Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Gospel Journey

After years of trying and failing, I've finally gotten into the habit of reading the New Testament every day. Just like any habit, you just have to do it regularly a number of times--I'm told the effective number is 21--after which it begins to come naturally. Of course, before that happens, you have to have the will and the commitment; in other words, you have to want to do it.

Reading the Gospel had been on my bucket list for quite some time. It felt like it was a missing piece in the puzzle that is my Christian life. I'm no saint, but Faith has always seemed a reasonable option and guide for living. And after some time of waiting in vain to "feel" it, I learned that the best way to manifest Faith is through acts, and more specifically habits.

In a way I was moved by that old joke. "Q: What's the difference between the Bible of Protestants and the Bible of Catholics?" "A: The born-again Bible smells of armpits, and the Catholic Bible smells like cockroach eggs." Which, by way of explanation so as not to sound so offensive in this blessed season, is another way of saying that Protestants carry their Bibles around under their arms, while Catholics leave their Bibles on the shelves.

Groan if you must, but I've viewed the stereotype embodied in the joke as a challenge. It just took a while for me to get around to addressing it personally.

* * *

That's not to say that I have no exposure to the Bible, as charge commonly levelled at Catholics by their other Christian brethren. Parish Bible study groups have always been an option, but neither my schedule nor my socially withdrawn personality made it viable. So instead it's been the readings at Mass for me. In a manner of speaking, it's true that I didn't read the Bible; instead, I listened to it.

Among the many other things that I appreciate about the Mass in the Catholic Church is the consistency of the readings. Excepting for special days, the readings match the season, follow an established plan, and are never random or whimsical. You could hear Mass at any church and be assured that the readings are the same, whatever language they're in.

If you hear Mass regularly, you'll get the thread of the narrative in the readings. The weekday readings, both the first reading and the Gospel reading, have an established continuity; the Sunday readings serves as the highlight reel for the week.

And one added bonus for me: the mix of the first reading (and the second reading, on Sundays and holidays) and the Gospel reading have always served as a puzzle. How do they relate to each other? Some days the link is obvious; other days, they're much more subtle.

But it's one thing to listen, and quite another to read. Reading adds a reflective dimension that isn't always present in the hearing. And so deep down, I knew I had to take that next step of incorporating the Gospel reading into daily life.

* * *

In hindsight, the reason I had trouble establishing the habit was that I was doing it wrong.

For a time, I thought the way to go was to close my eyes, flip to a page in the Bible, and read wherever the Holy Spirit led you. But that's not the Holy Spirit, after all, just random chance.

In the same way that you don't read a novel by picking out random chapters, you can't read the Bible by picking out random verses. And yet I think this method still seems prevalent, both among Christians and those aspiring to be.

Which reminds me of another story: there was this despondent man who sought answers in the Bible. As described above, he took cracked it open to some page so he knew what he should do. His eyes fell on: "...and he went and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:5)" Disturbed by what he read, he flipped to another random page, and now it said: "Go and do thou likewise. (Luke 10:37)."

The Bible ain't the Tao Te Ching.

* * *

I finally got on the right path when I started reading the Acts of the Apostles and things really took off when I read the letters of St. Paul.

I didn't take to Acts immediately. On the whole, I don't like stories of wonder (and I still view spectacular miracles with skepticism and suspicion), and the first few chapters of Acts seemed to me to read that way. Neither did I appreciate at first the transformation of St. Peter and friends from bungling fishermen to preachers and wonder workers. (I suppose that's the common reaction to people touched by the Holy Spirit.)

But once I got beyond that, once I saw the Acts as a record of the early Church, plagued by pretenders and dissension, and hounded by Romans and Jews, something clicked. Acts took on an undercurrent of intrigue, mystery, danger. Acts became, well, exciting.

Daring escapes? Check! Palace intrigue? Check! Shipwrecks? Check! Evil magicians? Check! Earthquakes? Check! Witty repartee (26:29, for example)? Check! Who said Christian life was boring?

If Acts sparked the fire, the epistles of St. Paul really set the pages ablaze. It's one thing to pick out selected chapters and verses to prove a point; it's another to read the letters in their entirety. Because that is what they are: letters from across time; and there is a real personality behind them.

How can I describe St. Paul as I know him through the letters? He's intelligent and learned, and shrewd, too. He's articulate, sometimes to the point where he goes of on tangents. He's steadfast and unyielding when dealing with the community, but he's gentle and caring when dealing with individuals. His pleading for Timothy's case, for instance, almost brought me to tears.

I won't go blow-by-blow with an exegesis of the epistles of St. Paul; that's not within my capability or my province. But simply from my experience as a reader, I can vouch for the identity of a person behind them. The sincerity, the emotion, the utter real-ness behind them is simply undeniable.

* * *

Only after finishing Revelations (a flavor all its own) did I swing back to the Gospels. It took a while, but the experience of reading the letters of the apostles gave new color to my reading of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I still don't think I'm reading it as properly as I should, but I'm approaching it now with greater patience, insight, and appreciation. As with the letters, the Gospels also show a real personality to Jesus Christ.

Perhaps that was how it was meant to be read. Although the New Testament opens with the Gospels, historically they came much later than the epistles. Before early Christians read of the life of Christ from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they heard of him first from disciples and read of him from letters passed from church to church. The epistles prepared the way, the Gospels provided the culmination.

* * *

As I said in the beginning, it took a while for me to this habit. But now that it's formed, I look forward every day to reading the New Testament. I'm about to finish the cycle of the Gospels, and start once more on the letters. Perhaps this time around, I'll spice it with some commentary from the Church fathers. I also hear that Pope Benedict's "Jesus of Nazareth" is an excellent resource.

At the risk of sounding corny, I will say that the Gospel readings have been a transformative experience for me. I can only speak for myself, of course. I don't know how the Spirit might move another soul. Before you scoff at how reading the Gospels might effect a transformation (as I might have done if I were reading this from someone else), perhaps you should attempt the project yourself? Read and reflect: and once you've done it, I'd be real interested to hear your own story.


  1. I was given a Kindle for my birthday.....the first few days was spent downloading many of the free books available.
    I spent less than a dollar for the Kindle Douay-Rheims Bible. Now I have now excuse not to read the Gospels.

  2. the "tao te ching" comment reminds me of a theology teacher that taught us to practice that.