Origins in the Jewish Tradition
Psalm 119: 174 — 176
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
I long for your salvation, LORD; your teaching is my delight.
Let me live to praise you; may your edicts give me help.
I have wandered like a lost sheep; seek out your servant,
for I do not forget your commands.
Naturally, as with much of Christian culture, there are very strong links with Judaism. Our Hebrew Catholic perspective will demonstrate this, principally to explain our priorities and emphases; and to encourage our fellow-members of the Church frequently to re-assess with us the time and space we assign to the things of God. In this brief article we have drawn some of the material from Part III of the paper by Fr. Romero de Lima Gouvea, O. Carm.
In the Synagogue
As soon as one enters a synagogue, one’s attention is drawn immediately to the Ark at the east end of the auditorium. Everything faces east. A red light is always burning in the vicinity of the Ark, signifying the presence of the Living Word of God (Torah), which He gave to Israel at Sinai, and which is faithfully recorded in copies of the scrolls resting behind the doors of the Ark. In some Jewish cultures, as soon as a person enters the synagogue, he kneels and bows to the floor, facing east; acknowledging God’s Presence in the former Temple at Jerusalem — now represented by this presence of the Torah scrolls.
During the synagogue service, the scrolls of the Torah are ceremonially and lovingly lifted from their resting place in the Ark and taken in procession round the entire interior of the synagogue. This aspect of the service has many significant meanings, such as:
— the Torah is from heaven and is given for all who will listen
and obey God’s teaching;
— those present can touch the scroll covering, shield or crown
with their Tzitzit (prayer shawl tassel), Seder (prayer book) or
Tanach (Bible), and then kiss that article to signify they want the
Divine Word to ever be on their lips and to flow on to anyone
who wishes to share it.
In the tradition established by Moses, a selected passage is chanted on the Sabbath and festivals, (later, other days as well). In time, the custom arose following the reading with a psalm recited or sung by the congregation. During the reading of the appointed passage the members of the congregation follow the chanting and at the same time check out the spiritual meaning of the sacred text by studying the annotations presented in their copy of the text. The writer has frequently been greatly edified by the points noted for reflection, and by the comments of members of the congregation sitting nearby.
Later in the service, the rabbi speaks about the religious content of the reading and suggests ways in which everyone can put these blessed words from God into daily practice. His explanation and interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures are keenly sought, as Jews give priority to interpretation from those ordained to provide it, over personal and private interpretation. This is especially important since God has always provided teachers blessed and equipped to open the texts and share what they contain with all who would listen.
Hebrew Catholic Context
Before the Sunday Eucharist (Mass) gets underway, especially if it is the principal Mass of the day, or a solemn Mass, there is a very significant (in Jewish thinking) rite of purification.
This includes the prayer:
“Cleanse me of sin with hyssop, O Lord,
that I may be purified;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
The congregation is then ceremonially sprinkled with Holy Water. This is followed by other introductory prayers, and then the Liturgy of the Word, which corresponds in many ways to the synagogue service with which the first Christians were thoroughly familiar.
In the Hebrew Catholic approach to celebrating God’s presence in the Divine Word, we especially look towards doing this as part of our participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass. We look upon the public proclamation of the Sacred Scriptures as a time of intense encounter with our Lord Jesus Messiah (the Anointed of God) — Jeshua Messiach — with Christ the Word. All Scripture points to Him, and His saving action. He is Christ our Torah, and one of His greatest blessings is imparted lavishly upon those who study (in the Biblical sense) the texts appointed for worship. This preparation can entail reading, studying, “digging over”, enquiring about and meditating on the text(s) as best as our ability or circumstances permit. This can take place during the week leading up to our coming together to give thanks to God in the Eucharist; or, if more appropriately, during the week following that. In God’s time, either practice gives glory to His Holy Name.
