When I was at university, I heard about a French professor who told his class they wouldn't really know the language until their dreams were in French.
Towards the end of the term, a student came up to him all excited. “Professor,” he said, “last night I dreamt in French!”
“That's wonderful,” the teacher replied.
“Not really,” said the young man. “I didn't understand a word they were saying.”
I’ve never forgotten the story, because it’s a reminder that I can sometimes listen to what Jesus says without understanding what he means. It’s a risk that the Lord himself points out. More than once he exclaims “Let anyone with ears listen!” (Mt 11:15).
After the miracle of the loaves and fish he asks the disciples “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (Mk 8:18) Whether we are spiritually near-sighted or hard or hearing, we risk missing what St. Paul describes as things “no eye has seen, nor hear heard, nor the human heart conceived”prepared by God for those who love him.
These thoughts brought me to a basic question this week: how do we grow in understanding the Word of God? How do we use our eyes and ears to truly see and hear what God has revealed to us in Christ?
One way is by using a simple two-step process, borrowed from the method of prayer called Lectio Divina (which we’ll talk more about in a minute). The first step is the easy one: we ask the question “what does the Gospel say?” We do that every Sunday if we listen to the reading and stay awake for the homily.
Figuring out what Jesus is saying and why is obviously important. Today, for instance, we saw the Lord transfigured before his apostles, in the company of the two greatest figures of the Old Testament.
What we see and hear on the mountain of the Transfiguration leads to important conclusions. One of them is historical: Jesus wanted to strengthen Peter and James and John to face the scandal and the terror of the crucifixion. Other conclusions are timeless: Standing with Moses and Elijah, Jesus is revealed as the very center of God’s revelation. And we are commanded to listen to him by the words of God the Father himself.
This first step—figuring out what the Gospel passage says to everyone—is important. But it is not enough. There is a second question we must answer: what does the Gospel say to me? This is a very different question. The first question might be called objective—you can answer it with your head. But the second is subjective—you can answer it only with your heart.
In the very first words of his Rule, St. Benedict tells monks to listen to God with the ear of their hearts. The ears of our hearts seems to be a mixed metaphor—a bit like the time ad admiring politician said that the late Premier W.A.C. Bennett was a man who could walk a straight fence and keep both ears to the ground—but it’s actually a lovely image for the second step in understanding God’s Word. We listen with the ears of our heart: we ask the question “What do Christ’s words mean to me?”
Not what they mean to everyone, not to history, not to scholars, not even to the Church—what is the Lord saying to me? What does the Gospel I have just read or listened say about my life, right now?
As you know, we’ve been promoting Lectio Divina—prayerful reading of Scripture. This week we gathered twice to pray with today’s Gospel. It was a very good experience, because the story of the Transfiguration is packed with phrases that can open our eyes and ears to the word God is speaking personally to each of us.
- Peter said to Jesus, “Lord it is good for us to be here.” As I prayed in the church together with parishioners, I thanked God for the grace of being the pastor of this wonderful community. I thanked him for the men and women who had taken the time to share prayer with me and others. I was reminded of the goodness of life in the parish despite all its challenges.
- God the Father spoke through the cloud. “Listen to him,” he said. For me, this was a command to be more faithful in meditation on the Gospels. Someone else in the pews might have realized they were ignoring Christ’s teaching in some way. Someone else might have been helped to know that even the apostles needed a reminder from time to time to stop talking and listen.
- Jesus touched the trembling disciples and told them “get up.” For some, those were the words they needed to hear to climb back from a fall.
- He added those memorable words, found so often in the Gospels, “do not be afraid.” All of us have different fears, but Jesus speaks a word of power to each. The radiant and transfigured Christ, showing his divinity like never before, says even to the half-deaf: do not be afraid. For some of us gathered in prayer this week, those were the only words we needed to hear from this Sunday’s Gospel.
I want to leave you with a wonderful sentence from Pope Emeritus Benedict. He wrote “The word of God draws each of us into a conversation with the Lord: the God who speaks teaches us how to speak to him.” (Verbum Domini, 24)