“St. Jerome and Constant Meditation on the Word of God” (9/30/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
For a while I thought maybe the Church should have a feast day devoted to the Word of God. Right? She has a feast for the Body and Blood of Christ. Feasts for certain dimensions of the Church: the Chair of St Peter and St John Lateran. Feasts for Marian apparitions: Fatima, Lourdes, and Guadalupe. Feasts for the devotions of the Sacred Heart and Divine Mercy. So why not a feast for the holy Word of God?
But then I realized the Church does have a feast for the Word of God. And it’s today, the memorial of St Jerome. The proper prayers are rich in its phrases about the Word of God. Like our Collect, where we prayed that God’s “people may be ever more fruitfully nourished by your Word and find in it the fount of life.”
In St Jerome’s words, “The Kingdom of Heaven is knowledge of the Scriptures.” He has also said, “When we pray we speak to God; but when we read, God speaks to us.” So it’s worth considering a little more the Word of God as this fount of life, this foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven, this praying to God and hearing God speak to us.
It seems as if in the quest for continual prayer, there can be two main approaches. In one, the mind is recollected and brought to a stillness, and there’s reposing in a simple gaze upon God. Perhaps the hesychasts are good illustration of this side of the spectrum.
The other approach works better for the more active-minded or even scattered-minded. It consists in keeping the words coming…keeping the holy words coming. To always be reading the Scriptures or studying sacred theology. Your mind is filled with these words of God and holy thoughts, and that too approaches an ideal of constant prayer. It seems St Jerome is good example of this second approach. And with our sacred study, probably many Dominicans follow him in tending toward this side of the spectrum.
St Jerome gave a good bit of advice along these lines. He once said, “Endeavor to have always in your hand a pious book, that with this shield you may defend yourself against bad thoughts.” To a monk he said, “Copy out manuscripts, so that your hand may earn you food and your soul be saturated with reading.” This constant saturation with holy thoughts can transform the mind and heart.
With some charm he said to another, “Let sleep steal upon you, with a book in your hand, and let the sacred page catch your drooping head.” I don’t think he had in mind falling asleep midday while studying, but it applies here too. “Let the sacred page catch your drooping head.”
St Jerome also expressed his praise toward a couple saints along these lines. Jerome said of St Ambrose: “Day and night it was [his] habit to make reading follow upon prayer, and prayer upon reading without a break.” You see, “without a break,” something approaching constant prayer, whatever that may look like in different circumstances and one’s vocation.
And finally, Jerome said of Paula, “All night long she would beg the Lord for mercy, and often the sun found her still praying. The psalms were her music, the Gospels her conversation.” Then as she later approached death, Jerome notes, “She was at the point of death, yet she kept repeating the same verses [of Scripture],…she was changing the death-rattle that ends human life into praise of the Lord.”
So our life of study too can turn into this quasi-constant prayer and praise of the Lord. And on this feast of the Holy Word of God, we don’t forget the Scriptures in the midst of all this. Jesus placed the child in the midst of his disciples as the greatest. And with this childlike spirit, we can always go deeper into the Sacred Page.
For it is as St Jerome observed, “The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians to swim in without ever reaching the bottom.” Amen.