Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Scriptural Exegesis in 4 Easy Steps!

 When you pray the Liturgy of the Hours, there is great merit and satisfaction in doing so simply because it is the public prayer of the Church: a  world wide sacrifice of praise that unites you to your Catholic brothers and sisters and to our Savior in His eternal prayer to the Father.  That would be true even if you were reading the psalms in a foreign language which you could pronounce but not understand, so long as your intention was to do what the Church intends when we pray the Hours.

But using  our own language, we can get even more out of the Divine Office by praying with understanding.That is, by thinking about the meaning of the words we pray. I know this sounds obvious, but stay with me.

The Divine Office is about 90% scripture. So the more you know about how to understand scripture, the more interesting,and  inspiring your prayer will be. Hence, the 4 Easy Steps. These are the four ways, or "senses" of understanding Sacred Scripture. These are the literal sense, the moral sense, the allegorical sense, and the anagogical sense. I'll briefly explain each of these with reference to psalm 68 , which appears in the psalter for Tuesday, week III, Office of Readings.

1. Literal sense.This means reading the scripture as it was plainly intended by the author. Psalm 68 is a triumphal song of victory, describing how enemies have been defeated,  and spoils of battle enjoyed.God is credited, thanked, and praised throughout as the source of this victory. Focusing on the literal sense might lead one to admire this humble and thankful attitude of Israel and the joyful exuberance of their praise. Or might make you wonder which victory the psalm commemorates.
 2. Moral sense How might this scripture apply to me personally? It might make me resolve to be more confident that God is with me and will save me from evil. It might inspire me to remember with gratitude of any recent "victory" God has brought about in my life.
3. Allegorical sense How does this apply to Christ and the mystery of redemption? Read Psalm 68 and apply its  imagery  to Our Lord's victory over Satan,sin, and death, won on the cross. He bears our burdens, God our savior....he leads the prisoners forth into freedom.  The sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist can be seen in You poured down,O God , a generous rain: when your people were starved you gave them new life.  Two other lines, make a highway for him who rides on the clouds,and the Lord, who rides on the heavens, the ancient heavens, might bring to mind the Ascension of Jesus.
4. Anagogical sense How does the scripture put us in mind of heaven as our final goal? Perhaps with Psalm 68 one could reflect life as the ultimate battle, as we fight the good fight  with Jesus for the salvation of our souls to attain a triumphant entry into heaven.

One Caveat: Unless you have a literal, 60 minute  hour or more to spare for each liturgical hour, don't, I repeat, don't try to find each of the four senses of scriptural meaning in every verse you read. Or even every psalm. You would only drive yourself crazy.     If you are a normal person with a job to get to, children to care for, a  lawn to mow, or a car to wash, and emails to answer, then you don't have the time to parse each psalm of each hour in this way.

My advice is to just keep the four senses of scripture in the back of your mind without trying to use them all the time.  The literal sense,of course, will come to you without effort if you read the psalm with attention; it's the plain sense of what you are reading.  If you are moved to look beyond the literal, then ask yourself one of these questions: What is God telling me here (moral sense)?; What does this say about Christ or the Church (allegorical sense)? ; How does this help me think of my final purpose and end? (Anagogical sense)

After praying the Divine Office for a while, the various meanings or senses will start jumping out at your as you pray. Once this starts happening, the Liturgical Hours will almost become addictive.

Here's a link for more explanation of the four senses of scripture.