Lectio divina: more on reading

In the previous posts in this series I've suggested that the first stage of lectio divina, reading the text, needs to be a very active process, ideally starting by puzzling out the Latin of the text.  In this post I want to say a little more about what the reading stage can usefully involve, including a look at processes such as listening to it and memorization.

 Reading can mean hearing

The techniques of lectio divina originally grew out of an oral culture.

Books were enormously expensive, something to be shared amongst several people, and literacy was often in short supply. Accordingly, as the fourteenth century Cloud of Unknowing puts it:

“All is one in manner, reading and hearing: clerks reading on books, and lewd men reading on clerks when they hear them preach the word of God.”

Moreover, even when people were literate, they remained immersed in a culture that was primarily oral. St Benedict in his Rule, for example, prescribes 2-3 hours a day of individual sacred 'reading'. But he also prescribed reading out loud at meals and in the evening before Compline. And all on top of the several hours in choir for Mass and Divine Office.

Accordingly, after you have read the text through once for yourself, try listening to it read aloud if you can.  You can find recordings of the vulgate (albeit not in an ecclesial Latin accent) here.

Reading meant memorization

A lot of guides to lectio divina stress the importance of trying to memorise the text under consideration.  The consequence of the oral culture of an earlier era is that memorization of texts was the norm.  Books were laid out in a way to aid memorization, and a large part of the aim of set times for lectio divina was to supply the person with a text to chew over during the rest of the day - one of the images used are of a cow chewing her cud.

I do think that is worth trying if you can, but, alas, most of us simply don't have the prodigiously well-trained memories that an oral culture relied on.  Accordingly, I think we need to adapt our efforts to our times.

Fortunately for us though, today text is easily accessible and portable: forget your text for the day and you can look it up on your ipad or, if you are old-fashioned, your pocket sized gospel book.

Associated texts

The other key consequence of the oral culture of St Benedict's era was that a monk of likely had a large store of Scripture already memorized, so when he focused on the text of the day, he was able to draw on many other texts that were related to it.

If he was reading the New Testament, for example, the reader would recognise the citations from the psalms, and if he was reading the psalms he would recognise how a particular line was interpreted by the Gospels.

Our lack of a developed memory, not to mention the general lack of familiarity with the Scriptures of most Catholics in our time, make it a lot harder for us to this: if Christ appear to us, as he did to that group of travellers on the road to Emmaus, or to the group of assembled apostles (Luke 24), and explained all of the references to him in the Old Testament, would we recognise the texts he would cite from the law, the prophets and the psalms as readily as those first hearers did?  Most of us, I think, would struggle.

Similarly, when related texts are placed before us, for example in the Divine Office, will we automatically realise the connections?  I think the answer is generally not, but again we can use tools such as books or online lists of cross-references to Scripture to compensate for our lack of memory.

A nice example of these sort of subtle connections relates to Monday at Lauds in the Benedictine form of the Divine Office.  St Benedict assigns two variable psalms to the hour, Psalms 5 and 35.  He may have inherited Psalm 5 from the older Roman Office of his time, but why Psalm 35?  One possibility is that he is implicitly pointing us to St Paul's interpretation of the two psalms which he links together in Romans 3:

"Of what use is it, then, to be a Jew?... Well then, has either side the advantage? In no way. Jews and Gentiles, as we have before alleged, are alike convicted of sin.10 Thus, it is written, There is not an innocent man among them, no, not one. 11 There is nobody who reflects, and searches for God; 12 all alike are on the wrong course, all are wasted lives; not one of them acts honourably, no, not one. 13 Their mouths are gaping tombs, they use their tongues to flatter. Under their lips the venom of asps is hidden.[Ps 5] 14 Their talk overflows with curses and calumny.15 They run hot-foot to shed blood; 16 havoc and ruin follow in their path;17 the way of peace is unknown to them. 18 They do not keep the fear of God before their eyes.[Ps 35] 19 So the law says, and we know that the words of the law are meant for the law’s own subjects; it is determined that no one shall have anything to say for himself, that the whole world shall own itself liable to God’s judgements. 20 No human creature can become acceptable in his sight by observing the law; what the law does is to give us the full consciousness of sin."

This passage also, of course, draws on several others psalms, including Psalms 49, 9 and 138.  It is an important reminder that the New Testament interprets the Old, and the Old needs to be read in the light of the New.  It should also remind us that the New Testament cannot be properly understood in isolation, but depends on the foreshadowing and preparation of the events and teaching set out in the Old.  Our reading must encompass this.

And for the next part of the series, continue on here.


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