When we participate in Lectio Divina we pray and read. We read and pray. The essential idea is that we read the sacred Scriptures not critically or even to gather information, but so that the Word of God might be a bridge into the presence of God.
There are four stages to this devotional discipline which were first outlined in the twelfth century by a Carthusian monk named Guigo.
The first stage is leggere “Reading”. We use a short passage of Scripture and simply read it slowly. It is fine to use the gospel reading from Mass for the day or to use the Scripture passage from the Office of Readings or to work you way slowly through a particular book of the Bible.
Because we are so quick to speed read, some people use techniques to slow them down. Reading the passage out loud our mouthing the words slows your reading. Some people trace the words with their fingers on the page to slow down.
The second stage is meditare “Meditate”. In this stage we take time to ponder the passage explicitly–imagining what the scene was like, asking questions in our mind about the passage and ruminating on its message and how it might connect with our lives and our prayer intentions.
The third stage is pregare “Prayer”. Now we allow our hearts to turn to the Lord in prayer, prompted by the passage. If the passage is challenging to us we ask the Lord for further insights. If it prompts prayer requests or needs in our lives or those for whom we pray, we allow the passage to lead us into prayer.
The final stage is contemplare “Contemplation”. In this stage we open into the silence and stillness of God’s presence. We simply remain with him and he with us. In this way the truths of the Scripture penetrate and enter into the world beyond words. In contemplation the Word moves us beyond the words.
One of the gifts of the Benedictine tradition is the form of prayer called Lectio Divina or Holy Reading. In a world where speed reading is expected, skimming is required and glancing through summaries is de rigueur the monastic tradition is a contradiction.
Lectio diving requires us to slow down and read the text meditatively. There is a technique. The first aspect of the technique is that one is encouraged to follow the words on the page with your finger and either say the words out loud or at least move your lips. “Unless you become like a little child…”
This helps not only to slow you down, but it makes the words more physical. Words, after all, were meant first to be spoken and heard. Only much later were they written down and much, much later did we develop the ability to read silently and quickly.
Here is an explanation of the stages of Lectio Divina from a Carmelite website.
In the 12th century, a Carthusian monk called Guigo, described the stages which he saw as essential to the practice of Lectio Divina. There are various ways of practicing Lectio Divina either individually or in groups but Guigo’s description remains fundamental.
He said that the first stage is lectio (reading) where we read the Word of God, slowly and reflectively so that it sinks into us. Any passage of Scripture can be used for this way of prayer but the passage should not be too long.
The second stage is meditatio (reflection) where we think about the text we have chosen and ruminate upon it so that we take from it what God wants to give us.
The third stage is oratio (response) where we leave our thinking aside and simply let our hearts speak to God. This response is inspired by our reflection on the Word of God.
The final stage of Lectio Divina is contemplatio (rest) where we let go not only of our own ideas, plans and meditations but also of our holy words and thoughts. We simply rest in the Word of God. We listen at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us with a still small voice. As we listen, we are gradually transformed from within.
Obviously this transformation will have a profound effect on the way we actually live and the way we live is the test of the authenticity of our prayer. We must take what we read in the Word of God into our daily lives.
There are three strands to the Benedictine life: prayer, work and reading. Lectio divina reveals how prayer is reading and reading is prayer.
It is also true in the Benedictine life that work is prayer and prayer is work.
But that discussion is for another day.
I was introduced to one of the great treasures of English medieval spirituality (sadly neglected by most Catholics) the Revelations of Divine Love by the anchoress and mystic Julian of Norwich when I took a course in the fourteenth century mystics at Blackfriars in Oxford. Fr Simon Tugwell OP was the brilliantly witty and erudite lecturer.
The Lady Juliana was born about 1342, and when she was thirty years old, she became gravely ill and was expected to die. Then, on the seventh day, the medical crisis passed, and she had a series of fifteen visions, or “showings,” in which she was led to contemplate the Passion of Christ. These brought her great peace and joy. She became an anchoress, living in a small hut near to the church in Norwich, where she devoted the rest of her life to prayer and contemplation of the meaning of her visions. The results of her meditations she wrote in a book called Revelations of Divine Love.
Her book is a tender meditation on God’s eternal and all-embracing love, as expressed to us in the Passion of Christ. She describes seeing God holding a tiny thing in his hand, like a small brown nut, which seemed so fragile and insignificant that she wondered why it did not crumble before her eyes. She understood that the thing was the entire created universe, which is as nothing compared to its Creator, and she was told, “God made it, God loves it, God keeps it.”
She was concerned that sometimes when we are faced wiith a difficult moral decision, it seems that no matter which way we decide, we will have acted from motives that are less then completely pure, so that neither decision is defensible. She finally wrote: “It is enough to be sure of the deed. Our courteous Lord will deign to redeem the motive.”
