April 5, 2007

Lectio Divina

As the Ecclesiastes says, there is an appointed time for everything. The days of Holy Week are very suitable to be used as a time for reflection, for prayer and for meditation. Or, better still, these days would be suitable for such activities (or non-activities), but in fact there are often a lot of other activities that distract people from taking the time to take that time. So this post is an attempt to overturn that trend by singing Lectio Divina’s praises.

This ancient spiritual art—which has been kept alive in the Christian monastic, mostly Benedictine, tradition, and which is being rediscovered in our day—is a kind of meditative reading/listening, a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures, aimed at giving the monk an awareness of God's presence, a consciousness of the immersion of his life in the mystery of God's activity as revealed in sacred history.

The art of lectio divina—writes Fr. Luke Dysinger, a Benedictine monk—begins with cultivating the ability

to listen deeply, to hear “with the ear of our hearts” as St. Benedict encourages us in the Prologue to the Rule. When we read the Scriptures we should try to imitate the prophet Elijah. We should allow ourselves to become women and men who are able to listen for the still, small voice of God (I Kings 19:12); the “faint murmuring sound” which is God's word for us, God's voice touching our hearts. This gentle listening is an “atunement” to the presence of God in that special part of God's creation which is the Scriptures.
The cry of the prophets to ancient Israel was the joy-filled command to “Listen!” “Sh'ma Israel: Hear, O Israel!” In lectio divina we, too, heed that command and turn to the Scriptures, knowing that we must “hear” - listen - to the voice of God, which often speaks very softly. In order to hear someone speaking softly we must learn to be silent. We must learn to love silence. If we are constantly speaking or if we are surrounded with noise, we cannot hear gentle sounds. The practice of lectio divina, therefore, requires that we first quiet down in order to hear God's word to us. This is the first step of lectio divina, appropriately called lectio - reading.

There are three other steps of lectio divina: Meditatio, Oratio, Contemplatio, even though, as Trappist monk Fr. Vincent Dwyer complains, “for a long time in the Church they were not four distinct parts, they were one.” In addition, according to him, we did a poor job at translation, to begin with lectio divina itself, translated into 'spiritual reading,' that is “a particular exercise,” instead of the sublime art of listening (and notwithstanding the fact that in the early Church most people couldn't read …). Meditatio, in turn, was translated into 'meditation,' which became “a procedure, a methodology of prayer,” while Oratio became translated into “all kinds of prayers and devotions, divine office, and so forth,” and Contemplatio was translated as 'contemplation,'

and then you were told, "But contemplation is only for chosen souls like myself and others who are called to contemplative monasteries. The rest of you poor people are called only to meditate and that is the way it is. Too bad. Some are chosen, some aren't."

But this is a heresy. We are all called to contemplation, that is

a direct and natural sequential development of having listened. And it was receiving the gifts of the Spirit and being able to taste and to know what it is to operate under the Spirit's influence, which in the old days we called the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

And what about Meditatio and Oratio?

Meditatio was not a procedural method. It was merely a presence, a presence which from listening brought about reflection, to the point that when you listen, infallibly you reflect. It just flows.
Oratio wasn't meant to be all these things that we made it be. Oratio was really when you reflected you then found yourself moving towards prayer of petition, prayer of thanksgiving, silence, awe, anything that would move you. It was ability to allow oneself to move from reflection. And infallibly the Spirit would move you.

Fr. Luke Dysinger is in the same wavelength:

How different this ancient understanding is from our modern approach! Instead of recognizing that we all gently oscillate back and forth between spiritual activity and receptivity, between practice and contemplation, we today tend to set contemplation before ourselves as a goal - something we imagine we can achieve through some spiritual technique. We must be willing to sacrifice our “goal-oriented” approach if we are to practice lectio divina, because lectio divina has no other goal than spending time with God through the medium of His word.

Spending time with God through the medium of His word. So, let’s take the time to take that time.

Multimedia help:

> Three Benedictine monks from the monastery in Norcia, Italy, talk about lectio divina—its purpose, importance and relevance in the Church today.

> Liturgy (Gregorian chant) from the monastery in Norcia, Italy: