Monday, 30 December 2013

Why do lectio: St John Chrysostom's take on the subject

Homily on Matthew 1:

"It were indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written Word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course.

For that the former was better, God has made manifest, both by His words, and by His doings. Since unto Noah, and unto Abraham, and unto his offspring, and unto Job, and unto Moses too, He discoursed not by writings, but Himself by Himself, finding their mind pure. But after the whole people of the Hebrews had fallen into the very pit of wickedness, then and thereafter was a written word, and tables, and the admonition which is given by these.

And this one may perceive was the case, not of the saints in the Old Testament only, but also of those in the New. For neither to the apostles did God give anything in writing, but instead of written words He promised that He would give them the grace of the Spirit: for He, says our Lord, shall bring all things to your remembrance. John 14:26 And that you may learn that this was far better, hear what He says by the Prophet: I will make a new covenant with you, putting my laws into their mind, and in their heart I will write them, and, they shall be all taught of God. And Paul too, pointing out the same superiority, said, that they had received a law not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.

But since in process of time they made shipwreck, some with regard to doctrines, others as to life and manners, there was again need that they should be put in remembrance by the written word.

Reflect then how great an evil it is for us, who ought to live so purely as not even to need written words, but to yield up our hearts, as books, to the Spirit; now that we have lost that honor, and have come to have need of these, to fail again in duly employing even this second remedy. For if it be a blame to stand in need of written words, and not to have brought down on ourselves the grace of the Spirit; consider how heavy the charge of not choosing to profit even after this assistance, but rather treating what is written with neglect, as if it were cast forth without purpose, and at random, and so bringing down upon ourselves our punishment with increase.

But that no such effect may ensue, let us give strict heed unto the things that are written; and let us learn how the Old Law was given on the one hand, how on the other the New Covenant.... is now proposed for us to speak thereof, let us give careful heed to Matthew, discoursing plainly concerning this: for what he says is not his own, but all Christ's, who has made the laws of this city. Let us give heed, I say, that we may be capable of enrolment therein, and of shining forth among those that have already become citizens thereof, and are awaiting those incorruptible crowns. To many, however, this discourse seems to be easy, while the prophetic writings are difficult. But this again is the view of men who know not the depth of the thoughts laid up therein. Wherefore I entreat you to follow us with much diligence, so as to enter into the very ocean of the things written, with Christ for our guide at this our entering in....

Why, he that is grown old, and has travelled over much country, reports to us with all exactness the number of stadia, and the situations of cities, their plans, and their harbors and markets; but we ourselves know not even how far we are from the city that is in Heaven. For surely we should have endeavored to shorten the space, had we known the distance. That city being not only as far from us as Heaven is from the earth, but even much farther, if we be negligent; like as, on the other hand, if we do our best, even in one instant we shall come to the gates thereof. For not by local space, but by moral disposition, are these distances defined.

...Yea, for we are on the point of entering into a city (if God permit) of gold, and more precious than any gold.

Let us then mark her foundations, her gates consisting of sapphires and pearls; for indeed we have in Matthew an excellent guide. For through his gate we shall now enter in, and much diligence is required on our part. For should He see any one not attentive, He casts him out of the city.

Yes, for the city is most kingly and glorious; not as the cities with us, divided into a market-place, and the royal courts; for there all is the court of the King. Let us open therefore the gates of our mind, let us open our ears, and with great trembling, when on the point of setting foot on the threshold, let us worship the King that is therein. For indeed the first approach has power straightway to confound the beholder.

For the present we find the gates closed; but when we see them thrown open (for this is the solution of the difficulties), then we shall perceive the greatness of the splendor within. For there also, leading you with the eyes of the Spirit, is one who offers to show you all, even this Publican; where the King sits, and who of His host stand by Him; where are the angels, where the archangels; and what place is set apart for the new citizens in this city, and what kind of way it is that leads there, and what manner of portion they have received, who first were citizens therein, and those next after them, and such as followed these. And how many are the orders of these tribes, how many those of the senate, how many the distinctions of dignity.

Let us not therefore with noise or tumult enter in, but with a mystical silence.

For if in a theatre, when a great silence has been made, then the letters of the king are read, much more in this city must all be composed, and stand with soul and ear erect. For it is not the letters of any earthly master, but of the Lord of angels, which are on the point of being read.

If we would order ourselves on this wise, the grace itself of the Spirit will lead us in great perfection, and we shall arrive at the very royal throne, and attain to all the good things, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and might, together with the Father and the Holy Ghost, now and always, even for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Lectio Divina on St John's Gospel**

Today is the feast of St Jerome, a saint most famous as a translator of the Bible into the vernacular of the time, viz Latin.

In these difficult times, it seems more important than ever that Catholics devote themselves to reading Scripture, both in order to feed their own souls, and so as to be able to assess for themselves the various claims of what Scripture does and does not say.

And of course St Benedict's Rule prescribes a lot of hours of lectio divina, or meditative reading, generally of Scripture.

Accordingly, I thought it might be an appropriate moment to encourage readers to commit to reading St John's Gospel this quarter.

How much can we do - a Bible Reading Plan?

Laypeople will of course, not generally be able to devote the two or three hours that St Benedict prescribes for the task of lectio divina each day.  Still, we can try and do at least a little each day.

An excellent article over at New Liturgical Movement, with associated Bible Reading Plan, from Dom Christopher Lazowski, OSB, a few years ago, suggests that the traditional approach for a monk was to read the Bible in a year.

The psalms of course are read each week, in the Office.

The books other than the Gospels can be read following the broad seasonal ordering set by the Matins readings, and he sets out a couple of schemas there based around this.  Getting through all of the books in a year is a pretty challenging task:  most people living in the world might want to consider a two or three year cycle instead, or perhaps just using the selections of the chapters from the Roman Breviary (which you can find on the Divinum Officium website at Matins); alternatively you could consider doing the Gospels one year, the rest the next.

And the Gospels, of course, can be tackled one for each quarter.  I'm going to focus on that here, looking at St John's Gospel.

Tackling St John's Gospel

In order to read the whole of St John's Gospel (21 chapters) in the course of the quarter (and allowing time out for Sundays, major feasts and Christmastide), you basically need to get through a chapter every two or three days.

Accordingly, I'd suggest trying to read 15-20 verses a day, and focusing in on just a couple of them.

How monks read: doing real lectio

These days lectio divina is often reduced to nothing much more than reading a  few verses, and seeking to come up with one's own entirely subjective response to it.

This is, in my view, an entirely modernist approach that de facto promotes a 'sola scriptura' mentality entirely at odds with the Church's traditional approach to the interpretation of Scripture.

And it is also extremely hard to do for more than half an hour or so, which perhaps explains in part why most modern monasteries don't devote anything like as much time to the task as St Benedict specifies in his Rule.

Traditionally, lectio was a much more intellectual and engaging process.

Unfortunately, reading Scripture in the mind of the Church is not an easy task, for their are relatively few good resources around to assist one.

That's not to say that you need a great theological education to read Scripture of course: just that you need to be given a few tools, like access to a good commentary, to help you as you go.

Dom Paul Delatte's famous Commentary on the Rule of St Benedict nicely captures this, I think, with his summation of the stages of lectio divina as read, think, study, meditate, pray, contemplate, work.

Today, a short rundown on each of these stages of the process by way of an introduction.  You can find more detailed notes on this subject from the links in a sidebar on my Psalm Blog.

Active reading

The first stage of lectio, 'reading' meant much more than just quickly and quietly reading a verse or two as we tend to think of reading.

Rather, it meant reading it out loud, and puzzling out the Latin.  Accordingly, I'm going to provide the text in each post Latin as well as English, together with a link to an audio recording of it.  Even if you don't have any Latin, you can acquire some through the immersion method, and join yourselves to the struggle of those medieval monks, many of whom would have learnt it exactly the same way!

It also meant actually memorizing the text, at least sufficiently well so that you could continue to chew over key sections of it for the rest of the day while doing your manual labour.


In order to read Scripture properly, we need to consider both the literal and spiritual senses of the text, as the Catechism (CCC 116-117) explains:

  • "The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation...
  • The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs. 
The spiritual sense includes:
  • "the allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism;
  • the moral sense. the events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction";
  • the anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem."
Some of this may become obvious to us as we read through the aid of the Holy Ghost.  But we cannot rely solely on inspiration, when perspiration is what God prescribes!


That means reading our text in the light of the rest of Scripture, and the Church's reflections on it.

As the writings of the Fathers attest, a particular verse should never be read in isolation from the rest of the Bible: rather the New is read in the light of the Old, and the Old in the light of the New.  That means being aware of the direct or indirect cross-references to a verse in other parts of Scripture.

Some of the direct cross-references can readily be found in standard Catholic commentaries such as the Navarre Bible, or Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary.  The medieval system went further than this though, often weaving a web of meaning from verses that used of the same word.  Online tools like the cross-referencing provided by the Blue letter Bible can help you recreate this approach if you choose!

And in terms of Patristic and other commentaries, there are a number of good sources: the Catena Aurea compiled by St Thomas Aquinas and translated by Blessed Cardinal Newman is an excellent starting point for example.

Meditation and prayer

The meditation stage should flow naturally from our study of the text: through it we consider the meaning of the events or words for us in particular and ask for God's help in applying it to our lives.

Contemplation and work

Scripture should become for us a mirror, in which we can hold up our lives and be judged against its measure.  Through contemplation, we can see what we need to change in the future, and then work on implementing the necessary change in our lives.

**Cross-posted from Saints Will Arise Blog