There is a myriad of ways in which reflection on the Scripture text (or texts) can be approached. Our “method” is one which has developed over the past 40 — 50 years in small groups. We refer to it as “Lectio Divina” though some would say we give more emphasis to knowledge of the passage than traditional Lectio employs. Our response to that is that we welcome the input of such information during the process. It is knowledge of the One who the text is about which is highlighted — it is knowing the Divine Word Himself — Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Our time of reflection is not a “Bible Study”, but an encounter with the One to whom the whole Bible points. Our group (or individual) reflections help us keep our hearts and minds present to Christ the Word, throughout the week. This corresponds to traditional Jewish methods of literally embracing the Word, encountering it physically as well as in the soul, and living accordingly. The Jewish custom of attaching the Torah — Divine Word —to parts of one’s home, or parts of one’s body is in fact to attach oneself and dwelling to God through His Holy Word. This emphasises the Jewish understanding of being members of God’s Household, and God likewise residing in our home and within us. Hebrew Catholic spirituality retains the essential intentions of these hallowed practices and this emerges in our approach to meditation: in the use of sacred objects, and gentle repetition, savouring, or remembering the Divine Word, among other things, even carrying the text around with us on a humble sheet of paper.
The Dispositions of the Faithful
There is a high level of convergence between traditional Jewish and Christian understanding of right disposition of soul in preparation for meditation. It may sound a little daunting to raise “right disposition” but the ancient sages — Jewish and Christian — point to some essential basics.
1. For the people of God, it is a joy to “study” the Law, more correctly, the Torah. It is a good indicator to ourselves as to where our loyalties lie.
Psalm 119: 33 — 35
LORD, teach me the way of your laws; I shall observe them with care.
Give me insight to observe your teaching, to keep it with all my heart.
Lead me in the path of your commands, for that is my delight.
2. In Joshua 1: 8 God tells Joshua to ponder the Torah day and night. It must govern every utterance, and he must carry out all its terms faithfully. Spiritual writers call this “assiduousness” from the Latin word meaning ‘sitting close’ — i.e. being constant and unwearied in our application to the task. This is consistent with St. Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 3: 8 which was taken up by the Vatican Council II Document Dei Verbum 25, when referring to “holy reading”, “assiduous sacred reading” of the “divine scriptures”, “accompanied by prayer”.
St. Paul talks in this reference about grasping “the supreme knowledge of Jesus Christ”. This is first and foremost, “knowing Jesus Christ” — knowing in a Biblical sense.
In our approach to Lectio Divina we encourage the use of sources of information where these facilitate this personal knowing or encounter with Christ the Word. As we have mentioned, some will insist this is not a time for “gaining knowledge” about ….. . That we understand, but the real issue is knowing the Lord and responding with a heart of love and gratitude.
3. In Deuteronomy 6: 4 — 7, God said,
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all
your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.
Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home
and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest.”
The devout will obey literally, reciting these words when they rise and when they lie down. But this signifies not just two important times to pray, but that God claims our whole day. Thus there will be major times when prayer is expected — at least morning and evening.
4. Among all the virtues one might imagine we should have, none ranks more vital and basic than humility, without which, the sages hold, we cannot “hear” the Word of God. Humility means:—
— knowing we depend on God’s goodness;
— refraining from feeling we have to give an opinion on every little thing
that crops up;
— attributing any insight to God, and being grateful.
In his Rule (6th Century) St. Benedict wrote, “Speaking and teaching are the master’s tasks; the disciple is to be silent and listen”.
This reflects the early teaching of the Church. This in turn retained the emphasis given in the Hebrew Scriptures to obeying God humbly as the foundation of a true relationship.
A Privileged Calling
In the teaching of the sages, to “study”, to meditate on Torah day and night is “to prepare a way in the desert” — to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. In our Hebrew Catholic spirituality we are conscious of our every thought, word and deed being a preparation for the glorious returning of the Messiah to bring His Kingdom to perfection.
In Hebrew Catholic understanding, the study of a piece of Sacred Scripture and meditation on it are intimately associated; to engage in one implies that the other will also be present. The exercise presents to us one of the most intimate and intense times of special encounter with God, through His beloved Son, aided by the presence of the Holy Spirit within us.