6. Sh'ma Listen!

One day in Jerusalem, fairly late in Jesus' 3 years of public ministering, a young rabbi had been observing how he dealt with people who tried to trap him with trick questions. In fact, Jesus impressed him so much he was interested in his fellow rabbis opinion about a commonly debated issue. So he waited for his opportunity, and asked Jesus, "Which is the first or greatest commandment of all ?" Meaning, not which is the most important, but which is the "parent" one, or "foundation stone".

Jesus is thrilled and honoured to be asked, and without hesitation gives his reply (Mark 12: 29 31)

"Sh'ma (or shema) Yishrael!"

Listen, Israel, there is no God but the Lord your God
or (as it is often translated)

Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,

You shall love the Lord your God with the love of your whole heart, and with your whole soul and with your whole mind and with your whole strength. (Deut 6: 4)

This is the first Commandment, and the second is like it, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Lev. 19: 18)

The young rabbi is ecstatic: "Well said Rabbi, a brilliant answer!" Whatever translations of the Bible we are accustomed to using, the same key points arise from this brief profoundly respectful encounter between the rabbis. For our purposes just now, we will select a few items. (At a later date this Gospel account will be given very extensive commentary in Section III of this website.)

1. Above all else, "LISTEN, member of God's people!"

This means be listening, be hearing, be always open to what God has to say message with every fibre of our being. Let every faculty be open to experience this great truth about God and about the resulting response God expects us to demonstrate.

2. We are to love God with the total wholeness of our faculties the totality of our being with single-mindedness and to love our neighbour in the same way.

3. "But this is impossible!" we may want to say. Many times in the Gospel meditations in Section III we will be confronted by Jesus with the "impossible". As our method of reflection will demonstrate, our Lord always provides the answer. But it is not always immediately obvious. It is part of his technique that we ponder, dwell on, meditate on his words.

In this case we need to know that the words, "You shall love the Lord your God..." are not just a commandment. The Hebrew also contains the meaning, "You will love the Lord your God". This implies that if we listen in the God commands, we will be enabled to love in the manner he commands, by the gift of his Holy Spirit.

4. But we cannot listen in the Biblical sense of the term, without meditating. Thus are we required to take time to put all else aside and focus with single mindedness, with our total wholeness of being, to listen to the eternal truths about our God.

To Listen in this way is also to Remember.

These two words are really "two sides of one coin". They go together and constitute a single activity. This is what we call meditation: to be listening and to be remembering.

Let's dwell on that thought for a moment, and bring together some of the teaching in the Church on this subject over the last 20 centuries. (We will draw on the spiritual writer and Carmelite Alexander Vella).

Where better to start than Psalm 1. from the Prayer Book of our Lord!

"Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly nor stands in the path of sinners nor sits in the seat of the scornful;

But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law he meditates day and night."

The Psalm is a blessing of the righteous person. It describes two opposite "ways", the way of the righteous and the way of the sinner. The sinner associates with scoffers and follows the advice of the wicked, whereas the righteous finds his delight in the Law of the Lord, and on his Law he meditates day and night. The Law (Torah) here as elsewhere in the Bible does not stand simply for precepts and commandments, but is synonymous with divine revelation, God's Word. The holy person is the one who is familiar with the Word of God seeking in it a sure guide so that he can say, 'Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Ps 119: 105). The Hebrew verb hagah which is used here and which is translated as "meditate" or "ponder" indicates reading in a low voice, murmuring. It is used in relation both to the Torah (Josh 1: 8) and to God's works (Ps. 77: 12; 143: 5) It means murmuring and repeating to oneself the Torah or God's works with the intention of keeping them in mind so as to live by them. This is very close to St. Lukes picture of Mary pondering everything in her heart.

This tradition of meditating or pondering, handed down by the rabbis, passed over quite naturally into the Church and has been passed down through the centuries.

It is the tradition of repeating God's Holy Word within. It was not the mental exercise that we call "meditation", the type of prayer proposed for example by St Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. It was the repetitive reading, aloud, of Scripture, until the Word was learnt by heart and got to the centre of the heart. There it becomes prayer, a heart to heart dialogue with God. The classical image for meditation is rumination: you keep chewing the words of Scripture just like the cows do with the food. in order to "bring out the hidden truth of the text" (Guigo the Carthusian). As St Augustine says. "The person who hears but then forgets out of negligence is similar to one who swallows what one has heard...... The person who meditates the Law of the Lord day and night is similar to one who chews and savours the word with the palate of  the heart" (Enarrationes in Psalmos, Sermo 149; PL 38. 801). Repetition of each phrase, pondering every single word to assimilate the deeper meaning of the text: this was meditation as it was understood in the first one and a half Christian millennia. It is an exercise of the mouth, which murmurs the words, of the memory, which tries to fix them, of the intellect, which strives to understand them, and of the will, which desires to put them into practice.

This is real listening: a "listening-to-do," and, if you like, a "remembering-to-do". This practice of meditating assiduously the Word of God has a very specific goal. God's Word is above all the revelation of his will. Therefore the aim of having it in one's mouth and heart is that whatever you have to do be done according to the Word of the Lord, Lectio Divina is the name we give this approach to meditation. It is our way of being in union with God and his holy will.

"Sh'ma Yishrael!"

"Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." 

5. On this website we constantly draw attention to this great truth of the Christian Spiritual life..

Listening means not just physical hearing, but listening inwardly to hear the meaning, listening to remember, to behold, to hear and to see inwardly. These are the contemplative skills we develop in these pages. There is no fast-track method other than to start and not turn back!

Stay with us as we help one another to walk the path together.

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