A living encounter with God


Young girl with tear running down her face

“I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.”

I have a friend – a good and holy Jesuit who is also a world-renowned Biblical expert. I’ll call him Fr John Smith. And his particular expertise is in Biblical languages – he is supposed to know many of the languages which existed in Palestine in Old Testament times, which is not bad at his current age of 92!

But, to tell you the truth, he is also an excruciatingly boring teacher. And not all of his students could really believe that such a boring teacher could really be such a brilliant scholar. So, one day, his students decided to put him to the test. They got together and went down into the basement of the library. And there, amidst rows and rows of dusty shelves that clearly nobody had looked at for years, they found a copy of a document in Ancient Assyrian – at least that’s what it said on the cover. So, they took it out of its cover and, at his next lecture, Fr Smith found it waiting for him on the lectern – obviously a challenge. He picked it up, looked at it for a few moments, then read out a few lines, translating the text into English as he went along. His students were suitably impressed. And then he said, “Yes, it is Old Assyrian, but rather late Old Assyrian and not very good style. If you look on the next shelf above where you found this, fourth scroll from the right, you will find a much better piece.” And with that he went on with his lecture, having earned his students’ undying respect – even if not their total attention.

However, when he came to teach me, he was 79. He told me that – three years previously – at age 76 – he had had the revelation of his life. It is one of the rules of St Ignatius that all of his men should, at least once a year, spend some time teaching “unlettered children”. Fr Smith had decided to fulfil this obligation by conducting a Sunday school class for 15 year olds. He was very nervous about this because he knew he was a very boring teacher and he was not sure how he was going to get on. So he gave them a passage to read and think about and it happened to be the parable of the Prodigal Son. And then he started teaching them about it: about the significance of the journey of the prodigal son to a far country; its relationship to population movements in Ancient Palestine and some interesting parallels between Jesus’ manner of telling parables and the ancient Jewish tradition of “midrash” – the way in which the scriptures are augmented and amplified by rabbis to meet the practical circumstances of the modern believer.

Within about 15 minutes, three of the children were asleep and the rest were obviously bored silly. So, he stopped talking and, not sure what to do next, he asked if anyone else had anything they wanted to say. And a few people talked a little bit but didn’t say anything very much and then there was a long pause.

But he noticed one girl with very red eyes as if she was about to cry. And she seemed to be half wanting to say something and half too shy. So he asked her to speak. She was reluctant, but he encouraged her. And then she began to speak about how this passage reminded her of her father beating her and her mother. And how reading and praying over this passage made her realise that she had another father who is in heaven. And how this made her feel loved and cherished – really loved properly – for the first time since she could remember.

When she had finished speaking, nobody said anything for a very long time. And then they all prayed together. And John suddenly realised that, although he had given his entire adult life to the study of Scripture, he had actually completely missed the point. Scripture is not the study of ancient texts for what they tell us about the ancient near East, although that can be important and even interesting – if you’re that way inclined. But Scripture is the living encounter with God, whose Son came among us to bring us the Church. And it was his disciples who left behind these documents which the Church gathered together and called the Bible – through which we too can know what it was like to meet God on earth. And so, every day, Father John Smith of the Society of Jesus makes this prayer:
“I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to (and through) mere children.”

Let us live out and profess our Faith in God who reveals Himself to us.

Paul O'Reilly SJ