the word of God is the fruit, as Bernard well appreciated, not so much of intelligence as of connaturality with its message. This connaturality results from a lov ing purity of heart that is the fruit of grace and of revealed truth. It is not surprising then that Bernard cites these two words of St. John repeatedly in this same talk. St. John the Evangelist had arrived at this conviction from his meditation on our Lord's teaching so that he declared the marvelous fact that The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and of truth. It comes as no surprise then that Bernard in this same sermon on the experience of the Word and his visitations to his soul, refers repeatedly to both terms used by St. John, "grace and truth". By grace, he observes, we know God as good and merciful. Displaying these qualities the Word makes himself present to us as joyous and radiant (festivus et splendidus (cf. Sermon 74.11).
The Word also comes to us as truth, the abbot adds, and when he does so he acts rather as a physician than a bridegroom. He is set upon healing us of the wounds of sin and freeing us from the inclinations to evil that deeply rooted habit and concupiscence that hold us back from wholehearted response to his goodness. In the light of his holiness and experiencing the strength of his love, the Word makes us aware of our own darkness and selfishness and the need to free ourselves from all that makes us unworthy of union with him. Bernard comments on these two aspects of the visitations of the Word.
I need both of these. I need truth that I may not be able to hide from him, and grace that I may not wish to hide. Indeed, without both of these his visitation would not be complete, for the stark reality of truth would be intolerable without grace, and the gladness of grace might appear lax and uncontrolled without truth (cited in Murray, op. cit., p. 20).St. Bernard spoke of his own experience in order to encourage others to strive to prepare themselves to receive the same favors from the Word. Such experiences of grace and truth are not reserved for specially gifted persons but are offered to all who truly desire them. The Word of God remains efficacious and active today no less than he was in the 12th century or even in the first century for that matter. Some have maintained that the power and efficacy of the Word has diminished with time. Paul Tillich maintained that Scripture itself no longer is an inspired word, but the record of a word that was originally uttered under a special impulse of the Spirit of God. Cardinal Leo Scheffczyk refutes that opinion and takes the occasion to affirm the Catholic teaching on the nature and operations of the Word of God, stressing that the Word remains as present and efficacious as ever. It is up to us to open ourselves in faith and approach him with desire that leads us so to live as to cleans the heart in order to receive him when he comes to us. The cardinal writes with deep feeling about the place of the Word in our lives.
In fact, we need to affirm that there is nothing comparable in greatness and mysterious power to the inner-trinitarian Word in which God expresses himself, which soars far above all human speech and earthly words. Ad intra, this Word is the second divine Person; ad extra it signifies the Word of creation that summons things into being out of nothing (cf. Gen. 1:3-31), the Word that lends subsistence to every creature and preserves its meaning and intelligibility, the Word undergirds and supports the creature. For human beings, the Word of creation at the same time represents God's first revelation that is in the New Testament identified with Christ, insofar as "all things exist in him"(1Cor 8:6)... This Word is an eventful, creative and effective divine deed- word.(Sacred Scripture: God's Word and the Church's Word, Communio XXVII, p. 28).This same Word of God that is implicated in history abides with us, and in order to prepare us to be worthy of him comes to us in a variety of ways. Let us strive to be ready for him by watching in prayer, by holy reading and by remaining attentive to his presence in the course of our work and the other activities of the day. By acts of charity and humble service, by watching our thoughts and cultivating our desire for union with him may we be responsive to him when he comes to us. We can do nothing more useful to the Church, to the community and to ourselves than this interior work of the heart, the chief work assigned not only to the monk but to all his faithful by the Lord who calls us to this vocation. Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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