How to Pray the Bible
A Brief Overview
The Bible or scripture is a compilation of books written by different authors across centuries. It is therefore a mini-library. It contains basic truths on morality and about God himself. God reveals himself to humankind through the Scripture.
At the start, God revealed himself to one man from whom came one nation, Israel. These revelations are written in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is made up of the Law given by God to Moses. These are the first five books called the Torah. The Bible also contains historical books, books on wisdom, poems and songs and writings from the prophets.
Most of the writings in the Old Testament were written in Hebrew. As the Jews were dispersed, there was a need to translate these writings to the language commonly used at that time: Greek. As time passes, some literature were also written in Greek and were also considered as inspired by the religious leaders at that time.
The Protestant Old Testament contains books originally written in Hebrew. Most of their versions were translated from the original Hebrew text. The Catholic Old Testament contains these books plus some books originally written in Greek. Some books also have additions in Greek. These additions to the Hebrew scripture are called Deuterocanonicals. Catholics have always maintained that these are also inspired by the Holy Spirit and should be included in the canon of the scripture. That is why Catholic Bibles have more books than Protestant Bibles.
When the condition was ripe, God revealed himself through his Son in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Revelations after the death of Jesus are recorded in the New Testament. The New Testament is made up of four biographies of Jesus, a historical account of the early Church, letters from Paul and the other leaders during that time and a book of prophecy. All the New Testament books were originally written in Greek.
Versions of the Bible
Since most of us do not understand Hebrew or Greek, the bible has to be translated to the language we commonly understand. Each version has its own tradition in its translation. Catholic versions are not translated word for word. Instead, the thought is first taken and then translated. They are translatedfrom the Greek version with consideration from the original Hebrew and Latin versions. The original Catholic English bible is the Douay-Rheims translation (written in the 16th and 17th century). This pre-dates the Protestant King James Version. Another good Catholic bible is the Jerusalem Bible.
Protestant versions are more literal in their translations. The Old Testament is translated from the original Hebrew. A good Protestant translation is the New International Version. Another good translation is the Good News for Modern Man which uses modern day English.
Purpose of Scripture
Since scripture is the word of God, it reveals to us who God is. The main purpose of scripture therefore, is for us to know God. We cannot therefore use it only to satisfy our intellectual curiosity. Neither is it to be used as a tool to attack people. But it is mainly to be used to deepen our relationship with our Creator.
How God Reveals Himself
The fact is that we can only understand God IF he reveals himself to us. This revelation is not an intellectual revelation but an experiential revelation. To be able to understand who God is, we have to experience God. Just think of it in terms of our relationship with another person. We cannot know the other person fully unless they allow us into their lives AND unless we spend time with them.
Similarly, we cannot know God unless he lets us into his life and we spend time with him. This is the only way to know God and there is no short cut to this.
God has already let us into his life. He has opened himself to us already through scripture. Since he has already revealed himself to us, we have to experience him. This is only possible if we spend time praying the scripture.
Prayer - Listening to God
As in human relationships, we get to know the other person by spending time with them. It is only by observing them and listening to them that we can get to know them. Similarly, we get to know God by observing him and by listening to him.
Listening to him means to remain silent before him. To listen is to wait, open our ears and hearts and observe how he works in our lives. Listening leads us to discovery and discovery leads us to intimate knowledge and intimate knowledge leads us to communion. It is therefore impossible to know God without listening to him. In scripture, Jesus often concludes his teachings with, "he who has ears, let him hear."
We hear Jesus in scripture. Therefore, one way of praying is to read a passage in scripture, digest it and wait for the Lord to reveal what it means to us at our stage in our life. Praying scripture is NOT discovering theological ideas of God. It is not memorizing scripture verses. It is finding what God has to say for us at that given point in time.
One way I find quite helpful in praying scripture is to have a journal where you can write your reflections. I also find that writing allows me to present ideas graphically, making it easier for me to understand. The journal also allows you to review your past reflections so that you can use these as jumping points to deeper reflections.
Once you have a journal, choose a short book or letter to read. Go through it over several days. One of the advantages of this is that it gives you an idea of what the book or letter is all about. It also allows you to read the verses in its proper context. The length of time to finish a book depends on the length of the book. If the book is long (more than 40 chapters) it might take a week or two. If the letter is short (5 chapters or less) maybe a day or two would be enough.
If you are just starting, begin with a short book. I would suggest the shorter letters (1 or 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Jude or even 1 or 2 Peter). Write down one verse and try to figure out the key words in that verse. Figure out what those key words mean by checking it out in the dictionary. See how the key words are related to keywords in other verses. Notice unique formation of words like repetitions, antonyms used in one verse, tenses, adjectives and verbs used, etc. These often indicate important points that the author wants to present.
Once you have noticed these try to rephrase the verse and ask questions (why did the author say that? What did the author mean? If the verse contains negatives, try finding out what the opposite means). This is difficult at the start but as you get used to it, you will discover a lot of insights from this process.
How long does it take to do this? 30 minutes a day would be a good start. But believe me, once you are engrossed in this, you would be surprised that you have been praying scripture for an hour or maybe longer. Remember, our God is timeless and when we pray scripture, we are in him and time will not matter to us.
What NOT to Do
Cut the Bible. This practice of randomly opening the Bible - thinking that this is the Lord's word for us is very risky. Think of a person who is depressed and when he cut the Bible, he read the verse, "And Judas hanged himself." Then cutting again he came to this verse, "Go and do likewise." Or when someone is angry at a person and he cuts the Bible and he came to "And Cain slew Adam." Praying the Bible needs time and effort. Cutting the Bible shows a lack of commitment to learning God's word and a shallow faith.
Read the Bible for others. Praying the Bible is for our growth. True that some of our friends may need the Bible BUT they have to find it themselves. Praying the Bible is YOUR time with the Lord and listening to what HE wants to say to you.
Lift a verse out of context. One of the dangers of reading the Bible piece-meal is that people select verses in their reading to justify their current beliefs. We see this in some evangelical and non-Christian sects. When reading scripture, we have to read and understand it according to its proper context and in union with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Dictionary. The next important tool in praying scripture. Use this to find out other meanings of a word.
Concordance contains all the verses in the Bible that has the same words.
Bible dictionary tells you what a word really means when used in scripture.
Commentaries contain comments from scripture authorities on given scripture topics.
Bible Study notes contain notes or background information on the books of the bible. Most Catholic Bibles (Jerusalem Bible, New American Bible) have these before each book.
Multiple Translation Bible presents on a page multiple translations of a given passage. This allows you to find out what the verse really means by comparing the different ways a word is translated.
For those with computers: Bible CD. There are many good ones to choose from for less than 20$. Most come with concordance, commentaries and study notes. Some have pictures, background information on biblical times, etc.