Conference on Lenten Reading

St. Benedict took particular care to provide for the lectio divina to be done by each member of the community every day of the year, but especially he gave detailed attention to this practice during Lent. It is somewhat surprising that Benedict treats of this topic, not in the chapter devoted to The Observance of Lent, but in the preceding one, ch. 48, On Daily Manual Labor.  As one reads this chapter the reason for treating it here becomes evident: it is a practical matter of arranging the horarium which must accommodate the hours set aside for reading as well as the specific times allotted to manual labor. Here is what he wrote on the matter.

 In these days of Lent let every one receive an individual book from the library that is to be read in its entirety, straight through.  These books are to be distributed at the beginning of Lent.  Special care should be taken to name one or two seniors to go around the monastery during the hours set aside for lectio to assure that no brother wastes his time through laziness or get involved in gossip or otherwise not be intent on his reading, thus proving to be not only useless for himself, but harmful for others. Should any such brother be found, let him be corrected once or twice; if he does not improve he should be subjected to regular discipline so that the others will fear.

 Obviously, he considered this a very important exercise, faithfully to be observed above all during this holy season of the liturgical year. In prescribing this sacred reading he established a tradition that has been continuously followed for over 1500 years now. This discipline of reflective reading of a sacred text proved to be a markedly fruitful contribution to the spiritual lives of the monks following his Rule. Moreover, for many monks lectio divina together with  the study and ascetic practices associated with it, showed itself to be productive of human development in terms of psychological maturity, social relations and aesthetic sensitivity. In addition it resulted in very significant cultural contribution to society, as historians have repeatedly noted. Benedict’s concern to have appropriate reading in the hand of every member of the community had large consequences probably not foreseen by the legislator. The creation of Scriptoria in numerous monasteries that followed this Rule and, as a result of that, in turn, the preservation and wide diffusion of many works that otherwise would have been allowed to disappear. Another, related development was the establishing of a sizeable library in every monastery of any size. If every monk was to obtain a copy of a work for personal use every day throughout the year, there had to be a place containing a good number of suitable tomes available for use wherever his Rule was followed. 

 Acquisition of an adequate library demands in turn a considerable outlay of expense as well as men in the community endowed with the appreciable skills needed for a careful selection of the works to be acquired, preserved and utilized appropriately. It also involved the inculcation of a respect for the material book and, in some of the community led to an appreciation for books and even a love for learning.  In addition to the direct spiritual effect of this stress on lectio divina, and on Lenten reading in particular, there was exerted a broad general leavening  of the intellectual formation and culture of the monks effected by this legislation.  So integral to Benedictine spirituality has the practice of daily lectio divina proved to be that some consider that the characteristic feature distinguishing Benedictine spirituality is the practice of daily, serious and attentive lectio divina. Such reading and the meditation associate with it is the Benedictine way of arriving at contemplative prayer.

 Benedict, to be sure, was not the first to give prominence to spiritual reading and to the word of God in the spiritual life. With the arrangement made in his Rule Benedict rather continued a tradition that was deeply rooted in the monastic tradition since its origins. At the very beginning of the monastic life as it is traditionally known, St. Antony had decided to become a monk after hearing a text from the Gospel during a liturgy so that Scripture gave rise to his decision to become a monk. Not long after, in the Rules of St. Pachomius it is prescribed that ‘[One should learn by heart] at least the New Testament and the Psalter’ [‘Pachomian Koinonia: Pachomian Chronicles and Precepts’, volume two #140, ed. Armand Veilleux (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1981), 166). The words of Scripture repeated during work and at other times in the day served as formulas of prayer. Benedict’s specific contribution was to establish a manner of arranging for the daily occupation with Scripture at sufficient length to cause its assimilation to be a regularly recurring event. He found a manner of presenting its value, the distinctiveness of which consisted in the way he assigned it prime time and made it an important daily observance. His insistence on giving a major portion of the day to sacred lectio turned out to be an encouragement for the monks to incorporate the inspired text into their inner life at the same time they strove to make its teaching a norm of living. His provisions for reading proved to be quite an effective arrangement for carrying on what was already a firmly established practice in the monastic world of making the reading of Scripture an important element in daily life and private worship. Lectio assured that the use of Scripture would not be confined to the formal public cult.

 Devotion to the study and meditation of the Scriptures was inherited by the early Church from the Jews who had long given it great prominence in their religious life. One finds evidence of these practices already in the early pages of the Bible.  The very style of the first chapters of Genesis betray its origin in learned circles in possession of a long and well-developed tradition.  The author of the Genesis account was familiar with and studied various accounts of the world's origins.  The form in which his account is cast suggests it is the fruit of many earlier versions that refined its language and invented a suitably dignified, noble form for its presentation.  Thus from the first pages of Scripture it is evident that the Bible reflects a great respect for words, their choice and their phrasing.  Composition was a way of honoring the message and the God revealed in the message.  Reading and studying these words was given a corresponding prominence in the scale of values, and was considered a religious act.

