Shema — Listen and Hear!
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
As A Basis For Meditation
One day in Jerusalem, fairly late in Jesus’ three years of public ministery, a young rabbi had been observing how He dealt with people who tried to trap Him with trick questions. In fact, Jesus impressed him so much he was interested in his fellow rabbi’s opinion about a commonly debated issue. So he waited for his opportunity, and asked Jesus,
“Which is the first or greatest commandment of all?” — meaning,
not which is the most important, but which is the “parent” one,
or “foundation stone”; the one from which all others are derived,
and at the same time, to which they all point
Jesus is thrilled and honoured to be asked, and without hesitation
gives his reply (Mark 12: 29 — 31)
Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Sh’ma Yishrael! —
Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone’!”
Or (as it is often translated)
“Listen, Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One,”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all
your strength.” (See Deut. 6: 4 — 5)
“The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as
yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater
than these.” (See Lev. 19: 18)
The young rabbi is ecstatic: “Well said Rabbi, a brilliant answer!”
Whatever tradition we belong to or translations of the Bible we are accustomed to using, the same key points arise from this brief profoundly respectful encounter between the rabbis. For our purposes just now, we will select a few items.
1. Above all else, “LISTEN, member of God’s people!”
This means be listening, be hearing, be always open with every fibre of our being to what God has to say. Let every faculty be open to experience this great truth about God and about the resulting response God expects us to demonstrate.
2. We are to love God with the total wholeness of our faculties — the totality of our being with single-mindedness and to love our neighbour in the same way. That means love enthusiastically — not half-heartedly.
Love, let go, trust!
3. “But this is impossible!” we may feel inclined to say. Many times in the Gospel Reflections we will be confronted by Jesus with the “impossible”. As our method of reflection will demonstrate, our Lord always provides the answer. But it is not always immediately obvious. It is part of His technique that we ponder, dwell on, and meditate on His words before the way ahead opens ahead of us.
In this case we need to know that the words, “You shall love the Lord your God…” are not just a commandment. The Hebrew also contains the meaning, “You will love the Lord your God”. This implies that if we listen in the manner God commands, we will be enabled to love in the manner he commands, by the gift of His Holy Spirit.
4. But we cannot listen in the Biblical sense of the term, without meditating in the Biblical sense of the term. Thus are we required to take time to put all else aside and focus with single mindedness, with our total wholeness of being, to listen to the eternal truths about our God.
To LISTEN in this way enables us to REMEMBER.
These two words are really “two sides of one coin”. They go together and constitute a single activity. This is what we call meditation: to be listening and to be remembering.
Let’s dwell on that thought for a moment, and bring together some of the teaching in the Judaeo-Christian tradition on this subject. (We will begin by drawing on the spiritual writer and Carmelite, Alexander Vella).
Where better to start than Psalm 1, from the Prayer Book of our Lord!
“How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel
of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in
the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law
he meditates day and night.“
The Psalm is a blessing of the righteous person. It describes two opposite “ways”, the way of the righteous and the way of the sinner. The sinner associates with scoffers and follows the advice of the wicked, whereas the righteous finds his delight in the Law of the Lord, and on His Law he meditates day and night. The Law (Torah) here as elsewhere in the Bible does not stand simply for precepts and commandments, but is synonymous with divine revelation, God’s Word. The holy person is the one who is familiar with the Word of God, seeking in it a sure guide so that they can say, ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Ps 119: 105). The Hebrew verb hagah which is used here and which is translated as “meditate” or “ponder” indicates reading in a low voice, murmuring. It is used in relation both to the Torah (Josh 1: 8) and to God’s works (Ps. 77: 12; 143: 5). It means murmuring and repeating to oneself the Torah or God’s works with the intention of keeping them in mind so as to live by them. This is very close to St. Luke’s picture of Mary pondering everything in her heart. NB. We are not talking about a mantra — but about frequently recalling or remembering the words, the teaching of Jesus. This tradition of meditating or pondering, handed down by the rabbis, passed over quite naturally into the Church and has, in truth, been passed on down through the centuries.
5. The Rabbinic tradition above has been, in many ways, assimilated into the culture of the Church. For those who wish to pursue this more deeply we offer the following explanation.
The Hebrew tradition is one of feeding spiritually each day on the Word of God. It involves remembering God’s Holy Word and letting it echo within us day and night. It is the regular recitation or reading aloud of Scripture, and allowing it to dwell permanently in the memory and in the heart. There it becomes prayer — a heart-to-heart —dialogue with God: of which sometimes we are deeply conscious and at other times barely aware. The Jewish practice of wearing Scriptures specified by God on parts of the body, or placed on the doorposts of one’s dwelling, again, as specified by God, is an integral part of this culture of our union with God through His Sacred Word. All of this, then, is the basis of the Hebrew-Catholic approach to meditation and feeding on the Divine Word — the Word proclaimed, and in the fullness of time, the Word made flesh, in Jesus Messiah. It is thus a culture of mutual indwelling on which Jesus Messiah elaborated so beautifully (John 14 to 17) at the peak of His teaching ministry.
Christian spiritual writers have therefore continued and elaborated on the indivisible practice of reading or reciting the Divine Word and praying it.
The classical image for meditation is rumination: you keep chewing on the words of Scripture just as the cows do with the food, in order to “bring out the hidden truth of the text” (Guigo the Carthusian). As St Augustine says. “The person who hears but then forgets out of negligence is similar to one who swallows what one has heard…… The person who meditates on the Law of the Lord day and night is similar to one who chews and savours the word with the palate of the heart” (Enarrationes in Psalmos, Sermo 149; PL 38. 801). Repetition of each phrase, pondering every single word to assimilate the deeper meaning of the text: this was meditation as it was understood in the first one and a half Christian millennia. It is an exercise of the mouth, which murmurs the words, of the memory, which tries to fix them, of the intellect, which strives to understand them, and of the will, which desires to put them into practice.
This is real listening: a “listening-to-do,” and, if you like, a “remembering-to-do”. This practice of meditating assiduously on the Word of God has a very specific goal. God’s Word is above all, the revelation of His Will, as demonstrated in His Divine Son. Therefore the aim of having it in one’s mouth and heart is that whatever you have to do, it should be done according to the Word of the Lord.Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Word of God — in Him all Scripture is fulfilled. God the Father’s only Commandment recorded in the New Testament is, “Listen to Him”! (Matthew 17: 5). Lectio Divina is the traditional Latin name we give this approach to listening to Him in meditation. We also refer to it as Scripture Meditation. It is our way of being in union with God and his Divine Son and His Holy will. You can try these same practices in your own prayer time and let them help you “unpack” Scripture and respond accordingly to its message.
In our notes and weekly Reflections on the Sunday Gospel readings,we constantly draw attention to the important place meditation on the Sacred Word of God has in daily life.
Listening means not just physical hearing, but listening inwardly to hear the meaning; listening to remember, to behold, to hear and to see inwardly; listening to obey. These are the contemplative skills we develop very gradually, week by week — one step at a time. There is no hurry, and no fast-track method other than to start and not turn back!
Stay with us as we help one another to walk the path together.
Deuteronomy 6: 4 — 9
4 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!
Deuteronomy 11: 13 — 21
13 If, then, you truly heed my commandments which I enjoin on you today,
Numbers 15: 37 — 41
37 The LORD said to Moses,
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition