Posted by: Thomas Richard | August 29, 2010

Against the Idolatry of Certitude: Learning to Listen

Dark Clouds A’Coming (photo  – R. Thomas Richard © 2010)


Card. Ratzinger expresses beautifully a quiet necessity for all who would find Christ in Holy Scripture.  Needed is not a hasty grasping at the surfaces, but a patient waiting upon God’s unfolding meaning.  Writing of Mary and Joseph as they finally found the missing boy Jesus in the Temple, they heard from Him an explanation they did not understand.  They heard His words –  “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49)  They did not understand at first, but because of this, Mary and Joseph can help us learn to listen to Him.

Card. Ratzinger, reflecting on this scene in Luke’s Gospel, expresses the challenge to us all to rightly listen to Holy Scripture:

“They did not understand the sayings that he spoke to them” (Lk 2:50). Even for the believing man who is entirely open to God, the words of God are not comprehensible and evident right away. Those who demand that the Christian message be as immediately understandable as any banal statement hinder God. Where there is no humility to accept the mystery, no patience to receive interiorly what one has not yet understood, to carry it to term, and to let it open at its own pace, the seed of the word has fallen on rocky ground; it has found no soil. Even the Mother does not understand the Son at this moment, but once again she “kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51).

Mary – The Church at the Source Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (San Francisco, Ignatius Press 2005) p. 71

There is a way of reading appropriate to Holy Scripture as divine revelation.  One ought not read Scripture as one would read a cookbook, for example, as though salvation is gained the way a cake is mixed and made!  Nor should one read Scripture as a text book of mathematics, as if life in Christ is a problem to be solved, or as if theology is a theorem to be proved.   Scripture is not a “map” to heaven or to Truth; it is more than a “love letter” merely to be swooned over; it is not a playbook in the strategies for victory in apologetics.  It certainly is not a weapon in the war of denominations, or a tool in the battle of egos masking as evangelization.

Scripture is first of all the supernatural, the holy, the divine expressed in the natural and among the fallen; it is eternal Wisdom broken into transient time and human culture.  It is the seed sown in several types of soil, some unfruitfully.  God has condescended to speak with us, in words and in events, and we are invited to be attentive, to hold all that we can of the Mystery, and to patiently and humbly give Him time in our hearts and minds: to let Him “come to term” in us, as Mary did.

Scripture demands of us meditation – the active engagement of the mind with sacred revealed Truth as we seek understanding.   Truth obliges us to obedience, yes, but even more is required.  To give His saving Truth room in us, to hold Him close and remain in Him, praying that He remain in us – to offer Him “good soil” for fruitfulness – this is a step further.  This is the work of a contemplative, peaceful and able to rest with sacred mystery.  To bring forth Christ in us, that He might again be among us, we must let His seed open in us at its own pace; we must let the Gift come to term in us, that He can come forth among us in His time.

In the contemplative union of Faith, Mary does not grasp at a false and shallow certitude, a certitude of the surfaces of things, hasty conclusions that cannot penetrate to the depths of living Truth.  Such is the  idolatry of pharisaism, blind to the very God it claims to defend.  To the contemplative, the idolatry of superficial certitude offers no depth, no life – it is sterile, it is barren.  In Scripture, rather one can meet the living God and embrace Him in Truth, as Mary did.  Again (same reference) Ratzinger writes of Mary’s prayerful and fruitful listening, that she

… translates the events into words and penetrates them, bringing them into her “heart” – into that interior dimension of understanding where sense and spirit, reason and feeling, interior and exterior perception interpenetrate circumincessively. She is thus able to see the totality without getting lost in individual details and to understand the points of the whole. Mary “puts together”, “holds together” – she fits the single details into the whole picture, compares and considers them, and then preserves them. The word becomes seed in good soil. She does not snatch at it, hold it locked in an immediate, superficial grasp, and then forget it. Rather, the outward event finds in her heart a space to abide and, in this way, gradually to unveil its depth, without any blurring of its once-only contours.

Father, make us humble contemplatives, listeners and learners, good soil, peaceful to find rest in your Son, strong that His life find faithful expression in us.

Thomas Richard


  1. Dear Thomas,

    Thank you for including the words from the book, “Mary, the Church at the Source”, especially the insights given from Luke 2 in your blog.

    Mary has been, for a long time, a model for me in my following of Christ. Your blog entry helps all of us, I believe, to deepen our appreciation of how her human limit of understanding, (as well as St. Joseph’s) can encourage us to listen better to God. He is speaking to us through His Word, and through the events of our lives, now, even as He spoke to Mary and Joseph, when they walked this earth.

    We need to learn from their humility and patience to “keep” His Word, to give Him room to grow in us, and to “ponder” as they did throughout their earthly journey.

    Mary is, as the Church repeats often, our Mother and our Model. She was given to us from the Cross and Jesus’ words need to keep resounding in our hearts, “Behold Your Mother”. Mary is His first and perfect disciple. She listened with the fullness of her being.

    By God’s Grace, may we be “good soil” and bear the good fruit of her womb, Jesus, to our waiting world!

  2. Hi Thomas,

    It’s an excellent site that you have here. I am in the process of reading some of the material you have so generously contributed.

    I think the books of Anne Catherine Emmerich are the ones that helped me to return to the Catholic Church. Not that my wife and I had left but like most had neglected to practice for years. Must admit they were the unhappiest.


  3. Dear Thomas,
    We have just begun our new study for the year- Genesis. I am going to share this entry with the 64 persons enrolled in this Catholic Scripture Study at Christ the King. It is particularly relevant to Genesis, where it is easy to get bogged down in literalism and miss what God is trying to reveal to us. I need to learn to ponder-thank you for this posting.

    • Pope Benedict XVI-Angulus Address
      July 18, 2010

      “Martha, Martha”, and the repetition of her name expresses his affection, “you are anxious and troubled about many things; only one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her”. Christ’s words are quite clear: there is no contempt for active life, nor even less for generous hospitality; rather, a distinct reminder of the fact that the only really necessary thing is something else: listening to the word of the Lord; and the Lord is there at that moment, present in the Person of Jesus! All the rest will pass away and will be taken from us but the word of God is eternal and gives meaning to our daily actions.”

      Hi Barbara,

      How nice to read that you are following with others the study of Catholic Scripture at Christ the King. Pope Benedict’s address is a reminder of the importance of God’s word, all the more reason for Catholics to study diligently the Scripture.


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