The Sacramental Nature of the Proclamation of the Word of God
Listening to the Word is epitomised in the word “Manducatio” (Latin) or “Manducation”, which is an obsolete word that means “the taking of food”, to consume the Word, chew, eat, ruminate, digest, intake.
“Manducation” is used in monastic theology, and refers to the full operation of eating the Word of God, the English equivalent being “ingestion”.
This operation is a sacred operation for when Jesus wants to talk to us He gives us a Word. His Words are Spirit and Life, Holy Spirit and Divine Life. Receiving this Word is therefore a sacred operation. In the most recent theological thought and in the Magisterium we often find underlined the Sacramental dimension of the manducatio of the Word of God.
Listening to the Word of God at Mass – during the Liturgy of the Word and thereafter through the Daily Readings – is, consequently, a sacramental operation. In any sacrament, we have at least two dimensions: the visible Sign used (ie. water, wine, oil,…) and the invisible Grace. In the case of the ingestion of the Word of God (liturgically) we also have two dimensions: 1- The letter or literal meaning of the text, audibly proclaimed and 2- The invisible Word that Jesus utters. The Risen Lord, present among us uses one of the words of these texts, or an expression or a verse to talk to us, to say something to us, to give us a Word. The operation is like the Eucharist where the breaking of the Bread of His Word also takes place.
In this sacred operation and sacrament, the golden thread of the Communication of the Grace of God is an intelligible one. The words that are proclaimed are words that we are supposed to grasp with our mind, and the Word that the Lord will pronounce, even if it is sacred, will use our mind, lifting it up, and nourishing it with God’s Light and Love. Other Sacraments, the normal seven sacraments – except Confession – have a more reduced use of the mind and a greater use of the symbol (Water, Oil, Bread, Wine,…). These other sacraments (except Confession) may talk essentially more to the depths of our being (the spirit) which is a supra-conscious area (above consciousness) rather than the conscious mind.
The Sacramental Dimension of the Process of Listening to the Word of God
The operation of the manducation of the word of God, having to deal with the human mind throughout, faces various challenges and temptations that can become obstacles. Why so? It is very important to notice that in modern times the Church has to clearly define the co-existence in the Bible of two authors: the Divine Author of the entire Bible who inspired all the words and who inspired only the words that God wanted the human authors to put down, and the said human authors who used their individual styles, capacities, talents, experience in order to write the sacred texts under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The existence of the human authors and a correct understanding of the Catholic Theory of Inspiration of the Bible led the Church to impel exegetes to study the human authors, their literary styles, intentions, tools,… in order to fully understand the text.
The science of exegesis was dedicated for more than 150 years to this study. The analysis of the texts with all scientific tools available to understand its letter or literal meaning was deployed with great energy and enthusiasm. As a result many studies and monographic works were written to explain each book of the Bible. All human industry was involved in this endeavour. As a result, often the researcher and writer as well as the reader have the impression of knowing the ins and outs of each book. All this effort can only be praised. It is needed and we can never afford to have the Bible in our hands without using these results, particularly the soundest ones.
Now, if we come back to the sacramental operation of the manducatio of the the Word of God, we will find that two movements are needed: 1- explained in the one described above: understanding the text in its context, understanding the intent of the Author, and the tools and ways he used these in order to express it. 2- the need to lift up the mind, to focus the mind (our inner ear) on the Divine Author, on the Risen Lord who wants to talk to us.
The first operation is realised through the natural light of reason and at the most with the general help of the Grace of God, the general Light of Faith.
The second operation can only be achieved with the specific help of the Grace of God, ie. the direct and personal intervention of the Holy Spirit in us, facilitating the communication (or coming) of the Word of Jesus in us.
The pitfall that any believer can fall into is to reduce or transform the operation of listening (manducatio) into the first operation: understanding the text, and extracting from it all that a serious intelligent study can offer. After completing this first action and thinking that he knows by then the ins and outs of the text, he or she will hit the “bottom” of the Word (the dam – see drawing below)… will block the Sacramental operation, will make the text opaque and not transparent.
If we were to use the image of stained glass, we can say that focusing on the strictly literal meaning, thinking that we possess the ins and outs of it, is like focusing only on the pigment of a pane of stained glass. There is no vision of the essence of the stained glass, there is no vision of the light that comes through it. The excessive focus only on the stained glass itself, the closeness of our attention to it, makes it paradoxically opaque. It ends up by blocking the Word that comes from God through the literal meaning of the text.
