Through stories, letters, historical accounts, laws, proverbs, and liturgical texts, the Bible contains truths about God, our humanity, the world, and how we are to be in relationship with each. It is a wealth of wisdom and knowledge, capturing what God’s people have said about God for thousands of years, and so naturally is something that we as Christians should study seriously.
But the Bible is not simply a source of truth and knowledge, a book of facts for one to amass and master. Sacred Scripture is a living document, a mystery, a source of spiritual nourishment that can only be entered into, never fully grasped. As much as it is useful to study the Bible in an academic way so as to understand the context and the meaning that the human writer intended, one’s knowledge of the Bible is only truly useful to a Christian to the extent that it helps one enter more deeply into what the divine writer, God, had in mind. Scripture is something to be studied, yes, but it is more fundamentally something that should be prayed.
By no means an exhaustive list, I want to share two ways that I have found to do just that.
Ignatian Reading One of the most common ways to pray with Scripture, credited to St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits, is to use one’s imagination to enter into the text. After reading a passage two or three times, the reader is encouraged to close one’s eyes and to reconstruct the whole scene as if s/he was there as a witness. What did the scene look like? Was it bright or dark? Who was there? Were there any distinct smells or sounds? What did the situation physically feel like? By using one’s imagination, the scene becomes more than words on a page but a real life situation. Often the reader is encouraged then to take on the role of one of the characters in the story, maybe a minor role, to see the text from a new and focused perspective. What did the character feel when this happened?
In using one’s imagination in this way, the reader is focused less on coming up with an intellectual summation of the text (the passage means ____) and more on experiencing the passage as it was actually experienced. The brilliance of this method is that one does not simply walk away with a concrete directive or definitive interpretation, but with a first-hand emotional and sensory encounter. Unlike interpretations, encounters are personal, intimate, and new every time. And so is Scripture.
Incarnational Reading The second method is a bit less popular, and as such, I’m not sure if it even has a name. After reading the passage two or three times, the reader is encouraged to draw on the lived experience of the reading in today’s world. How have I experienced this passage in my own life? Where have I seen this character before? When has this situation happened to me? Unlike the Ignatian method that helps the reader go back to the world of the text, this method of reading Scripture brings Scripture forward to the life of the reader. It is not a means of entering into the Word, per se, but a means of noticing the Word alive and true all around.
A comparison might be the best way of explaining the difference. If we were to read the passage, say, of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), the Ignatian method would provide a powerful sensory experience: the sight of the poor man lying on the road, the smell of the dogs all around him, the feeling of hunger, the texture of his sores, and so on, would allow the reader to feel as if s/he were in 1st century Palestine with Lazarus himself. Reading the same story with the Incarnational method, however, might provide the reader with a new sense of clarity and divine vision: thinking about the poverty of Lazarus might remind the reader of a homeless person s/he passed earlier that day or a time when s/he acted like the Rich man in his indignation towards the poor. In doing so, the text comes alive just as in the Ignatian method, but alive in the sense that the Word is realized to be a lived experience in today’s world, not just 2000 years ago. Oh… Jesus loves that poor homeless man on the street and it is a grave sin for me to walk past him with no concern. The story is about me.
The brilliance of this method is that it moves the experience of Scripture and God’s Word (Jesus) away from “something that happened” toward “something that is happening.” God’s word is alive. The events recounted in Scripture are not meant to be read as a history book, finished and complete, never to be repeated again; they are snapshots in time of who and what God is in eternity. Reading in this way moves God–and religion in general–away from rules, facts, rituals, and morals to be remembered and towards a personal, intimate experience of God today, right now.
Naturally, both methods offer incredibly valuable insights and promote a prayerful reading of Scripture. They encourage active participation, and transform the text into a personal encounter with our God. Personally, as a Franciscan, I am much more inclined to favor the latter example as it is straight out of our spirituality, but I recognize the benefit of the Ignatian method and think that they can work in tandem for a deeper experience of prayer. Of course, these are just two ways of prayerfully studying Scripture, and if neither of them work for you, maybe there is another method that would work better! The important this is not the specific method we use, but that we engage the Word of God in our lives in a way that it guides and transforms us into disciples of Christ.