Saturday, November 07, 2009

Lectio Divina

From Psalter and prayers ('The Eadui Psalter', 'The Arundel Psalter`)
England, S. E. (Canterbury, Christ Church)
2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century
The British Library, London

First: Arundel 155 f. 7 November
Calendar page for November, with coloured initials and words in colour
Written at the Benedictine cathedral priory of Christ Church, Canterbury by the monk Eadui Basan after 1011 and probably before 1023: the calendar includes the martyrdom of archbishop Aelfheah (Aelphege) (d. April 1012), but not his translation in 1023); additional obits of members of the community were added to the calendar in successive centuries; erased Christ Church ownership inscription(?) (f. ii verso).

Second: An Easter table, with tinted drawing depicting Pachomius receiving the tables from an angel, with the words on the scroll handed to the saint by the angel the same as those written immediately below. This pair of arches is one of a series containing texts related to the calculation of the date of Easter, which were supposed to have been given to Pachomius (died c. 346) by an angel.

Third: Illuminated initial 'Q'(uid) at the beginning of Psalm 51, with the Evangelist symbols of the ox of Luke and the eagle of John in roundels in the border

Fourth: Full-page miniature of seated Benedict holding an abbot's staff in his right hand and an open book in his left, with a kneeling monk, possibly the scribe/artist Eadui Basan at his feet.

Fifth: Detail of miniature of Benedict.

Sixth: Detail of drawing of monks

"Another textual activity which characterized monastic life was the so-called lectio divina. In medieval monasteries a prescribed period of time was set aside each day for the careful reading of devotional literature.

The lectio frequently involved the contemplation of scripture or the fathers (both Greek and Latin) but could also include the study of sermons, epistolary literature, theological treatises, Christian poetry, hagiography, and even history.31

This activity had been prescribed by Saint Benedict, but was scaled down over the years as monasteries built up their liturgical observances. The Cistercians, whose liturgical reforms drastically curtailed the amount of time monks and nuns spent in choir, reinstated the careful rumination on religious texts to a position of importance in devotional life.

It should be recalled that “reading” in the Middle Ages was seldom an exclusively visual experience. When one read a text, one also pronounced the words and listened to what they said. In this way the text literally spoke to the reader.32

This technique was utilized partly because individuals did not read merely for pure enjoyment, they wanted to remember what the text contained. As books were expensive to produce and thus not widely available, the memorization of important texts was a crucial element to learning.33

The pronunciation of the words of the text in order to remember them was an important element in lectio divina. The sacred reading as practiced by medieval monks and nuns, however, went one step further. Sanctified words were not internalized to facilitate knowledge itself, but to be reminders to the monastic of how best to orient him/herself to life.

Lectio divina was meditative activity which made one open to the moral teachings and spiritual precepts of the texts.34 In this activity, the monastic listened to the authors of the texts speaking directly to him/her, exhorting him/her to continue on the hard road to God.

Reading aloud was not confined to the lectio, but was continued at meal times when the Benedictine rule was recited. The rule was, like the texts encountered in sacred reading and the liturgy itself, internalized through repetition. This was yet another way in which the monastic was buoyed up in the life of devotion. The rule was not merely an account of how the community should be organized, it was a description of the ideal Cistercian monastery.

The monk or nun could thus imagine his/her own community to be the embodiment, even the fulfillment of the rule.35

This knowledge created a confidence that one should continue on one’s path, striving to internalize the principles of the rule and to be worthy of it.

Cistercian life was focused around repeated worshipful interactions of monks and nuns with a set of core texts. Such textual meditations, using the spoken word or musical performance as a vehicle for concentration, were keys to spiritual fulfillment for those in the Cistercian community. They curbed carnal appetites and focused the individual’s attention on God.

Moreover, the texts utilized in these exercises were intertwined, forming a web of connections which reinforced the notion that the monastic calling was indeed the truest way to Christ. Liturgical literature, the texts of the lectio, and Benedict’s rule were all mutually interpenetrating. They all pointed ultimately to the living word of Scripture, the answer to all the dilemmas of both personal and communal life.

31See Anne Lawrence, “English Cistercian Manuscripts of the Twelfth Century,” in Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles, ed. Christopher Norton and David Park (Cambridge 1986) 284–298
32Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, trans. Catharine Misrahi (New York 1961) 19.
33The proliferation of tracts on techniques to maximize retention attests to the importance of this forgotten art throughout the medieval period. See Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory (Cambridge 1990).
34 A revealing though modern description of the spirituality of the Cistercian lectio can be found in Andre Louf, The Cistercian Way, trans. Nivard Kinsella (Kalamazoo 1983) 74–79.
35 M. B. Pranger, Bernard of Clairvaux and the Shape of Monastic Thought: Broken Dreams (Leiden 1994) 88–89.

From Noell, Brian. (1999). Marian Lyric in the Cistercian Monastery during the High Middle Ages. "Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 30(1), .

The importance of proper lectio divina has been stressed repeatedly by the present Pope. Here are a number of passages from his homilies and addresses which indicate the importance which he attaches to the subject:

"With the Eucharistic celebration in St Peter's Basilica this morning, the 12th General Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on "The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church" came to a conclusion ...

One aspect very deeply reflected upon was the relationship between the Word and words, that is, between the Divine Word and the Scriptures that express it. As the Second Vatican Council teaches in the Constitution Dei Verbum (n. 12), a good biblical exegesis demands both the historical-critical and theological methods since Sacred Scripture is the Word of God in human words. This means that every text must be read and interpreted keeping in mind the unity of the whole of Scripture, the living tradition of the Church and the light of the faith. If it is true that the Bible is also a literary work even the great codex of universal culture it is also true that it should not be stripped of the divine element but must be read in the same Spirit in which it was composed. Scientific exegesis and lectio divina are therefore both necessary and complementary in order to seek, through the literal meaning, the spiritual meaning that God wants to communicate to us today."

Pope Benedict XVI at the Angelus in St Peter's Square on Sunday, 26 October 2008

"I set aside - to take them up today - two aspects of Origenian doctrine which I consider among the most important and timely: I intend to speak of his teachings on prayer and the Church.

In fact, Origen - author of an important and ever timely treatise On Prayer - constantly interweaves his exegetical and theological writings with experiences and suggestions connected with prayer.

Notwithstanding all the theological richness of his thought, his is never a purely academic approach; it is always founded on the experience of prayer, of contact with God. Indeed, to his mind, knowledge of the Scriptures requires prayer and intimacy with Christ even more than study.

He was convinced that the best way to become acquainted with God is through love, and that there is no authentic scientia Christi without falling in love with him.

In his Letter to Gregory, Origen recommends: "Study first of all the lectio of the divine Scriptures. Study them, I say. For we need to study the divine writings deeply... and while you study these divine works with a believing and God-pleasing intention, knock at that which is closed in them and it shall be opened to you by the porter, of whom Jesus says, "To him the gatekeeper opens'.

"While you attend to this lectio divina, seek aright and with unwavering faith in God the hidden sense which is present in most passages of the divine Scriptures. And do not be content with knocking and seeking, for what is absolutely necessary for understanding divine things is oratio, and in urging us to this the Saviour says not only "knock and it will be opened to you', and "seek and you will find', but also "ask and it will be given you'" (Ep. Gr. 4).

The "primordial role" played by Origen in the history of lectio divina instantly flashes before one's eyes. Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who learned from Origen's works to interpret the Scriptures, later introduced them into the West to hand them on to Augustine and to the monastic tradition that followed.

As we have already said, according to Origen the highest degree of knowledge of God stems from love. Therefore, this also applies for human beings: only if there is love, if hearts are opened, can one person truly know the other.

Origen based his demonstration of this on a meaning that is sometimes attributed to the Hebrew verb to know, that is, when it is used to express the human act of love: "Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived" (Gn 4: 1).

This suggests that union in love procures the most authentic knowledge. Just as the man and the woman are "two in one flesh", so God and the believer become "two in one spirit".

The prayer of the Alexandrian thus attained the loftiest levels of mysticism, as is attested to by his Homilies on the Song of Songs. A passage is presented in which Origen confessed: "I have often felt - God is my witness - that the Bridegroom came to me in the most exalted way. Then he suddenly left, and I was unable to find what I was seeking. Once again, I am taken by the desire for his coming and sometimes he returns, and when he has appeared to me, when I hold him with my hands, once again he flees from me, and when he has vanished I start again to seek him..." (Hom. in Cant. 1, 7).

I remember what my Venerable Predecessor wrote as an authentic witness in Novo Millennio Ineunte, where he showed the faithful "how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit's touch, resting filially within the Father's heart".

"It is", John Paul II continues, "a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications.... But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by mystics as "nuptial union'" (n. 33). " "

Pope Benedict XVI at General Audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday, 2 May 2007

"The Church does not live for herself but for the Gospel, and it is always in the Gospel that she finds the direction for her journey.

The conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum emphasized appreciation for the Word of God, which developed into a profound renewal for the life of the Ecclesial Community, especially in preaching, catechesis, theology, spirituality and ecumenical relations. Indeed, it is the Word of God which guides believers, through the action of the Holy Spirit, towards all truth (cf. Jn 16: 13).

Among the many fruits of this biblical springtime I would like to mention the spread of the ancient practice of Lectio divina or "spiritual reading" of Sacred Scripture. It consists in pouring over a biblical text for some time, reading it and rereading it, as it were, "ruminating" on it as the Fathers say and squeezing from it, so to speak, all its "juice", so that it may nourish meditation and contemplation and, like water, succeed in irrigating life itself.

One condition for Lectio divina is that the mind and heart be illumined by the Holy Spirit, that is, by the same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures, and that they be approached with an attitude of "reverential hearing".

This attitude was typical of Mary Most Holy, as the icon of the Annunciation symbolically portrays: the Virgin receives the heavenly Messenger while she is intent on meditating upon the Sacred Scriptures, usually shown by a book that Mary holds in her hand, on her lap or on a lectern.

This is also the image of the Church which the Council itself offered in the Constitution Dei Verbum: "Hearing the Word of God with reverence..." (n. 1). " "

Pope Benedict XVI at the Angelus in St Peter's Square on Sunday, 6 November 2005


  1. Thank you. The Paulist Press in March 2010 is scheduled to publish a Catholic Prayer Bible -- Lectio Divina Edition -- no doubt because more people are returning to this old monastic practice.