Introductory Note:

Today we share again this classic piece from James Bryan Smith. Here he tells the story of how he came to read Scripture so that “the words descend from my head into my heart, letting them mold my thoughts and shape my prayers.”

Dur­ing my sec­ond year of sem­i­nary, the spir­i­tu­al moor­ings of my life came loose. Ear­li­er, before start­ing sem­i­nary, I had asked the spir­i­tu­al writer Hen­ri Nouwen which one would best nur­ture my spir­i­tu­al life. None of them,” he respond­ed. That will be most­ly up to you.”

After a year and a half, I learned the truth of his words. I decid­ed to go on a five-day silent retreat at a North­east­ern Epis­co­palian monastery to try to reclaim the spir­i­tu­al warmth I had some­how lost.

Upon arrival I was assigned a monk who would be my spir­i­tu­al direc­tor for one hour each day. He walked into our meet­ing room with jog­ging clothes under­neath his cowl. I was dis­ap­point­ed. I had been expect­ing an elder­ly man, beard­ed to his knees, who would pen­e­trate my soul with sear­ing blue eyes. Instead, I got the jog­ging monk.”

My direc­tor gave me only one task for the day: med­i­tate on the sto­ry of the Annun­ci­a­tion in the first chap­ter of Luke’s gospel. I walked back to my cell, won­der­ing how I would occu­py my time with only this one assign­ment. After all, I thought to myself, I could exegete this entire text in a few hours. What was I to do for the rest of the day — in silence?

Back at my cell I opened my Bible to the pas­sage and began read­ing. Birth nar­ra­tive,” I mut­tered to myself. For the next hour I spliced and diced the vers­es as any good exegete would do, end­ing up with a few hypothe­ses and sev­er­al hours to sit in silence. As the hours passed, the room seemed to get small­er. There was no view to the out­side through the win­dow of my room. Oth­er rooms, I would come to find, had a beau­ti­ful view of the riv­er that flowed adja­cent to the monastery. With­out any view to the out­er world, I was forced to look with­in. Despite my hopes of find­ing spir­i­tu­al bliss, I nev­er felt more alone.

What Else Is There?

The next day I met with the monk again to dis­cuss my spir­i­tu­al life. He asked what had hap­pened with the assigned text. I told him it was just shy of dis­as­ter in terms of pro­found spir­i­tu­al rev­e­la­tions but that I had come up with a few exeget­i­cal insights. I thought my dis­cov­er­ies might impress him.

They didn’t.

What was your aim in read­ing this pas­sage?” he asked.

My aim? To arrive at an under­stand­ing of the mean­ing of the text, I suppose.”

Any­thing else?”

I paused. No. What else is there?”

Well, there’s more than just find­ing out what it says and what it means. There are also ques­tions like, What did it teach you? What did it say to you? Were you struck by any­thing? And most impor­tant­ly, Did you expe­ri­ence God in your reading?”

He assigned the same text for the next day, ask­ing me to begin read­ing it not so much with my head but more with my heart.

I had no idea how to do this. For the first three hours I tried and failed repeat­ed­ly. I prac­ti­cal­ly had the pas­sage mem­o­rized and still it was life­less, and I was bored. The room seemed even small­er, and by night­fall I thought I would go deaf from the silence.

The next day we met again. In despair I told him that I sim­ply could not do what he was ask­ing. It was then that the wis­dom beneath the jog­ging clothes became evi­dent: You’re try­ing too hard, Jim. You’re try­ing to con­trol God. You’re run­ning the show. Go back and read this pas­sage again. But this time, be open to receive what­ev­er God has for you. Don’t manip­u­late God; just receive. Com­mu­nion with him isn’t some­thing you insti­tute. It’s like sleep. You can’t make your­self sleep, but you can cre­ate the con­di­tions that allow sleep to hap­pen. All I want you to do is cre­ate the con­di­tions: open your Bible, read it slow­ly, lis­ten to it, and reflect on it.”

I went back to my cell (it had a pris­on­like feel by now) and began to read. I found utter silence. After an hour I final­ly shout­ed, I give up! You win!” though I am not cer­tain at whom I was shout­ing. I slumped over in my chair and began to weep. I sus­pect it was for my fail­ure that God had been waiting.

