Evangelizing Ourselves through Lectio Divina
Br. Francis de Sales Wagner, O.S.B., Saint Meinrad Archabbey, 2012
***In his chapter in the Rule on the tools for good works, St. Benedict exhorts us—as he did the early monks—to “Listen readily to holy reading, and devote yourself often to prayer.” Here, Benedict speaks of the ancient practice of lectio divina, specificially linking it to prayer; but what does he mean by telling us to listen readily to holy reading?
To do something “readily,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means to do so promptly, eagerly, and willingly, as in: “I readily accepted the dinner invitation.” It means doing something without hesitation, reluctance, or delay. It implies enthusiastic reception. There is also an element of expectation involved—an open heart that is ready to embrace something new with all due honor and respect. And all this is done willingly—of one’s own free choice. In fact, some versions of the Rule translate Benedict’s exhortation as “listen willingly to holy reading.” Rather than “readily” or “willingly,” Benedictine scholar and writer Terrence Kardong translates the Latin text of this word as “intently.” This seems to indicate that listening to holy reading is not always easy. We must pay attention to what is being conveyed to us in lectio divina. It requires effort. So, we could say that Benedict tells us to “Listen attentively,” or more directly: “Pay attention!”
In order to understand what lectio involves, it is useful to consider the times in which Benedict and his monks lived. Here, I turn to Trappist monk Michael Casey’s book Sacred Reading, which begins with a look at how monks read in sixth-century Italy.
From Michael Casey’s book “Sacred Reading,”p. 3-4:
The practice of personal reading was relatively unusual at this time. Books were scarce and reading skills were confined to those who had received a liberal education. The availability of reading matter was not to be taken for granted. The process of copying an existing manuscript was long and required much diligence. From the preparation of parchment and ink to the copying of every word of text, the production of books required time and resources. In monetary terms, the cost of a book in modern reckoning would probably amount to thousands of dollars. The monks of the Benedictine tradition regarded reading as an essential element in living a spiritual life and were prepared to invest considerable resources in ensuring that it would be possible both for themselves and for future generations.
It was the rarity of books that dictated the style of reading. Because the acquisition of a manuscript represented a considerable investment, only those books were copied that were considered to be of special value. As a result, whatever was read was approached with the expectation that it would be worthwhile. There was respect for the text, and this grew into a deep sense of reverence.
Books themselves were often cumbersome; they were not convenient for speed reading so the monks tended to read slowly, probably vocalizing the words as they read. Often significant passages would be
committed to memory; only a few scholars had the possibility of taking notes for permanent reference. With so few titles available, favorite works would be re-read many times. Because there were few reference books or commentaries, the monks had to learn to sit with difficulties and obscurities and try to puzzle out for themselves the meaning of the page before them. Reading became a dialogue with the text.
Many of us today who attempt to master the technique of lectio divina find that it becomes confused with other types of reading undertaken professionally or for entertainment or knowledge. Lectio is an exercise that can be difficult to maintain. This means that we have to make the effort to build into our holy reading some of the qualities that the ancient monks were lucky enough to have by accident.
So, reading was quite different in Benedict’s time than it is in ours. Now, we are saturated with words, with all kinds of messages in various forms of media, and ironically, relatively few people read anything in depth. When most people read today, it is done quickly. Text is scanned for information. As a culture, we value getting to the point. We are chiefly interested in the bottom line, what can be plainly said, and, quite frankly, whatever confirms our own thought patterns. There is little patience for repeatedly reading just a few words and pondering the sacred mystery that lies behind them, for wrestling with their difficulties and challenges, discovering layer after layer of meaning over time, and for simply letting them slowly soak into our very being until they become part of us.
As Kardong points out in his commentary on the Rule, “the ancients did not merely follow words on a page as we do, but customarily vocalized them, even when alone. Consequently, they read more slowly, and they also involved more of their faculties in the process. This in turn enabled them to memorize texts more easily than we do, and to retain those texts in their minds for meditation. Lectio divina for the early monks was the leisurely savoring of biblical texts that were mostly committed to memory. Some of this memorization was done for use in the Divine Office, but much of it was meant to equip the person for private rumination. [The Word of God became part of the daily fabric of their lives; it became the monk’s prayer whatever he was doing.] Lectio divina is not just study, no matter how pious that study might be. It is not research for a sermon or a conference. Rather, it is strictly non-utilitarian time spent with the Word of God for personal spiritual profit—for the salvation of one’s soul. The Bible is indeed divine revelation. Lectio divina is a sustained effort to be open to what God’s word says to me here and now.”
This is the key difference between holy reading and other types of reading—between listening willingly, as Benedict instructs, and doing so with half-heartedness, hesitation, reluctance, and without enthusiasm, expectation, or attention. It is the difference between skimming the surface for what benefits us and plunging into the depths to be immersed in the mystery that has the power to transform us into the way, the truth, and the life of Christ—who is God’s Word among us.
In other words, lectio divina is the manner in which we evangelize ourselves. Although Christians tend to view evangelization as something we do to bring Christ to others, we cannot reasonably expect to do that unless we evangelize ourselves—not once in a lifetime, but for a lifetime. To share Christ with others, we must regularly receive what Christ shares with us in the Word of God. Just as we eat several times each day to nourish our body so that we have the energy to accomplish our daily tasks, we must fortify ourselves regularly not only with the Eucharist, public worship, and prayer, but by feeding on the Word of God by listening willingly to holy reading. As Pope Paul VI said, “Evangelizing means to bring the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence, transforming humanity from within and making it new … But there is no new humanity if there are not first of all new persons renewed by baptism, and by lives lived according to the Gospel.”
Evangelization begins with the individual person—you and I—in conversation with God the Father, who speaks to each of our hearts through his Son, the Word made flesh, with the aid of the Holy Spirit. To authentically live the Gospel, we must continually immerse ourselves in it. As English Benedictine Cyprian Smith says, “The Bible, especially the New Testament, is not a book like any other book. It is a place of encounter with Christ, who meets us in it and speaks to us through it.” Surely, we meet Christ in other ways, too, but lectio divina or holy reading has a special, unique character, that over time produces fruit in other aspects of our lives of faith. “When we pray, we speak to God,” St. Augustine said. “When we read Scripture, God speaks to us.”
Here we enter into the realm of conversion, and as we know, conversatio, or conversion of life, is one of the three vows professed by monks. This is why at Vigils, we chant the words of Psalm 95 during the invitatory: “Let us listen to the voice of the Lord. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” We are praying to be open to what God has to say to us in his Word—whether in the Divine Office, in lectio divina, or in any other part of the day. As Jesus often says throughout the gospels: “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!” (Mark 4:9, etc.) One passage from Scripture that serves as a great meditation on holy reading itself and its connection with self-evangelization, or conversion, is James 1:21-25:
“Accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you and can save your souls. But you must do what the word tells you, and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves. To listen to the word and not obey is like looking at your own features in a mirror and then, after a quick look, going off and immediately forgetting what you looked like. But the man who looks steadily at the perfect law of freedom and makes that his habit—not listening and then forgetting, but actively putting it into practice—will be happy in all that he does.”
In the first part of the passage, with the words “accept and submit to the word,” James essentially says the same thing as St. Benedict: Listen readily to holy reading. James compares God’s word to a seed: “accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you,” he says. The seed is God’s word, the plow is the Gospel, and the soil is our hearts. The furrows of our daily lives must be open to receive God’s Word of truth, the rainfall of grace, and the sunlight of mercy. As the ancient monk John Cassian said, “Each hour and every moment we keep opening the ground of the heart with the plow of the Gospel.”
This, I think, is a great image and mindset for approaching lectio divina—By “listening willingly to holy reading,” as Benedict says, we open our hearts to truly receive God’s word so that it can sprout within us, grow, and bear fruit. Now, the Word is actually implanted within our hearts at Baptism, but we must spend a lifetime cultivating the soil so that it takes root and produces an abundant harvest. As God foretold through the prophet Jeremiah (31:33): “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”
The plow of the Gospel, as Cassian puts it, or listening willingly to holy reading, as Benedict says, is how we tend the seed of the Word that is planted within us. By regularly being attentive to Scripture in lectio divina, we nurture that Word within us to take root and grow. We must cooperate with God’s grace in this respect. We must evangelize ourselves.
Of course, we must do more than simply listen to the Word and then later forget all about it as we go about our daily tasks. Truly listening to someone or something means to take what is said to heart. The word listen comes from the same Latin root as the word obey— so to listen is to obey. As the second part of the passage from the Letter of James says, if we only hear God’s Word, we deceive ourselves. First we must listen, but then we must do what the Word says. Here, James uses the image of a mirror to make his point: “To listen to the word and not obey is like looking at your own features in a mirror and then, after a quick look, going off and immediately forgetting what you looked like. But the man who looks steadily at the perfect law of freedom and makes that his habit—not listening and then forgetting, but actively putting it into practice—will be happy in all that he does.”
This is a good image to carry with us. The Word of God, if we are looking and listening intently, holds up a mirror to our souls. It shows us the truth of who we are in our brokenness, the life we are called to live in God’s eyes, and the way to eternal life by following Christ. As the Letter of James says, we are not to put this mirror down after taking a quick look, and then forget what we’ve seen. Instead, he urges us to look steadily into it, to make this our habit, and to actively put what we see into practice. Listening to holy reading then, is like carrying around this mirror throughout the day, gazing into it not only during specific periods for lectio, but holding it in front of us and gazing into it every moment of every day. We listen to holy reading, commit it to heart, keep it before our eyes, and then act on it when given the opportunity.
St. Benedict also addresses this aspect of holy reading in his Prologue to the Rule (33-35): “The Lord says in the Gospel: Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house upon rock; the floods came and the winds blew and beat against the house, but it did not fall. It was founded on rock (Matthew 7:24-25). With this conclusion, the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings.”
If we are faithful to holy reading--as James, St. Benedict and Jesus all tell us--then we will not only be situated on a solid foundation when the troubles of life beat against us, but we will also find true happiness in all we do.
Yet, lectio divina is not easy. Just like anything worth doing, it requires perseverance and patience to listen willingly to holy reading, and to evangelize ourselves so that our hearts may be converted. For lectio to truly be sown and take root in our lives, we must sincerely make time for it each day and be faithful and regular about it. It means setting aside specific times--and for a few moments, anyway, all other concerns--for the sole purpose of conversing with God in holy reading. It means slowly reading a text (for example, one of the Gospels) all the way through from beginning to end without setting goals or deadlines. It means reading, repeating, and reflecting on words or phrases that strike us, and then responding to God in prayer. Then, we rest in God’s presence without words before moving on, continuing this rhythm of listening and responding to God’s Word. It means approaching lectio expecting to hear the voice of God, who gave us hearts to listen.
But it also means not expecting quick and easy answers. We must be willing to sit with or mull over a particular text—one that captures our attention, and yet confounds us. Often, if we keep a particular passage before our eyes (as with the mirror mentioned in the Letter of James), daily circumstances, or even further Scripture passages, encountered in the succeeding days, weeks, and months will shed new light and peel back layers of understanding to the words we had been pondering. In other words, sometimes the “A-ha!” moment is on tape-delay! And, of course, as we’ve seen, lectio means putting into practice the Word that we’ve listened to, so that gradually we become the words that we ponder—even when those words are not what we would like to hear. God’s Word is surely meant to comfort, console, and confirm us, but it’s also there to challenge us so that we don’t become complacent along the road to eternal life. If we are never challenged, we risk straying off the path unwittingly. As Michael Casey says (The Road to Eternal Life), most Christians who are serious about leading a spiritual life are not overt sinners deliberately and maliciously committing unspeakable crimes. Rather, he says, we are more likely to commit sins of omission—not doing the good we are capable of doing when we have the opportunity and resources.
Still, we also must be patient—especially during those long stretches where nothing seems to be happening and God seems to be silent. The seeds of God’s Word fall softly into the furrows of our lives, and as long as we keep plowing with the Gospel as our guide, growth will surely follow—though it will be silent and slow. Conversion of heart doesn’t happen overnight—for most people, anyway.
As Trappist monk Charles Cummings says (Monastic Practices): “The process is a gentle one. The Lord does not come in an earthquake [as the prophet Elijah discovered in 1Kings 19:22], but in a soft whispering sound. In the course of sacred reading, we meet the Lord in living faith, hope, and love. The encounter takes place without drama, as we quietly savor and relish the mystery of God’s caring presence. The encounter is real without being extraordinary or spectacular.”
Indeed, the effectiveness of lectio divina, or that of any spiritual discipline, is not measured by how much comfort it brings us, but by its results—an increase of virtue as we take on the mind of Christ—and this occurs only with a considerable amount of time and struggle against each virtue’s opposing vice. Often, the process will seem unnoticeable as it is occurring. Sometimes, we may even feel like we’re backsliding. However, with spiritual hindsight, the silent growth of God’s grace and our cooperation with it becomes quite evident. Sometimes we need distance to see more clearly; like appreciating a fine work of art, we can’t take in its overall effect with our noses pressed up against it. We have to stand back and look at it.
The same is true for our commitment to holy reading. If we’ve been faithful to it, hopefully over time we can stand back and see the long-term effect of God’s Word in our lives. Gradually, by listening willingly to holy reading as St. Benedict instructs us, our minds, our hearts, and our wills become one with God’s. As Cummings suggests, “Fidelity to sacred reading should work a gradual change in the reader’s relationships with other people, helping him or her become more generous, considerate, gentle, and less selfish, cranky, gossipy, touchy. Sacred reading spreads out into daily life as a power of ongoing conversion, enabling the reader to recognize and respond to the Word of God spoken at diverse times and circumstances.”
Little by little, by listening willingly to holy reading, we are evangelized, and the Word becomes flesh in our daily lives. We become not only hearers, but doers, of the Word as it wears away our inborn resistance to God.
As one of the Desert Fathers said:
The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a jug of water is placed above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it eventually wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the one who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the love of God.