Lectio divina: On memory, study and the Rule of Faith**

I wanted to draw readers attention to a few useful posts and talks of late on how to approach lectio divina (holy or prayerful reading):

  • Fr Cassian Folsom OSB podcast in the Praying without Ceasing series on the Norcia Monastery website;
  • Fr Mark Kirby OSB over at Vultus Christi  (several posts and weekly lectio notes and instructions); and 
  • Peter Kwasniewski has a series (two parts so far) over at New Liturgical Movement.

These are all well worth reading or listening to, especially since holy reading is a key practice in Benedictine spirituality.

That said, I'd like to respectfully disagree with some of the advice offered by these authors (and I'll apologise in advance if I've misinterpreted what they are saying, or in the case of a series still in progress, jumped the gun!), and suggest an alternative perspective on one key point, namely drawing on books (or other aids) other than the Bible.

Why we should do lectio

The strength of the material at the links is, I think, that it provides strong encouragement for everyone to do at least some prayerful reading of Scripture every day.  St Benedict allocates at least two hours a day to it for his monks (more during Lent), and while we may only be able to manage fifteen minutes or so, that is long enough to get something useful out of it.

Every Catholic should know the Bible well, for as St Benedict says in his Rule, "what page or utterance of the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testament is not a most unerring rule of human life?"

And how can we seek to know and imitate Christ if we don't actually really know what he did or taught?

The various posts also emphasize that you don't have to have any special knowledge or training to do lectio divina, it is open to everyone.

Lectio divina and studying Scripture

All the same, I'm not convinced anyone can or should just open the Bible and read, trusting only to the aid of the Holy Spirit.  It strikes me (and I'm rather paraphrasing Mother Cecile Bruyere's book, The Spiritual Life and Prayer according to Holy Scripture and Monastic Tradition here) as a little presumptuous on our part to expect to receive by direct inspiration, what God gave us minds to use to for study.

Many seem to view lectio as an approach to Scripture that is positively opposed to intellectual study of it.  I disagree, and strongly recommend a rereading of Pope Benedict XVI's Post-Synodal Exhortation Verbum Domini for an explanation of how we should employ reason and study to the process of lectio without in any way comprising the meditative and contemplative aspects of it.  I've previously written a summary of his key points on this here.

Most modern advocates of lectio divina point to a twelfth century Carthusian source on the practice, which seems to advocate doing just that.  But can I suggest that a twelfth century Carthusian monk was not exactly operating in the same poorly catechized, theological vacuum that most twenty-first century lay Catholics are?

Medieval memory

St Benedict's monks, when they did their lectio, surely had the model of the Fathers to work from, with their careful probing of issues such as the reasons for differences between the various Gospel accounts of events, and ability to draw in a web of related verses to explain the one under consideration.

When a medieval monk pondered a few verses of Scripture, he could draw on a vast volume of memorised knowledge to help him interpret what he was reading in the light of Scripture as a whole.

Most monks knew the psalms by heart, and at least large chunks of the Gospels, so could use the common technique of interpreting a verse through others that used the same key words and ideas.

They might also have been familiar with the patristic commentaries on the verses, not least from the readings at Matins each day.

Above all, the monk would also have been well aware of how to look for the spiritual meaning of verses, looking at Old Testament people and events as 'types' of the New for example.

Cultural and theological context

Modern monks, I suspect, can get away with doing their lectio without aids because most either are already well-educated theologically (or are in the process of acquiring a theological education, many on the path to priesthood) and are immersed in Scripture through daily Mass and Office.

Few laypeople people, though, even those relatively well catechized, have much familiarity with the Bible as a whole.

Fewer still know it well enough to be able to call to mind related verses.

Moreover, for monks and laity alike, more than a century of historico-critical interpretation of Scripture has, as Fr Cassian points out in his talk, rather stripped us of the ability to read Scripture other than in the strictly literal sense, effectively stripping the Old Testament of its Christological content, and the New of its eschatological content.

When we read a psalm verse with the phrase sing 'a new song' (canticum novum) in it for example, we are liable to take it pretty literally, as 'compose a new hymn'.  Indeed, the Navarre commentary's take on the phrase in Psalm 39 (40) is "God inspires the psalmist to sing a "new" song as distinct from one of lamentation over his suffering..." (Psalms, p151).

Yet when a monk of a previous era read the phrase he would know that the phrase also occurs in a passage in Isaiah 42 that makes clear its Messianic significance.  And he would also read the psalm in the light of its use in Revelation 5, that makes it clear that what follows is a song of the people formed by the New Covenant, the Church:

"...and they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals,for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth."

When the monk read the phrase 'canticum novum' (new song), then, (as occurs in Psalms 32, 39, 95, 97, 143, and 149) he was likely to interpret what followed as a song about Messianic times, as the most popular medieval commentary on the psalms, that by St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus, makes clear.

The modern 'memory': it is called the internet!

We today, alas, rarely have such knowledge in our mind to draw on.

Fortunately, we do have tools available to us at our fingertips that can in effect supply that 'memory' function - concordances on key words and phrases, compilations of relevant patristic commentaries, Scripture cross-indexed against the Catechism, for example.

Unfortunately there are very few Catholic sites on the Internet (or in book form) that attempt to put together these sources in an easy to use form as an aid to lectio.  The protestant ones can be useful though, and there are some useful Catholic resources out there (I've listed a lot of them in the sidebars to my Psallam Domino blog.

Pope Benedict XVI argued strongly that the academic study of Scripture needs to be injected with a lectio divina style focus on meditation and contemplation, and that on the other side of the ledger, lectio divina needed to draw on all the intellectual tools available to truly understand what the text means for us.  Accordingly, I really strongly urge readers to consider using in their lectio with something that helps set the verses of Scripture in the light of 'the rule of faith'.  St Thomas' Catena Aurea, for example, a compilation of Patristic commentaries grouped by Gospel verses, can provide an excellent starting point for study and meditation.

**You can read more on this, including a response from Peter Kwasniewski by following the links here.

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