The study of the text in this way, the study of the human author instead of remaining open to God, to the Divine Author, imprisons the human understanding of it, enclosing the text in the human comprehension of the mind. It puts the Divine Author into the shade and makes Him vanish. The sacred operation of listening, ingesting the Word ,cannot take place.
Thus the act of faith in the Word is improperly done, it ends at the bottom of the text instead of ending at Jesus’ Mouth so to speak.
Catholic Theory of Inspiration
Here is the correct expression of the catholic theory of inspiration: “For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write – He was so present to them – that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood [use of the mind], then willed faithfully [use of the will] to write down, and finally expressed [art of expressing] in apt words and with infallible truth. Otherwise, it could not be said that He was the Author of the entire Scripture.” (Pope Leo XIII, “Providentissimus Deus”, 20) It is because the Holy Spirit was capable of elevating their minds and moving them, moving their will, helping them in the art of choosing, that God is the Author.
If we understand properly the catholic theory of inspiration, we will understand how the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors, guided their minds to choose the words He wanted, moved their wills to choose them and help their judgement, to choose the words and only those words that God wanted. Understanding properly how God is the Real Main author of the Bible and in which exact sense the human author is author, is to see the exact interaction between the Holy Spirit and the different faculties of the human author, to adjust thoroughly our act of faith in the Word of God that we read, and to show us how it is as bottomless as stained glass is. It shows the exact perspective from which the study of the human author must be viewed as this will determine the contours of the Word of God, and will avoid the “bottom” or basic meaning (see drawing below). In sum, if we study the limits of each piece of the stained glass we are in fact studying its human expression. But it is God from within, or the light from behind, that illumines the Text, makes it alive, makes it Sacramental, ie. under the Power of the Action of the Holy Spirit, here and now, every time the Sacrament is given (every time the Word is proclaimed and afterward “manducated” during Lectio Divina).
When practising Lectio Divina, we need first to understand the text, and we cannot avoid this step. The material aspect of the Word, the text, the material aspect of the Sacrament has to be laid down, explained, understood.
As a second stage, one has to allow a sacramental “distance” with the Text in order to listen through/to, to read through it, exactly as we would do with a beautiful pane of stained glass. After having contemplated the beauty of the craftsmanship, we will need to go back a few meters, lift our gaze to the entire stained glass window and see through it the light, the reflections that it offers to the Divine Light of the Risen Lord. Only under these conditions can the Lord talk to us.
Our Act of Faith in the Word we read could be weakened by attending at length to the exegetical explanations offered by serious studies. We could then have the impression of understanding the text, its ins and outs, and end up by hitting an opaque wall (the bottom of the Sacred Text) instead of renewing our Act of Faith in the Fact that these Words are inspired by God and that therefore their limits are God’s limits, that their “bottom” so to speak is God himself, Jesus himself who inspired them and who wants to talk to us.
We are therefore invited to go from, first, a human understanding (at most with the general help of the Light of Faith) to a divine knowledge directly and personally given to us by the Holy Spirit, here and now, that does not come to us aside from the letter of the text, but through it, exactly as the Light does with the Stained Glass. The correct sacramental balance here between the Letter and the Spirit, between the limits that the letter offers (only a contour) and the amazing new depths that God can offer to it here and now, is achieved!
It is never a choice between the Letter and the Spirit. It is a choice not to remain imprisoned in the letter, but seeing that the letter has an opening toward God, allowing the Risen Lord here and now to talk to us.
It is never a matter of twisting the letter to our liking. It is never taking under our control the letter, trying to guess what the Lord wants to say. It is about doing a vigorous act of Faith in God who inspired this letter, and who is present here and now and capable to make it alive today in a unique way, so it becomes real food for all of our being and not a purely intellectual endeavour.
As we can see, the correct understanding of the catholic theory/notion of inspiration with its delicate divine vertical balance between the Divine Author and the human author, offers the only way for a Sacramental Manducation of the Word of God.
If any of the authors is misunderstood, or if the relationship between the two authors is misunderstood, our act of Faith during the Proclamation of the Word and during the Lectio Divina Manducation will be blocked and the Grace of God will not be “triggered” and will definitely not come through.