|James Tissot, Jesus Teaches in the Synagogues (1886)|
In his 2010 encyclical Verbum Domini (“The Word of the Lord”), Pope Benedict XVI advocated a particular approach to Scripture as a key, both to our personal sanctification, and to Christian ecumenism:
Listening together to the word of God, engaging in biblical lectio divina, letting ourselves be struck by the inexhaustible freshness of God’s word which never grows old, overcoming our deafness to those words that do not fit our own opinions or prejudices, listening and studying within the communion of the believers of every age: all these things represent a way of coming to unity in faith as a response to hearing the word of God.
In particular, Benedict called upon us seminarians to develop this relationship with Scripture, via lectio divina, as preparation for the priesthood:
Those aspiring to the ministerial priesthood are called to a profound personal relationship with God’s word, particularly in lectio divina, so that this relationship will in turn nurture their vocation: it is in the light and strength of God’s word that one’s specific vocation can be discerned and appreciated, loved and followed, and one’s proper mission carried out, by nourishing the heart with thoughts of God, so that faith, as our response to the word, may become a new criterion for judging and evaluating persons and things, events and issues.
So what is lectio divina? Literally, it means “Divine Reading,” and it refers to the way that monks have been ruminating on Scripture for centuries. There are five basic steps, in which we answer four questions, and then resolve to act upon those answers:
It opens with the reading (lectio) of a text, which leads to a desire to understand its true content: what does the biblical text say in itself? Without this, there is always a risk that the text will become a pretext for never moving beyond our own ideas.
Often, we’re in such a hurry to get to the second step, determining what the passage means for us (or what it means to us), that we don’t take enough time to focus on what the passage actually means in itself.
Herein lies the problem with proof-texting passages: some issue is at the forefront of our minds, and we mine the Scriptures looking for support. This approach risks reducing the word of God to a tool in our arsenal for our personal agendas, elevating us at the expense of Divine revelation.
So first things first: what is the initial meaning of the passage? It’s only once we’ve answered this, that we’re ready for the next step:
Next comes meditation (meditatio), which asks: what does the biblical text say to us? Here, each person, individually but also as a member of the community, must let himself or herself be moved and challenged.
|Heinrich Hofmann, Christ Among the Teachers (1897)|
The word of God isn’t a dead letter, some ancient text to be read simply for its historical importance. Rather, it is “living and active” (Heb 4:12), one of the ways that Our Lord continues to reveal Himself to us, and to guide us. When lives are transformed by an encounter with Scripture, it’s because people realized that God was speaking speaking to them through the Bible. He is still speaking to you and to me. Are we taking the trouble to listen to what He has to say?
Bear in mind, when God speaks to each of us through Scripture, He doesn’t treat us atomistically. The Body of Christ “does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor. 12:14), and if “one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). So God comes to us through His word as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, which Benedict reminds us is “the home of the word.”
This has implications for how we approach the Liturgy. Benedict reminds us that “the liturgy is the privileged setting in which God speaks to us in the midst of our lives; he speaks today to his people, who hear and respond. Every liturgical action is by its very nature steeped in sacred Scripture.” For the Christian, then, “A faith-filled understanding of sacred Scripture must always refer back to the liturgy, in which the word of God is celebrated as a timely and living word: ‘In the liturgy the Church faithfully adheres to the way Christ himself read and explained the sacred Scriptures, beginning with his coming forth in the synagogue and urging all to search the Scriptures’.”
Following this comes prayer (oratio), which asks the question: what do we say to the Lord in response to his word? Prayer, as petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise, is the primary way by which the word transforms us.
The word of God requires a response, and that response begins with prayer. In paragraph 86, Benedict quotes this line from St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Psalms: “Your prayer is the word you speak to God. When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray, you speak to God.”
Finally, lectio divina concludes with contemplation (contemplatio), during which we take up, as a gift from God, his own way of seeing and judging reality, and ask ourselves what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us? In the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul tells us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Contemplation aims at creating within us a truly wise and discerning vision of reality, as God sees it, and at forming within us “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). The word of God appears here as a criterion for discernment: it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
|Alphonse Legros, The Calling of Saint Francis (1861)|
Here again, we meet Scripture as alive, but now, we’re looking for something more specific. Before, in meditatio, we were made aware that God was speaking to us through His word. But now, we’re learning what that means, most concretely.
St. Francis of Assisi was inspired to begin his mendicant lifestyle, and eventually the Franciscan Order, after hearing a homily on Matthew 10:7-19. Likewise, St. Augustine recounted the radical conversion he underwent after reading Romans 13:13-14, while St. Antony was converted after reading Matthew 19:21.
When St. Antony heard the line “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me,” he didn’t just take it as generally directed towards him. Rather, he grasped it as a specific call, to go live out a monastic life in the desert. Likely, you won’t get that prompting in lectio divina (although it’s surely possible). But to know what God has in store for you, you should listen to Him carefully, with an ear towards what changes need to be made in your life.
We do well also to remember that the process of lectio divina is not concluded until it arrives at action (actio), which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity.
Once you know what it is that God is calling on you to do, the next step is straightforward: do it.
If all Christians would undertake the prayerful reading of Scripture in this way, the wounds of the Reformation would almost certainly begin to heal. There are a few reasons for this.
- First, disputes over Scripture would be grounded in the original meaning of the text. The first step, lectio, ensures this. Of course, this limits the potential for textual perversion or proof-texting.
- Second, because Scripture would no longer be viewed as something somehow contrary to the Church or the Liturgy. Scripture assumes the norm that it will be read liturgically (Revelation 1:3). Jesus is the exemplar of approach, exegeting Scripture in a liturgical context in the synagogue (e.g., Luke 4:16-21).
- Finally, because there would be more Saints. As we draw closer to Christ, we cannot help but draw closer to one another, just as spokes draw closer together as they come nearer to the hub.