Saturday, 3 May 2014

Gospel for the Second Sunday after Easter

This Sunday's Gospel is St John 10:11-16:

11 Ego sum pastor bonus. Bonus pastor animam suam dat pro ovibus suis. 12 Mercenarius autem, et qui non est pastor, cujus non sunt oves propriæ, videt lupum venientem, et dimittit oves, et fugit: et lupus rapit, et dispergit oves; 13 mercenarius autem fugit, quia mercenarius est, et non pertinet ad eum de ovibus. 14 Ego sum pastor bonus: et cognosco meas, et cognoscunt me meæ. 15 Sicut novit me Pater, et ego agnosco Patrem: et animam meam pono pro ovibus meis. 16 Et alias oves habeo, quæ non sunt ex hoc ovili: et illas oportet me adducere, et vocem meam audient, et fiet unum ovile et unus pastor.

11] I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep. [12] But the hireling, and he that is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and flieth: and the wolf catcheth, and scattereth the sheep: [13] And the hireling flieth, because he is a hireling: and he hath no care for the sheep. [14] I am the good shepherd; and I know mine, and mine know me. [15] As the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father: and I lay down my life for my sheep.

[16] And other sheep I have, that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd. 

The Matins readings (from St Gregory)

Reading 9: Dearly beloved brethren, ye have heard from the Holy Gospel what is at once your instruction, and our danger. Behold, how He Who, not by the varying gifts of nature, but of the very essence of His being, is Good, behold how He saith : I am the Good Shepherd. And then He saith what is the character of His goodness, even of that goodness of His which we must strive to copy : The Good Shepherd giveth His life for the Sheep. As He had foretold, even so did He; as He had commanded, so gave He ensample.

Reading 10: The Good Shepherd gave His life for the sheep, and made His Own Body and His Own Blood to be our Sacramental Food, pasturing upon His Own Flesh the sheep whom He had bought.
He, by despising death, hath shown us how to do the like; He hath set before us the mould wherein it behoveth us to be cast.

Reading 11: Our first duty is, freely and tenderly to spend our outward things for His sheep, but lastly, if need be, to serve the same by our death also. From the light offering of the first, we go on to the stern offering of the last, and, if we be ready to give our life for the sheep, why should we scruple to give our substance, seeing how much more is the life than meat?

Reading 12: And some there be which love the things of this world better than they love the sheep; and such as they deserve no longer to be called shepherds. These are they of whom it is written : But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth. He is not a shepherd but an hireling which feedeth the Lord's sheep, not because he loveth their souls, but because he doth gain earthly wealth thereby. He that taketh a shepherd's place, but seeketh not gain of souls, that same is but an hireling; such an one is ever ready for creature comforts, he loveth his pre-eminence, he groweth sleek upon his income, and he liketh well to see men bow down to him.

Lectio divina: meditation to work

So far in this series on Lectio Divina I've looked at reading, thinking about and studying the text.  I don't want to say a great deal about the final stages of the process, meditation, prayer, contemplation and work, but for the sake of completeness, a few comments nonetheless.

Our Lady as a model of meditation

The first thing to say is that Our Lady is generally regarded as the ultimate model for lectio divina. Meditation in the Benedictine tradition follows that idea of Our Lady treasuring all those things in her heart, turning them over and over, and reflecting on their meaning.

In the post on study I suggested the kinds of things one can look for flowing out of the words of the text, but in reality there are many different methods of meditation, and I think you just have to find one that works for you. I prefer the idea of keeping going back to the text, and seeing what you can draw out of it. But the Ignatian idea of putting yourself into the Biblical scene and engaging each of the senses, for example, can be equally helpful depending on your personality!

Why we meditate

The key point to bear in mind I think is the purpose of all this.

First we have to be actively listening to what God is trying to say to us - open to having our view of ourselves and the world changed by imitating Christ and accepting the implications of the truths Scripture and Traditional reveal.

Secondly, seeing how we fall short of the Gospel ideal, seeing the cracks in our worldview when it is held up to the mirror of the Scripture is a necessary start.

But we also have to genuinely want to change, to constantly recommit ourselves to strive for perfection - and that means looking to Scripture for the reasons why we should embark on this path. Meditating on the joys of heaven, the happiness we can achieve now, the rewards Our Lord promises can be helpful too!

Finally, we need to look at Scripture to find the tools we need to change - through Advent, many of the readings have focused on the need for repentance and confession. There is a lot more there to be found and utilised though, if, for example, we look at how Our Lord taught the disciples, and not just in words!

Meditation really should take up the bulk of the time you set aside for lectio divina - or at least the work you do in that time should set you up to meditate fruitfully on the text as you do other things during the day. Think about leaving the radio (or Ipod) off as you are do housework, drive to work, or go for a walk for example, and taking one of the lines of thought you have identified as you pursue these activities!


Closely related to meditation is prayer.  In this schema prayer comes a fair way down the list, but in reality it has to be part of every stage of lectio - as the part of the preparation we make before starting (as with every and any task!), to guide our thought and study, and of course our meditation. St Teresa of Avila described prayer as just like a conversation with a friend, and that is a concept to keep in front of our minds all the time.

