Monday, March 13, 2023

Lectio Divina (4): Tools of the Workshop

Kate Edwards, of Saints Shall Arise, wrote a thoughtful piece, “Lectio divina: On memory, study and the Rule of Faith,” concerning the dangers of what might be called “raw” or “individualistic” lectio divina—that is, taking up the Bible without preparation, reading it without guidance, trying to figure it out completely on one’s own. This is the kind of thing that has led, in past centuries, to wild new heresies, and, among many people, to confusion.

She starts off by agreeing with the main theme of recent articles and talks on lectio divina:
Every Catholic should know the Bible well, for as St Benedict says in his Rule, "what page or utterance of the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testament is not a most unerring rule of human life?" And how can we seek to know and imitate Christ if we don't actually really know what he did or taught? The various posts also emphasize that you don't have to have any special knowledge or training to do lectio divina, it is open to everyone.
But then she comes to her difficulty.
All the same, I'm not convinced anyone can or should just open the Bible and read, trusting only to the aid of the Holy Spirit. . . . Most modern advocates of lectio divina point to a twelfth century Carthusian source on the practice, which seems to advocate doing just that.  But can I suggest that a twelfth century Carthusian monk was not exactly operating in the same poorly catechized, theological vacuum that most twenty-first century lay Catholics are?
          St Benedict's monks, when they did their lectio, surely had the model of the Fathers to work from, with their careful probing of issues such as the reasons for differences between the various Gospel accounts of events, and ability to draw in a web of related verses to explain the one under consideration. When a medieval monk pondered a few verses of Scripture, he could draw on a vast volume of memorised knowledge to help him interpret what he was reading in the light of Scripture as a whole. Most monks knew the psalms by heart, and at least large chunks of the Gospels, so could use the common technique of interpreting a verse through others that used the same key words and ideas. They might also have been familiar with the patristic commentaries on the verses, not least from the readings at Matins each day. Above all, the monk would also have been well aware of how to look for the spiritual meaning of verses, looking at Old Testament people and events as 'types' of the New for example.
She turns to the situation today:
Few laypeople people, though, even those relatively well catechized, have much familiarity with the Bible as a whole. Fewer still know it well enough to be able to call to mind related verses. Moreover, for monks and laity alike, more than a century of historico-critical interpretation of Scripture has, as Fr Cassian points out in his talk, rather stripped us of the ability to read Scripture other than in the strictly literal sense, effectively stripping the Old Testament of its Christological content, and the New of its eschatological content. . . . We today, alas, rarely have such knowledge in our mind to draw on. … Accordingly, I really strongly urge readers to consider using in their lectio with something that helps set the verses of Scripture in the light of ‘the rule of faith’.  St Thomas' Catena Aurea, for example, a compilation of Patristic commentaries grouped by Gospel verses, can provide an excellent starting point for study and meditation.
I completely agree with Kate Edwards that taking up the Bible without a strong catechetical foundation and at least some rudimentary theology would be undesirable, and that modern Catholics are often not well situated in this regard. I also agree that there is a place for well-chosen commentaries and reference works in connection with our daily lectio—if not consistently, then at least when we hit a passage that perplexes us or confuses us. My all-time favorite work for this purpose is exactly the one she mentions—St. Thomas’s Catena Aurea, which is always next to me when I’m reading one of the Gospels, whether I happen to use it or not on a particular day. Perhaps it’s become such a familiar companion that I don’t even think to mention it, which is certainly a mistake, and I am glad that Ms. Edwards has prompted me to mention it explicitly.

While we’re at it, let me recommend a few other valuable tools for the Catholic who wishes to do lectio divina. As a true bibliography could go on for pages, I will make this list short, mentioning things that have proved useful to me. Maybe some readers could list their own favorites in the comments?

The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament — There is nothing in the Catholic realm that can compare to this one-volume edition of the NT with copious notes, word studies, essays, maps, etc. The use of the RSV translation is not the least of its many strengths, as we should avoid Nabbish as much as possible.

Catholic Bible Dictionary — A comprehensive reference work; good for those occasions when you read a Hebrew place name or person name and wonder: "Who or what is this? Is it significant?" (hint: the answer is always yes), or you want a short account of God's anger as depicted in the Bible, or the nature and work of the angels, or an introduction to one of the OT prophets, etc.

