Lectio Divina in the Benedictine tradition: tackling the Gospel of St John

Today is the feast of St Jerome, a saint most famous as a translator of the Bible into the vernacular of the time, viz Latin.

In these difficult times, it seems more important than ever that Catholics devote themselves to reading Scripture, both in order to feed their own souls, and so as to be able to assess for themselves the various claims of what Scripture does and does not say.

And of course St Benedict's Rule prescribes a lot of hours of lectio divina, or meditative reading, generally of Scripture.

Accordingly, I thought it might be an appropriate moment to encourage readers to commit to reading St John's Gospel this quarter.

How much can we do - a Bible Reading Plan?

Laypeople will of course, not generally be able to devote the two or three hours that St Benedict prescribes for the task of lectio divina each day.  Still, we can try and do at least a little each day.

An excellent article over at New Liturgical Movement, with associated Bible Reading Plan, from Dom Christopher Lazowski, OSB, a few years ago, suggests that the traditional approach for a monk was to read the Bible in a year.

The psalms of course are read each week, in the Office.

The books other than the Gospels can be read following the broad seasonal ordering set by the Matins readings, and he sets out a couple of schemas there based around this.  Getting through all of the books in a year is a pretty challenging task:  most people living in the world might want to consider a two or three year cycle instead, or perhaps just using the selections of the chapters from the Roman Breviary (which you can find on the Divinum Officium website at Matins); alternatively you could consider doing the Gospels one year, the rest the next.

And the Gospels, of course, can be tackled one for each quarter.  I'm going to focus on that here, looking at St John's Gospel.

Tackling St John's Gospel

In order to read the whole of St John's Gospel (21 chapters) in the course of the quarter (and allowing time out for Sundays, major feasts and Christmastide), you basically need to get through a chapter every two or three days.

Accordingly, I'd suggest trying to read 15-20 verses a day, and focusing in on just a couple of them.

How monks read: doing real lectio

These days lectio divina is often reduced to nothing much more than reading a  few verses, and seeking to come up with one's own entirely subjective response to it.

This is, in my view, an entirely modernist approach that de facto promotes a 'sola scriptura' mentality entirely at odds with the Church's traditional approach to the interpretation of Scripture.

And it is also extremely hard to do for more than half an hour or so, which perhaps explains in part why most modern monasteries don't devote anything like as much time to the task as St Benedict specifies in his Rule.

Traditionally, lectio was a much more intellectual and engaging process.

Unfortunately, reading Scripture in the mind of the Church is not an easy task, for their are relatively few good resources around to assist one.

That's not to say that you need a great theological education to read Scripture of course: just that you need to be given a few tools, like access to a good commentary, to help you as you go.

Dom Paul Delatte's famous Commentary on the Rule of St Benedict nicely captures this, I think, with his summation of the stages of lectio divina as read, think, study, meditate, pray, contemplate, work.

Today, a short rundown on each of these stages of the process by way of an introduction.  You can find more detailed notes on this subject from the links in a sidebar on my Psalm Blog.

Active reading

The first stage of lectio, 'reading' meant much more than just quickly and quietly reading a verse or two as we tend to think of reading.

Rather, it meant reading it out loud, and puzzling out the Latin.  Accordingly, I'm going to provide the text in each post Latin as well as English, together with a link to an audio recording of it.  Even if you don't have any Latin, you can acquire some through the immersion method, and join yourselves to the struggle of those medieval monks, many of whom would have learnt it exactly the same way!

It also meant actually memorizing the text, at least sufficiently well so that you could continue to chew over key sections of it for the rest of the day while doing your manual labour.

Thinking

In order to read Scripture properly, we need to consider both the literal and spiritual senses of the text, as the Catechism (CCC 116-117) explains:

  • "The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation...
  • The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs. 
The spiritual sense includes:
  • "the allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism;
  • the moral sense. the events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction";
  • the anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem."
Some of this may become obvious to us as we read through the aid of the Holy Ghost.  But we cannot rely solely on inspiration, when perspiration is what God prescribes!

Study

That means reading our text in the light of the rest of Scripture, and the Church's reflections on it.

As the writings of the Fathers attest, a particular verse should never be read in isolation from the rest of the Bible: rather the New is read in the light of the Old, and the Old in the light of the New.  That means being aware of the direct or indirect cross-references to a verse in other parts of Scripture.

Some of the direct cross-references can readily be found in standard Catholic commentaries such as the Navarre Bible, or Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary.  The medieval system went further than this though, often weaving a web of meaning from verses that used of the same word.  Online tools like the cross-referencing provided by the Blue letter Bible can help you recreate this approach if you choose!

And in terms of Patristic and other commentaries, there are a number of good sources: the Catena Aurea compiled by St Thomas Aquinas and translated by Blessed Cardinal Newman is an excellent starting point for example.

Meditation and prayer

The meditation stage should flow naturally from our study of the text: through it we consider the meaning of the events or words for us in particular and ask for God's help in applying it to our lives.

Contemplation and work

Scripture should become for us a mirror, in which we can hold up our lives and be judged against its measure.  Through contemplation, we can see what we need to change in the future, and then work on implementing the necessary change in our lives.

The first part in a series of notes to assist you in this process, on St John's Gospel, can be found here.

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