A matter that greatly troubled her was the fate of those who through no fault of their own had never heard the Gospel. She never received a direct answer to her questions about them, except to be told that whatever God does is done in Love, and therefore “that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Her book is considered to be one of the first books written in English by a woman and her writings were a great influence on T.S.Eliot and she is quoted in Little Gidding–the last of his Four Quartets. If you’re looking for some good spiritual reading try Mother Julian and Eliot’s masterpiece.
The church of St Julian in Norwich was bombed during the second world war. When they began to rebuild it they discovered the foundations of the anchoresses’ cell which had been destroyed at Henry VIII’s revolution. The cell was re-built along with the church and it has become a pilgrimage site for those who have been touched by the life and writings of this obscure, but dear saint.
I’ve written here on the importance of reading and study for the spiritual life. As a consequence, a few readers have asked me for a reading list, and in yesterday’s post I began to compile a few recommendations in the first topic: Jesus and the Gospels. I will continue this effort in the days and weeks ahead.
I also said how difficult it is to compile a really good list because readers are now international and educated at very different levels and from very different cultural backgrounds. However, this morning Divine Providence directed me to the large pile of books to be reviewed and one caught my eye.
The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan is a book by Fr John Hardon SJ. Published by Grotto Press. At $25.00 the price is a bit steep, but it is a nice hardback, and is definitely worth the investment as an excellent research book. It is described on the cover as “An insightful guide to more than 100 major Catholic authors and their works to acquaint you with the ideas and ideals that have sustained the Catholic Church for 2,000 years.”
So you want to dip into the old books? Buy this book. It’s exactly the reading list you asked for. After a short section on the necessary background books–the Bible, the Catechism, the documents of Vatican II–Fr Hardon has arranged the authors chronologically from “Age of Persecution” through “The Patristic Age” to “Medieval Civilization” then “Catholic Reformation” and “The Modern Age.” The writers are not only English, but span European culture as well.
Authors begin with St Ignatius of Antioch in 108 AD and go through to Frank Sheed and Hubert van Zeller. The authors are the great saints, theologians, apologists and thinkers. There are a few poets: Crashaw, Dante, Coventry Patmore, but my grumble is that he has not included more writers of drama, poetry and fiction. I am also always surprised at the lack of Catholic mainstream awareness of the English mystics of the fourteenth century. Where is Juliana of Norwich, Margery Kempe and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing?
Any directory like this is bound to have lacunae for no scholar can know everything. Nevertheless, Fr Hardon comes close. His learning was famously encyclopedic. He gives each author a couple of pages. He describes their lives, their cultural context, their writings and then recommends some further reading. As the writers are listed chronologically you can get a sense of the flow of history and how one leads on to the next and how they influence one another.
This book is a Catholic reading list of a lifetime. I’m going to move it from my “pile of books to be reviewed then re-homed” to “pile of books to review, read, and take home.”
Go here to check out the book. In addition to the great content the book also puts you in touch with one of the most saintly and learned catechists in the modern American church. You can learn more about the life and service of Servant of God John Hardon SJ here.
This is very difficult for varied reasons. Firstly, the number of books and the availability of books is greater than ever. Not only are there a vast number of good books, but different genres appeal to different readers.
In addition to this the audience of a blog is now global. It is virtually impossible to suggest an adequate reading list for people with a vast array of educational backgrounds from most any culture anywhere in the world of different ages and interests.
Therefore, I thought it best to provide reading lists from time to time in different genres, and to ask other readers to make their own suggestions in the comments box.
While I recommend “old books” of course a book is not great because its old and a book is not bad because it’s new, so I’ll be recommending books that “smell old” even if they are newer books, they’re on the list because they speak of timeless wisdom. More lists of other topics will follow.
Let’s start with Jesus: Here is my list of books on the topic of the gospels. It is not exhaustive. The books are in no particular order. Sorry I don’t have the time to provide links. Y’all can look them up.
- Pope Benedict XVI – Jesus of Nazareth
- Pope Benedict XVI – Jesus of Nazareth- Holy Week
- Pope Benedict XVI – Jesus of Nazareth – The Infancy Narratives
- Dr Taylor Marshall – The Crucified Rabbi
- Dr Brant Pitre – Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist
- Dr Brant Pitre – Introduction to the Gospels
- N.T. Wright – The Challenge of Jesus
- Robert Hutchinson – Searching for Jesus
- Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Readers: you’re invited to add your comments, ideas and recommendations on this topic of Jesus and the Gospels to the comments box.
From the beginning the monastic way of spirituality has emphasized the importance of reading and study.
Here’s why: studying the old books safeguards your spirituality from being merely a subjective, emotional and ephemeral experience. Knowledge ground prayer in reality.
The old books are the ones that have stood the test of time. The ones that are built on the rock survive the tempest. The ones built on shifting sand have been washed away.
Studying the old books helps the monk put down roots and this builds stability and peace. By knowing the conflicts and struggles, the trials and traumas of the past and seeing how truth wins we gain confidence and trust in God’s providence.
The old books widen our minds and our souls. We broaden our perspective and deepen our insights. We go beyond our borders and puncture our prejudices and move beyond our comfortable nests.