Lectio Divina reconsidered and freshly applied (thanks to the Reverend Deacon Fran Hlavacek)
It is easy to become complacent, or even worse, “smug” and “comfortable” with things which we decided that we know well. Even worse, we might make the mistake of thinking that we have mastered them. There is a reason that professionals like doctor and lawyers are said to “practice” their profession. It is a subtle reminder that there is always room to grow and to become better at what one does.
In the novitiate at Saint Vincent Archabbey, I was introduced to the concept—and to the practice of Lectio Divina. This traditional Benedictine spiritual practice (we were taught) has three stages: lectio, meditatio, and contemplatio.
Lectio, the beginning stage begins with choosing a very short passage. That was the suggestion which Saint Benedict made in the Holy Rule—and I quickly found it to be a wise one. While he seems to have envisioned the passage as one which came from the Sacred Scriptures, I learned that a practice which some monks had used through the centuries was to choose a small excerpt from the daily reading of the Holy Rule (in earlier times, this chapter was read aloud to the monks in a special room designed for that purpose called the “Chapter Room.” It also served as the space for the community meetings—and so the assembly of the community was called the “monastic chapter.”). And so, for the rest of the novitiate and at times in the juniorate I would practice Lectio with a reading from the Holy Rule as well as readings from Scripture. It is interesting that this came to serve as a tool of discernment for me at various times—when at a moment of confusion or crisis I would try to decide which choice to make.
The interesting thing about lectio, or this initial stage, though, is that one was asked to read the passage aloud. In that way, it was thought, one would “consume the word” both visually and orally.
Meditatio, the second stage used a term which was not especially helpful to me! I was not sure then, and remain unsure even now what “meditation” was. I suppose that it might be something about which Merton wrote in greater detail, but I was confused by the word because I had encountered so many different (and conflicting) ideas about it.
Having come from a fundamentalist evangelical background, I suspect that I was unduly suspicious of the concept. I remember hearing at least one sermon which warned us to beware of “Satanic” practices which were practiced by “Eastern Religions.” While that was long in the past by the time I came to Saint Vincent, I was still impacted by the prejudice, no doubt.
I continued to consult monastic sources which discussed Lectio, and in one of the scholarly tomes I discovered some author (I do not remember which it was) who said that an alternative word which had been suggested was ruminatio. Ruminatio sounded far less “mystical” and far more practical to me.
The very clever analogy which the author used was that of a cow “chewing its cud.” What a fascinating idea! In lectio, we consume the passage and in ruminatio we chew it and chew it and chew it until we have extracted every vitamin and mineral which it possessed. We then allow it to break into essential parts in our interior until we begin to absorb into our being all the rich treasures which it had to offer.
Now here is the interesting idea. The first two stages involve our action. We pick the passage, we read it aloud, we hear it proclaimed. We take it in. We slowly, carefully, and methodically chew it and begin to digest it. But then something wonderful happens. As we begin to absorb it and to be finally fed by it, the process passes beyond our control or our ability to influence.
Where the nutrients go into our system, how they impact our muscles, bones, and cartilage is not something that we control. That is something which God has organized for us. Had we not done the work thus far, we would not be fed. And yet, the “magic” of the chemical and organic process is in God’s hand.
It is like those beautiful barakah prayers at the offertory prayers during the Liturgy of the Eucharist which celebrate the collaboration between the human and divine. “Blessed are you, Lord our God for this bread and for this wine which we offer; fruit of the earth and the work of human hands. They will become for us the bread of life and the cup of salvation.”
Contemplatio, the third stage, or contemplation. After we have finished our work, we wait in silence, like that “Man of God,” the Prophet Elijah. We turn our efforts and the whole process over to God. Just as we can not control what happens when the crushed grapes begin fermentation, or what happens when the kneaded dough is placed in the oven—we can not control what happens in this stage.
This stage is not about us at all. We rest. It is a Sabbath for us. And in quiet, peace, and trust, we wait for the movement of God—for the still small voice. Above all, we are called to listen! It is no mistake that the first word in the Holy Rule is “listen.”
Perhaps the most important virtue at this stage is that of patience. God moves as God wills, how God wills, and at what time God wills. At times there are moments of insight, and even revelation. At times, it seems that nothing happens. Though, experience has taught me that insight often comes later in the day—or at some later time. For many, the take-away, is to hear a word. What word is God giving me in this time of prayer? What does that word mean to me?
This past Sunday at the Forum at my home parish of Trinity in Easton, the Reverend Deacon Fran Hlavacek led us through a new variety of Lectio. I was both delighted and fascinated by her take on the practice.
It must be said that Deacon Fran is currently a Fordham Ram. While she has not been a student at the Jesuit University of the City of New York for a long time, I began to wonder if she has “Jesuitical” leanings or tendencies (I hope that she does!). I will certainly watch going forward to see how they manifest.
The life-professed Jesuits may make a fourth vow—to accept any mission which the Pope may ask them to undertake. And the method which Deacon Fran introduced to us had a fourth step—how do I use or apply this going forward?
Although I do not honestly think that this addition to the traditional method is derived exclusively from Jesuit spirituality, I believe that one of the goals of the Spiritual Exercises is to discern God’s call in one’s life. That provides a very practical application for Lectio which I had not previously considered in this focused way. In other words, I now see a very practical way in which Lectio may be applied as a tool for discernment—both individual and collective.
One of the joys of the Forum last Sunday, was that as a gathered community we engaged in Lectio together. In my own personal practice over many years, it had been a solitary discipline. I did have a very few experiences of Centering Prayer in which it was used in a communal fashion. But, for the most part, it was just me. Certainly, in the monastic experience, I do not recall the intentional use of Lectio as a communal practice.
In the Episcopal Church, though, we are much more accustomed to thinking of group discernment—though primarily, as I have seen it, in the context of vocational discernment. Suddenly, I am able to conceptualize other interesting ways in which this practice could be applied. I pray that I will be given the opportunity to pursue that.
I conclude by thanking Deacon Fran for opening the door to this new idea. Perhaps it is possible to teach an “old monastic” a new application for Benedictine Spirituality after all!