 The fact that we have the Scriptures available to us is the fruit of such reverential attention to the text. This is true of both the Christian and the Hebrew Scriptures. Copying and preserving the authentic readings was possible only to a community that was willing to expend great quantities of time and money for such activities and so required a broad awareness of the fundamental place the word occupied in their faith. The zeal brought to the study of Scripture by the devoted Jews over the centuries became legendary.  That it continues to this day in the more observant is evident from the opening sentence of the recent book by Yehudah Levi, Torah Study: Torah Study is the life blood of Judaism.  Although the particular turn taken by these studies and its unique characteristics that make it so different in spirit from Christian lectio resulted from later historical developments, yet this emphasis on reading and study  grew naturally out of the teaching of the Bible itself. In the Book of Joshua, for example, we read: You shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe in practice all that is written in it (1:8).

 The Jews referred to the study of Scripture as avodah, service, which is the same term employed in reference to the service of the altar; both were considered acts of worship, of equal value. Considerable concern was shown to assure that this study was undertaken with a pure intention, that is to say, for love of God and for its own sake, not motivated by inferior motives such as professional reputation or advantage of any material kind.  Such reading was to be done daily, treating the word, not as some antiquated edict, but rather saying to oneself: It is as if this day I received it from Sinai.

 Thus reading and study of the inspired text was a form of seeking God, of serving him and of gaining his favor. Occupation with the sacred texts was considered a high privilege as well as a meritorious act. Techniques for study and interpreting the Scriptures cultivated with great fervor and assiduity from earliest times, occupying an important role in the lives of those practicing Jews who enjoyed the leisure to devote themselves to such occupations. Jesus himself passed on this tradition to the Church by his manner of citing and reinterpreting the ancient writings.  He was very familiar with the Torah and the prophets, and drew upon texts from these works not only for his teaching, but even for recognizing and defining his own mission and his very person.  His meditation and sacred reading (lectio divina) were a primary source for his life of prayer and his growth in the consciousness of the role he was to play in redeeming his people. An example of this appears from the way his meditation of Isaiah 53 led him to identify with the suffering servant as there portrayed. He developed a personal and highly original style in his use of Scripture that allowed him to give fresh insights into its meaning and intent.  

 St. Augustine recognized the distinctive manner that characterized our Lord’s interpretation of the Torah and Prophets very early on. While he was readying himself for baptism he consulted St. Ambrose as to the most useful way to prepare to receive that great grace. The Bishop of Milan recommended he take up the prophet Isaiah who, he explained, foretold more clearly than others the Gospel and the conversion of the nations. However, upon opening the prophet’s book Augustine found it too obscure and so decided to put it aside until, as he states, “ I had more practice in the Lord’s style of language (in dominico eloquio)” [Confessions 9.5.13- cited in Robert Wilken, “In Dominico Eloquio”, Communio 24 (1997) 851)] Among other convictions brought to his reading of the inspired word was that Scripture is a living communication in the Spirit. It is not understood merely as a record of what happened to the Patriarchs and prophets. The Father continues to reveal His plan as the word is received with loving faith. In this our Lord continued the Jewish tradition of approaching the text as if this day I received it from Sinai.

 This use of the Jewish Scriptures was taken up without question or hesitation by his apostles and disciples.  Such zealous, faith filled reading of the Hebrew Bible characterized the spiritual life of all the holy followers of our Lord beginning with his mother, Mary, as we see from her Magnificat and no doubt by Joseph as well whose actions are described as the fulfilling of prophecy.  It was practiced by such NT saints as Simeon, Anna, Elizabeth , Zachary and John the Baptist.   We find it in the Epistles of Paul, of Peter, of John and with a particular tone of emphasis in the Apocalypse. In short, early Christian spirituality was centered on the word of God as read and meditated and prayed daily.  It was the original method of prayer and contemplation in the primitive Church.

 The two most learned Christian biblical scholars of the patristic age, Origen and St. Jerome, continued this tradition and gave to exegesis the specifically Christian characteristics that were to prove normative for later preachers and teachers. Both of these creative scholars were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and made it a point to consult certain Jewish Rabbis. They made no secret of the fact that they profited greatly from the tutelage of these learned Jewish scholars. Their exegetical writings and the works of other great Catholic preachers and commentators of the Patristic age, including St. Benedict, there was present in the Church a great reverence for the whole of the Scriptures, Old Testament as well as New. Efforts to discredit the Jewish religion and the Hebrew scriptures by Marcion had a certain limited influence for a time. However, it proved to be a temporary aberration quickly isolated and rendered futile precisely through by the efforts of these men convinced of the validity of the principle that Christ gives meaning to all of holy writings, the Hebrew scriptures as well as the New Testament.