At the same time, it will be pretty evident by this point I hope, that the kind of prayer that should emerge from lectio divina in my view is not just some spontaneous charismatic-style thought to 'share', but something considered.  And it can often be helpful to try writing out your prayer, using it to summarise what you have taken out of the reading and linking it to the request for aid.

If you are looking for models on how to do this, go to the Masters! The psalms for example, particularly, those that reflect on the history of Israel. Or St Augustine's reflections on Genesis in the last few books of his Confessions.

Some of my most favourite Lectio style prayers though are those of Dame Gertrude More (a seventeenth century English Benedictine nun) and those of St Anselm. The latter for example says things like:

"St Mary Magdalene,
you came with springing tears
to the spring of mercy, Christ;
from him your burning thirst was abundantly refreshed;
through him your sins were forgiven;
by him your bitter sorrow was consoled.
My dearest lady,
well you know by your own life
how a sinful soul can be reconciled with its creator,
what counsel a soul in misery needs,
what medicine will restore the sick to health....

herefore, since you are now with the chosen
because you are beloved
and are beloved because you are chosen of God...

Ask urgently that I may have
the love that pierces the heart; tears that are humble;
desire for the homeland of heaven;
impatience with this earthly exile;
searing repentance; and a dread of torments in eternity..."

Our poor efforts won't be as worthy of preservation as these of course, but the discipline of writing them down - and being able to go back to them for reference purposes - can be useful at times!


The hope, of course, is that this active form of prayer will move to wordless contemplation infused by God. This is, however, a gift to be freely bestowed on us, not something we can achieve for ourselves unaided.  What we can do, though, is seek through our prayer to find an inner stillness where we push away all the distracting thoughts that pull us down, seeking an inner stillness that can be filled by God.


The last stage of the schema I’m advocating for Lectio Divina is Work, or putting it all into practice.

Today it is popular to focus on acceptance – of ourselves and others. But this runs directly counter to our tradition, which recognizes that humans are imperfect and inclined to sin, and urges us to struggle for perfection.  We should recognize and even worship God present in others – but we also have to recognize and struggle against everything that makes us unworthy temples of the Holy Spirit.

In essence we read Scripture not just because it is interesting or entertaining – not because it ‘validates’ us - but because of its potential to change our lives, fostering our ongoing conversion. So as we do our lectio, we should be listening out for the ways of putting what we have learnt into practice in our lives.

Models of behavioural change

One of the more useful models of behaviour change points to a five stage process – the first is seeing our undesirable behaviour or flawed worldview for what it is. Most of the time we look at the world through the lens of a set of beliefs about what we are seeing and an image of ourselves. But it is not for nothing, that the psalmist urges us to pray that our secret sins might be forgiven: seeing the mote in our eye can be the hardest step in changing.

The key to making major or minor changes in our lives is to realize that the costs of not changing are greater than those of staying as we are. And in this spiritual life this has to be a continual process, since we know we must seek perfection, even if we can never achieve absolute perfection in this life.

The third important factor in making changes is finding the tools to help us. Scripture provides us with both models and injunctions about how we should behave. You can compile up sets yourself as you do your lectio, or look at the distillations in both Scripture and the tradition - the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament, for example, can be particularly useful here. So to distillations of key precepts from Scripture such as the fourth chapter of St Benedict’s Rule, his tools of good works, which start from the commandments, work through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, the injunctions from the Sermon on the Mount, and other key sources.

Equally important of course is prayer, and God’s grace!

The point to keep in mind is that making any change is hard work – it won’t necessarily come naturally. The challenge is to keep at, picking ourselves up and trying again after every lapse, until it does come naturally and is fully incorporated into our lives, needing only a brief review from time to make sure we are maintaining the standard.

And in conclusion….

So that wraps up the process: Read-Think-Study-Meditate-Pray-Contemplate-Work.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Lectio divina: Studying the text

This post in this series on Lectio Divina is about the study stage of lectio, and to give you a flavour of how you might tackle it, I’m going to take a practical example, in the opening verses of St John 1:19-20.


Remember first of all that the first stage is to read it. Here is the Vulgate:

“Et hoc est testimonium Iohannis quando miserunt Iudaei ab Hierosolymis sacerdotes et Levitas ad eum ut interrogarent eum tu quis es. Et confessus est et non negavit et confessus est quia non sum ego Christus”

Now have a look at the English version:

19. And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who are you? 20. And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.”

I suggested trying to memorize this is possible (either in English or Latin). Normally I’m not very good a remembering Gospel’s for more than a day or two, but actually this one is imprinted on my brain forever in English at least courtesy of participating in a (memorable for a variety of reasons!) performance many years ago of Orlando Gibbon’s wonderful version setting of this – have a listen, it might help you too!

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Remember that this process is mainly about working out how you are going to tackle the study of the passage, as well as gathering preliminary ideas on where your meditation might focus.

Context: Bear in mind that St John the Evangelist was a disciple of St John the Baptist, so was in a pretty good position to record the other John’s testimony.

