Photo: Felix Carroll
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 4, 2008)
In last week's column we reviewed some of the wisdom of St. Faustina and the saints regarding how to organize and begin regular times of Bible reading "in the Holy Spirit." Let's finish up this topic now with a look at the actual process of meditating on God's Word.
For our daily meditations, we are certainly not required to read gospel passages in any particular order. Many Catholics find that the best plan is to meditate on the gospel readings appointed by the Church for Mass each day. In this way we follow the rhythm of worship life of the Body of Christ. Others prefer to read a single gospel straight through, a chapter each day. Whatever plan we choose, each time we pray, it is important to start by placing ourselves in the presence of God, and asking for the help of His Holy Spirit. Then we are truly ready to begin.
Read the gospel passage slowly and attentively. Imagine the scene that is depicted in the passage. If it is a passage about Jesus teaching, imagine that you are there, along with His apostles, listening to Him. If it is a miracle story, imagine that you are an eyewitness. Picture the place where Jesus meets the sick person — perhaps the gospels indicate it is along the roadside, or in a room, or by the Sea of Galilee, or in the midst of a crowd. Picture to yourself the face of Jesus as He speaks, the gestures of His hands, and imagine the sound of His voice. After the imagination has done its work, consider what God the Father is trying to say to you through His Son in the gospel story. Be like little Samuel in the Old Testament who, when he heard the voice of the Lord in the middle of the night, replied: "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!" (I Sam 3:10). God is speaking to you as an individual, to His Church as a Body, and to the world as a whole in every gospel story, for the Bible is the very "Word of the Lord," as we say at every Mass.
Sometimes just one particular aspect of a gospel story will entrance us, or one particular thought arising from the story will fix itself in our minds. Or sometimes several things about the story will strike us at once. Or sometimes nothing at all. Do not be concerned about it: Our Lord might give you a profound insight one day and just a calm familiarity with the gospel story the next. He knows what is best.
Saint Francis de Sales puts it this way (II.5):
If your mind finds enough appeal, light, and fruit in any one of [these thoughts], remain with that point and do not go any further. Imitate the bees who do not leave a flower as long as they can extract any honey out of it. But if you do not come on anything that appeals to you after you have examined and tried it for a while, then go on to another, but proceed calmly and simply in this matter, and do not rush yourself.
It is only natural that the thoughts and considerations to which the episodes in the gospel give rise in us will move and alter our affections. Sometimes gently and almost imperceptibly, and other times quite dramatically. The gospel, after all, is for the sanctifying of our hearts as well as our minds!
Saint Francis de Sales writes (II.6):
Meditation produces devout movements in the will, the affective part of our soul, such as love of God and neighbor, desire for heaven and glory, zeal for the salvation of souls, imitation of the life of our Lord, compassion, awe, joy, fear of God's displeasure, judgment and hell, hatred of sin, confidence in God's goodness and mercy, and deep sorrow for the sins of our past life. In such affections our minds should open up as much as possible.
At the same time, the saint is careful to warn us that we must not remain in our meditations merely "swimming" in these feelings, but convert them into resolutions for our correction and improvement:
For example, the first word our Lord spoke on the cross will undoubtedly excite in your soul a holy longing to imitate Him, namely, a desire to pardon your enemies and to love them. I point out that this will be only a little thing unless you add a special resolution like this: Well, then, from now on I will not be offended by the disagreeable words a man or woman — e.g., some man or woman who is my neighbor ... says to me, or by the scornful treatment suffered from some one or other. On the contrary, I will do such and such a thing in order to win him over....In this way you will correct your faults in a short time, whereas by affections alone it would be a slow and difficult task.
If there is something distinctive about the way that a true disciple of the Merciful Heart of Jesus will be inclined to meditate, it would be this: Rather than focusing on our own feelings in meditation, we focus on His. In other words, when we read about the words and deeds of Jesus in the gospels, we are inclined to think to ourselves, "What was on His Heart as He was saying this? What were His sentiments and intentions and affections? To whom did His merciful Heart go out in compassion, and why ? What brought Him joy? And what brought Him sorrow?"
Saint Maria Faustina was always meditating on the sentiments of our Lord, especially during the time of His passion. For example, Jesus says to her, "Today bring to Me all devout and faithful souls, and immerse them in the ocean of My mercy. These souls brought Me consolation on the Way of the Cross. They were that drop of consolation in the midst of an ocean of bitterness" (Diary of St. Faustina, 1214).
Here is another example, this time from the writings of Bl. Dina Belanger of Quebec. Meditating on the gospels for Holy Week, Bl. Dina wrote:
[Jesus] was anxious for Holy Thursday to come; yes, He yearned for the Last Supper. He longed to hide Himself under the appearance of a frail piece of bread, and to dwell in human hearts. Ever since, to every soul that He invites to the Holy Table, in every communion, His Eucharistic Heart repeats with the same effusion of love as to His apostles on that night, "with desire have I desired to eat this Pasch with you." He always yearns to give Himself.
When we meditate in a similar way, we are not just thinking about Jesus; rather, we are drawing nearer to his Merciful Heart, nearer to all the love, compassion, wisdom, tenderness, and mercy that He ever had on His Heart for everyone He met — and for us.
The result of meeting Him in prayer like this in times of meditation is that we will be drawn to be attentive to Him, and nearer to Him in our hearts, every minute of the day.
Does that seem too good to be true?
Why not take Jesus at His word, since He promised nothing less to St. Faustina:
In a soul that lives on My love alone, I reign as in heaven. I watch over it day and night. In it I find My happiness; My ear is attentive to each request of its heart.... I carry you close to My Heart, just as you are holding Me close to your heart right now (Diary, 1489 and 1485).
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.