Thursday, September 20, 2012

Divine Reading as Prayer

In my last two reflections I shared about monasticism. I am reminded about a course I took while doing my 5 years of graduate degree summer studies in liturgy at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The University is associated with the Benedictine monastery of St. John Abbey. Lots of monks there who teach; a large monastery; beautiful setting. (See more HERE)

I took a course slightly outside my field of studies one summer. It was in the monastic studies program and it was about lectio divina. Lectio divina is Latin for "divine reading." (Pronounced: LEK-sea-oh di-VEEN-ah) It refers to the practice developed in monasteries of reading the Scriptures very meditatively. One doesn’t read quickly, as we often do today, to get on with the reading or gain immediately information. One "savors" the reading; if an inspiring thought comes to mind, one pauses a moment to reflect upon it.

In more ancient times, "reading" almost always meant "reading aloud." St. Augustine (born November 13, 354; died August 28, 430) writes about his mentor, St. Ambrose, who had the "unusual" practice (for that time) of reading silently to himself. When one reads the Scripture out loud and slowly, one is hearing the Word, and this can create a meaningful experience with the Scriptures.

Any way, back to that class. We of course studied the practice also of the monasteries in copying different literary and devotional books, including above all else the Scriptures. This was before books were printed. Books were very precious in the ancient world and the Middle Ages. They were usually illustrated, called illuminated manuscripts (Read more HERE), which were quite beautiful. Here is  an example:

This work of copying and illustrating the Scriptures also was a form of meditation. When writing in ink on expensive vellum (pages made of animal hides), mistakes were not easily corrected. So a monk copied slowly and had time to think about each word.

In this class at St. John’s, one assignment was very interesting for me. We had to chose a passage of Scripture and copy it ourselves. But carefully, attempting even some artistry if we could. But the important thing was to copy slowly and with attention to how we and where we would divide each sentence.

As I did this exercise I could begin to see patterns in the text that I might not have seen in a modern printed text (from which I was copying). I have that written exercise somewhere; but I found an example of a Scripture text written in calligraphy which illustrates what this copying could look like:

From this Site
Notice the patterns that get set up in this example from 2 Corinthians 4:8-10. It begins "We" and the end of the first sentence in this example is "but." One might expect the word "but" to begin the second line, but it doesn't. This word "but" will be used a number of times to indicate contrasts in the Christian life. It’s an important word in this Scripture passage, and "hanging" it on the end calls attention to this.

The second line ends with "We are perplexed," then the third line begins with "but": "but we don’t give up." Then follows "We are hunted down," and the next line then again "but": "but God never abandons us." "We get knocked down," then fifth line "but": "but we get up again" and then the pattern changes, adding "and we keep going through suffering." So this line stands out by breaking the pattern, just as the original writer intended. Its an important line for our life: "But we get up again and keep going through suffering."

Notice how the "We" in each line of 2, 3 and 4 are almost one on top of the other. Lines 3, 4 and 5 each begin "but," one atop the other. One senses the patterns that the original author intended in the writing. Look at the last two lines, where line 6 begins "these bodies of ours" and connects this with sharing in "the death of Jesus"; and again there is contrast, "so that the life of Jesus" (death/life) "can be seen in our bodies" (bodies are mentioned twice, beginning and ending these last two sentences.).

Well, I don’t know if you followed all that, but each line, each word in this passage, the way the calligrapher wrote it, invites a very deliberate and thoughtful reading.

The exercise we did for that monastic studies class at St. John’s reminded me at the time of something I had read somewhere, about a practice of Korean Christians (if I remember correctly), who would copy Scripture into a journal book as a way of prayer. This is exactly what the monks were doing century after century. It was work (the monasteries would often sell the copied books), but it was also very much prayer. (The Benedictine motto is "Ora et labora," "Pray and Work.")

I’d invite my readers to try this sometime. Pick a meaningful passage of Scripture and copy it. Pay attention to any patterns of repeated words, etc. You don’t have to be a calligrapher (though I know we have at least one parishioner who is an excellent calligrapher); do this slowly, however, and thoughtfully and it will give you a taste of the practice of lectio divina. For more on Lectio divina, go HERE.