Monday, February 24, 2014

Lectio Divina: Why Not Try It This Lent?

For many of us, the season of Pre-Lent (beginning with Septuagesima) has already begun to prepare us for the rigors and resolutions of Lent properly so called. For others, Ash Wednesday comes each year like a thief in the night, and we often feel unready for it. The week before Ash Wednesday is a good time to finalize a plan for how we will devote ourselves more fully to prayer during the season of Lent.

Each year, the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent challenges us with these words: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” The question should arise for each one of us: Is the Word of God truly my daily bread? Is Sacred Scripture a source of life and holiness for me, day in, day out?

It is true that the Holy Eucharist is our daily bread par excellence, without which we must perish; but it is no less true, as St. Jerome says, that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” There is a reason the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has always consisted of two components, whether they be called the Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful, or the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We need both of them for a healthy spiritual life. This Lent can be a time for us either to begin lectio divina or to renew our commitment to it.

Many are familiar with the traditional four steps of lectio divina: (1) lectio, reading the text carefully; (2) meditatio, ruminating over it, savoring the words; (3) oratio, giving voice to the prayers that well up when one meditates on the text; (4) contemplatio, being lifted up into the peace, wisdom, and love of the Lord, as and when it pleases Him to lift us up. The classic treatment of these four steps is found in Guigo II's Ladder of Monks (available here for those who wish to read it; as you would expect of a Carthusian, the text is pithy).

Once we have mentioned these four steps, however, there is an immediate and important caveat: lectio divina is NOT a “technique.” Prayer is a relationship between persons; and when love is real, we do not implement a “system.” Bureaucracies, which, by definition, are not based on close personal relationships, follow systems. Do we love our dearest friends according to a technique from an instruction manual? So, it’s important to understand that in the spiritual life we are talking about a friendship with the Lord, one that needs to be developed like any other: with time, with sharing, with affection, with attention.

The four steps of lectio divina are not, therefore, a kind of “recipe” for making prayer happen. They are, rather, an articulation of what happens naturally when we take the Word of God seriously. We read it; we think about what we’ve read and try to apply it to ourselves; when we do that, we start to pray spontaneously; and as we pray, the Lord leads us to a new closeness to Himself, and, as it pleases Him, causes us to rest in His presence. These four degrees or steps are more like the parts of an organic living thing—the root, leaf, flower, and fruit of a plant, for example. Plants don’t have techniques; they are living things and they grow from within, as long as sunlight and water and nutrients are present. Our souls are like plants in that way: we need spiritual sunlight, water, and nutrients. Our sun is Jesus Christ; our water is His grace; our nutrients are His Words. Given these conditions, our souls will flourish.

No unusual heroism, expertise, or virtue is required to open up the Scriptures and begin to do lectio divina as a daily and fundamental part of our Christian prayer. I need three things: (1) a living faith, so that I believe God is speaking His word directly to me; (2) perseverance, so that I may continue on, whether my results are magnificent or, as they may seem to me, poor—not forgetting, however, that I tend to be a poor judge of spiritual results; (3) desire or longing for the face and the voice of the Lord, which is the very soul of lectio divina. “Thou hast said, ‘Seek ye my face.’ My heart says to thee, ‘Thy face, Lord, do I seek.’ Hide not thy face from me” (Ps 27:8-9). If we have faith when we take up the Scriptures, if we persevere with holy reading, and if our intention is to meet the Lord Himself, He will never fail us: He will become a fountain of living water rising up within us.

Pope St. Gregory the Great
The only prerequisite (if one can call it that) is a reliable sense of what books of Scripture are most appropriate for lectio divina, since they are not all equally suitable at every juncture in one’s spiritual life. Some are always and everywhere suitable, like the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, and the Psalms, and this is where a beginner ought to start. Some, like the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah, and the Book of Revelation, can work very well, although they will work better to the degree that one is already accustomed to the genre. All books of Scripture, of course, can be used profitably for lectio divina, but it is unquestionably best to begin with the Gospels—and never to stray too far from their wonderful light.

Let me close this brief exhortation to take up lectio divina this Lent with an excerpt from a Letter of Pope St. Gregory the Great to his friend Theodore, physician to the Emperor, dated June 595. How timeless is St. Gregory’s advice!
See, my most noble and beloved son, how we are distant from one another in body, yet intimately present to each other in love. To prove that, I have your letter before me, and the testimony of all your good works. Now I must presume on this mutual love of ours to say something to you which I think you need to hear. God the Holy Trinity has given you so many gifts: intelligence, wealth, compassion, and charity. Because of them you find yourself incessantly occupied with multiple duties and cares; and with that excuse you neglect your daily reading of the words of your Redeemer. But what is holy Scripture other than a letter sent by Almighty God to those he has created? Imagine if the Emperor had sent you a personal letter! No matter where you were or what you were doing, you’d make it a priority to find out what he wanted to say to you. Well: the Emperor of heaven, the Lord of angels and of men has sent you these letters in order that you might draw life from them: yet you fail to make the effort even to read them! Study and meditate on your Creator’s words every day, I beg you! Learn the heart of God from the words of God, so that you may long more ardently for eternity; so that you may be ever more inflamed with desire for the joys of Heaven. Your rest there will be all the greater, the more you have refused to rest from loving your Creator here and now.

(Part I of a four-part series.)

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