Hearing the Word of God
by Fr. Tony Krisak
What is the way we dispose ourselves to hear how God addresses each of us in a unique way through the living Word? How can we position ourselves to hear what God is saying to us through the human words of Scripture? So frequently, when we hear a scriptural text, we struggle to figure out what it means, or what the Church tells us it means. The understandings that we have developed as a Church community over many years are key for becoming engaged with God’s living Word.
Yet, at the same time, we can also hear these words and realize that god speaks to each of us in a personal way. These steps are suggestions for listening to God’s Word as if we were in a living dialogue with a friend. Indeed, whenever we encounter this Word, we can be assured that God has something new to say to us.
Step 1. Erase or suspend all prior understandings and convictions about what the text is supposed to mean.
This step is the most difficult step to take because we are conditioned by our faith traditions, our cultural, family, and ethnic backgrounds, and our own set of personal experiences, to approach the words of scripture as if the meaning is already clear and available. If we hear a text with the idea that we have to plunge in and uncover the meaning (that someone told us is supposed to be there), we can create an obstacle to God speaking directly to us. The aim of this erasing is to listen with a fresh and open heart and mind. In other words, in our first encounter with a text of scripture, even if it is one with which we are thoroughly familiar, we listen to it as though for the very first time.
Step 2. Focus on hearing, rather than “reading,” so that we enter an environment of dialogue.
Our encounter with God’s Word is an opportunity for us to become engaged with the grace-filled way God is engaging us in the midst of our human life. If we think about hearing scripture as a way of engaging with God in conversation or dialogue, our encounter with God’s Word will become more dynamic and we can come to experience the unique way God is addressing, moving, and/or challenging us as human beings created in God’s likeness.
Step 3. Listen to the Word of God with an openness that asks what single word, phrase, image, or gesture most moves, appeals to, or challenges us.
A human tendency we often exhibit stems from a desire to understand the whole of a particular scriptural passage and how it all first together. By focusing on a single word, phrase, image, or gesture, that most strongly connects us to the Word, we find the lynchpin around which God is reaching out to us. We could read the same passage over a span of day and find that what stands out most is different each time. Take that single image or word and spend some time reflecting on why and how it stands out.
- What feelings are aroused or touched?
- How do these feeling affect the way I might hear what God is saying to me?
- What recollections come to mind in the face of this single word, phrase, or image?
- What does this word or image have to say about being in a relationship with the divine?
Step 4. Relying on this lynchpin, move to the level of insight by asking what single thought comes to mind in the midst of this encounter.
The single thought that comes to mind may relate to human life, God, Jesus, the Church, or some other aspect of what God is trying to say. It may be an insight about relationships with others or with God. Spend some time reflecting on that insight, but remember that previous understandings are still suspended. We are not looking for a correct answer, simply for the insight that has come into our attention.
Warning: If this insight includes any moral words like “should,” “ought,” or “must,” then go back. Try to arrive at an insight that is descriptive rather than performative.
Step 5. On the basis of this single insight and the feelings that have been raised, ask why this insight might be decisive for your life’s journey.
This is where we reach the moral level, but rather than jumping into hasty conclusions about what we should or shouldn’t do, we will discover that through the interior experience of God’s Spirit, we become motivated to act or behave in a particular way. We will find that we are acting faithfully, not because we have been told to do so, but because we have encountered God in such an appealing way that we are drawn to respond with the love that God offers us.
Step 6. Share what has been heard with others.
- We become aware of how rich the Word of God is and how this Word evokes multiple meanings that reach each of us in a personal way.
- Dialogue with others serves as a corrective in case we have misheard what God is saying to us. We want to avoid falling into the historical class of people who have done strange or violent things on the basis of what they think God has said to them.
- We can discover that some of our insights are shared by others in our tradition, and we can learn that some insights have higher priority in life than others.
Fr. Tony Krisak, a priest of the Diocese of Trenton, is the Director of Internet Services for Paulist Evangelization Ministries and the editor of Evangelization Exchange. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University Maryland where he is currently teaching Biblical Spirituality.