This term I’m taking the course Doctrine of the Word for my Master of Religious Studies program. It’s a deep dive at the concept of the Word (including spoken, written, Incarnate, revealed) and the purpose of the Word (the means by which the Divine seeks conjunction with humanity). The last couple of weeks we have been looking at the written Word and focusing on the importance and significance of the literal sense. We did an exercise to help us better understand the grand arc of the story of Israel, and another assignment on Scriptural exposition, using some basic guiding principles to help us understand what the Lord might be saying to us through the literal sense.
One of the themes that has continued to emerge for me is the layers of the Word. The stories of the Word are mostly about real people who lived and made choices (good and bad), who had relationships with the the Lord or who rejected Him, and while there is great value in learning from them and their experiences, it is ultimately in seeing ourselves in these stories that we find meaning. The stories are about us as a People and our journey with one another towards the Lord, about us as individuals and our own regeneration, our personal relationship with the Lord, and about the Lord Himself, His glorification, the story of His Humanity and Divinity and the lengths He goes to accommodate Himself to us, to meet us where we are.
These multiple layers of the Word and their meaning are awesome to explore and while they are found in the natural, spiritual and celestial senses of the Word, they are all contained in the literal, in the external. Just by reading the stories with an open heart and mind, we can be led by the Lord to see how the story of Israel from Abram and Sarai to the Exile and Return or the interactions between Jesus and the disciples reveal something about us as a Church, as individuals, and about the Lord Himself.
It can be easy for me to get caught up in digging deeply into the rich symbolism of the Word, into pouring over the minute details for their correspondential significance. Pursuing an academic study of theology, there is the temptation and risk of taking a purely intellectual perspective and missing the place for personal interaction with the text, the Word, the Lord. This has renewed in me a passion for sitting with the Word and letting it speak to me where I am, and has reminded me how the Word is truly a living book.
So how do I do this? I’d like to share my process with you. This week I looked at John 21: 1-14. I started by reading the text, while being mindful of hearing the Lord speaking to me through it. Apocalypse Revealed says that “…people who do not turn directly to the Lord cannot see any truth emerging from the Word” (AR 958, Rogers). Beginning with prayer, with thoughtful intention to approach the Lord and hear/receive the Divine in the Word is important. After reading the text, I summarized it, writing out the key points on paper, using my own words. Next, I changed colours (I have a dozen different ones I use for note taking) and I started to underline significant details, things that struck me, that might be significant or that held significance for me right now. I added some notes as I underlined. I switched colours again to note any questions I had, and picked one last colour to note any connections I saw to some of the broad themes of the Old and New Testaments. This last piece was particularly in response to the previous weeks assignment and while useful for me to notice, wasn’t actually key to the process I’m focusing most on.
After making these notes, I turned the page and started again. This time, as I summarized each piece of the story, I wrote underneath what I heard God saying to me in those words. I focused on the literal story, on the words of the Word and very intentionally did not look up anything in the Writings. I didn’t turn to a Bible Commentary or look up a list of correspondences; I used what was on the page and what was already in my head and heart. You can see in my notes that there are correspondences that I know that speak to me, and my knowledge of other parts of the Word informs my understanding of this piece.
For example, I saw that in daybreak coming and Jesus appearing the connection between the Lord and light in my life and my need for the Lord before I can do anything useful (catch fish). I know that Peter has jumped out of a boat to go to the Lord before (when he walked on water but then doubted and sank and the Lord saved him). Therefore, I connected that to my own experience of knowing that the Lord has called me out to Him before and I can swim to Him now.
I know that seven (the number of disciples present in this story) and three (this is the third appearance of Jesus in the Gospel of John after the Resurrection) are both numbers whose correspondences are completeness, wholeness, fullness, but I don’t know what 153 (the number of fish caught in the net) symbolises, so I chose to set it aside and not get caught up on trying to figure it out. Instead I kept my perspective on the whole story and what the text was saying to me right where I was.
This process was beautifully freeing and I went more deeply and intimately into the story that I thought I would at the beginning of the academic exercise. Though I was most focused on how the Lord was speaking to me as an individual, I could also catch glimpses of how the story speaks about us as a collective and about the Divine Itself.
“…all instructions concerning the truths and goods of the church and of worship [are] given to everyone by means of the external of the Word…because all instruction concerning the truths and goods of faith and of love which make the church and enter into worship, is from this source, and because to inquire of the Lord is to consult the Word; for in the Word the Lord is present, seeing that the Word is the Divine truth which is from Him…” (Arcana Coelestia 10548, Potts)