Let It Be to Me

A short time lat­er I picked up the Bible and read the pas­sage again. The words looked dif­fer­ent despite their famil­iar­i­ty. My mind and heart were sup­ple as I read. I was no longer try­ing to fig­ure out the mean­ing or the main point of the pas­sage. I was sim­ply hear­ing it.

My eyes fell upon the famous words of Mary, Let it be to me accord­ing to your word,” her response to God’s stun­ning promise that she would give birth to his son. Let it be to me. The words rang in my head. And then God spoke to me. Some might say it was all in my head” or just my imag­i­na­tion,” but how else does God speak?

It was as if a win­dow had been thrown open and God was sud­den­ly present, like a friend who want­ed to talk. What fol­lowed was a dia­logue about the sto­ry in Luke, about God, about Mary, and about me. I won­dered about Mary — her feel­ings, her doubts, her fears, and her incred­i­ble will­ing­ness to respond to God’s request.

This prompt­ed me to ask (or the Spir­it moved me to ask) about the lim­its of my obe­di­ence which seemed mea­ger in com­par­i­son to Mary’s. Do not be afraid,” said the angel to Mary. We talked about fear? What was I afraid of? What held me back?

You have found favor with God,” the angel told Mary. Had I found favor with God? I sensed that I had, but not because of any­thing I had done (humil­i­ty had become my com­pan­ion in that room). I had found favor because I was his child.

I won­dered, too, about the future, about my call­ing. What was God want­i­ng of me? Mary had just been informed of her des­tiny. What was mine? We talked about what might be — what, in fact, could be, if I were will­ing. If I were willing.

Like Augus­tine who turned to the Scrip­tures after hear­ing a voice say, Take up and read,” I had reached the end of my rope and was, for the first time in a long time, in a posi­tion to hear. There is much to be said for des­per­a­tion as des­per­a­tion led me to begin pray­ing. My prayer was real­ly a plea: help me. After an hour of reflect­ing and lis­ten­ing, Mary’s Let it be to me accord­ing to your word” even­tu­al­ly became my prayer. The strug­gle had end­ed. I had a feel­ing that I had just lost con­trol of my life, but in that same moment, had final­ly found my life.

The room that had seemed small now seemed spa­cious. The fact that there was no view no longer mat­tered. The view was won­der­ful from my van­tage point. The silence no longer mat­tered, no longer made me anx­ious, but rather, seemed peace­ful. And the ter­ri­ble feel­ing of being alone was replaced by a sense of close­ness with a God who was near­er to me than I was to myself.”

The Word Exposed In the Words

Before my retreat, I would have laughed if some­one had tried to tell me that my real prob­lem was not prayer or med­i­ta­tion or per­son­al dis­ci­pline, but that it was my inabil­i­ty to read the Bible. After all, to me, an evan­gel­i­cal with a touch of Wes­leyan pietism, the Bible was sacred. I had mem­o­rized 2 Tim­o­thy 3:16 ear­ly on as a Chris­t­ian. When Carl F. H. Hen­ry had come to speak to us at Yale Divin­i­ty School on the author­i­ty of the Scrip­tures (Daniel in the lion’s den?), I stood by him and cham­pi­oned his cause.

I had stud­ied under bril­liant Bible schol­ars and main­tained a high view of author­i­ty and inspi­ra­tion. Even my Bible could attest to the hours I labored to under­stand it, cov­ered as it was with mar­gin­al notes and mul­ti­col­ored high­lighter” mark­ings. Like Paul, I list my achieve­ments to point a fin­ger not at me but at the God who redi­rect­ed my ways.

Quite sim­ply, I had for­got­ten that there is much more to read­ing the Bible than mere­ly under­stand­ing the words on the pages. Karl Barth wrote of how the Word is exposed in the words.” It was as if the Word — strong and pure, con­vict­ing and yet strength­en­ing — now emerged from the words.

Learn­ing how to study the Bible was an impor­tant and essen­tial skill. How­ev­er, I had lost the ears to hear” any­thing beyond that kind of study.

I say lost” because there was a time when I had ears that heard. I was giv­en my first Bible at the age of six­teen and I remem­ber vivid­ly how I read the Gospels with a kind of awe, hear­ing the words as if they were spo­ken to me. Some­where along the way I lost those ears, and it took a monk in jog­ging shoes and a Jon­ah-like three days of anguish in the bel­ly of a monastery to get them back.

