Reverencing the Bible
By Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

Many of us have been privileged to be in the presence of someone on his or her deathbed. In such a setting we are understandably concerned about listening to every word that the dying person is saying and about choosing our own words carefully. It is with that degree of reverence that we should approach the Bible: with halting humility.

The language of the Bible is more poetry than prose. It doesn't so much describe an event historically as it seeks to lead us into the experience itself. We can change the meanings of words, but an experience changes us. Good biblical interpretation finds the balance between words that get us started and encounters, which are beyond words.

Just before he delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses (Exodus 19), God appears in "a dense cloud" and Mount Sinai is "wrapped in smoke." Moses is not permitted to see God's face. And yet, Yahweh speaks to him and gives Moses the word of God. At the Transfiguration (Matthew 17), Jesus appears to several disciples, his face shining "like the sun" and his clothes "white as light." Afterwards Jesus cautions them: "Do not tell the vision..." In these examples we observe the spiritual tradition that balances darkness and light, presence and absence, speaking and silence, seeing everything so well that you do not need to see anything in particular.

Again and again, the Bible finds the balance between knowing and not knowing, between using words and having a humility about words. To read the Bible well, we need to appreciate that balance and allow the Spirit to stir its meaning for us. But for most of us in the contemporary West, it is an uphill struggle. We often prefer to read the Bible literally and to turn to it for precise answers to our questions.

Need for Grounding

Ours is a time of such cultural and spiritual change that the human psyche struggles to handle it all. The September 11 terrorist attack on U.S. soil has shaken us to our core. No wonder many of us look for certitudes to help ground us. Without consciously tending to, we seek to make God our private property by taking biblical language literally and reading it from our own perspective and our own cultural interpretation. When we do this, we lapse into a kind of blinding time capsule that does not enlighten at all. God gives us just enough light for the next faith-filled step, never a blueprint for all of life.

The well-intended "Jesus Seminar" offers an example. Here scholars comb through New Testament texts in an effort to determine if Jesus did say this or that and did or did not use certain precise words. When we exclusively take that approach, we lose more than we gain, although I do not deny that it is often helpful. We risk moving out of sacred space and trivializing what we have—or might have—experienced. We risk declaring victory before we have even struggled. We settle the agonizing dust by giving ourselves answers, when the raised dust instead might reveal to us the right question.

Journey of Faith

Though we often wish it were so, the biblical God is not a cure-all, a fix for the human paradox or a cosmic answer man (or answer woman). The God who lives inside of history, uses it and suffers from it gives us basic truths on which we can rely. But he doesn't give us all the answers to protect us from our history. In fact, God leads us into the dilemma of our lives and invites us into a daring journey that will always be faith. Always, it seems, God comes to us disguised as our life.

The Bible offers us hope, but it does not offer an escape from life. It is in life that we meet God. So very little in our lives is ever resolved or solved, settled or answered. There is only the crisis itself, the struggle. The outgrowing of the need for an answer takes us in the direction of eternal life. Our God calls us to stay in the struggle—still wanting to know, but as persons of faith being willing not to know. All because we can trust the One who does know.

RICHARD ROHR, a Franciscan priest from Our Lady of Guadalupe Province in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. His newest book is Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

Listen to a RealAudio excerpt from Father Richard Rohr

(Taken from New Great Themes of Scripture, a 10-part audiocassette series available from St. Anthony Messenger Press, A7090, $49.95.)

Questions for Reflection:

  • The Bible does not offer all the answers to life's questions. What question, left unanswered, do you find most baffling?
  • Choose one word from Scripture that most speaks to your heart. Explain.

Responses to this month's Questions for Reflection


return to top

The Gift of Silence
By Judith Dunlap

In the last 20 years young people have forgotten what silence sounds like. Those traditional times of quiet (mowing the lawn, riding a bike) are gone. Youngsters are plugged into sound. Even we adults can't seem to walk into a room or ride in the car without turning on a radio or CD player. Yet we know it is often in the quiet that God speaks to us. Remember Elijah on that mountaintop? It wasn't in the wind, fire or earthquake that he heard the Lord. It was in the silence (1 Kings 19:12).

There is a tradition of prayer in our Church called Lectio Divina ("holy reading") that includes practiced silence. It involves four steps: reading (usually from Scripture), meditating (thinking about or placing yourself in the story), contemplation (sitting in silence with a word or passage) and prayer (telling God what the reading meant to you). Small groups and individuals practice this ancient prayer form in monasteries and homes. It can be a great way to pray together as a family.

Gather the family and read a story from Jesus' life. Ask youngsters how they might feel if they were one of the people involved. (Make sure you talk about how you would have felt too.) Pick out a word or two. Tell your children to sit quietly and repeat the word in their heads—not thinking about the word, just repeating it. After a minute, ask everyone to say a short prayer out loud.

Life is different for every generation. There are losses and gains. This generation seems to have an ever-growing access to information and a dwindling availability of quiet time. Helping our children appreciate silence is a gift they can use all their lives.


For Family Response: Read the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Talk about how you would have felt if you were in the crowd. Spend a minute in quiet, repeating the phrase "come down." Take turns praying aloud.

