Hearts of Prayer - Lenten Season
"Welcome the Word: The
Word of God As a Way of Personal Sanctification."
3rd Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
March 7, 2008
This is the third in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The
Word of God Is Living and Effective."
1. "Lectio Divina"
In this meditation we will reflect on the word of God as a way of
personal sanctification. In the "lineamenta" that have been prepared
for the Synod of Bishops in October 2008, this theme is taken up in
Chapter 2, “The Word of God in the Life of the Believer.”
It is a theme that is very dear to the spiritual tradition of the
Church. “The word of God,” St. Ambrose said, “is the vital substance
of our soul; it nourishes, feeds, and governs the soul; there is
nothing else that could give life to man’s soul apart from the word
of God.” “[T]he force and power in the word of God,” adds “Dei
Verbum,” “is so great that it stands as the support and energy of
the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the
soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.”
“It is especially necessary,” John Paul II wrote in “Novo millennio
ineunte,” “that listening to the word of God should become a
life-giving encounter, in the ancient and ever valid tradition of
‘lectio divina,’ which draws from the biblical text the living word
which questions, directs and shapes our lives.” The Holy Father
Benedict XVI has also expressed himself on this theme on the
occasion of the International Congress Sacred Scripture in the Life
of the Church: “By assiduous reading, we listen to God who speaks
and, in prayer, we respond to him with confident openness of
With the reflections that follow I insert myself in this rich
tradition, beginning with what the Scripture itself says on this
point. We read in the letter of Saint James these lines on the word
“He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a
kind of first fruits of his creatures. Know this, my dear brothers:
Everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath,
[...] Therefore, put away all filth and evil excess and humbly
welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save
your souls. Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding
yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he
is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees
himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like. But
the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres,
and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one
shall be blessed in what he does” (James 1:18-25).
2. Welcoming the Word
From James’ text we can draw out a schema of “lectio divina” that
has three steps or successive actions: Welcoming the word,
meditating on the word, putting the word into practice.
Thus the first step is listening to the word: “Welcome the word that
has been planted in you.” This first step embraces all the forms and
ways in which the Christian comes into contact with the word of God:
Listening to the word in the liturgy, now facilitated by the use of
the vernacular and by the wise choice of texts distributed
throughout the year; then, Bible schools, written aids, and --
something that is irreplaceable -- personal reading of the Bible at
home. For those who are called to teach others, to all of this there
is added the systematic study of the Bible: exegesis, textual
criticism, Biblical theology, study of the original languages.
In this phase it is necessary to beware of two dangers. The first is
to stop at this first stage and to transform the personal reading of
the word of God into an “impersonal” reading. This danger is quite
real today, above all in academic institutions.
St. James compares the reading of the word of God with looking at
oneself in the mirror; but for [Soren] Kierkegaard, those who limit
themselves to studying the sources, the variants, the literary
genres of the Bible, without doing anything else, is like someone
who just looks at the mirror -- considering with exactness the form,
the material, the style, the epoch -- without looking at oneself in
the mirror. For Kierkegaard, the mirror does not perform its
function on its own. The word of God has been given so that you put
it into practice and not so that you exercise yourself in exegesis
over its obscurities. There is a “hermeneutic inflation” and, what
is worse, one believes that the most serious thing in regard to the
Bible is hermeneutics, not practice.
The critical study of the word of God is indispensible and one is
never grateful enough to those who give their lives to smooth the
way to an ever better understanding of the sacred text, but it does
not by itself exhaust the meaning of the Scriptures; it is necessary
but not sufficient.
The other danger is fundamentalism: Taking literally everything that
one reads in the Bible, without any hermeneutic mediation. This
second risk is much less innocuous than might seem to be the case at
first glance and the current debate between creationism and
evolutionism is the dramatic confirmation of this.
Those who defend the literal reading of Genesis -- the world was
created some several thousand years ago, in six days, just as it is
now -- cause immense damage to faith. "Young people brought up in
homes and churches that insist on Creationism,” writes the scientist
and Christian, Francis Collins, “sooner or later encounter the
overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of an ancient universe and
the relatedness of all living things through the process of
evolution and natural selection. What a terrible and unnecessary
choice they face! To adhere to the faith of their childhood, they
are required to reject a broad and rigorous body of scientific data,
effectively committing intellectual suicide. Presented with no other
alternative than Creationism, is it any wonder that many of these
young people turn away from faith, concluding that they simply
cannot believe in a God who would ask them to reject what science
has so compellingly taught us about the natural world?"
