by the Most Rev. Edward M. Egan
The newspapers had been writing about the ceremony for weeks. A "torah," that is, a scroll containing the first five books of the Old Testament, was to be installed in the new library of a local college of Hebrew studies. The year was 1967, and the "torah" was alleged to be among the most ancient treasures to have been spirited out of Hungary since the dropping of the Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe.
The executive director of the board of rabbis invited me, as a representative of the Catholic community, to offer a prayer at the beginning of the ceremony. I agreed with the understanding that he would help me choose some appropriate Hebrew words for the conclusion of my prayer and practice me in the proper pronunciation of them.
The ceremony went quite well. The mayor spoke, as did the lieutenant governor, several rabbis, and the president of the council of Protestant churches. Of the non-Jewish participants, however, only I had woven any Hebrew into what I had to say. Thus it was that, as I was about to leave, the director of the library rushed over to me and threw his arms about my shoulders.
"We are most grateful for your being here," he exclaimed, "and we were deeply touched by your speaking in the language of our people. Where did you learn your Hebrew?"
Not a little embarrassed, I replied that I would sometime let him in on my secret.
"No, no, no," he cried. "You must come to my home this very evening to explain it all."
His enthusiasm was such that I could not resist. I promised to arrive no later than half-past seven.
* * * * * *
The home was on the sixth floor of a modern apartment complex. Still, when I entered it, I felt as though I were stepping into a charming Middle-European residence of a century before. The floors were covered with a collection of small Persian carpets. The windows were hung with heavy velvet drapes. The chairs and even some of the tables were adorned with silk throws from which flowed long, graceful tassels. And everywhere throughout the two dimly lit parlors, neat stacks of books of all sizes were in evidence.
The director of the library handed me a delicately etched glass of what seem to be a kind of port wine, gestured me into a huge leather chair and raised his own glass with a smile of pleasure and welcome.
"My wife and her mother will be joining us in just a moment," he announced; and even as he spoke, they entered, each bearing a lacquered tray of cookies and little cakes.
"Now tell me your secret," my host whispered in a mock conspiratorial tone. "Where did you, a Catholic priest, learn to speak Hebrew?"
"I don't speak Hebrew," I confessed. "A rabbi friend chose the verses I recited in my prayer and drilled me on their pronunciation."
"So you never had a course in Hebrew?" he asked.
"Well, actually I did," was my reply. "However, it was taught in Latin by a Hungarian out of a German textbook in Italy; and I am afraid that my classmates and I did not learn very much."
"How much?" he insisted.
"We mastered some basic vocabulary. We could conjugate the regular verbs. We were able to struggle through uncomplicated Scripture passages with the aid of a dictionary. And. . . . " I hesitated but decided to go on. "And we memorized the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis and a small part of the 'Servant Songs' of the prophet Isaiah. But that was all."
"That was quite a lot," he countered. "Do you still recall the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis?"
"Perhaps," I replied, feeling a bit uneasy with his rather unyielding interrogation. "Bereshith bara Elohim eth hashamyim we-eth haaertz," I began, moving along quickly in the hope that sounds from many years before would filter back into my memory.
"Oh, no, Father," he interrupted. "Not that way! Never that way! When you speak the word of God, you must do it slowly. You must do it thoughtfully. You must do it joyfully."
* * * * * *
With that he leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and almost as though he were in a trance repeated what I had started.
"Bereshith. . . .In the beginning. In the very beginning. Before anything was. Before time. Before eternity. Bara Elohim. . . .Our Lord. Our God. The Almighty One. The infinitely Good and Holy. . . .Created. Made from nothing. Gave reality where it had not been. . . ."
He went on this way to the end of the chapter, saying the words in Hebrew, commenting on them in English, sipping his wine occasionally, and never allowing the atmosphere of prayerful delight that shone on his face to wane. And all the while his wife and mother-in-law sat back in their chairs, their eyes closed as well, savoring every word. I felt as though I were witnessing a transport of thoroughly enjoyed meditation. Hence, I set my glass on the table next to me and folded my hands in prayer. The word of God was swirling about the four of us. I had no doubt that the Spirit of God was at work as well.
* * * * * *
All of this had long since slipped into the recesses of my memory until I began reading the chapter in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church that treats the first three of the Ten Commandments. The chapter is constructed as no other in the Catechism. It is a series of phrases from the Commandments as they appear in the twentieth chapter of the Book of Exodus with a commentary on each of them in an almost stream-of-consciousness style. The result is not so much a text of religious truths as a meditation on a powerful and moving portion of Holy Writ.
Thus, the words of the First Commandment, "You shall worship the Lord your God," lead the authors of the Catechism to discuss with delight the virtues of faith, hope and charity. "Him only shall you serve" introduces a series of brief, thought-provoking reflections on such matters as adoration, prayer, and sacrifice. "You shall have no other gods before Me" draws the reader into a graceful analysis of the wrongness of superstition and idolatry. And "You shall not make for yourself a graven image" introduces a defense of properly venerating representations of the Lord, His angels, and His saints.
* * * * * *
A similar approach is adopted in treating the Second Commandment. The individual phrases from Exodus are set forth in bold print, and a variety of loosely connected considerations flow from each. The reader, for instance, is invited to revere the name of the Lord, to seek in it "a sense of the sacred," to avoid blasphemy and false oaths, and to understand the evil of perjury. Finally, the prohibition against taking God's holy name "in vain" curiously and unexpectedly provokes an investigation into the wisdom of choosing the name of a saint for one who is to be baptized, a saint "who has lived a life of exemplary fidelity to the Lord."
* * * * * *
The treatment of the Third Commandment at the conclusion of the chapter is likewise structured to begin with words from Exodus and proceed to a reflective examination of such diverse subjects as the Sabbath of the Old Testament, the Lord's Day of the New, the Eucharist, parishes, liturgical participation, and the spiritual significance of resting from work at sacred times. Perhaps just the following two excerpts from this final section of the chapter will give some insight into the prayerful charm of the whole:
"Jesus rose from the dead `on the first day of the week.' Because it is the `first day,' the day of Christ's Resurrection recalls the first creation. Because it is the `eighth day' following the Sabbath, it symbolized the new creation ushered in by Christ's Resurrection. For Christians it has become the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord's Day - Sunday.
"Those Christians who have leisure should be mindful of their brethren who have the same needs and the same rights, yet cannot rest from work because of poverty and misery. Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm, and the elderly. Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week. Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the interior life."
* * * * * *
A careful reading of the new Catechism is a splendid act of piety. It deepens our knowledge of the Faith, and it strengthens our commitment to a life of virtue. The chapter on the first three Commandments, however, goes a step further. For in addition to informing us about what has been revealed and spurring us on to holier lives, it provides as well a lesson on how to read the word of God.
"Pick up your Bible," the authors of the Catechism are in effect saying, "open to a passage that inspires, and read it in a way we have read the text of the first three Commandments in the Book of Exodus. Stop at the end of each phrase. Think what it means. Comment on it in your own words. Massage it. Savor it. Cherish it. And do not go on until you have heard - and spoken - all that it has to say to you at this moment in your life. Soon you will find the reading of the Sacred Scripture to be not just a recitation of lovely words, but rather a prayer, a meditation, a contemplation, a marvelous and joyous `connecting' with your God."
All of this I had been taught many years before in the home of a learned and holy man. I was mouthing a segment of Scripture and he insisted that I pray it. "Not that way! Never that way!" he declared. "When you speak the word of God, you must do it slowly. You must do it thoughtfully. You must do it joyfully." It was a lesson that I needed to hear again; and I heard it a second time most tellingly from another learned and holy source - the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.