A Textual Concordance of the Holy Scriptures — This unique concordance doesn't merely give you huge lists of individual words but groups verses by theme, under two major divisions--Moral and Doctrinal. In the moral part, when you look up, e.g., "The Poor," you get such entries as "The poor are pleasing to God," "God is the helper of the poor," "We should do justice to the poor," "Against defrauding the poor," "Oppression of the poor," "Punishment of oppressors of the poor," etc. In the doctrinal part, if you look up "angels," you see all the verses in the Bible about the nine choirs, guardian angels, etc.; or if you look up the Mass, or Justification, or Christ, you get comprehensive collections of verses pertaining to those topics.

And just so you have the link — The Catena Aurea of  St. Thomas Aquinas. If you haven't yet experienced the joy of reading this work, you are in for a treat. St. Thomas acts here not as the scholastic theologian but as the lover of the Fathers of the Church (Eastern and Western), patiently gathering their incisive comments on the individual verses of the Gospel and weaving them into a continuous commentary. There are a lot of cheap editions out there, but do yourself the favor of getting the Baronius Press edition. It is not much more expensive and yet it is completely re-typeset, with nice paper and hardcover binding. Look, this is about God's Word, so we might as well splurge a bit.

The Douay-Rheims and Clementina Vulgata — A parallel edition, with the English and Latin side by side, and some useful notes. This is the Bible I use for lectio divina, not because I prefer the Douay to the RSV, but because for a long time I've wanted to familiarize myself with Scripture in the Latin version that shaped the Western liturgy and the entire Catholic tradition. I want to see and hear and internalize the language that the Western Church prayed in and thought in. (It's a delight to me, as a singer of Gregorian chant, to see where the verses of the Propers come from, their original context.) My Latin is far from fluent, but it's reliable enough to read the text with an occasional glance over at the English column, which faithfully translates the Vulgate.

Walking with God: A Journey Through the Bible — There are several good books out there in the "introduction to the Bible" genre, but this one, by Tim Gray and Jeff Cavins, is certainly one of the best: a highly readable, reliable, and insightful tour of Scripture. A friend recently reminded me that a major obstacle to lectio divina can be the frustration good Catholics feel when they try to read a little piece of Scripture without sufficient familiarity with the entire narrative arc and theological "main points" of the Bible. If this is the position you're in, Walking with God is going to set you up for success.

*          *          *
If I have a slight disagreement with Kate Edwards’ position, it would simply be this: prayer and study, although by no means contradictory, are different kinds of activities. They seem to me (and to many other authors) to go in different directions, each having its own origin, medium, and goal. Study originates in a desire to know something intellectually; its medium is our thoughts about things; its goal is conceptual understanding. Prayer originates in a desire to be united to the beloved; its medium is the things themselves; its goal is to get closer to the reality and to conform oneself to it. When we study, we are taking things into our mind; when we pray, we are being drawn to the thing itself, which, at least at times, forces our mind to be quiet.

These activities absolutely support one another and can even flow freely into each other, but the difference is pronounced enough to make it possible that one might spend a while studying Scripture and never really pray, just as one might spend a while praying over a text, without doing what most people would describe as study. Undoubtedly others have expressed this point more pithily; I’m only noting that we should be careful not to turn our lectio time into a scholarly exercise or a self-catechesis class. This would be, I think, to run the risk of depersonalizing the encounter with the Word of God—which is perhaps the risk contrary to that of reading the Bible in a theological vacuum.

A middle course would be that we continue to consecrate a certain time to the slow, prayerful, personal reading of Scripture (in other words, lectio divina), but that, as we are going along, we flag, with a pencil mark in the margin, something that begs for further study later on. When our time of prayer is through, we can then get the commentary off the shelf and pursue a more intellectual grasp of that particular point. In this way, we gain two great goods, each of which has to remain itself: the good of engaging God's Word as a message spoken directly to me here and now, and the good of an ongoing intellectual formation.

Finally, the only adequate solution to the "Edwards conundrum" (if I may call it so) is to make sure that we are lifelong students of our Catholic faith and that we make time for study as well, which can take many forms: listening to audio books or good lectures while commuting to work, reading a few pages daily from a theological textbook or primary source (recall that Flannery O'Connor used to read an article of the Summa each evening—and no, it wasn't to help her fall asleep), or even reading trustworthy blogs. Everyone would do well to read the classics by Frank Sheed, particularly Theology and Sanity or its little brother, Theology for Beginners.

As many people have pointed out, it seems strange that in our world we expect professionals to be educated through college or graduate school, and yet our knowledge of the Catholic faith usually stops at a grade-school level—if that much. And given that the mysteries of the faith are infinitely knowable and beautiful, why would we stop even at graduate school? We are enrolled in the school of the Faith for our whole life, so we should "redeem the time" by praying well, studying well, and working well.

(Part IV of a series in five parts.  Links to earlier articles: Part IPart II; Part III.)

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