NOTIONS AND RUMINATIONS The key to understanding Scripture: read it aloud, slow it down and take time to ponder

 

by Deacon Mark Plaiss

 

      Here is the line I want to ponder with you: “The start of learning lies in reading, but its consummation lies in meditation.”

      That comes from a 12th century fellow known as Hugh of St. Victor. Hugh was his name, and he hailed from an Augustinian monastery known as the Abbey of Saint Victor, which was located just outside of Paris.

      I think this fellow knew what he was talking about. Furthermore, I believe what he says is necessary today for teaching students Scripture. Though Hugh’s audience was comprised of monks, his above stated idea, I firmly believe, is transferable to students in our Catholic elementary and high schools today. 

      First, the Scripture must be read aloudin class. To instruct students to read Scripture silently to themselves is to invite disaster. Why? Because they will gloss over it; because certain words will be incomprehensible to them; because allusions will escape them; because the cadence of the text will not be heard.

      Take the Prologue to John’s Gospel, for example. In the first verse alone there is a mountain of issues: In the beginning of what? Who is this Word? Who is this God that the Word was with? And if the Word was with God, how can they be the same? What Old Testament passage is John alluding to in this verse and why? Can you hear its meter, and why is that important?

      The first verse to John’s Prologue in the NAB Revised Edition is seventeen words. You want to lay down money that a high school student wouldn’t just blow through that verse if allowed to read it silently to him/herself?

      Which brings me to my second point: Slow down the reading. When asked to read aloud, most people –students and adults alike – tend to read rapidly. They seem to want to just get through it, to get it over with. Doubt that? Ask the person at your parish who is responsible for forming lectors at Mass.  

      No, the words of Scripture must be savored. You don’t gulp wine. You sip wine. Same goes with Scripture. 

      For by slowing down and savoring the words, meaning pops out. In the classroom, students should be asked to read a phrase or sentence once, twice or even thrice. Take John 1:7 for example: “He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” 

      Who is “he”? What does the word “testimony” mean? What light? Believe what? Who is “him”? Once those questions are answered, then the student reads the verse again, but this time uninterrupted. Now that passage will make sense. 

      But comprehension is just the first step. What does Hugh say? “…[learning’s] consummation lies in meditation.” Thus, the third point is that the Scriptures must be mulled over, chewed on, pondered. Scripture is not a cookbook: “Mix together in a large bowl two eggs, a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and a cup of flour.” You really don’t have to mull over, chew on (no pun intended) or ponder that instruction. Read it and move on. 

      Scripture, on the other hand requires pondering. Pondering, that is the crucial component. For pondering internalizes the text, makes the text the student’s own. Pondering takes the text from there and then, and makes the text here and now. If students are allowed to read a text silently to themselves, the changes of pondering are slim.

      Note, though, the first four words in Hugh’s line: “The start of learning…” What the student is exposed to in the classroom is just a start; learning must continue with them on their own. All the teacher is trying to do is to start the process of learning. And I firmly believe that such a process must be reading. Aloud. Slowly. Stopping the reading to ask questions. 

      One cannot love Scripture unless one reads them, and one cannot read a text one does not understand. Either one will give up in frustration, or one will ignore it completely.

      Students often complain that Scripture is incomprehensible. I reply that Scripture is indeed comprehensible, but admit that it can be puzzling. As the Trappist monk Michael Casey notes, ancient texts are difficult. “Reading ancient texts is hard work,” Casey writes. “they are written in a foreign language, they derive from an alien culture, and they address concerns different from those that occupy us.”

      Then why bother? Because, as Simon Peter noted, “Master, you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

      Read aloud. Slow it down. Ponder.

 

      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .