Three Ways We Should Read Sacred Scripture

In scene two of the third Act of Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence cautions Romeo,

Wisely and Slow, they stumble that run fast.

Now, even those who have not read the play can guess that Romeo probably did not take that advice. Youth is impetuous and although St Thomas says,

Man has a natural aptitude for docility even as for other things connected with prudence,

nonetheless in the age of high-performance CPUs, increasing gigahertz, rockets and Aldi checkout lines, the virtue of slowness can be a tough sell!

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Docility is, of course, a virtue which enables us to fulfil our nature as rational animals. From the Latin second conjugation verb doceo, docere, docui, doctum meaning to teach, docility is the virtue of ‘teachability’. If our mission as human beings is to become one day joined with God who is truth itself, then we certainly need to be teachable.

Admittedly, docility is a little out of vogue these days since we are all supposed to be ‘critical thinkers,’ and so we might have to struggle a little more to obtain this virtue than all of those fortunate souls that lived in the docile dark ages.

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But I think everyone instinctively adopts a teachable attitude when confronted with another who is undoubtedly an expert about this or that subject. Americans are especially docile when it comes to listening to medical doctors, or scientists of any shape or size.

So, it goes without saying that if there is one place where we should exhibit docility, it is when we are in the presence of the wise. And I suppose, in an age in which the mathematicization of everything is the prevailing custom, we might even propose a mathematical law concerning our docility.

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Let “D” stand for Docility. Let “W” stand for wisdom and let N stand for some constant of variation. Therefore, our law, stated in words, will be:

A person’s docility should vary directly according to the wisdom of the one in whose presence he happens to be.

Or in other words:

The docility of the listener should vary directly according to the wisdom of the speaker,

This law stated symbolically is:


In concrete terms, this law means that when we are confronted with, say, the words of Aristotle, or Shakespeare, or St Thomas Aquinas, we should be very docile because these three thinkers were very wise!

Everyone intuitively knows this law and, as we said before, we might even say that the law is naturally implanted in us.

But if we should be docile when confronted with the wisdom of human thinkers, then a fortiori, how much more docile ought we to be when confronted with the wisdom of God! Again, an obvious point, although certainly well worth repeating. How much more docile ought we to be when we are reading or hearing Sacred Scripture!

St Thomas pointed out, our own efforts “count for much towards the attainment of perfect docility.” That is to say, we can and should take certain definite steps to increase and perfect our docility when it comes to the Wisdom of God.

But how? What are these steps?

St. Thomas, as usual, does not leave us in the dark. He says each person,

must carefully, frequently and reverently apply his mind to the teachings of the learned, neither neglecting them through laziness, nor despising them through pride.

In other words, we have here three concrete steps that we ought to take when reading Sacred Scripture:

  1. We should read sacred scripture carefully.
  2. We should read sacred scripture frequently.
  3. We should read sacred scripture with reverence.

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Now, again, I suppose you, my dear reader, might think to yourself, “How obvious! I didn’t need St Thomas to tell me that!”

But perhaps this might seem obvious, especially to lifelong Catholics who attend Mass regularly, because the Church has habituated them to these very three ways of hearing God’s word at every Mass.

Notice that rather than reading entire chapters of the Old or New Testament, the Church has carefully selected relatively brief passages for us to consider. We are not made to gulp down and swallow huge portions at a time, but rather are invited to sip and savor little morsels. And then we are invited to meditate upon these passages with the wise help of one who has considered them and is able to speak about them in his homily.

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The church has carefully arranged the readings that Catholics hear at Mass. Now whether one prefers the annual cyclical arrangement of fewer readings that one hears at Mass in the Extraordinary Form (as I do) or whether one prefers the three year cyclical arrangement of more readings that one hears at Mass celebrated in the Ordinary Form, in any case, I think it may be said that the church has taken great care in the arrangement of these readings!

Extraordinary care has been taken in not only reading passages from the Old and New Testament, but also in pairing the readings in such a way that we can clearly see how the New Testament is a perfect fulfillment of the Old!

Consequently, the ordinary faithful will hear the same scriptures frequently. Whereas Catholics who attend the Ordinary Form will hear the same scriptures at least once every three years, those who attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form, are treated to the same scriptures every year. The church has taken special care that Catholics hear the sacred scriptures frequently!

And finally, what could be more reverent than the way Sacred Scripture is read at Mass. Most Catholics are to sit quietly during the readings, and they stand for the Gospel. In the general Instruction on the Roman Missal we read,

When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel. Therefore, the readings from the Word of God are to be listened to reverently by everyone, for they are an element of the greatest importance in the Liturgy.

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The readings are,

to be pronounced in a loud and clear voice, whether by the Priest or the Deacon, or by a reader, or by everyone, the voice should correspond to the genre of the text itself…

I think it is just another excellent example of how the church always promotes not only moral virtue but also especially intellectual virtue. Docility is foundational to intellectual virtue and Catholics are fortunate to have the opportunity to develop this virtue in three concrete steps every week – by reading carefully, frequently and reverently the word of God.

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
This entry was posted in Aquinas, Custom, Mathematics, The Mass, Wisdom and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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