Monday, 8 November 2010

Read Scripture - with the help of a commentary!

So I'm back to one of my regular rant topics, lectio divina.

Our bishops are rightly concerned about the fact that most Catholics do not actually read Scripture regularly, nor are they are they greatly familiar with the Bible as such.  And yet, as St Jerome famously pointed out, ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.

But Catholics will not become less ignorant if they attempt to follow the so-called 'lectio divina' instructions being foisted on them: instead they will either become discouraged, or worse, encouraged to (continue to) invent their own religion even while giving it the name Catholicism.

Pseudo lectio divina...

So here is what Catholics in my diocese (though the instructions seem to be fairly typical of those being propagated across Australia) are being told to do as a group: take a reading, the readings set for one of the Sundays of Advent for example.  Someone in the group reads it aloud.  All are to "Listen with mind and heart.  Pause in silence.  Let the words sink in."  It is then read again by different people, and again each time pausing for silent prayer.  Then the group leader might invite you to share a phrase or word that has caught your attention.  Then there are some suggested intercessory prayers, and you might finish up with a hymn.

Let me say this is watered down, popularist nonsense.

Because Scripture is not self-evident.

And our reading of it should not just be about our emotional reaction to it, not what catches our attention, but rather what God wants to tell us.  It requires us to work to get at that message.

Even if this kind of approach was what monks in the twelfth or earlier centuries did as the methods proponents claims (and it is not), monks could adopt this approach because they were already steeped in Scripture.  Most medieval monks knew the entire psalter and large chunks of the Gospels by heart; they read the entire Bible every year; they were steeped in the writings of the Fathers at a minimum from the readings at Matins; and they were generally well catechized.  By contrast most modern Catholics have only a vague familiarity with the actual text of the Gospels, let alone the stories of the Old Testament.  And as to their level of theological knowledge!

It follows that contemporary catholics need more help to usefully read Scripture.

Real lectio

Serious writers on lectio divina, such as Fr Michael Casey of Tarrawarra in Victoria, have pointed out that in fact medieval lectio involved a lot more than just 'reading' and thinking about a text. 

First 'reading' was a much more active process than we are used to - it involved establishing the text, translating it, finding how individual words were used in other Scriptural contexts to provide a kind of self-interpreting matrix of meaning, and much more.  The Fathers spent much time puzzling out the implications of every words choice, every repetition and nuance, and we need to draw on the work they have done.

Secondly, as the commentaries written by monks over the centuries attest, lectio involved a genuinely intellectual process, looking at historical, cultural and other contextual issues necessary for understanding Scripture.

Thirdly, it centred on the realisation that Scripture has solid theological and spiritual lessons to teach us.  These need to be teased out with the help of aids like commentaries before we can apply them to our own situation.

So if you are starting a lectio group this Advent...

So if you are thinking of starting a lectio divina group this Advent, so everyone a favour, and add in the reading of a good commentary to the process.

For the psalms, I would strongly recommend St Robert Bellarmine's commentary, available from Loretto Publications.  For the Gospels, The Catena Aurea of St Thomas Aquinas (a collection of patristic readings tied to verses) has recently been republished by several different organisations.  Perhaps supplement that with commentaries providing useful contextual material, such as the Ignatius Bible Study series.

So do read the Bible.  But do it in the mind of the Church.

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