Literal meaning: If you aren’t familiar with this Gospel, go read the whole of Chapter One to get the context. But I think that John’s baptizing efforts, just before the start of Jesus’ public ministry will be pretty familiar to most. The Navarre Bible and Ignatius Study Guide also provide useful maps and explanations of the literal meaning of the text.

Haydock's Bible is an old but good online resource for this. On this particular passage it says:

“Ver. 19. The Jews sent, &amp;c. These men, who were priests and Levites, seem to have been sent and deputed by the sanhedrim, or great council at Jerusalem, to ask of John the Baptist, who was then in great esteem and veneration, whether he was not their Messias; who, as they knew by the predictions of the prophets, was to come about that time. John declared to them he was not….

Spiritual meaning: One approach is to look at the Scriptural cross-references to this passage, or use a Greek concordance to dig into the meaning of the passage in depth. But personally, in order to get started at least, I think you really can’t go past the Church Father’s on this, and I want to recommend a few good resources.

First, if you are looking online the Catena Aurea of St Thomas is a wonderful resource. Secondly, Biblia Clerus brings together a number of patristic commentaries and magisterial references.

In terms of books in hardcopy form, I love the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, another Catena style approach, for each section it provides an overview of what the Fathers have to say, then selected extracts from their commentaries by verse.


OK, So let's get down to it! As I've said, there are lots of different approaches you can take to this task, but one of the most useful tools for lectio I’ve found is the Catena Aurea compiled by St Thomas Aquinas, as it almost always both answers the questions on the literal meaning of the text, and gives some good jumping off points for the spiritual. Take a look at a couple of extracts for these verses for example:

“ORIGEN; The Jews of Jerusalem, as being of kin to the Baptist, who was of the priestly stock, send Priests and Levites to ask him who he is; that is, men considered to hold a superior rank to the rest of their order, by God's election, and coming from that favored above all cities, Jerusalem. Such is the reverential way in which they interrogate John. We read of no such proceeding towards Christ: but what the Jews did to John, John in turn does to Christ, when he asks Him, through His disciples, Are you He that should come, or look we for another? John, as it appears, saw from the question, that the Priests and Levites had doubts whether it might not be the Christ, who was baptizing; which doubts however they were afraid to profess openly, for fear of incurring the charge of credulity.

He wisely determines therefore first to correct their mistake, and then to proclaim the truth. Accordingly, he first of all shows that he is not the Christ: And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. We may add here, that at this time the people had already begun to be impressed with the idea that Christ's advent was at hand, in consequence of the interpretations which the lawyers had collected out of the sacred writings to that effect.
Thus Theudas had been enabled to collect together a considerable body, on the strength of his pretending to be the Christ; and after him Judas, in the days of the taxation, had done the same. Such being the strong expectation of Christ's advent then prevalent, the Jews send to John, intending by the question, Who are you? to extract from him whether he were the Christ.

GREG. He denied directly being what he was not, but he did not deny what he was: thus, by his speaking truth, becoming a true member of Him Whose name he had not dishonestly usurped.

CHRYS. Or take this explanation: The Jews were influenced by a kind of human sympathy for John, whom they were reluctant to see made subordinate to Christ, on account of the many marks of greatness about him; his illustrious descent in the first place, he being the son of a chief priest; in the next, his hard training, and his contempt of the world.Whereas in Christ the contrary were apparent; a humble birth, for which they reproach Him; Is not this the carpenter's son? an ordinary way of living; a dress such as every one else wore. ….And observe the wisdom of the Evangelist: he repeats the same thing three times, to show John's virtue, and the malice and madness of the Jews. For it is the character of a devoted servant, not only to forbear taking to himself his lord's glory, but even, when numbers offer it to him, to reject it. The multitude indeed believed from ignorance that John was the Christ, but in these it was malice; and in this spirit they put the question to him, thinking, by their blandishments to bring him over to their wishes."

How to use it

As you go through it, highlight the things that strike you, and jot down the things that flow from them in terms of possible topics for meditation. The important point to bear in mind here is that the objective is not to write an essay on Scripture, but to identify the message of the text for you.

Here is a bit of a list (by no means complete) to give you some idea of the types of possibilities you might come up with as you read a good commentary on the text, or think about it yourself:
  • You can start at the ‘macro’ level, on God’s providential plan for our salvation, and how that can be reproduced in our own lives this Advent.
  • Or think about St John’s asceticism, one of the reasons why he was held in such esteem, and how we stack up on this front.
  • About the need to stand up for and preach our own faith and beliefs, correcting error and proclaiming the truth, even we know that any acclaim we win is likely to be very short-lived, and there will be scoffers!
  • About the strength of St John’s conviction about his own charism, which clearly had not been endorsed in advance by the religious establishment.
  • About the way St John fulfilled Jewish expectations of what a holy man should look like and do – in contrast to Our Lord!
  • About the motives of the Jewish authorities, who perhaps stand for all worldly authorities when confronted with holiness that challenges the status quo!
  • About St John’s humility in knowing his own position relative to Christ, and the contrast with some early false messiahs.
Next comes meditation and prayer

Hopefully as you study the text and commentaries, the most important issues for you to pray and meditate on will become evident as you look at what you have jotted down. But if not, don’t worry, just pick one or two things to take to the next stage, which we will talk more on next time,


Thursday, 1 May 2014

Lectio divina: thinking about the text

In the last post in this series on lectio divina I talked about reading – which in a previous era really also included what we would think of as learning it and studying Scripture.

Now I want to turn to the second stage in the process, thinking about it (cogitatio). Bear in mind, of course, that while I’m talking about each of these stages as if they were separate entities, in reality they don’t necessarily happen in a linear sequence!

A lot of lectio guides suggest you should read a text over until something leaps out at you, or the voice of inspiration strikes. Sometimes that does happen.

But as Mother Cecile Bruyere, first Abbess of Solesmes said:

“It is absolute presumption to expect to obtain, by immediate light from God, that knowledge which we can and ought to acquire for ourselves as part of our work in this world. We must not voluntarily rest satisfied with vague notions about the truths….”

Approaches to thinking about the text

When you are doing lectio, you are really looking for what God is trying to say to you personally – what you need to think about, change about yourself, or understand. It is also a jumping off point for meditation and contemplation. So as you go through the lectio process, my suggestion is to jot down a few notes as you go to help structure your thinking.

I like to think of the ‘cogitatio’ stage of approaching the text as in large part working out what I need to fill in by way of study (the next stage), and what I’m going to focus on in meditating on the text.

Do remember though that the point of lectio is not to produce an academic understanding of a text (well, OK, it can be, but that isn't the objective). In thinking about it, the aim is in part to work out where to focus. There are really three key strands you can look at:

§ Understanding the context of the verses under consideration;
§ Understanding the meaning – literal and spiritual – of the text; and
§ Identifying themes or ideas that are important for you personally.


In terms of context, I’m talking about both things about the text itself (like the genre, the human author, time it was written) and the context of the events being described (for the Gospel, what part of Jesus’ life, is it a parable, a discourse or description of events, etc). If you aren’t familiar with this, you might need to take a quick look at a commentary (such as the Navarre), or an ‘Introduction to the Bible’ book (there are several around – the ‘Inside the Bible’ by Fr Kenneth Baker is one of my favourites).

Literal and spiritual meaning

The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes a nice medieval couplet that summarizes the four senses of Scripture: The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”

Throughout history there has been something of a tug of war between those who focus primarily on the literal sense of Scripture, and those who focus primarily on the spiritual.

At the moment the literal is winning.

And it does need to be in there, being the foundation for all the other senses of Scripture.

But I won’t spend much time on it. I’ll just note that the Ignatius Study Guides (and there are other similar resources around) provide useful notes on people and technical terms, as well as maps (as recommended by commenter Felix yesterday), and these are tools designed to be used for lectio.

One book I quite like as a crib because it provides a reasonably straightforward summaries of key parts of the Bible (and for the Gospels, gives one amalgamated version of each key event, parable, etc), and in each section gives a very helpful summary of the doctrinal points it illustrates (with a nice cross reference to catechism) is Krecht's Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture. It is also very good on the spiritual meanings, particularly typology.

So in summary….

The cogitatio stage is about working out how to tackle the text, which gaps in your knowledge need to be plugged the most.  Above all, it is about starting to pick out the things that you might meditate or pray on.


Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Feast of St Joseph the worker

The Gospel for today's feast is St Matthew 13:54-58:

54 Et veniens in patriam suam, docebat eos in synagogis eorum, ita ut mirarentur, et dicerent: Unde huic sapientia hæc, et virtutes? 55 Nonne hic est fabri filius? nonne mater ejus dicitur Maria, et fratres ejus, Jacobus, et Joseph, et Simon, et Judas? 56 et sorores ejus, nonne omnes apud nos sunt? unde ergo huic omnia ista? 57 Et scandalizabantur in eo. Jesus autem dixit eis: Non est propheta sine honore, nisi in patria sua, et in domo sua. 58 Et non fecit ibi virtutes multas propter incredulitatem illorum.

54 and came to his own country-side, where he taught them in their synagogue; so that they said in astonishment, How did he come by this wisdom, and these strange powers? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son, whose mother is called Mary, and his brethren James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And do not his sisters, all of them, live near us? How is it that all this has come to him? 57 And they had no confidence in him. But Jesus told them, It is only in his own country, in his own home, that a prophet goes unhonoured. 58 Nor did he do many miracles there, because of their unbelief.


The third Nocturn readings are from St. Albert the Great:

Reading 9: On the Sabbath day he entered the synagogue, where those who came to listen had gathered. And the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were intent upon him. Some indeed with devotion, some out of curiosity, while some watched him that they might trap him in his talk. And the Scribes and Pharisees said to the people, in whom faith and devotion had already made a beginning: "Is not this the son of Joseph?" See this attitude of disparagement toward him whom they did not even deign to call by his name. "The son of Joseph," this little the Evangelist says because he had known that both in Mark and in Matthew a fuller statement would be made: "Is not this the carpenter's son? Is he not a workman, the son of Mary?" All these things were said contemptuously.

