Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Guest NLM Piece: The Place of Lectio Divina in the Liturgical Life

A request for help, and a (different) modest proposal

by Dom Christopher Lazowski, OSB

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. St. Benedict attaches great importance to the weekly Psalter, so much so that after explaining how the psalms are to be distributed over the course of the week (by shortening the cursus used in his day by the monastic communities that served the great Roman basilicas), he then says that the abbot is free to find another system, as long as the rule of 150 psalms a week is respected.

The rest of the Bible is read in a systematic way at the night Office. The lessons in the Breviarium Monasticum (the same as the ones in the Breviarium Romanum, but divided into four parts per nocturn on Sundays and feasts, instead of three) testify to the traditional order of reading Scripture over the course of the liturgical year. The lessons were probably somewhat longer in most places until the need of the mendicant orders to have easily carried books led to the shortened lessons that the classical breviaries have preserved, although few monastic houses are likely to have attained the prolixity of Cluny, where the whole book of Daniel, for example, was read during one night! It was frequent (and it was the practice at St-Wandrille throughout the Middle Ages) to finish readings begun at Vigils during meals in the refectory; reading at table is considered a cibus cibo melior.

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. I will never forget a remarkable Sunday homily given by Fr. Bouyer when I was in the novitiate, in which he quoted Ailred of Rievaulx, who described a monastery as a place where everything was arranged to favour the reading of the Bible, the practice of lectio divina. The classic exposition of lectio divina is “The Ladder of Monks” by Guigo II, ninth prior of La Grande Chartreuse; it is available in English translation in the Cistercian Fathers series. Novices here are given a plan for reading the Bible in a year, drawn up in the 1950s by a French biblical scholar, Sr. Jeanne d'Arc, O.P., 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.

A few years ago, one of my confrères drew up a “revised version”. He felt that the passages assigned to each day were sometimes too long, sometimes too short, and sometimes divided in awkward places. He also improved what you could call the “interface” between the different seasons, so that you actually read the whole Bible every year; if you follow Sr. Jeanne d'Arc, you have to skip a few chapters every now and then. For instance, the last few chapters of Isaiah get squeezed out, unless Christmas falls on a Sunday. He also removed the Septuagesima readings, having the reading of Genesis begin on Ash Wednesday, and moving Jeremiah to October.

I immediately adopted this “r.v.” for my own lectio divina, but the removal of Septuagesima always seemed to me to be unsatisfactory. In the lectionary we use at Vigils, which follows a three year cycle and was drawn up by one of the fathers here around 1970, we have kept Septuagesima; we begin reading Genesis at Vigils on the third Sunday before Lent, and begin Jeremiah on the fifth Sunday of Lent. Reading Jeremiah in the autumn just seemed odd, and I disliked being out of synch both with what we were reading at the Office, and centuries of tradition. So I made a few adjustments to the “r.v.”, and produced two different versions that are closer to the traditional order. I would be most interested to hear comments or suggestions. I'm not satisfied with either. If you follow one, in certain years you will begin Joshua in January, then suddenly switch back to Genesis. If you follow the other, Ecclesiasticus is in the “wrong” place; it is traditionally read in August, with the rest of the wisdom books. I had thought of placing all St. Paul's epistles after Epiphany, and placing Esdras and Nehemiah in Eastertide, but that leaves three days in Eastertide without reading. Quid vobis videtur?

But I haven't posted this merely to get feedback, although I do hope to get some. I am sure that we are all convinced that a truly successful new liturgical movement needs to be grounded in a life of prayer that is fed by the liturgy, the sacraments, and the Word of God. The original liturgical movement, after all, didn't call for tinkering with the liturgy, but for living it. These plans for reading the Bible may well be too ambitious for Christians living outside a monastic context; in his memorable sermon, Fr. Bouyer suggested that people decide upon a “ridiculous minimum” of time to be set aside each day for lectio. So perhaps these plans, suitably adapted, might help people to fill such a ridiculous minimum in a way that is in harmony with the use that the Church has made of Scripture in her liturgy over the centuries.

Reading Plan:

Plan 1
Plan 2

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: