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Hearts on Fire – Making Time to Study Word of God

An Author Interview with Gayle Somers and Sarah Christmyer, Hearts Aflame Scripture Study
by Lisa M. Hendey | Source:
An Author Interview with Gayle Somers and Sarah Christmyer, Hearts Aflame Scripture Study

The authors of a new Catholic scripture study series contend that although we may “study” the Bible, ultimately scripture is a “place of encounter” with God. In the first of their planned series, Gayle Somers and Sarah Christmyer offer a comprehensive look at the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis from both an intellectual and a relational perspective. These opening pages of the Bible are examined from a uniquely Catholic frame of reference, in light of Catholic tradition and Church teachings. Intended for either group or individual study, Genesis Part I: God and His Creation (Emmaus Road Publishing, November 2004, paperback, 140 pages) features a ten lesson study. A complete appendix on the reading of the first chapter of Genesis, and lesson summaries and guides are also included.

A few years ago, as the sole Catholic in an interfaith Bible study group, I would have welcomed this resource for its wonderful emphasis on Catholic fundamentals, the Catechism, the sacraments and overall Church teaching. Whether you’re looking to embark on a new dedication to the discipline of scripture study, or to enhance your current knowledge of the book of Genesis, the Hearts Aflame series is to be commended. I had the recent opportunity to interview authors Gayle Somers and Sarah Christmyer on their journeys to Catholicism and their goals for Genesis Part I.

Q: Please tell us a bit about yourselves and your families.

Gayle: I am 56 years old, have been married to my husband, Gary, for 25 years, and have 3 children: Geneva (24), Gary (19), and Leah (18). I have a BA in history from the University of New Orleans (where I was born and grew up) and an M.A. in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Protestant) in So. Hamilton, MA. I was unchurched as a child, but I had a dramatic conversion at the age of 18 and became a Presbyterian. After my seminary training, I worked in a ministry to women in an evangelical church in MI. That is where I met and married my husband. When he finished his master's degree at Northern Illinois University, he got a job teaching philosophy at Gordon College (loosely associated with the seminary), so we moved to MA a year after we were married. We stayed there about 15 years, then moved to Phoenix, AZ, when Gary took a new job. We have lived here ever since. I am primarily a homemaker, but I also work part-time in my parish church as a coordinator for women's ministries, which includes leading two different bible study groups (day and evening). We have only one child living at home now (Leah), as well as Gary's mother, who is 88 and has lived with us for 21 years.

Sarah: My husband Mark and I have four children: a 16-year-old girl and three boys of 8, 10, and 14. We live outside of Philadelphia, where we met in 1983. Much of my life right now revolves around the children and family activities, of which there are many! The bulk of what’s left is devoted either to writing Bible studies or to developing programs to help people come to know God in the Bible. I helped develop the Great Adventure Bible Timeline learning system and continue to work with Jeff Cavins and Tim Gray to improve it and make it available to parishes around the country. From time to time I remember that I am also an artist, but I rarely get beyond painting bedroom walls and school projects these days!

Q: I know that both of you are converts to Catholicism. Could you please describe the faith journeys that brought you home to the Catholic Church?

Gayle: Our journey began when one of our very good friends, Tom Howard, became a Catholic. We had been Episcopalians and attended the same church as Tom and his wife, Lovelace. His conversion made us very curious about the Catholic Church. When Tom converted, evangelicals just didn't do that sort of thing. If we hadn't known him personally, we would have assumed he'd gone off the deep end. However, we did know him, so we had a lot of questions. Tom gave us books to read, which answered some of them but didn't convince us enough to help us overcome the huge obstacles that stood in the way of accepting the claims of the Church. For me, it was the idea of Sacred Tradition that was the biggest stumbling block; for my husband, it was Mary. Several years passed, and we thought we had lain to rest any ideas about joining Tom in the Church. What changed all that was a huge blow-up in our little Episcopal Church. The congregation was divided down the middle over the ministry of our new pastor, and it caused tremendous suffering for everyone. For us, the split brought to the surface something that had been planted with us years earlier when we were actively inquiring into the Church. How is it that two groups of committed, prayerful, Bible-believing Christians can have such radically different convictions about what is God's truth and God's will? It became clear to us that Christians cannot feel their way to truth. There must be some system for getting Christian truth; otherwise, there is nothing to prevent endless schism in the Body of Christ. At that point, we began attending an Anglo-Catholic church in Boston (very high liturgy but still an Episcopal church). We started asking more questions, with much more interest in finding answers this time. After about 2 years of reading and studying, we finally realized that the Reformation was built on a house of cards. Although we didn't really want to become Catholics (so foreign and strange to us), we knew too much. There was no turning back. So, on Pentecost of 1995, we and our children (as well as Tom's wife, by the way) were received into the Catholic Church. Joy! We have never looked back.

Sarah: I grew up in a strong Christian home and was very happy as an evangelical. I don’t think I ever would have looked twice at the Catholic Church had I not married the man I did. Mark is a “cradle Catholic” who left the Church when he left for college, and by the time we married he was going to a Presbyterian church with me. I soon discovered that he may have left the Catholic Church, but the Church had never left him. Before long he was asking, “can’t we just visit a Catholic church?” and “aren’t we going to baptize the baby Catholic?” He couldn’t explain, he just “didn’t feel like he’d been to church” at the Presbyterian Church. I was shocked, and he persisted. I began to have questions, and he didn’t have answers. The prospect of a life in which my husband and I looked to “different Gods,” as I felt at the time, visited me like a nightmare. At the same time, the ground beneath me seemed to crack. My questions were raising doubts and I could find no one who understood me. I was overwhelmed by fear.

Into that fear and darkness came the hand and voice of God. Not a literal voice, but one I heard with equal confidence. Not just “do not be afraid, I am with you,” but “I brought you here. Follow me.” He sent people to help: an RCIA class. Another recent convert who had experienced the same fears and who graciously helped me along. A husband who stayed quiet and prayed. I began to see light. Not much, but enough. At Easter 1991 I gave God my fears and questions and joined my husband in the Church, believing that it was best for us to be united in faith and because I believed God wanted me here, even if I didn’t understand.

More light came later. First in glimmers, later in flashes and even explosions as I began to regain my sight. As I read the Catechism (and anything else I could get my hands on!) and began to learn from the Church, I began to see clearly where previously I only thought I could. It is breathtaking to read the Bible anew through the lens of the Church. I became overwhelmed by the beauty and the majesty and the perfection of the Catholic faith.

I adapt to change slowly. It was two or three years after our wedding before I thought of myself as Sarah Christmyer, not Winston. It was at least that long before I was comfortable calling myself Catholic. Today I can’t imagine being anything else. Coming to know God within the family of the Church has been the most exciting and satisfying journey of my life. I hope it never ends.

Q: Both of you have strong backgrounds in writing Bible studies - how did the idea for "Hearts Aflame" come about and what is your goal for this particular scripture study series?

Gayle: The idea for Hearts Aflame came after several years of writing and leading bible studies in our parish churches. (Sarah and I teamed up when we discovered we were both doing the same thing but across the country from each other; we had known each other as Protestants, lost touch, then got reconnected after our conversions.) About a year after my conversion, I was asked by a few ladies in the church to teach a bible class. They were very hungry for it, and they knew my background. A bit reluctantly, I agreed. I was hesitant because I was such a new Catholic. I felt I had much to learn before I started teaching others! But they prevailed on me. I used the inductive study method, which was all that I had known in my Protestant life. This method is text-intensive. It requires frequent reading and examination of one text, with many questions to uncover its literal meaning and its application in our lives. This worked well for a time, but gradually I realized that this method needed to be adapted to the soil of Catholic life. It left out the wonderful tradition of lectio divina, which is the patient listening for God's Voice that characterizes Catholic Scripture reading. Over time, we worked out a format that tries to combine the Catholic practice of pondering the Scripture with the Protestant rigor of analysis of the text and its meaning. The many people who have used our bible studies (there are 3 more in addition to Genesis) over the years testify that their lives have been changed by learning to love (and not fear) Scripture. This is truly the hope for our study series--that Catholics will use it to overcome their insecurity about the bible and discover the riches of God's Word, a treasure beyond all telling.