Reading 10: Joseph is said to have been a carpenter who earned his living by his skill and the work of his hands, and he did not eat his bread in idleness and indulgence, like the Scribes and Pharisees. Mary also worked for her living with her husband, and with competent hands. And here is the meaning of what they said about him: "This man of ignoble and poverty-stricken birth could not be Christ the Lord, whom God anointed. And thus no credence is to be given to such an uncultivated and low-born man."

Reading 11: Now the Lord was a workman because the prophet said of him: "You fashioned the moon and the sun." A similar contemptuous way of speaking is found in the Book of Kings, where they said of Saul when he became king: "What is this that has happened to the son of Cis? Is Saul also among the prophets?" This slight remark shows great disparagement. 

Reading 12: For the Lord says: "Amen I say to you, that no prophet is acceptable in his own country." Here the Lord calls himself a prophet. For he, to whom all things are known through his divinity, receives no revelation of inspiration from outside himself. Here, however, he definitely calls the place of his birth and upbringing his own country. But he was not acceptable to his fellow townsmen who were incited against him by envy.

Lectio divina: more on reading

In the previous posts in this series I've suggested that the first stage of lectio divina, reading the text, needs to be a very active process, ideally starting by puzzling out the Latin of the text.  In this post I want to say a little more about what the reading stage can usefully involve, including a look at processes such as listening to it and memorization.

 Reading can mean hearing

The techniques of lectio divina originally grew out of an oral culture.

Books were enormously expensive, something to be shared amongst several people, and literacy was often in short supply. Accordingly, as the fourteenth century Cloud of Unknowing puts it:

“All is one in manner, reading and hearing: clerks reading on books, and lewd men reading on clerks when they hear them preach the word of God.”

Moreover, even when people were literate, they remained immersed in a culture that was primarily oral. St Benedict in his Rule, for example, prescribes 2-3 hours a day of individual sacred 'reading'. But he also prescribed reading out loud at meals and in the evening before Compline. And all on top of the several hours in choir for Mass and Divine Office.

Accordingly, after you have read the text through once for yourself, try listening to it read aloud if you can.  You can find recordings of the vulgate (albeit not in an ecclesial Latin accent) here.

Reading meant memorization

A lot of guides to lectio divina stress the importance of trying to memorise the text under consideration.  The consequence of the oral culture of an earlier era is that memorization of texts was the norm.  Books were laid out in a way to aid memorization, and a large part of the aim of set times for lectio divina was to supply the person with a text to chew over during the rest of the day - one of the images used are of a cow chewing her cud.

I do think that is worth trying if you can, but, alas, most of us simply don't have the prodigiously well-trained memories that an oral culture relied on.  Accordingly, I think we need to adapt our efforts to our times.

Fortunately for us though, today text is easily accessible and portable: forget your text for the day and you can look it up on your ipad or, if you are old-fashioned, your pocket sized gospel book.

Associated texts

The other key consequence of the oral culture of St Benedict's era was that a monk of likely had a large store of Scripture already memorized, so when he focused on the text of the day, he was able to draw on many other texts that were related to it.

If he was reading the New Testament, for example, the reader would recognise the citations from the psalms, and if he was reading the psalms he would recognise how a particular line was interpreted by the Gospels.

Our lack of a developed memory, not to mention the general lack of familiarity with the Scriptures of most Catholics in our time, make it a lot harder for us to this: if Christ appear to us, as he did to that group of travellers on the road to Emmaus, or to the group of assembled apostles (Luke 24), and explained all of the references to him in the Old Testament, would we recognise the texts he would cite from the law, the prophets and the psalms as readily as those first hearers did?  Most of us, I think, would struggle.

Similarly, when related texts are placed before us, for example in the Divine Office, will we automatically realise the connections?  I think the answer is generally not, but again we can use tools such as books or online lists of cross-references to Scripture to compensate for our lack of memory.

A nice example of these sort of subtle connections relates to Monday at Lauds in the Benedictine form of the Divine Office.  St Benedict assigns two variable psalms to the hour, Psalms 5 and 35.  He may have inherited Psalm 5 from the older Roman Office of his time, but why Psalm 35?  One possibility is that he is implicitly pointing us to St Paul's interpretation of the two psalms which he links together in Romans 3:

"Of what use is it, then, to be a Jew?... Well then, has either side the advantage? In no way. Jews and Gentiles, as we have before alleged, are alike convicted of sin.10 Thus, it is written, There is not an innocent man among them, no, not one. 11 There is nobody who reflects, and searches for God; 12 all alike are on the wrong course, all are wasted lives; not one of them acts honourably, no, not one. 13 Their mouths are gaping tombs, they use their tongues to flatter. Under their lips the venom of asps is hidden.[Ps 5] 14 Their talk overflows with curses and calumny.15 They run hot-foot to shed blood; 16 havoc and ruin follow in their path;17 the way of peace is unknown to them. 18 They do not keep the fear of God before their eyes.[Ps 35] 19 So the law says, and we know that the words of the law are meant for the law’s own subjects; it is determined that no one shall have anything to say for himself, that the whole world shall own itself liable to God’s judgements. 20 No human creature can become acceptable in his sight by observing the law; what the law does is to give us the full consciousness of sin."

