It is clear in reading the Gospels that tensions ran high between Jesus and the scribes, Pharisees, and lawyers. The Gospels recount a number of instances when one or another of them “stood up to test Him.” He in His turn did not mince words in condemning them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! Woe also to you, lawyers!” This latter condemnation distressed one of our Nuns when she was a little girl: “Please, God! My Daddy’s a GOOD lawyer!”

We can get so used to Jesus’s condemnation of the religious leaders of His time that we can miss the exception, the scribe who “came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them [the Sadducees] well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’[1] Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’”

This is the same question that arose when a lawyer asked Jesus, “’what must I do to inherit eternal life’?”[2] Jesus asked him what the Law said, and he answered with the same passage from Scripture, “to love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus approved his reply, but “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” This question called forth from Jesus the parable of The Good Samaritan, with its ending admonition, “Go and do likewise.”

The lawyer in this case asked his question “to test Him”, but the scribe had no such intention, and on hearing Jesus’ answer, replied, “’You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’”[3]

There is a note in the scribe’s reply that we don’t often hear from Jesus’ interlocutors. The scribe speaks like a lover. He cherishes and savors the verses from Deuteronomy. When he quotes them, there is no need to ask who the “he” is that is mentioned. As with any lover, there is only the beloved, no one else exists. Others have quoted the same text as a basis for disputations and arguments. Not this man. He quotes them as lines from a love letter, savoring them as the lover in the Song of Songs: “For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out.”[4]

There are different ways to read Scripture and different reasons for doing so. One can read for study, as in classes in comparative religion. One can read for preaching and teaching, as priests and catechists must do. Finally, one can read for prayer. The first two reasons have a similar object: to lift the text from the printed page and make it known and alive to others. There is an objective consideration of the text. I see the text as something on the screen of my mind that I am considering. My focus may lead me deeper into the text, into the meaning of the words, their historical context, their various interpretations, their possible impact in different situations. All of these approaches are important, but they remain on the level of the words themselves. However deeply they may go into the words, they do not go beyond them. They remain in my mind as an image in a mirror.

Prayer has a different goal. The words of Scripture are the word of God, and they are meant to be a window through which I can see God and be transformed by Him. This is obvious in the reply of our scribe. He savors the words, but he goes through and beyond them to their Author, the “he” whom he loves. The words are no image in his mind. They are a window through which he gazes in delight.

This kind of contemplative reading of Scripture was widespread in the Church from the 3rd century on[5]. It was known as lectio divina and in the 12th century it was formulated by the Carthusian Prior Guigo II, who set out the four steps of reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation.

It maintained its primacy as a method of prayer until the end of the 16th century, when the need for clear and inspiring preaching put meditation in the forefront of spiritual practices. In the 1570s, the Jesuits established the directives that “discursive meditation is the type of formal prayer that is proper to the Society of Jesus; affective prayer and contemplative prayer are foreign to the Jesuit spirit.”[6] Affective prayer, as practiced previously with lectio divina, continued to be practiced primarily with the prayerful recitation of the rosary, which was repeatedly championed by various popes. Nevertheless, the emphasis on meditation as the norm for prayer remained in force in the Latin Church until the early 20th century when the ressourcement movement re-discovered the earlier traditional practices.

The Second Vatican Council’s return to an earlier understanding of revelation as God’s manifestation[7] opened Scripture to the transparent gaze of the pray-er. Contemplative prayer was no longer seen as the exclusive domain of special souls but acknowledged as the rightful inheritance of all mature believers. The need for meditation remains, but it should become transparent to what lies beyond. The words exist to reveal the Word.

The Catechism teaches on the fruitfulness of expanding and deepening our prayer life:

 “Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. … This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.”[8]

“Contemplative prayer seeks him ‘whom my soul loves.’ It is Jesus, and in him, the Father. We seek him, because to desire him is always the beginning of love, and we seek him in that pure faith which causes us to be born of him and to live in him. In this inner prayer we can still meditate, but our attention is fixed on the Lord himself.”[9]

With this attention “fixed on the Lord himself” and not on our thoughts and ideas about Him, we attain to a familiarity with God beyond even that experienced in the Garden of Eden. Quite simply, we see beyond the words to contemplate the Word. Instead of remaining focused on the words as when studying or meditating, the words become transparent, and this removes the veil of our own ideas from our minds. Then “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”[10]


[1] Mk 12, 28ff

[2] Lk. 10, 25ff

[3] Mk 12, 32-33

[4] Song 1, 2-3

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lectio_Divina

[6] “Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition” by Fr. Jordan Aumann, OCD, p. 204

[7] https://wherepeteris.com/keeping-god-at-arms-length-the-danger-averted-by-vatican-ii/

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2708

[9] Ibid. #2709

[10] 2 Cor. 3, 18

Image: Adobe Stock. By reewungjunerr.

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

Share via
Copy link