Sunday, 26 January 2014

What is a good commentary?

One of the things I found surprising about Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation (Evangelii Gaudium) as I sat in the adoration chapel last year reading it was the section on the homily. Strong social sensitivity, an exhortation for people to go deeper into the always-joyous-though-not-always-happy Christian life and a missionary zeal, are all things I expected.

In hindsight, it does make sense: the homily is not a place for strict catechesis, but it is also not a "non-catechetical" portion of the liturgy. Insofar as some portion of the Gospel accounts are read, the Gospel is proclaimed at each celebration of the Mass. Particularly interesting was the link between the Church qua Mother (the practical importance of which I emphasised here) and the manner in which the homily is given (cf. EG 139).

Paragraphs 135-175 are the relevant ones, for those who want to find out more about what the Pope has said. Four things stick out for me: his insistence on preaching that is centred on the Word, his brief overview of how to exegete a biblical text (cf. EG 147), the personal involvement in preaching, and in particular, the spiritualized reading of the text (cf. EG 153).

Now, what has this got to do with commentaries, and also, my own commentaries? Reviewing some of what I wrote, I found it interesting, but unsuited for anything that was not a deep analysis of biblical texts (particularly the Mathean ones, the Genesis ones, not so much). So for practical purposes, whilst I learnt a fair bit, I gained fairly little spiritually.

Various remedies exist, of course: having both a textual analysis as well as spiritual approach to the text (at different times), an incorporation of lectio divina, etc. But perhaps my approach was too cerebral from the start, and addons would just obscure what I was meant to be doing anyway. Given my generally cerebral approach to everything, I suspect this is more likely to be on the money.

I would like to quote a passage that has guided my thinking, and then propose a new way in which I will write commentaries (which have been on hold anyway, due to the burden of erudition I had placed on myself):

"In the presence of God, during a recollected reading of the text, it is good to ask, for example: “Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me?” When we make an effort to listen to the Lord, temptations usually arise. One of them is simply to feel troubled or burdened, and to turn away. Another common temptation is to think about what the text means for other people, and so avoid applying it to our own life. It can also happen that we look for excuses to water down the clear meaning of the text. Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait." (EG 153)

Now, it is commonly known to all that know me that I wish to be a priest (in the Society of Jesus, in particular, for which I get no shortage of slack). So I thought, what if I combined a homiletic styled reflection with my commentaries? I could take a text, read it a few times through, and ask myself the questions that the Pope gives - I could also ask what other people might benefit from in the text, and so prepare what might be a sketch of a draft of the idea for a homily.

One disadvantage to this approach would be that I will not be able to write commentaries that squeeze all the meaning out of a text. But that disadvantage is outweighed by the gains: to be able to quickly exegete a text for preaching, to understand the practical ramifications of texts, to see themes emerge in a way that is relevant to every day life, and many others.

So that is what I will do. God willing, I hope to start afresh my series of commentaries on Matthew with the "Do Not be Anxious" passage in Matthew 6.

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