October 20, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Will the real ‘Words to Live By’ please stand up?

Cynthia DewesJust in case we were in need of them, we seem to see “Words to Live By” everywhere we turn.

They’re in newspapers, magazines, on Internet sites and even on throwaway advertisements. I hate to think how many trees have died for the paper devoted to this cause.

Related to these, and equally icky in my view, are the so-called “inspirational” non-books so prevalent today—Chicken Soup for the Bereaved or Chicken Soup for the Incompetent. You know the kind. They seem to multiply like, well, chickens.

Still, some genuinely helpful words to live by appear now and then, and one of my favorite sources for such inspiration is the Carmel of Terre Haute. These Carmelite sisters regularly produce lovely pamphlets describing upcoming novenas and feast days, illustrated artistically and always including moving poetry, prose or scriptural quotations.

For example, for a recent novena to St. Therese of the Little Flower, they used a quotation from the Angelus Silesius: “Your heart receiveth God and all His kingdom holds, If you but turn to Him and like a rose unfold.” This struck me as both a beautiful description of St. Therese, and a helpful suggestion for all of us. Actual words to live by!

Inspirational words often appear when I’m not exactly looking for them. Once, at a lecture about Church history, we were given copies of a kind of doxology prayer written by Polycarp of Smyrna, a bishop and martyr (c. 69-c. 155). Its words seemed to me like a useful prayer as well as a summary of our faith in a nutshell:

“Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and may Jesus Christ himself also, the eternal high priest and son of God, build you up in faith and truth, and in gentleness, avoidance of anger, forbearance, long-suffering, patient endurance and purity, and may he grant you to inherit a place among his saints; may he grant this to us also so that we can be with you, and to everyone under heaven who will believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and in his Father who raised him from the dead.” Whew!

Of course, Scripture is always inspirational, although I might draw the line at the “begats” and some of the customs of Old Testament times. I mean, stoning sinners is definitely out, especially since I’m a sinner myself. And, I’m not sure I go along with the “Just open the Bible at random and point to any verse” style of gaining divine guidance, either.

One way to use Scripture to gain inspiration is to engage in Bible studies, offered by most parishes and often by Protestant groups as well. These classes can help us understand the metaphorical and sometimes obscure language in Scripture, as well as to appreciate the beauty and meaning of the words.

Another good path to inspiration is to use the weekly scriptural readings listed in parish bulletins. They are chosen to complement and reinforce the message of the Sunday liturgy, and also to show the relationship between Old and New Testament versions of characters or truths.

Yup, Scripture does it for me because of passages like this promise: “Thenceforth we shall be with the Lord unceasingly. Console one another with this message” (1 Thes 4:17b).

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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