Sunday, 7 December 2008

Memorize those Sunday Gospels!: Lectio Divina II, Reading

I said I'd write out some thoughts on how to make lectio divina a more substantive thing, and here is the first of my series, on reading.

This doesn't pretend to be a complete 'how to' guide, rather it provides some ideas designed to act as a counter to what I consider to be rather simplistic formulations of lectio that are popular at the moment.

Lectio in context

There are lots of Scriptural references on its importance.

Think of Our Lady treasuring all these things in her heart; 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’; or the Beroeans studying Scripture to test what St Paul was saying (Acts 17). The purpose of lectio is to effect our personal transformation through the Word of God by feeding the soul.

But the systematic practice of lectio in the Western tradition really has its origins in the monasticism of late antiquity and the middle ages. So to understand what St Benedict, Guido II (the Carthusian who wrote probably the most famous tract on lectio divina) or others in this tradition meant by lectio, we have to understand something about the way they understood the terminology and approached the task. Only then can we think through the implications for our own practice.

So today, on the first stage of my list: read (next comes think -study - meditate - pray - contemplate - work).

1. Lectio divina took place in the context of the liturgical year

In theory, you can use anything you like for lectio divina - Scripture, the Fathers, or later spiritual works by saints can all be suitable starting points. In practice, the medieval tradition was largely grounded in the liturgy.

St Benedict, for example, sets aside some time each day for those who need to study (read learn off by heart) the psalms and readings in the liturgy, especially Matins (which contains at least three Scripture readings for half the year, and a mix of Scriptural and patristic readings on feasts and Sundays). In the monastic tradition, what was missed read from the Bible at Matins was read aloud at meals or in the evening. Following this pattern is a good way of ensuring that we read with the mind of the Church, focusing on texts relevant to the season or feast.

There is value in working through large chunks of Scripture relatively quickly first, so you have an overview that you can fit your specific lectio into. But really lectio divina should be slow and unhurried, aimed at milking all the juice our of a particular verse or two. It takes as long as it takes to read a particular book or chapter!

My suggestion: Start with the Sunday Gospels, then the epistles and other parts of the Proper. You don't have to do much - a verse or two of the Gospel (or a psalm verse from the Introit etc) a day is normally enough for a half hour session. Once you have worked through a cycle or two of that, consider turning to the Scriptural readings set for Matins! On the first day, read the whole story or section you are going to work over. Then over the rest of the week, take it a verse or two at a time each day.

2. Reading can mean hearing

Another key point to note is that lectio was born in an oral culture. Books were enormously expensive, something to be shared amongst several people, and literacy was in short supply. Accordingly, as the fourteenth century Cloud of Unknowing puts it:“All is one in manner, reading and hearing: clerks reading on books, and lewd men reading on clerks when they hear them preach the word of God.”

Even when people were literate, they remained immersed in a culture that was primarily oral. St Benedict in his Rule, for example, prescribes 2-3 hours a day of individual sacred 'reading'. But he also prescribed reading at meals and in the evening before Compline. And all on top of the several hours in choir for Mass and Divine Office.

My suggestion: Start by reading (use your missal) and if possible listening to the text in Latin a few times before you turn to the translation, so that you will recognize it when you hear it at mass next. You can find recordings of the vulgate (albeit with a spanish accent) here.

3. Reading meant memorization

The consequence of an oral culture is that memorization of texts was the norm. Books were laid out in a way to aid memorization, and a large part of the aim of set times for lectio divina was to supply the person with a text to chew over during the rest of the day - some of the images used are of a cow chewing her cud, or putting a grape through a winepress.

There is also a fair amount of evidence that in many times and places throughout the so-called dark ages, even people were illiterate could recognize the key texts - such as the Sunday Gospels - in the liturgy (in Latin), know what they were about, and possibly recite them by heart. Daily mass goers in the traditional rite might recognise the phenomenon - after a while you simply don't need (or want) to look at your missal as you hear yet again the reading about the foolish virgins, or that ye are the salt of the earth, for example!

Wouldn't it be great if could recover this kind of familiarity with Scripture, and do away with the need for the Gospel and/or Epistles to be read out in the vernacular at Mass - or even eliminate the need for those Proper sheets (OK so not everyone will agree, but I do hate having the texts repeated or the Latin supplanted in the traditional liturgy)!

Suggestion: Before you do anything else, try and memorize the verses you are going to work on for the day. If you are anything like me, it will go out of your head again in a few days, but in the meantime you have something fixed in your head to work over!

4. Reading was hard work

The monk was mostly working in a second language (Latin) in which he might have varying degrees of fluency. And the book he had in front of him wasn't easy to read even if he was fluent in the language. We tend to think of the nice clear, beautifully illuminated texts as the norm. In fact, however, deciphering most medieval books was a laborious process, constituting hard physical work!

It is pretty hard for us today to reproduce the effort that a person in earlier times went through to puzzle out the text and its meaning. Curiously, though, the internet does in a way allow us, at least potentially, to get a little closer to that experience than readers in the more recent past.

Take a look at a site like the Blueletter Bible for example. For each verse it offers multiple translations to compare, dictionaries of Biblical terms, a Greek/Hebrew lexicon which enables you to cross-reference word use to other Scriptural citations, background material on the text, maps, and much more. Working through your verse using some of these kinds of tools (taking due care with protestant commentaries however!) is not a bad place to start.

5. Reading also meant study

It is particularly worth flagging at this point here that reading meant much more than puzzling out the words of the text - it also meant thinking about it and study of it. Guido II the Carthusian wrote, for example, “Reading is the careful study of the Scriptures, concentrating all one’s powers on it.”

It is really because 'reading' has a much narrower meaning to us than it did to medieval people that I prefer to separate out the 'thinking' and 'studying' phases of lectio as something separate.

Anyway, more on this here in Part III of this series, when I will move on to consider the next stages of lectio.



Joshua said...

Ta, Terra! I've essayed some lectio onblog, LOL...

Felix said...

one suggestion for those coming to Sacred Scripture is to read a children's bible (preferably with pictures). It serves as a good introduction to a complex narrative.

another suggestion is to look at a map and be quite clear about the location of the main countries (Israel, Babylon, Egypt, Syria, Greece)