I’ll start with a confession: I’ve never been much good at Lectio Divina. Or any kind of slow, meditative reading, for that matter. In my community, every time a postulant or novice finished a book she was using for spiritual reading, she was supposed to present the superior with a written review of it. Now, with half an hour of spiritual reading every day, I’d be through the average book in about a week, and the reviews had started taking precious time away from my essays. So I wised up and started scouring the library for the longest, heaviest spiritual books ever written, and that cut down dramatically the number of reviews I had to write. Easy-peasy!
More recently, my spiritual director instructed me to SLOW DOWN in my reading of Scripture, though which I had hitherto been going at quite a clip. Reading one sentence in the time it would normally take me to read fifteen is a struggle against my own impatient nature, but it has been worth it – a couple of days ago, I was stopped in my tracks by something I’d otherwise have skipped over blithely!
In fulfilment of His own purpose He gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of His creatures. James 1:18.
The first fruits? Me?
In Scripture, the first fruits are a sacrificial offering that you bring to God, collected on the first day before it has time to become damaged, as Abel brought the best among the firstborn lambs of his flock as a sacrifice. Furthermore, according to bibledictionary.com, the first sheaf of wheat was brought to God as a guarantee that the rest of the harvest was coming – a symbolic offering of the whole.
Objectively, I’m still young. But I don’t feel young – and moreover, as I start to close in on thirty, which is the cut-off age for aspirants in many religious communities, I’m more and more aware of an uneasy sense of time running out. Do I have anything left to offer God that is fresh, bright and hopeful, and which hasn’t been frayed or tarnished in some way since I left the religious life?
My answer: I have no idea. I hope so.
God’s answer, as given in Scripture: that’s not how it works. We don’t give the first fruits. We are becoming the first fruits. I’m not the one who took the initiative here: the marks of Baptism and Confirmation stamped on my immortal soul – invisible to me in this life, but seen clearly by His eyes – are the first gifts of His love for me.
I remember being told in the convent that everything we give to God is the result of an actual grace that He has bestowed on us, meaning that if I pray, it’s because the Holy Spirit has given me the grace to want to pray, and then another grace to follow through on that desire. I also remember how incredibly tiny it made me feel at the time, but now I see more than ever the beauty of it.
Undeniably, the offering I can make to God is cringe-worthy when viewed in and of itself: a mass of half-formed good intentions, lingering wariness and skim-reading impatience, for the most part. But forget that for a moment. I don’t decide that I’m going to make an offering to God – the Holy Spirit decides, and prompts me to do it until, hopefully, I cooperate. The first fruits are not my offering, but His. I hitch my forlorn prayers to the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the Father receives both with love. Hebrews 7:25 adds this:
(Jesus) is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.
That’s another highlight from my slow-motion Lectio: the Holy Spirit gives us the grace to pray in spite of our weaknesses, and then Jesus brings our prayers to the Father, having sprinkled us with His own blood to make us acceptable before Him (Hebrews 9:13-14).
It also struck me that in John 17:9, Jesus says to the Father, “I pray for those You have given Me, for they are Yours.” The Father gives us as a gift to the Son, the Holy Spirit gives us the grace to love the Son, and the Son then presents us to the Father as His brethren (2:11-12), the first fruits of His Passion. We were created out of nothing for this. And, once created, our souls are immortal – if we are faithful to the graces He has given us, when the sun expands into a cold red giant millions of years from now, you and I will watch it happen. When the seventh seal breaks and heaven falls silent for half an hour, we will be there to hear it. When the final war rages against Satan, and Saint Michael and the angels drive him into hell and slam the gates closed at the end of time, your voice and mine will join in the praise of God. We are the first fruits of that new creation which is to come, something infinitely larger than ourselves in which we are given the grace to participate, as a sign of the rest of the harvest that will follow.