 This applies to matters of belief but also to piety. The early Church’s worship and prayer reflects a high appreciation for the place of the Psalms and Canticles of the Jewish Bible in the spirituality of the believer. Though other Fathers soon lost direct contact with the Jews and their traditions, yet this form of piety, centered on the reading of the word of God and its meditation, was so fully incorporated into the Church that it took on a life of its own. As it followed its own way it developed principles that evolved into a systematic approach to interpretation. The fundamental principle was enunciated concisely by St. Cyril of Alexandria:

 That Scripture in all its parts was inspired was understood to signify that no portion of it was devoid of some appropriate meaning. This principle claimed no less an authority than St. Paul for its validity. In demonstrating that the preacher merited to be supported by the congregation he cites Deuteronomy 25: 4: “You shall not muzzle the ox that treads the grain” and adds: “ Is God concerned with oxen? Is it not for our sake that he says this?” (1Cor 9:9). In 2 Timothy the principle is asserted with the broadest extension: “All Scripture is divinely inspired and is useful for teaching, for correcting, for rebuking and instructing in justice. (2 Tim 3:16). Not only behavior but also belief and what is hoped for, then, was conveyed by the inspired word if approached in the proper manner and with fitting dispositions. Thus as a rule the proper reading of a text would yield a spiritual as well as a historical meaning and the spiritual would usually include a moral as well as a Christological sense. Obviously, applied too rigidly this method could and did lead to rather fanciful exegesis on occasion. Nonetheless, the principles remain valid today and are, in fact, employed, as we have seen, in the New Testament itself.

 The Cistercian Fathers decidedly favored the moral sense of the text as contributing most usefully to their spiritual progress. Throughout the whole Patristic period and the Middle Ages, lectio divina as well as written commentaries and preaching followed this same dominico eloquio. This way of reading and meditating the sacred text as including a meaning directed to the present reader prepares for the practice of contemplative prayer through pointing the way to purity of heart and providing motives for applying oneself to traveling that way. Lectio divina and the assiduous meditation of Scripture, then, are the practices that are most characteristic of Benedictine spirituality. If the Cistercian and Benedictine way of prayer can be said to have any technique more specific than simply living the Rule, it is this practice of lectio and the  meditation and abiding in the heart that is a continuing of this occupation with the word of God throughout the day. We find this emphasis on Scripture as guide and support illustrated well in a chapter talk by St. Aelred in the twelfth century, for instance. He addressed his large community in the following terms.

 YOU, DEAREST BROTHERS, WHO HAVE RENOUNCED THE WORKS OF THIS WORLD, AND ARE DELIVERED FROM ALL ITS CARES AND CONCERNS ARE ENGAGED IN THE BATTLE WITH IMPURE SPIRITS AND YOUR OWN THOUGHTS. CONSEQUENTLY YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR REASON AND A SPECIAL NECESSITY FOR MEDITATING ON THE SCRIPTURES.(Aelred de Rievaulx, ‘Sermo De oneribus I’, PL 195: 364 B)

 

Very prominent in his writings and preaching is the role that St. Aelred assigned to Sacred Scripture and the monastic practice of reading and meditating upon their content. He was convinced that ‘the Spirit who himself had founded the Scripture had ordered them with such great prudence that it was capable of innumerable meanings.’ (De oneribus Pl 195: 363D-364A).

 Closely associated with this theme of meanings of Scripture is that of the nature of the books and words which are the elements employed in the exercise of aspect of the spiritual art of lectio divina. Monks have played a major part in the development of books, as is well known, in both the East and the West, and their production, transmission and preservation as well as their use, were all prominent activities engaged in by all monasteries in varying measure. There is an art to reading a book as well as writing one. Understanding the rules of both of these employments can contribute considerably to discovering the meanings associated with the text. It would be a useful subject to discuss on some other occasion.

 John Cassian was thoroughly imbued with this practice and gave witness to its place in his version of monastic spirituality in very clear terms.

 You are to make every effort, having put aside all solicitude and earthly thought, to show yourself assiduous, and even constant in holy reading until continuous meditation colors your mind and, as it were, forms it in its own likeness.

