Rabbi Eliezer was the first to speak. “If a man really wants to understand a word in the Scriptures,” he said, “he has to enter into it with his whole being.”
“But isn’t it impossible for a grown-up man to enter into a small word?” one of his disciples objected.
“I did not speak about men who think they are bigger than words,” the Rabbi answered.
How big is a word? Recall the power of the tongue, the way this very small part of the body can cause great good as well as great evil. Small words can have an extremely large impact on people’s lives—building up and tearing down, wounding and healing (James 3:1–6). If this is true for words in general, it is all the more true for the words of Holy Scripture. In it we hear the voice of God. It is important, therefore, to keep Rabbi Eliezer’s advice in mind as we consider the role of God’s Word in spiritual formation. In relating to the Word of God, we relate to something immensely bigger and more powerful than ourselves. This we must never forget.
First, in Scripture we meet the Word that created and upholds the world. God’s Word formed all of creation. It is the forming and sustaining power behind all that is. God called everything into life, including us. Without the creating power of God’s Word, none of us would exist or survive. It is the basis of our being. At the same time, this very Word is also the tool God uses to re-create and heal us, to reshape our inner lives and form us into the likeness of Jesus. Indeed, “the word of God is alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12, NIV1); it penetrates into our hearts and souls, judging the bad and strengthening the good.
Second, in Scripture we meet the Word that became flesh. In Jesus from Nazareth, we meet God’s Word incarnate in human life. Following Rabbi Eliezer’s thought, Jesus was a man who entered into God’s Word with his whole being. But equally true, the Word of God entered all of him. Thus, when reading about his life and deeds, we literally observe the body language of God. When listening to the words Jesus spoke, we literally hear God speaking.
Through the Scriptures we are exposed to this same incarnate Word of God, which we can receive as Jesus did. And the Word of God can incarnate itself in our lives, “until Christ is formed in [us]” (Galatians 4:19).
Engaging the Senses
In order for this to happen—in order for the Word of God to be incarnated in our lives, and the creative power of God’s word to re-create our innermost being—studying Scripture with the mind and intellect is not enough.
It is not enough merely to understand the meaning of the words we read, nor is it enough to develop a thorough and consistent theology, however sound. In fact, reading Scripture to this end can even be counterproductive to our spiritual formation. Grasping the rational meaning of the Word of God leads easily to an attitude of being in control, keeping the God who speaks in the words of the Holy Scriptures at a nonthreatening distance. This, speaking in the Rabbi’s terms again, is to think of ourselves as being bigger than a word. The sad fact is that we can understand the message of Scripture intellectually without entering into the Word with our whole being.
It is important, therefore, to supplement a rational and intellectual reading of the Bible with other forms of engagement. In order to truly enter Scripture with our whole being, we must also engage the senses, the emotions, and even the subconscious mind. We need to learn ways of letting Scripture read us and form us. We cannot treat the Scriptures as only the raw material from which we extract our doctrine. It is we who are the raw material that God forms into the likeness of his Son—the Word-become-flesh.
That Which We Have Seen
One day near the end of his life, the apostle John sat down and wrote a letter to the Christian believers. He looked back on the years he had long before spent with Jesus in Galilee and Judea and put on paper: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). While still a young disciple, John had lived very close to Jesus, the incarnated Word of life. They walked along the roads together, and John knew Jesus’ pace. He knew not only what Jesus said, but also his tone of voice. Not only did he observe what Jesus was doing, but he also felt the atmosphere and spirit in which it was done.
When Jesus stopped and looked at someone, John saw the unspoken message of his Master’s eyes. One evening, at the Last Supper, he even heard the heartbeats of Jesus as John rested his head against Jesus’ chest.
For John, relating to the Word of life had, from the very beginning, involved both body and soul. He had learned to open his whole being—senses, emotions, reflections, and thoughts—to the Word. More than fifty years after Jesus was taken away from his eyes, he still related to him through memory and his senses. He recalled what he and the others had seen, heard, and touched. What had happened and what had been said as they spent their days with Jesus were a vivid reality within him. In recalling the events, he still related directly to the Word of life that over the years had formed him into the likeness of Christ. We know this because he was known as the apostle of love.
