It was two and a half years ago while I was living in England when a Protestant friend of mine walked up to me and asked point blank: “Chase, is it true Catholics don’t read the Bible?” He followed it up with something like “because you’re about the only self-identified Catholic I’ve seen take it [the Faith] seriously.”
New to the Faith myself, I was a bit uncomfortable answering the question, first because I don’t think I’m particularly good at practicing the Faith and second because it saddened me to think most Catholics he knew knew nothing of Scripture. Yet, I knew that obviously the answer was “no.” We had, after all, assembled the Biblical canon (though some Protestants might say that’s not true).
But he did have a point: I knew I had almost certainly spent less time with the Bible than he had. I wasn’t in a Bible study; almost all my reading had been on my own, and, at that, very sparse.
I was reminded of this just last year when I was sitting around a table with a mixture of Catholics and Protestants. We were eating dinner and discussing the Book of Ruth, which we had read for the conference I was attending. It immediately became clear to me that their fluency in (especially Old Testament) Scripture was well beyond my pay grade. I don’t think I could name all the Minor Prophets, let alone lay claim to having read all of them.
I was reminded of these anecdotes just the other day while reading St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), in which he counsels for Christian study of the Bible in really striking terms:
The first rule in this laborious task is, as I have said, to know these books; not necessarily to understand them but to read them so as to commit them to memory or at least make them not totally unfamiliar. Then the matters which are clearly stated in them, whether ethical precepts or articles of belief, should be examined carefully and intelligently […] In clearly expressed passages of scripture one can find all the things that concern faith and the moral life (namely hope and love).
This all sounds impossible at first glance. Memorize the entire Bible? Examine every passage with immense care? Augustine gives rules for exactly how to read Scripture elsewhere, but that’s not what’s most interesting here. He doesn’t expect memorization; as he writes, they may be read simply so as not to be “totally unfamiliar.” The goal is to learn to swim in the sea of Biblical stories, prophecies, allusions, and injunctions, not to mindlessly commit the text to memory. It should suffuse how one thinks, how one lives.
Augustine identifies the task as “laborious,” and yet seems to think it something we’re all capable of with enough time, effort, and reference to Tradition. I can’t help but think how much this would transform my own life, let alone that of our community, if we all spent more time with the Bible, reading study versions, meeting with fellow believers, and, even, praying the Divine Office (a wonderful way to learn the Psalms!).
Doing so seems almost political to me, an assertion of Catholicity in a time of fragmentation and ideology. It’s a way of returning to our foundational texts and through them a way of conversing with our tradition, with those who have written about and commented upon the Scriptures before. It’s a sort of ready-made catechesis for the formation of conscience while at the same time a gateway to a stronger community of believers. In short, it strikes me as a sort of protest, an assertion of our tradition in the face of a difficult, occasionally hostile, world.
We are not all called to the religious life, but we are all called to be Christians—Christians in an age distrustful of Christian living. The act of listening to St. Augustine, of returning to God’s Word, and then placing it in dialogue with His bride’s Tradition, represents a program of renewal but also of protest, a way of returning to the Way, the Truth, and the Life from the crooked paths of everyday existence.