Home > Preaching > Reading the Bible: a homily for St. Jerome’s Day

Fr Bob Eccles first encountered the Bible when he was 7 or 8, and has been hooked ever since… On the memorial of St. Jerome, great translator and interpreter of Sacred Scripture, Fr Bob tells us his own story of his love for the Word of God.

Friends, it was 1947 or 1948, and I was between 7 or 8 years old, when I knew that mine was a jealous God.  It was not to be suffered that a Catholic child should be exposed to religious instruction of the Protestant kind under the Butler Act. And I was the only such in the whole class, as I would be almost all my schooldays.  The problem must have puzzled my teachers.  A solution was found.  Whilst the rest of the class had RI (whatever that was)  I was put to sit by myself  in an empty classroom, the sunlight streaming through the windows,  in front of me on the desk, an unfamiliar square brick of a book, endless closely printed pages of tiny print in a language strange to a reader of Enid Blyton.  It was the Douay-Reims version of the Bible and we were to spend a school period together once or was it twice a week, this fair-headed little boy and it. My class teacher had left the room, and the book and I were alone together.  So I opened at the beginning,  in the beginning, and began.  It was my introduction to Holy Scripture and the original qualification that lets them  put me up to give the homily on St Jerome’s day.

What did we make of one another?  The Bible interrogates us, throws us back on ourselves, it is the word that  speaks to us and opens our ears.  It was a knobbly read but I knew it was mine.  I cannot remember receiving much elucidation from anyone.  I can remember how it drew me in, how I lingered on some pages and rather scamped others, first of all Genesis with some eye-stretching events, then Exodus, Leviticus (boring but that is how education is), on through the books of Moses to the histories and the psalms. It was a private communion with a Word that delivered itself only slowly.

 What did I make of it?  God had walked in the garden with Adam in the cool of the evening, he was everywhere and in all events, he would speak to you as to his friend.  I was convinced of this pervading mystery and the often unbearable weight of his presence, I don’t think I could really distinguish this otherness from the impenetrability of the Jacobean language that often  stumped me.  What are these foreskins that you could be told to collect?  The lessons, and there were plenty, entered into my mind in an unstated way, they just came to be part of a mental furniture.  There is a jealous God who shows his love to whom he wills, he who brought a vine out of Egypt.  There is a world of human passions, people are deeply attracted or repelled by one another.  Blood ties run deep.  Humans are passionate and they are possessive.  Regulations and ritual instructions are obsessively necessary but so is sacred violence, I cannot tell you whether all this came home to me at eight or whether the ideas grew in my mind.  Many meanings of the texts are lost for ever (may as well learn that lesson early).  Some of it could be written for a dreamy little boy. There was much sex though I didn’t know the word, clearly lots of human possibilities here, but  I knew it could wait.  Who reads the Bible at any age finds a robe of many colours and infinite variety, the sweetness of honey and the roar of the lion, the lover is at the lattice, David loses his son.

Father Thornhill’s Sunday readings from the pulpit sometimes matched mine in the empty classroom, only he did repeat himself so.  I eventually came to the end of the Bible with the triumphant reading of the Apocalypse and told my teacher.  I  asked hopefully if I could read  the next in the series but that was it. It wasn’t until my novitiate at Woodchester Priory that I next attempted the serial reading of the Bible, this time in a more coherent and recollected way.  But I was already St Jerome’s man.   The Word of God alive and active, that cuts more sharply than any double-edged sword.  Amen.