The Eyes of the Heart
John and the other eyewitnesses had, of course, an advantage over us. They had seen, heard, and touched Jesus with their physical senses. But this advantage should not be exaggerated. It could not have been only easy to make the jump from knowing Jesus the man into worshipping him as God. And the time they spent together physically was very limited, lasting just three years.
For the rest of their lives, the eyewitnesses were restricted to their inner senses and the memory of the Word they had heard, seen, and touched. They had to “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). This has always been the normal condition for humans’ relation to God. Like us, they lived most of the time with Jesus out of sight. But this did not keep them from developing a close inner relationship to him. They had, as John puts it, “fellowship . . . with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3), and this fellowship was sustained precisely by what they had once witnessed. They had experienced how the Word of life appeared before their eyes. Now this Word lived in them and kept forming their inner lives.
This is also achievable for us living so many years later. In Scripture, the eyewitnesses have told us what they experienced and what it meant to them. By exposing ourselves to their accounts, the Word of life can live in us as well. We cannot, as they could, recall what our physical senses once experienced. But each physical sense has its inner counterpart: the eye of the heart, the inner ear, the touch and taste of the soul. These inner senses can be trained. By engaging them as we read the Word of God, the events we read about will start living their own life deep within, just as they did in those who were first-century witnesses.
There is nothing mystical about this. It is like reading a good story. If we just open our inner senses to what we read, the story comes alive in us. That does not, of course, happen if we read only to find the message of the story. And if this is true for any story, it is all the more true for the Story—the Bible. But if we enter Scripture with our whole being—including our imagination and inner senses—we will find that Scripture enters us. This is where real formation occurs.
Imagination and Jesus Meditation
Engaging our senses and our imaginative power in reading the Bible has a long tradition in the Christian church. Five hundred years ago, Ignatius Loyola recommended it in his Spiritual Exercises, but he, of course, drew his insights from even older sources. The practice of this way of entering into the word of God may, I suspect, go all the way back to the apostles themselves.
Imagination can be applied to any Bible passage, but it is especially suited to gospel scenes and other vivid stories rendered in the Scriptures. Gerard W. Hughes, a leading figure in the revived Ignatian spiritual direction of our day, gives a very simple introduction to imaginative reading of a Gospel passage:
Imagine the scene is taking place now, and that you are in it. You don’t have to imagine yourself as a Galilean of two thousand years ago. Just be yourself, but a participant and not a spectator. Do not force anything. The ideal is to let imagination lead you, rather than trying to control it. In order to engage the inner senses in this process, let yourself imagine—for example—the details of the people being described. Imagine the form and color of rooms, clothing, and what the different people present are like. Allow yourself to have an imaginary conversation with the individuals involved. Note particularly Jesus and the effect he has on people present. Then see him turning to you. What response can you make? Let your heart respond as spontaneously and honestly as you can.2
In Norway, this type of imaginative reading of Scripture has become known as “Jesus meditation.” It was developed and popularized by Rev. Edin Løvås, who, in spite of his low-church, evangelical, revivalist background, was the founder of the growing ecumenical retreat movement in Norway, now over fifty years old. As a young preacher, he was deeply inspired by Ignatius. Over time, his introduction to imaginative meditation on gospel scenes has become simpler and simpler. His best-known book is called Minutes with Jesus.3 It consists of 365 small scenes from the Gospels, into which he invites readers to enter with three key words: See—picture the scene with your inner eye; Pray—to Jesus as if you were one of the people present in the scene; Worship—Jesus as the one whom that scene reveals as he is.
Entering into the Scripture with your inner senses is a way of getting directly involved with Jesus in prayer and life. This kind of meditation can bridge the gap of two thousand years between the gospel events and us. The key lies in the fact that Jesus is invisibly but really present with us. But to envision him as he really is, and not as a mere product of our thoughts and wishes, we need to recall him as he appeared on earth with his disciples. In Jesus meditation, we enter the gospel scenes so that the Jesus of the scenes, the incarnate Word of God, might enter us.