What I relearned in my room with­out a view was how the Bible should be read, name­ly, with an ear to what the text might be say­ing to me. Sim­ply doing respon­si­ble exe­ge­sis is not enough, as enlight­en­ing as it often is. The next steps are lis­ten­ing to the text, reflect­ing on it, ask­ing not mere­ly what it means, but what it is ask­ing of me, what it is ask­ing me to hear.

What I had been unable to under­stand was what Søren Kierkegaard called the con­tem­po­rane­ity” of the Bible. The past does not mere­ly par­al­lel but actu­al­ly inter­sects the present. The Christ who called his dis­ci­ples to fol­low him is call­ing each of us at this moment. I had been read­ing the Bible as if it were describ­ing a world in which I might find par­al­lels. I now came to under­stand that when I read the Bible, I am read­ing about a world that in some sense also now is.

For exam­ple, I had been prone to read the sto­ry of God’s call to Abra­ham to sac­ri­fice Isaac by say­ing, Boy, Abra­ham sure had a tough deci­sion. I am glad I am not in his shoes.” Now I see that I can­not read it only that way. Why? Because I am in Abraham’s shoes. God some­times calls me to sac­ri­fice my most pre­cious pos­ses­sion. The sto­ry has much to say to the present.

I had to relearn that the Bible is a book aimed pri­mar­i­ly at the will of the read­er. I was afraid to hear what the Bible might say because I sus­pect­ed it might ask me to change my life. It did. When I was run­ning the show,” as the monk observed, I could side­step the con­tem­po­rane­ity of the Bible. Mary was Mary, and I could observe her dilem­ma and even write a good ser­mon about it. But now it was my dilem­ma. Could I — will I — say, let it be to me?”

Final­ly, I relearned that read­ing the Bible requires what the saints of old called con­tem­pla­tion.” It was in soli­tude and silence that the noise and hur­ry of the world final­ly ceased long enough for me to hear. There was not enough silence in my life for me to hear the Word with­in the words, and I knew that deep down, which is why I went on a silent retreat in the first place. Now I have learned that silence is pos­si­ble out­side the haven of a monastery, but I still have to work to find it.

I also learned that con­tem­pla­tion is more than just silence. The monk’s insis­tence that I stay with the same pas­sage for three days unnerved me. Now I under­stand what he was try­ing to do. Con­tem­pla­tion requires deep reflec­tion, rep­e­ti­tion, patience, and per­sis­tence. The veil that cov­ered my heart would not be removed by a sin­gle read­ing. I need­ed then, and still need, to read it slow­ly, until the words strike a chord with­in me. Once they strike, I am able to let them resonate.

A New World Opens Up

The end of the retreat was much bet­ter than the begin­ning. My jog­ging monk” was pleased to see that I had relearned how to read the Bible. He gave me dif­fer­ent pas­sages to med­i­tate on for the remain­der of the retreat, and, like Mary, I was able to pon­der” them in my heart. I felt what an illit­er­ate per­son must feel on learn­ing how to read. A new world opened up.

Sem­i­nary, too, became more of a joy. I fin­ished that year and my final year with a new way of look­ing at the Bible. I found that there can be a hap­py mar­riage between tex­tu­al study and con­tem­pla­tion, view­ing them not as com­pet­ing but com­ple­men­tary. One with­out the oth­er feels incom­plete. Now, five years lat­er, I feel that any day on which I do not open the Bible and let the words descend from my head into my heart, let­ting them mold my thoughts and shape my prayers, is wasted.

Unlike the room at the monastery, I now have a beau­ti­ful view out­side my win­dow. Now and then I close the shades.

(The pre­ced­ing arti­cle by James Bryan Smith orig­i­nal­ly appeared in Chris­tian­i­ty Today (July 22, 1991, pp. 29 – 31) and was con­densed by Richard J. Fos­ter in PRAYER: Find­ing the Heart’s True Home (pp. 143 – 45). How­ev­er, we are reprint­ing the entire arti­cle with the hope it can help those who are strug­gling with get­ting beyond study­ing the Bible pure­ly as a cog­ni­tive exer­cise to let­ting its mes­sage and trans­form­ing pow­er sink deep into the heart.)

(from Per­spec­tive, Jan­u­ary 1995)

Text First Published July 1991

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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