Responses to this month's FAMILY CORNER.


return to top

Apocalypse Now Redux
By Claire and Frank Frost

Twenty-two years after its first release, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux has not lost an ounce of its impact. Released with additional footage, it transcends the political-moral struggles of the Vietnam War that first spawned it.

Today it speaks powerfully to many, even those who are too young to remember the turmoil of the 60s. Visually stunning, complex and deeply affecting, this is more than a war movie and well worth the time and emotional energy it demands.

Several years into the war, Army Special Operations officer Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned the task of finding and removing "with extreme prejudice" American Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Willard is warned by the briefing officers that Kurtz has broken from the authority of the U.S. Army, gone insane, committed murder and created a native following, among whom he lives as a god. And so Willard ventures upriver in a small fishing boat with a handful of Navy enlisted men in search of Kurtz. Along the way the young men—and we as the audience—are forced to witness the genuine horrors of war.

But the film is as much about an internal journey as it is about an expedition into the jungle. Modeled on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it is about the disturbing and difficult exploration of the self. Characters are confronted with impossible questions. Captain Willard must decide how to act in regard to Col. Kurtz, probing his notions of value and morality. What meaning can an accusation of murder have amidst the standard atrocities of war? Is violence any worse than hypocrisy? Can a moral code apply within the chaos and violence of war, or is judgment impossible, inappropriate?

The soldiers, and we the audience, are forced to look into the face of seemingly incomprehensible, meaningless horror and ask: How can this happen? How can I continue to live in a world where such atrocity is possible? How can I live with myself, knowing that the capacity to commit such horrors lives within me?

The film does not provide any easy answers, but the decision of Willard in the final scene offers hope.

Apocalypse Now Redux restores almost an hour of footage that was cut from the movie's original release. Two extended scenes—one involving two Playboy bunnies, the other a French colonial widow—are interesting in that these are the only ones which introduce women to the action. One scene is disturbing; the other suggests hope. Both add to the film's considerable length, but they also add to its impact.

This is a film for mature viewers, artistically, morally and intellectually. Beautifully shot, scored and imagined, Apocalypse Now Redux will take you on an unreal journey—into the horrors of war, of inhumanity, even into yourself.

eturn to top

By Judy Ball

St. Margaret of Scotland (1046?-1093)

Once upon a time... The early life of St. Margaret of Scotland is rich in fairy-tale elements: A refined, cultured, beautiful young princess brought up in the court of King Stephen in Hungary meets her future husband, Scottish King Malcolm III, when she and her family are shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland. They fall in love, marry at a castle and live happily ever after.

Margaret's middle and later years were filled with far more than royal duties, though she took those seriously. She became the mother of six sons and two daughters. Their schooling—particularly their religious education—was of special concern to her; David, her youngest son, was eventually canonized.

Her energy went far beyond her role as mother. She engaged in efforts to correct religious abuses common at the time, including simony and usury. She helped reorganize the Scottish Church and, with her husband, built a number of parishes.

Margaret also took the time to nourish her own spiritual life. She was known for her piety and prayerfulness as well as her austerity. Her concern and energy for the poor knew no bounds. It is said that during Advent and Lent both she and her husband fed hundreds of poor people from their own table. The beggars who flocked to her in public came to count on her steady generosity.

Margaret of Scotland was a queen who used her power and position to influence her family, her people, her nation and her Church. She died four days after her beloved husband and their oldest son were killed in battle.

The patron saint of Scotland, she was canonized in 1250. Her feast day is November 16.

Mary McAleese

When she took office as the eighth president of Ireland four years ago this month, Mary McAleese embraced the opportunity to use her authority as leader of a changed and changing country. As the first president from Northern Ireland (the Belfast area of Ardoyne, a small Catholic enclave in a mainly Protestant area), she sees herself as a bridge-builder.

The bridges she hopes to construct, she said at her inauguration, "require no engineering skills. But they will demand patience, imagination and courage." Those are the qualities the 50-year-old mother of three brings to her role as leader of an island of 5 million people.

One of her strongest commitments as president of Ireland is to Church—and not only the one in which she was baptized. In a country that has known so much religious sectarianism, President McAleese has made it a practice to attend services at various churches throughout the country, though she has not always been popular for doing so.

"We love our churches," says the attorney and former television newscaster. "They are our hearth and home." But, she emphasizes, "Reconciliation in Christ frees us from anxiety about our identity. We exist in relation to him, not through comparison with those who differ from us."

President McAleese hopes that the new millennium brings to Ireland "a more humble, radical and relevant community of churches" committed to forgiveness, reconciliation and love. "We dare to hope for an Ireland where Christians are at last known by the way they love one another and by the way they joyfully welcome the stranger as a brother or sister in Christ."

return to top

The following products can be ordered from St. Anthony Messenger Press/Franciscan Communications (1-800-488-0488):

"A Catholic Response to Biblical Fundamentalism" (audiocassette)
"Hearing the Wisdom of Jesus" (audiocassette)
"An Overview of the Bible," Scripture From Scratch, Unit I (videocassette)
Armchair Mystic: Easing Into Contemplative Prayer (book)
Pray the Bible (book)


I want to order a 12-month bulk subscription
to hand out in my parish or classroom.



return to top
Paid Advertisement
Ads contrary to Catholic teachings should be reported to our webmaster. Include ad link.

An AmericanCatholic.org Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2014 Copyright