Sarah: You might add that the idea for “Hearts Aflame” as a title came from Gayle, who had been puzzling for some time over what the ingredients of truly Catholic Scripture study might be. She was struck by Luke’s account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, whose eyes were opened to the Lord in the Eucharist and whose “hearts burned” when Jesus opened the Scriptures to them. The original title was “Cors Ardens,” which is Latin for “hearts burned,” but on the advice of the publishers we changed it to English in hopes of better conveying our desires to set Catholics’ hearts on fire with the Word of God.

Q: Was the book of Genesis selected for your first study because it is a natural launching off point, or for some other reason?

Gayle: The Book of Genesis is truly the book of "beginnings." It is absolutely foundational to understanding the rest of Scripture and the life we have as God's people in the Catholic Church. All the great truths that are knit into the fabric of the universe are there for us to comprehend--who God is, who we are, what our problem is, what the solution will be, and how God's untamable, unquenchable, unimaginable Love permeates all human existence. All this unfolds in the dramatic stories of Genesis. A patient, thoughtful study of this book is necessary for all adult Catholics. It begins a drama that is played out all through human history, and we are all in the play! St. Ephrem wrote about Genesis: "I read the opening of this book and was filled with joy, for its verses and lines spread out their arms to welcome me...the story of Paradise...lifted me up and transported me from the bosom of the book to the very bosom of Paradise." Such is the power and beauty of the Book of Genesis. There is no better place to start studying Scripture.

Q: Is the Genesis study intended for personal or group use? Do you have any guidelines for those looking to begin the process of Bible study who may never have done so before?

Gayle: The study can be used by individuals or groups. The "Introduction to Hearts Aflame Scripture Study" section of the book gives some simple guidelines for studying Scripture. For use in a group, the discussion works best if there is a leader who prepares in advance. Responses to all the text questions are found in the back of the book, but it is always best for the group members to do their own work on the questions, not looking at the responses until after their group discussion. The leader, of course, would need to be familiar with the responses in order to guide the discussion. People who use our study and have questions can always write to me at gaylesomers@juno.com. I am more than happy to give e-mail assistance when needed.

Sarah: Some people, new to the Bible altogether, have told me they find study too demanding or overwhelming. When that is so, I suggest you take it very slowly. Read each chapter over several times, maybe taking several days. Let it sink in. Pray as you read. Do the questions you can, but don’t get bogged down on the hard ones. Leave them for another time. If possible, find a partner to work alongside or join a group in which you are encouraged and strengthened. Don’t be discouraged, just take one thing at a time. When I first became Catholic, I found it slow going learning what it meant to be Catholic and what Catholics believed. I had to take tiny little steps and it seemed like each one was in the dark. Eventually what I learned approached a critical mass and I was able to take bigger steps, then bigger and bigger. I imagine the process is something like that. If someone is finding it hard to do any reading or study at all, I may be able to suggest some other things to do. I can be reached at s.christmyer@verizon.net.

Q: What lessons do you hope that readers take away from the experience of studying Genesis?

Sarah: Invariably when I tell someone I’m teaching or have written a Bible study on Genesis, they say “oh, is it for children?” Somehow the stories of Adam and Eve, of Noah and the Tower of Babel and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have become just that: stories. Tales from a child’s picture Bible, or words to a catchy song. Drawings on a child’s quilt. They’re part of our “tradition,” like so many stories I might tell of my great-grandmother. I can’t tell you how sad that makes me! The grand Story that begins in Genesis is the story that gives meaning to our lives. It tells us who we are and why we are here and where we are going. It reveals God to us. It shows us, through the lives of our first parents and their descendants, just how very much that God loves us. It shows us what faith is and how we should live. All of this and more is packed into Genesis. The rest of the Bible makes no sense without it. I guess my hope is that others will discover its explosive beauty, and that they will come to know and appreciate and love God in a new and deeper way.