 St. Gregory the Great became the master of this practice of lectio divina and its most influential exponent for the period from 600 AD to the thirteenth century. While he himself had learned a great deal from St. Augustine, his own contributions were so concrete and practical that his writings served as a quarry for many other writers as well as for a numerous readership among the faithful.  He showed his readers the way to pass from the visible to the invisible through his spiritual exegesis of the text, and by means of the many examples taken from life experiences.   He taught that the Bible serves as the source for all spiritual renewal.  Revealing the link between exegesis and Christian experience, in fact, was his method of bringing out the transforming power of lectio in the hearts and souls of its practitioners.  He wrote his best known work, The Moralia, at the request of his monks, and with them chiefly, though not exclusively, in mind so that his writings have a particular claim to our attention.  In fact, at Citeaux he was highly appreciated as we can see from the magnificent illuminated tomes of his work produced in the scriptorium there, and preserved in its library.

 One particularly illuminating insight that he handed on concerns the fruitfulness of reading Scripture at all stages of development and throughout the whole of life. For Scripture contains such mysteries as can never be exhausted. It is suited to all persons at every stage of life, whatever progress is made, just as it opens divine truth the simple, however limited the intelligence of the reader. This is the case since the principle of assimilation is not primarily intellectual but spiritual. Understanding grows with progress in the Spirit. “Crescit Scriptura cum legenti”, (“Scripture grows with the one who reads it”). He explains his point in these terms.

 And because each of the Saints, in the measure he will have progressed in sacred Scripture, in that same measure the sacred Scripture makes progress in him… for the divine word grows with the one who reads in as much as the higher anyone directs his mind to them to that same height his understanding will reach…. For you find progress in the sacred words, to the extent that you live a better life upon reading it. (  I. VII.8, S.C.327, (1986), 244)  

 Gregory was appreciated not only as a great pastor and administrator and teacher, but also as a man of prayer, a mystic.  Along with St. Bernard and St. Augustine, he is singled out by Dom Christopher Butler as forming the most influential teachers of mysticism in the West.  Surely St. Bernard himself followed in this same tradition of using the Scriptures as the basis of his own life of prayer.  This is everywhere evident in his works.  One of the impressive instances of this form of piety is found towards the end of life, in the last but one of his  Sermons on the Canticle where he speaks of the role of the Word in the spiritual life, giving a kind of summary of his own spirituality, which remains a brilliant and moving statement opening a door into Bernard's relations with the Lord Jesus.

 The soul seeks the Word to whom she may consent for correction, by whom she may be enlightened for understanding, for whom she might be initiated to virtue, by whom she might be reformed to wisdom, to whom she may be conformed for beauty, to whom she might be married for fertility, and whom she might enjoy for her delight.

 For Bernard lectio divina , along with careful meditation and consideration, led naturally to a contemplative prayer that had the Lord Jesus as its object.  This contemplation was unitive; it.resulted in living, loving knowledge of the person of the Word made flesh.  It was this desire for attaining to the person of the Word which impelled him to this holy reading in the first place, and which gave focus and concentration to his effort to penetrate through the text to the divine Person who spoke to him through it.

 St. Benedict did not elaborate any such explanation of his spirituality as we find here in this dense and fervent passage summarizing St. Bernard's technique for makinging lectio an effective practice at each stage of the soul's growth in love and union with the Lord.  But it was his Rule in its detailed and clear provisions for daily lectio divina which gave rise to such a doctrine as the Abbot of Clairvaux elaborated. A teaching that inspired and encouraged many other monks and nuns: not only Cistercians but many Benedictines, Mabillon and Leclercq among them; others such as Thomas a Kempis, Bonaventure, and St. Gertrude owed him much. Bernard was convinced that he was following St. Benedict and Benedict’s biographer Gregory the Great in pursuing his contemplative way that sought to experience in life what he discovered in his reading.

 We stand to profit from following in the ways these monastic teachers so fruitfully traveled and which led them to such high sanctity.  As we see from the above text of St. Bernard's, this reading led to an awareness of the need for conversion, for the correction by the Word, as he puts it, which is needful at every stage of the spiritual journey.  Lent is a time, not only for holy reading and the prayer that flows from it; it also calls for following through with a particular fervor and force of effort to change those faults and weaknesses which slow us down on our way. In short, if we would profit from lectio we must grow in our response to what the reading of Scripture and related works reveal to us. As we progress in the practices that draw us closer to the Lord, our understanding of his revelation will grow apace. Crescit Scriptura cum legenti. By a faithful and generous observance of the Lenten reading and other practices of self denial we can hope to grow in our love for the Word of God Incarnate, and in this way build up the Body Christ in this community and so in the Church.  What greater contribution to the effort to re-evangelize our society today than this revitalization of lectio divina as the source of ever growing union with the Word and of love for others? &

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

Return to Index.

Go to Archive.