This passage also, of course, draws on several others psalms, including Psalms 49, 9 and 138.  It is an important reminder that the New Testament interprets the Old, and the Old needs to be read in the light of the New.  It should also remind us that the New Testament cannot be properly understood in isolation, but depends on the foreshadowing and preparation of the events and teaching set out in the Old.  Our reading must encompass this.

And for the next part of the series, continue on here.


Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Doing Lectio Divina: the problem of translations

In my previous post I set out some general comments around doing lectio divina, and suggested that there are essential six stages in the process: read - think - study - meditate - pray - contemplate - work.

In this post I want to take start looking at the first of these stages, 'reading' the text, and particularly the vexed question of which translation to use.

In particular I want to make the case for at least taking a look at the Latin text even if you don't actually know any Latin (you will quickly pick it up!).

Reading was hard work

The first point to keep in mind is that reading, in late antiquity and medieval times, was hard work.  The monk was generally working in a second language - Latin - in which he might have varying degrees of fluency.

And the book he had in front of him wasn't easy to read even if he was fluent in the language. We tend to think of the nice clear, beautifully illuminated texts as the norm. In fact, however, deciphering most medieval books was a laborious process, constituting hard physical work.

It is pretty hard for us today to reproduce the effort that a person in earlier times went through to puzzle out the text and its meaning. Curiously, though, the internet does in a way allow us, at least potentially, to get a little closer to that experience than readers in the more recent past.

Take a look at a site like the Blueletter Bible for example. For each verse it offers multiple translations to compare, dictionaries of Biblical terms, a Greek/Hebrew lexicon which enables you to cross-reference word use to other Scriptural citations, background material on the text, maps, and much more. Working through your verse using some of these kinds of tools (taking due care with protestant commentaries however!) is not a bad place to start.

Reading in Latin?

I would also  recommend at least taking a look at (or listening to) the Latin.   If, of course, you attend the traditional Latin Mass, or say the Office in Latin, it is well worth looking at the Latin text as part of your lectio divina, so you can readily recognise it when you come across it used in the liturgy.

Even if you attend Mass in English though, there are still good reasons for at least starting from the Latin in terms of reading in the mind of the Church, in my view, even if your Latin is almost non-existent (at first!).  In particular, a lot of the nuances of meaning depend on the exact word or words being used, which can so easily be lost in translation.

You don't need to try and translate every word - what I'm suggesting is that you read (or listen to) the text in Latin first, and then work with a good translation, picking out key words in the Latin to explore further as necessary using a dictionary or through commentaries (there are some good resources available online, which I'll point you to).

Over time, you'll find you will build up a working knowledge of some key words, which you can then build on more systematically if you want to.

Personally I'd suggest working with (at least) two English translations: one very literal (such as the Douay-Rheims) and one that works harder to convey the meaning of the text.

As an aid to getting at the underlying meaning of the text, I'd particularly recommend the Knox translation, available on the New Advent site, but this is a matter of taste: the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition) is also good in my view, and there are others.

Why its worth starting from the Latin (even if you have none!)

Why go to all that effort though?

The answer is that many words in Scripture have rich associations that can be gleaned from them, in part from how they are used elsewhere in Scripture, and in part from their consideration in the tradition.  These associations are all too often lost or obscured in translation.

Let me give an example using Psalm 3, which St Benedict specifies is to be said daily, opening Matins in his Office.  Verse 3 of the psalm reads, in the Latin Vulgate and the current official 'Neo-Vulgate':  Tu autem, Dómine, suscéptor meus es, glória mea, et exáltans caput meum.   The Douay-Rheims' fairly literal translation gives this verse as: But thou, O Lord art my protector, my glory, and the lifter up of my head.  

I want to focus in on just one word here, susceptor.

The word susceptor, from the verb suscipere, is quite difficult to translate into English, but extremely important theologically, attracting extended commentary on it by St Augustine among others.  It comes from the verb suscipere, to guard, protect, uphold, support;  receive, accept; to seize.

The first problem a modern reader faces is the differences between the Septuagint-Greek/Latin Vulgate and Hebrew Masoretic Text tradition: the received Hebrew text for this verse uses the idea of God as a shield rather than sustainer/helper.  Moreover, despite the fact that the official approved text is the Vulgate/neo-Vulgate, which uses the word susceptor, virtually all modern translations used by Catholics follow the received Hebrew text instead, as the following selection illustrates:

But thou, O LORD, art a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.
New American
But you, Lord, are a shield around me; my glory, you keep my head high.
New Jerusalem
But you, Yahweh, the shield at my side, my glory, you hold my head high
Grail Psalter
But you, Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, who lift up my head.