As for myself, I got to know this way of imaginative reading and meditation in my student years, back in the 1970s. It was a great help to deepen and to root the rather superficial and emotional experiences of the Jesus Revolution, which also affected my life. It became a tool for discerning the spirits. At the same time, the meditative encounter with Bible texts added life and new dimensions to my theological studies.
I have now lived thirty years with this method as my basic approach to Scripture. Over the course of these years, I have listened to lots of sermons and read quite a bit of interesting and inspirational theological literature, but nothing has had such a profound and life-giving impact on my relationship to God as the hours I have spent in imaginative Jesus Meditation. A few times I have experienced a total elimination of the distance between the gospel scene and my prayer room. It has been like entering into words that simultaneously have read me—the passages of Scripture now literally having their life within me.
Tasting the Words
All people have imagination. Some need to train it, but it is there. But not all people imagine in the same way. Some have a very vivid inner vision and can picture scenes from the Bible in great detail. Others are more inclined to inner listening; it is as if they can hear the sounds of the story they read. Others again have an inner sensitivity to atmosphere, to underlying emotions in a situation. One should, therefore, be careful not to imitate others. Each of us must find his or her own way of meditating.
One way that has been a blessing to me could be called tasting passages of the Bible. Taste is also one of our senses, and the inner taste might especially help us get the most out of shorter, emphatic Bible quotations. Take, for instance, the sentence, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), from the Sermon on the Mount. In order to taste these words, I have practiced this kind of tasting particularly on the many questions that appear in Holy Scripture. It is sometimes difficult to get very clear answers from the Bible. But there is no doubt that the Bible presents clear and challenging questions. It is striking how often God approaches humans with questions that open further communication.
We see it already back in the Garden of Eden. “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) is the first recorded question God asked men. How did this question sound? How does it taste? Was he angry, concerned, or even longing? The answer influences deeply our image of God. Another example is the question Jesus asked Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). Try to move the stress from word to word and feel the different tastes of this open, respectful question. Each of them appeals to different needs that the blind man—or you, tasting the question now—might have. We don’t know exactly how it sounded at the time. But one of its flavors could now be precisely what makes the connection between your life and this Bible passage.
Chewing Again and Again
Related to this way of turning and tasting questions and statements is the inner repetition of short Bible quotations. This is quite similar to the Jesus Prayer practiced in the Orthodox Churches and in some ways also to the repetition of a mantra in the Eastern religions.
When you read a passage from Scripture, some words might speak to your heart in a special way, or for some reason stand out as especially important or worth pondering. Keep them in mind and start repeating the words consciously, whispering them with the rhythm of your breath. After a while, the words may sink down and keep on praying deep inside you.
This repetitive reading of and being read by Scripture has its roots in both Old Testament Judaism as well as early Christian monastic practices. The daily lectio continua at meals was combined with inner, prayerful repetition of shorter passages. One spoke of ruminatio, literally meaning “chewing the cud,” an expression found as early as Pachomius, who founded a monastery in the fourth century. Words from the Bible that had sunk down in the soul were repeatedly lifted up into the conscious mind to be chewed anew for further digestion.
Wilhelm of St. Thierry (early twelfth century), a friend of Bernhard of Clairvaux, put it this way:
The difference between ruminatio and normal reading of the Scriptures is like the difference between lasting friendship and a short visit, or between brotherly love and a casual greeting. Out of the daily readings there must every day come a mouthful that goes down into the stomach of our memory, so that it might be well digested, and ruminated when it is pushed up again. 4
The Word Enters Us
The rumination of the Word of God is a method that engages our subconscious mind in relating to Scripture. As with imagination, tasting, and other uses of inner senses in Bible reading, the inner repetition often leads to the experience that Scripture reads us.
Truly, the Word of God lives its life within us.
All these ways of exposing ourselves to Holy Scripture are ways of entering into the Word with our whole being, just as Rabbi Eliezer prescribed. But there is more. As we read the Word, we are being read. As we enter the Word, the Word enters us. And this is even more important—because the Word of God is bigger than we are.