Q: Why is it important that we present Catholic with "Catholic" bible study resources, as opposed to the many resources available through evangelical sources? What makes your study uniquely Catholic?

Sarah: I am deeply indebted to evangelical Bible studies and books, and there are many fine programs out there. But there are several reasons I see a need for truly “Catholic” Bible study materials. To begin with, even the so-called ecumenical or non-denominational studies will rarely present or consider valid a Catholic interpretation of a bible passage or the Catholic stance on theological questions. So you may find yourself missing out on a lot or wondering whether there is any scriptural basis for Catholic teaching. Not only that, but all Protestant Bible study is built on an assumption of sola scriptura—the Bible is the only infallible and authoritative rule of faith and practice, to be interpreted by each individual with the help of the Holy Spirit. That poses a problem to the Catholic, who believes that the Bible was written in the heart of the Church and is meant to be interpreted from within the heart of the Church.

So what makes our study uniquely Catholic? Gayle has said already that we incorporated the Catholic practice of lectio divina into our approach to the reading and questions. We also follow Catholic principles of interpretation (you can read about these in the Catechism nos. 111-119.) Catholics look to the Word of God not only as it has been given in the Scriptures, but also as it has been handed down in the Church’s teaching authority, the Magisterium. The Church does not tell us how to interpret every line, but gives us boundaries and signposts to guide us and keep us on track. [The sections in the Catechism on the transmission of divine revelation (nos. 74-100) and sacred scripture (nos. 101-119 and following) are helpful if you are not familiar with what the Catholic Church believes and teaches about Scripture.] Accordingly, Hearts Aflame Bible studies take into account the accumulated wisdom of the Magisterium. Commentary within the study refers to Church documents and quotes from the Church Fathers when appropriate. Some of the questions also refer people to the Catechism for clarification.

Q: How can busy people, for example mothers or fathers, make time for Bible study in their already crowded schedules and what would you say are the benefit to undertaking study of the sacred scriptures?

Sarah: Carving out time is a constant struggle. People’s lives are busy. And yet if it is a priority, people make time. I always liked the illustration of filling a glass with different sized stones. If you start with sand and move to pebbles and ever-bigger stones, you’ll never get it all in. But start with the big things—the important things in your life—and there is always room in the cracks for the little things. I have four children and a job. I know all about time pressures. It is not always easy, and I fail more than I’d like to admit. But I find that when my heart is right, I seek my Lover’s face. And when I put Him first and give up my time, the remaining time is multiplied like the loaves and the fishes and the other things fall into place.

As for the benefits of studying Scripture—if all you ever do is read or hear the Bible piecemeal, without knowing the bigger context, there will always be something missing. Study gives you the background and context and understanding you need so that when you do read the pieces, they make sense. You might think that simply hearing God’s Word would be enough—but consider this: someone my age who has faithfully attended mass for a lifetime would have heard essentially the entire Bible read to them 15 times. Yet how many adult Catholics do you know who feel they know God in His Word? Who know what He has done for His children through the ages? Who know His promises? Who are comfortable reading the Bible? And yet the Church has said that "in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life" (Dei Verbum 21). Wow! How can we pass that up? I study the Bible for the same reason I tried to find out as much as I could about Mark when we were falling in love, or study my child’s face. I love God and want to impress His image on my mind, on my heart and my soul. But don’t take it just from me, consider the witness of the men and women in the Bible study I taught in my parish for five years. At the start, few had read the Bible at all. I gave them lots of homework and it was hard to work it into their schedules. But those who persevered, never looked back. Their knowledge of God and relationship with Him deepened. The Mass began to come alive. They are radiant with the Word in their hearts. All would say the time and effort was well worth it.

For more information on Genesis Part I: God and His Creation visit www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1931018227/catholicmomcom

Lisa M. Hendey is a mother of two sons, webmaster of numerous web sites, including www.catholicmom.com and www.christiancoloring.com, and an avid reader of Catholic literature. Visit her at www.lisahendey.com for more information.

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