The two excesses -- hyper-criticism and fundamentalism -- are only
apparently opposed: What they have in common is the fact that both
stop at the letter, neglecting the Spirit.
3. Contemplating the Word
The second step suggested by St. James consists in “fixing one’s
gaze” on the word, in standing for a long time before the mirror, in
sum, in meditating and contemplating the Word. In this connection
the Fathers used the images of chewing and ruminating. “Reading,”
says the 12th century prior of the Grand Chartreuse, Guigo II, the
theorist of the “lectio divina,” “offers substantial food to the
mouth, meditation chews on it and breaks it up.” “When one
recalls to memory things heard and sweetly thinks on them again in
his heart, he becomes like a ruminator,” Augustine says.
The soul that looks into the mirror of the word learns to know “how
he is,” he learns to know himself, he sees his deformities in the
image of God and in the image of Christ. “I do not seek my own
glory,” Jesus says (John 8:50): well, the mirror is in front of you
and immediately you see how far you are from Jesus. “Blessed are the
poor in spirit”: The mirror is again in front of you and immediately
you see that you are full of attachments and full of superfluous
things. “Charity is patient”: You realize how impatient, envious and
self-interested you are.
More than “searching the Scriptures” (cf. John 5:39), it is a matter
of letting oneself be searched by the Scriptures. The word of God,
the Letter to the Hebrews says, “penetrates even to the point of
division of the soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and is able to
discern sentiments and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12-13). The
best prayer for beginning the moment of contemplation is repeating
with the Psalmist: “You search me, O God, and you know my hear, you
probe me and know my thoughts: You see if I my way is crooked and
you guide me along the way of life” (Psalm 139).
But in the mirror of the word, we do not only see ourselves; we see
the face of God; better, we see the heart of God. Scripture, St.
Gregory the Great says, is “is a letter of Almighty God to his
creature; in it one learns to know the heart of God in the words of
God.” Jesus’ saying even holds for God: “From the fullness of the
heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34); God has spoken to us, in
Scripture, of that which fills his heart and that which fills his
heart is love.
In this way the contemplation of the word procures the two pieces of
knowledge that are the most important for advancing along the road
of true wisdom: self-knowledge and knowledge of God. “That I might
know myself and know you” -- “noverim me, noverim te” -- St.
Augustine said to God. “That I might know myself to humble myself
and that I might know you to love you.”
An extraordinary example of this twofold knowledge, of self and of
God, that is obtained from the word of God is the letter to the
Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation, which is worth
meditating on every now and again, especially in this time of Lent
(cf. Revelation 3:14-20). The Risen Christ lays bare the real
situation of the typical member of this community: "I know your
works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were
either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor
cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” The contrast between that
which this person thinks about himself and that which God thinks of
him is striking: “For you say, 'I am rich and affluent and have no
need of anything,' and yet do not realize that you are wretched,
pitiable, poor, blind and naked.”
A passage of unusual toughness, which, however, is immediately
overturned by one of the most touching descriptions of the love of
God: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my
voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine
with him, and he with me.” It is an image that reveals its realistic
and not only metaphorical significance if it is read, as the text
suggests, with the Eucharistic banquet in mind.
Besides serving to verify the personal state of our soul, this
passage of Revelation can help us to uncover the spiritual situation
of the great part of modern society before God. It is like one of
those infrared photographs taken by a satellite that reveals a
panorama completely different from the one we are used to, the one
observed by natural light.
Even in this world of ours, powerful on account of its scientific
and technological conquests -- like the Laodiceans, who were
commercially prosperous -- one feels satisfied, rich, without need
of anyone, not even God. It is necessary that someone show it the
true diagnosis of its state: “You do not know that you are unhappy,
miserable, impoverished, blind and naked.” It is necessary that some
one cry out to it, like the child in the Andersen fable: “The king
is naked!” But through love and with love, like the Risen Christ
with the Laodiceans.
To every soul that desires it, the word of God assures fundamental,
and in itself infallible, spiritual direction. There is a spiritual
direction that is, so to speak, ordinary and everyday, which
consists in the discovering what God wants in the situations in
which man usually finds himself. Such spiritual direction is assured
by meditation on the word of God accompanied by the interior
anointing of the Spirit, who translates the word into good
“inspirations” and the good inspirations into practical resolutions.
This is what is expressed by the verse of the Psalm that is so dear
to lovers of the word: “Your word is a lamp for my steps, light on
my way” (Psalm 119:105).
