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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for these posts on Lectio Divina Kate.