On the what of lectio divina **



A few weeks ago I suggested some options on what to read for lectio divina, that included looking at the psalms; taking the texts of the Sunday liturgical cycle; reading the Gospels systematically; and reading (the rest of) the Bible.  And I noted that I am posting aids to lectio divina in the form of notes on the psalms in the context of the Benedictine Office, and notes aimed at reading St Matthew's Gospel systematically over the quarter on my other blogs.

I've just come across a rather curious post by Father Mark over at Vultus Christi who, in a letter to Oblates of his monastery, argues that a systematic program of Bible reading , or reading the books of Scripture right through is downright uncatholic.

I'm not actually sure whether his post was meant as a direct response to my post (or queries from his Oblates generated by it); probably not, I'm far from the only one to suggest such systematic approaches.
But I have to say I find his a rather extreme position, so herewith a discussion of his arguments. Alas, wordpress won't, for some reason, allow me to post a comment on his blog, so I'm posting it over here instead.

Reading the Bible in order is Protestant?

Fr Mark points rightly to the privileged place Scripture has in the liturgy, and of Scripture as, in a certain sense, a product of the liturgy rather than something that should be viewed as entirely independent of it.  And he points out that Scripture is not a personal book, but something that can only be understood in the midst of the Church.  Thus far I agree.

But he then takes that view a step further than I think can really be sustained, arguing that as a general principle, as Catholics, we should only read the Bible in the context of the readings set at Mass and in the Office:

"Unlike Protestants who may open the Bible at random, or follow a personal reading plan, or use it to prepare a teaching or sermon, Catholic and Orthodox Christians submit to the Church’s use of the Bible in the liturgy...What should one read in lectio divina? In my long personal experience, it is best to focus on the very texts that will be chanted or read, and heard on a given day, in Holy Mass and in the Divine Office..."

He consigns the reading of Scripture in order to rare special occasions:

"There are also moments in life, notably during a retreat or on the occasion of a special anniversary, when one may want to read a particular book of the Bible continuously from start to finish..." 

St Benedict and the tradition on lectio divina

Now I'm all in favour of one option for lectio divina being to base it around the readings in the liturgy.
But to claim this is the only option we should ever adopt seems to me a step too far!

Here is why.

First, St Benedict himself in his Rule sets the precedent in favour of reading books in order, requiring his monks to read least one book a year consecutively (and this would normally have been a book of Scripture) during the season of Lent (RB 48).

Secondly the Fathers (including Benedictine monks like St Bede) and later theologians did not simply stick to the Sunday (or Sanctoral) readings, but produced many commentaries on complete books of Scripture, long viewed as essentially products of lectio divina.  Using them in anthology form obviously has value, but so too, surely, does treating them as complete works in their own right.

Thirdly, many of the Fathers adopt a 'canonical' reading of Scripture, an approach that is regaining popularity today, that interprets sections of Scripture by reference to its placement in the particular book of the Bible.  In the case of the psalms, for example, the particular number of certain psalms is regarded as significant in and of itself.  And canonical interpretation becomes supremely important in the case of obviously carefully crafted orderings of the material such as occur in St John's Gospel in particular, which is structured around 'signs' and 'days'. If we only ever read the snippets of Scripture prescribed for a particular day in the Mass we will surely miss this rich layer of meaning that comes from context.

Fourthly, others have suggested that in fact the monastic tradition is to read the books of the Bible through over a year: in fact, as Dom Christopher Lazowski, in an inspiring post from a few years back on New Liturgical Movement states that:

"There is a monastic adage that states that a monk should pray the Psalter in a week, and should read the Bible in a year...The rest of the Bible is read in a systematic way at the night Office...But the reading of Sacred Scripture is not limited to the liturgy. It is the chief matter of lectio divina, the meditative and prayerful reading, sliding in and out of prayer, that is a vital element of monastic life."

Dom Christopher notes that novices in his own monastery are given a plan for reading the Bible in a year 'which is inspired by the way the different books are read at the Office, with the addition of the books that the Office omits, but without the psalms and the Gospels'.

Finally, there are practical reasons for reading the books straight through as well, not the least of which is that if we only read what occurs in the liturgy we will remain ignorant of large chunks of Scripture (yes even the Novus Ordo lectionary omits whole psalms, chapters and verses of the Bible from its cycle).  Yet the Church has always insisted that all of Scripture is provided for our instruction.

St Matthew continues!

There is certainly a good case for taking the texts of the Mass and/or Office as the basis for our lectio for at least once cycle.  But equally, I think, there is a case for appreciating that God inspired the Sacred authors to write complete books that should be treated as such.  So, assuming you are not an Oblate of Silverstream (since obedience to one's abbot is a key virtue regardless of whether you think he has it right or not!), please do feel free to join me over at my Lectio Divina notes blog for a chapter by chapter read of St Matthew this quarter!

**Just to note that Fr Mark has written a subsequent post rather modifying his position, and suggesting that reading through the Gospels systematically would be acceptable as a source of lectio.

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