I was once preaching a mission in Australia. On the last day a man
came to see me, an Italian immigrant who worked there. He said to
me: “Father, I have a serious problem: I have a son who is 11 years
old and who is not yet baptized. The fact is that my wife became a
Jehovah’s Witness and does not want to hear about baptism in the
Catholic Church. If I baptize him, there will be a crisis. If I do
not baptize him I will not be at ease because when we got married we
were both Catholic and we promised to raise our children in the
The next day the man came to see me and was visibly happier and he
said to me: “Father, I found the solution. Last night, after I got
home, I prayed a little bit, then I opened the Bible randomly. I
read the passage where Abraham takes his son Isaac to sacrifice him
and I saw that when Abraham took his son Isaac to be sacrificed it
does not say anything about his wife.” It was an exegetically
perfect discernment. I baptized the boy myself and it was a moment
of great joy for all.
This practice of opening the Bible randomly is a delicate thing,
which must be done with discretion, in a climate of faith and not
without having prayed for a long time. Nevertheless, it cannot be
ignored that, with these conditions, it has often born marvellous
fruit and it has been practiced by the saints. One reads of St.
Francis of Assisi, from the various stories about his life, that he
discovered the type of life to which God was calling him by opening
the Book of the Gospels three times at random “after having prayed a
long time” and being “disposed to follow the first bit of advice
that they offered to him.” Augustine interpreted the words
“Tolle lege” (“Take and read”), which he heard coming from a nearby
house, as a divine order to open the book of Paul’s letters and to
read the verse that presented itself to his glance.”
There have been souls who have become holy with the word of God as
their sole spiritual director. “In the Gospel,” wrote St. Thérèse of
Lisieux, “I find everything necessary for my poor soul. I always
find new light in it, hidden and mysterious meanings. I understand
and know from experience that ‘the kingdom of God is within us’ (cf.
Luke 17:21). Jesus does not need books or teachers to instruct
souls; he is the teacher of teachers, he teaches without the noise
of words.” It was through a word of God, reading, one after the
other, chapters 12 and 13 of 1 Corinthians that Thérèse discovered
her profound vocation and jubilantly exclaimed: “In the mystical
body of Christ I will be the heart that loves!”
The Bible offers a concrete image that sums up everything that has
been said about meditating on the word: that of the book that is
eaten, which we read about in Ezekiel:
“It was then I saw a hand stretched out to me, in which was a
written scroll, which he unrolled before me. It was covered with
writing front and back, and written on it was: Lamentation and
wailing and woe! He said to me: ‘Son of man, eat what is before you;
eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened
my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat. Son of man, he then said
to me, feed your belly and fill your stomach with this scroll I am
giving you. I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. He
said: ‘Son of man, go now to the house of Israel, and speak my words
to them’ (Ezekiel 2:9-3:3; cf. also Revelation 12:10).
There is an enormous difference between the book that is simply read
or studied and the book that is swallowed. In the latter case, the
word truly becomes, as St. Ambrose said, “the substance of our
soul,” that which informs our thoughts, forms language, determines
actions, creates the “spiritual” man. The word that is swallowed is
a Word that is “assimilated” by man, even if it is a passive
assimilation -- as is the case with the Eucharist -- that is of a
“being assimilated” by the Word, subjugated and defeated by that
which is the most powerful of life principles.
In the contemplation of the word we have the sweetest example in
Mary: She stored up all these things -- literally: “these words” --
meditating on them in her heart (Luke 2:19). In her the metaphor of
the book that is swallowed has become reality, even a physical
reality. The word has literally “filled her stomach.”
4. Doing the Word
We thus arrive at the third step along the way proposed by the
Apostle James, the step on which the apostle most insists: “Be doers
of the word and not hearers only, [...] for if anyone is a hearer of
the word and not a doer, [...] a doer who acts, such a one shall be
blessed in what he does.” This is also what Jesus has most at heart:
“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and
put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). Without this “doing the word,”
everything is but an illusion, something built on sand. One cannot
even say to have understood the word because, as St. Gregory the
Great writes, the word of God is only truly understood when one
begins to practice it.
This third step consists in, in practice, obeying the word. The
Greek term that is used in the New Testament to designate obedience
-- “hypakouein” -- literally translated means “listening to,” in the
sense of carrying out what one has heard. “My people have not
listened to my voice, Israel has not obeyed me,” is God’s lament in
the Bible (Psalm 81:12).