The Greek-Latin tradition on this is not an error or mistranslation though, but rather a systematic choice reflecting the distinctive theology of the Septuagint Greek, a monument of tradition that the Fathers generally viewed as a distinctive stage of revelation particularly meant for the salvation of the Gentiles.  Certainly the translations of the verse that reflect the Septuagint-Vulgate (and Neo-Vulgate) give it a subtly different flavour:

But thou, O Lord art my protector, my glory, and the lifter up of my head.
Yet, Lord, thou art my champion, thou art the pride that keeps my head erect.
But thou, O Lord, art my helper: my glory, and the one that lifts up my head.
New English Translation from the Septuagint
But you, O Lord, you are my supporter, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.

Even so, if one only looked at the English even of these translations that follow the officially approved text, the underlying Latin or Greek could be anyone of several words.  Yet the particular the concept of God as susceptor is quite important in the tradition.

The theology of God as susceptor

St Augustine's take on the word points to the analogy of the Roman paterfamilias, who 'received' (acknowledged) his child, thus saving it from the fate of exposure.  He also explains it as a word used to mean a powerful man who takes up the cause of someone, or a doctor or lawyer accepting a case.   When God becomes our susceptor, in other words, he acts as a Father or powerful protector of us, someone who has taken our cause on as his own, and will work to sustain, help and heal us.

The monastic commentator Cassian (c. 360 – 435) took the discussion of its meaning a step further, for in Chapter 17 of his Conference 13 he discusses God's intervention in various types of vocation:

 "Hence it comes in our prayers we proclaim God as not only protector and Saviour, but actually as our Helper and Sponsor [adjuitorem et susceptorem] for whereas He first calls us to him, and while we are ignorant and unwilling, draws us towards salvation, he is our Protector and Saviour, but whereas when we are already striving, He is want to bring us help, and to receive and defend those who fly to Him for refuge, He is our Sponsor and Refuge.' "

St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus' commentary on the verse puts more emphasis on the idea of God as our 'sustainer', particularly in the ennoblement of the flesh through grace made possible through the Incarnation:

"Sustainer, that is, of the form of slave, since the taking up of human nature is the Word made flesh. So it is the flesh which speaks of its glory and the lifting up of its head, for the all-powerful Word assumed it so that the divine and human substance might be one Person without any admixture. This verse is relevant too to the confounding of the Pelagians, who believe that man can by his own efforts achieve something good; for who, pray, could be self-sufficient for performing good without abundance of divine grace? It is through grace by which it is united to God that human nature has taken its place at the Father's right hand."

St Benedict himself was probably alluding to all of these layers of meaning of the word when he selected the Suscipe verse (Psalm 118:114) for use in the monastic profession ceremony (it is worth noting that the phrase Cassian uses, adjutor et susceptor, appears two verses earlier in the stanza of the Psalm St Benedict drew the Suscipe from).

All of these layers of meaning, however, can be quite hard to glean from the standard translations of this verse, and others that use the same word.

Building up our reading knowledge

The first time you encounter a word such as susceptor, we won't of course, necessarily appreciate its importance.

But if you work with a good commentary, or anthology of commentaries (such as St Thomas' Catena Aurea on the Gospels) you will gradually build up a knowledge of some of these key words and phrases, and recognise them when you see them in another context.

So it is worth at least looking at the Latin in my view, and certainly looking at a few different modern translations rather than just relying on one.

And you can find the next part of this series here.

Monday, 28 April 2014

On doing lectio divina...

Before I go on with any more Lectio Divina notes, I thought it might be useful to post  this week, a few thoughts on how to approach the task of lectio divina, or prayerful spiritual reading.

Accordingly, this is the first of a short series that brings together some material I've previously written on this subject (on my Australia Incognita blog), along with some more recent reflections.

In this post I want to make a few introductory remarks, after that, I'll work through each of the stages of the process.  I won't say a great deal about the latter stages of the process, around meditation and contemplation, as I think the literature that is around on these topics is good and reasonably complete.  Where I think there are more issues is at the front end of the process, in relation to how we approach the text, so that is where I am going to focus my comments.

In essence my comments are directed at the seeming divorce that is constantly reinforced by many sets of instructions on lectio, between study of and theological commentary on Scripture, and the practice of lectio divina.  My own view is that they can and should be closely integrated, and in this I'm following Pope Benedict XVI.  You can find a post summarising his approach to lectio drawn from his Apostolic Exhortation on Scripture here if you want to go back and refresh your memory on what he said.

A little history...

There are lots of Scriptural references on the importance of lectio divina as an aid to conversion and spiritual growth.

