Monday, March 20, 2023

Lectio Divina (5): Liturgical Proclamation and Personal Reading

Citing the words of St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Ambrose, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum reminds all members of the Church of our responsibility to cling to the Word of God:
25. Therefore, all the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study, especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word. This is to be done so that none of them will become “an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly” [St. Augustine], since they must share the abundant wealth of the divine word with the faithful committed to them, especially in the sacred liturgy. The sacred synod also earnestly and particularly urges all the Christian faithful, especially religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the “excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:8). “For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” [St. Jerome]. Therefore, they should gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids which, in our time, with approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church, are commendably spread everywhere. And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying” [St. Ambrose]. 
This exhortation is something we all need to ponder—including those of us who love and cherish the usus antiquior. We, too, need to pay close attention to the readings read or chanted at Mass; it’s not as if taking Scripture seriously is some kind of Protestant or modernist innovation! In fact, Scripture’s “home” is most of all the liturgy, the Divine Office and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It will not do to react against charismatic excesses or the flaws of the Ordinary Form Lectionary by swinging to an extreme that fails to give to the Word of God the profound reverence it deserves—the homage of our minds and hearts, the deliberate attentiveness and personal application that causes the seed to take root.

I have noticed a strange phenomenon, namely, that traditionalists tend to swing to the opposite extreme on a lot of things, as if overreacting to the abuses around them. "The congregation singing at Mass? Oh, that's a Novus Ordo thing"—forgetting that St. Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII, to name just the most outstanding, repeatedly urged the faithful to chant the Ordinary of the Mass, as indeed is completely fitting and easily done through regular exposure to the chant. "Read Scripture devotionally? Oh, that's a Protestant thing"—forgetting that the Bible is a Catholic book and that the saints of the Church were doing lectio divina for fifteen centuries before the Protestants ever showed up. "Follow along with the readings and prayers at Mass in a Missal? I can't be bothered, I'd rather just pray individually, and be in a pleasant holy haze for an hour." I'm not denying that the old Mass wonderfully promotes interior prayer, and certainly I would never say we should always be reading or singing, but it's no less true that we ought to put on the mind of Christ by joining in the public worship offered by the Mystical Body—and this involves at least some effort at getting acquainted with the content of that worship!

To get back to our main point: Scripture is most of all at home in the Mass, where it is like a jewel placed in a setting of precious metal, and it is our privilege as Catholics to attend to the voice of Almighty God when His very words are being offered up before Him as a sweet-smelling incense. Like everything else in the liturgy, the proclamation of the biblical readings is both for God's glory and for man's sanctification.
A contemporary author has spoken eloquently of these connections:
Liturgical proclamation is obviously the place and privileged means of contact with the sacred text. There the living and active Word is returned to me in all its fullness. . . ‘It is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in church’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium 7).”[1]
This is because the Church’s worship is the activity of the Risen Christ, Head of the Church, together with all the members of His Mystical Body. The liturgy is His personal action for, and with, His people: He saves and sanctifies them, He gives them the grace to respond to Him in adoration, praise, blessing, contrition, supplication, thanksgiving. However, “the Church does not actualize its mystery or carry out its activity only in liturgical acts. It follows from this that, in the liturgy, the Word is living and active maximally though not exclusively”[2].
Of course the book itself is not the Word of God, only the means by which it is transmitted to me. But the reader of the book is a member of the Church. That reading takes place in the context of the ecclesial mystery, where the same Spirit who inspired the prophets and sacred writers is present and active. Therefore the text can be read in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.
Because we are members of Christ’s Body, we can continue to hear God’s Word outside of the liturgy—and in fact that continuation is what makes the public proclamation bear fruit within us as well as prepares us for the next reception of the Word. “All personal reading of the sacred text finds its center in liturgical hearing—as preparation for it, or as its continuation.”

Let me give some examples about how we might prepare ourselves for, or derive further fruit from, the liturgical hearing of the Bible.
  • On Sundays or Holy Days, we might look at the day’s readings ahead of time, either the evening before or in the morning, and/or look at them again later that day, to impress the word more firmly on our souls. I have been amazed, personally, at how much more I get out of the reading or chanting of the Scriptures at Mass when I have already gone through the text, even if only cursorily, beforehand. It’s as if the ground had been plowed, and now there are furrows where the seeds can fall and find moisture.
  • During Lent, where both the Roman Rite and the modern rite of Paul VI offer us daily readings at Mass, we might take as our lectio divina the very Epistle and Gospel of the day.
  • I have seen it recommended to do lectio divina with the entirety of the Mass, from the Introit through the readings to the Communion, and this has indeed been very fruitful for me on the occasions when I’ve done it.
  • If one is fortunate enough to be able to attend a public Divine Office at a monastery or parish, one may do the same thing: look over the psalms and other parts of the liturgy ahead of time and/or afterwards.
In such ways, we are nourishing our souls from the feast of the liturgy, preparing better for its celebration, returning to it in memory and love. Archbishop Magrassi comments:
A kind of spiritual exchange will take place. The soul, in its moments of prayer, will easily remain influenced by what moved it during the liturgy; it will relive it, probe it more deeply, personalize it in one-to-one dialogue with the divine speaker. On the other hand, what the soul experiences in these moments of prayer will, as it were, flow back to it as it listens during the liturgy. It will be totally present to the reading; it will listen more receptively and be more fully open. The two moments become complementary aspects of a single act.[3]
Lectio divina is an essential instrument in the life of the traditional Catholic. It has been a fundamental element (or better yet, foundation) of monastic life since the very beginning. It has been the recurrent life-giving devotion of countless saints. It has shaped the great theologians and mystics. It is recommended to us again and again by the popes and enriched with indulgences. It is a spiritual bread that feeds our hunger and yet causes us to hunger more and more for the Bread of Life, our Lord Jesus Christ, in His Eucharistic Presence and in His heavenly glory. “It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face from me.”


[1] Archbishop Mariano Magrassi, O.S.B., Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, 3.
[2] Ibid., 4. The next two quotations are from the same page.
[3] Ibid., 9-10.

(Part V of a multi-part series. Links to the other articles: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.)

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