As soon as one begins to look through the New Testament to see in
what the duty of obedience consists, one makes a surprising
discovery, and that is, that obedience is almost always seen as
obedience to the word of God. St. Paul speaks of obedience to
teaching (Romans 6:17), of obedience to the Gospel (Romans 10:16; 2
Thessalonians 1:8), of obedience to truth (Galatians 5:7), of
obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). We also find the same
language elsewhere: The Acts of the Apostles speaks of the obedience
of faith (Acts 6:7), the first letter of Peter speaks of obedience
to Christ (1 Peter 1:2) and of obedience to truth (1 Peter 1:22).
The obedience itself of Jesus is exercised above all through
obedience to written words. In the episode of the temptations in the
desert, Jesus’ obedience consists in recalling the words of God and
of abiding by them: “It is written!”
His obedience is exercised, in a special way, to the words that are
written of him and for him “in the law, the prophets, and the
Psalms” and that he, as man, discovers progressively as he advances
in the understanding and fulfilment of his mission.
When they want to prevent his being taken into custody, Jesus says:
“But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled which say that it
must come to pass in this way?" (Matthew 26:54). Jesus’ life is as
guided by a luminous wake that the others do not see and which is
created by the words that were written for him; he gathers from the
Scriptures the “it is necessary” -- “dei” in the Greek -- that
governs his whole life.
The words of God, by the present action of the Spirit, become the
expression of the living will of God for me in a given moment. A
little example will help us to understand this. Once in community I
discovered that someone had mistakenly taken something that I use. I
was on my way to ask that it be returned when by chance -- or
perhaps it was not really by chance -- I came up against the word of
Jesus according to which you must “give to whoever asks of you; and
whoever takes what is yours, do not ask for it back” (Luke 6:30). I
understood that this word did not apply universally in all cases,
but that certainly in that moment it did apply to me. It was a
matter of obeying the word.
Obedience to the word of God is obedience we can always do. Obeying
visible orders and authorities, is something that we do every so
often, three or four times in a lifetime, if we are talking about
serious obedience; but there can be obedience to God’s word in every
moment. It is also the obedience that applies to all of us,
inferiors and superiors, clerics and laity. The laity do not have a
superior in the Church whom they must obey -- at least not in the
sense that religious and clerics have a superior; but they do have,
in compensation, a “Lord” to obey! They have his word!
Let us conclude this meditation of ours making our own the prayer
that St. Augustine, in his “Confessions,” addresses to God to ask
for the understanding of God’s word: “May your Scriptures be my
chaste delight; may I not be deceived about them, nor deceive others
with them. [...] Turn your gaze to my soul and hear the one who
cries out from the depths. [...] Grant me time to meditate on the
secrets of your law, do not close to the one who knocks. [...]
Indeed, your voice is my joy, your voice is a pleasure superior to
all others. Grant me what I love. [...] Do not abandon this parched
blade of grass. [...] May the recesses of your word open to the one
who knocks. [...] I beseech you through our Lord Jesus Christ, [...]
in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge
(Colossians 2:3). These treasures I seek in your books.”
 St. Ambrose, Exp. Ps. 118, 7,7 (PL 15, 1350).
 “Dei Verbum,” 21.
 John Paul II, "Novo Millennio Ineunte," 39.
 Benedict XVI, in AAS 97, 2005, p. 957.
 S. Kierkegaard, “Per l’esame di se stessi.” La Lattera di
Giacomo, 1,22, in “Opere,” a cura di C. Fabro, Firenze 1972, pp. 909
 F. Collins, “The Language of God,” Free Press 2006, pp. 177 s.
 Guigo II, “Lettera sulla vita contemplativa” (Scala claustralium),
3, in Un itinerario di contemplazione. Antologia di autori certosini,
Edizioni Paoline, 1986, p.22.
 St. Augustine, Enarr. in Ps. 46, 1 (CCL 38, 529).
 St. Gregory the Great, Registr. Epist. IV, 31 (PL 77, 706).
 Celano, "Vita Seconda," X, 15
 St. Augustine, “Confessions.” 8, 12.
 St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Manoscritto A, n. 236.
 St. Gregory the Great, Su Ezechiele, I, 10, 31 (CCL 142, p.
 St. Augustine, “Confessions.” XI, 2, 3-4.
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
© Innovative Media, Inc.
Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan
Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno,
Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958.
Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature.
In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II
Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he
still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent
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