Think, for example, of Our Lady 'treasuring all these things in her heart' (Luke 2:51):

A second key reference is to that conversation on the road to Emmaus, when Our Lord explained the meaning of Scripture to some of the disciples, so that their ‘hearts were burning within them’ (Luke 24:32):

25 Then he said to them, Too slow of wit, too dull of heart, to believe all those sayings of the prophets! 26 Was it not to be expected that the Christ should undergo these sufferings, and enter so into his glory? 27 Then, going back to Moses and the whole line of the prophets, he began to interpret the words used of himself by all the scriptures...32 And they said to one another, Were not our hearts burning within us when he spoke to us on the road, and when he made the scriptures plain to us? (Knox translation)

Similarly, consider St Paul preaching to the Thessalonians and Beroeans (Acts 17):

"Over a space of three sabbaths he reasoned with them out of the scriptures, 3 expounding these and bringing proofs from them that the sufferings of Christ and his rising from the dead were fore-ordained; the Christ, he said, is none other than the Jesus whom I am preaching to you. 4 Some of them were convinced, and threw in their lot with Paul and Silas; a great number, too, of those Gentiles who worshipped the true God, and not a few of the leading women....they welcomed the word with all eagerness, and examined the scriptures, day after day, to find out whether all this was true; 12 so that many of them learned to believe..." (Knox)

Lectio, in other words, has been with us from the very beginnings of Christianity.

The systematic practice of lectio in the Western tradition, though, really has its origins in the Patristic tradition, and above all in the monasticism of late antiquity and early middle ages. Its continued use today can arguably be traced primarily to the sixth century Rule of St Benedict, for the saint instructed his monks to devote at least two hours a day (more during Lent) to 'reading or the study of the psalms' (the psalms are probably mentioned separately firstly to emphasise their importance as a source of spiritual nourishment, and secondly because it didn't technically require 'reading' as such, since the monk could be assumed to have memorised them).

There are a lot of useful guides to lectio divina around on the net, but my own, purely personal view is that although many contain useful insights, most of them miss the mark in key ways.  Here's why.

'Reading', in late antiquity and well into the middle ages, meant a much more active process than it does today.  It included puzzling out the grammar and literal meaning of the Latin text, reading it aloud, seeking to set the text the context of the whole of Scripture, and reaching to understand its spiritual meaning.  The commentaries of the Fathers provide wonderful examples of this approach.

My own view is that the writer who comes closest to capturing the stages of this process remains Dom Delatte, who in his classic commentary on the Benedictine Rule suggested that the process has six stages, namely read, think, study, meditate, pray, and contemplate.  Some medieval authors added an additional step, namely putting the lessons learnt from lectio to work.

How not to...key dangers

In our own time, by contrast, reading has become something very passive, done silently without much active engagement with the text.

Worse, even where we do attempt to engage with the text more actively, for example by reading it aloud and attempting to memorise it, most of us lack the tools to reach the spiritual meaning of the text.

If we are well educated theologically, or work with the aid of a modern commentary, we may well be able to come to the text with a good understanding of the text in its historical and cultural context; we may well have been taught something of the supposed authorial and editorial process that lies behind the text as we know it today.

From at least the seventeenth century onwards though, Scriptural exegetes (even including prominent Benedictines such as Dom Augustine Calmet) to favour the literal meaning of the text over its spiritual one, and to reject the importance of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. The result has been the emergence of a disjunction between exegesis and theology on the one hand, and the reading of Scripture as a means to make progress in the spiritual life.

Yet if we come at the text without the aid of a commentary or other support materials, there are, in my view, two key dangers.  The first is that Scripture is reduced to little more than a mantra, a few words to be repeated without real meaning, but used to induce a kind of zen-like meditation.  The dangers of such techniques have been well set out in a CDF guidance document on Certain Aspects of Christian Meditation (ie dangers of centering prayer and such like techniques).  The second possibility is just as dangerous, namely that we might be embarking on a de facto protectant sola scriptura exercize, in which we fail to interpret Scripture in the mind of the Church, and risk falling into or reinforcing error.

What is lectio divina about?

How then can we avoid these dangers?

The first point is that God gave us brains and expects us to use them! He also gave us the teaching of the Magisterium, the Fathers and the Theologians to guide us. Scripture has to be placed in context, and that means thinking with the Church.  So we should start by using good commentaries and other materials to help our understanding of the text.

As a counter-weight to this point though, reading Scripture must be guided by the Holy Spirit. Lectio is about a personal engagement with God.  So we have to be careful not to get so immersed in the intellectual aspects of our engagement in the task that we block off that inner voice.  And more generally, as with any conversation, there is a danger that we only hear ourselves or what we want to hear, rather than genuinely listening. Active listening is hard.

Thirdly, while the insights gained from lectio can sometimes be useful to others, they are generally meant for ourselves alone. Lectio, I'd suggest, is about facilitating our own inner transformation. My favourite text on this point comes from the Cloud of Unknowing:

"God's word can be likened to a mirror. Spiritually, the 'eye' of your soul is your reason: your conscience is your spiritual 'face'. Just as you cannot see or know that there is a dirty mark on your actual face without the aid or a mirror, or somebody telling you, so spiritually it is impossible for a soul blinded by his frequent sins to see the dirty mark in his conscience, without reading or hearing God's word."

It follows that while a website like this can provide some starting points for your lectio, that can only take you so far, the rest you have to do on your own.

Nonetheless, if start off well, and place ourselves in God's hands, we can expect to see the spiritual benefits, so in the next series of posts in this series, I'll go into a little more detail on how I think lectio should be approached.

Bear in mind though, that this is just my personal view, and I'm happy to discuss or debate it through the comments box.

And you can find the next part in this series here.