A chapter taken from The Forgotten Father:
The Legacy and Orthodoxy of St. Benedict of Nursia
In his brief Monastic Rule, St. Benedict of Nursia gave to the Church a rich treasure of guidance for the Christian life. While Benedict composed his Rule for the common life of monks, it is also widely accepted that its practices and principles can be adapted to the life of the laity living in the world as well. There is, within the Rule, what we might call various “work” that the monk engages in throughout his day which is intended to bring the remembrance of God into mundane moments and activities.
Among this monastic “work” of St. Benedict, which draws the hearts and minds of men to God, is the great work of Lectio Divina. Lectio is the practice of Sacred Reading, during a special daily time, set aside for monastics to be in silence with the Holy Scriptures. This particular “work” is one for which the Benedictine Way is especially well-known, as it has worked its way into popular spirituality, especially in the modern Roman Catholic Church. Lectio is “a holistic way of prayer which disposes, opens and ‘in-forms’ us for the gift of contemplation God waits to give, by leading us to a meeting place with him in our deepest center, his life-giving dwelling place.”1
Along with manual labor, the work of Lectio Divina is prescribed by St. Benedict in various places in his Rule; and as with manual labor, the goal of this work is to tame the mind and heart, keeping them from wandering into the passions. St. Benedict says, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore, the brothers should be occupied at certain times in manual labor, and at certain other hours in sacred reading.”2 Thus we see that the practice of Lectio is inextricably linked to manual labor, and to Opus Dei,3 the liturgical life of the Church, both in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and in the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office). The intent of all three practices of Lectio, Labor, and Opus Dei is, of course, to unite the whole person, in all times and activities of the day, to God, not separating man from God, or compartmentalizing God in man’s life. Rather, the intent is to bring the presence and remembrance of God into every moment and facet of men’s lives, no matter how mundane.
Though its beginnings are among the great monastic leaders, the practice of Lectio is not, nor has it ever been, limited to a strictly monastic practice. We can see the influence of Lectio even in the modern Protestant/Evangelical phenomenon of “quiet time” — time, on a daily basis, which is set aside by the individual to sit in silence with the Scriptures, and to pray. Many books have been published under the category of “daily devotionals,” and all of these, whether the author is aware of it or not, are influenced by the practice of Lectio, which is deeply ingrained within the Western Christian consciousness.
Perhaps the greatest influence of the daily practice of Lectio in the “modern” context comes from within the Anglican Tradition, or more specifically, the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in creating the Prayer Book, was heavily influenced by the Benedictine Monastic Diurnal (Book of the Liturgical Hours of the Day). He utilized the Monastic hours to fashion the Morning and Evening Prayer,4 with specific sections set aside for readings from the Lectionary.5 Often, these readings are quite short, often one verse. The idea is to encourage the practice of Lectio within the Liturgical setting.
It can easily be seen and argued that these liturgical hours included in the Prayer Book reflect a latent inclination toward the notion of the Sanctification of Time that was deeply embedded in Britain due to the Benedictine presence there. Further, the Benedictine Way was an ingrained reality in the Office of the Archbishopric of Canterbury itself. Indeed, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Augustine of Canterbury, was a monastic in the Benedictine tradition, and many of his successors would wear the black Habit as well. Thus, the influence of Benedictine thought and practice, especially that of Lectio, on the Book of Common Prayer should not come as a surprise.
Lectio holds a place that is near the very heart of St. Benedict’s Rule, and he devotes a great deal of time to discussing it. Lectio Divina, however, is not a strictly Benedictine practice, in terms of its origin. Lectio, one could argue, has its genesis in the writings of the third century teacher Origen, who spoke of “Scripture as Sacrament.” Origen believed that an encounter with the Scriptures was an encounter with Christ Himself, for Christ dwelt in the Scriptures. Thus, by spending time with the Holy Scriptures, be they from the Torah, the Prophets, the historical books, the Epistles, or the Gospels themselves, Christ is present. So much more than simple reading, Lectio is “a whole process or way of spirituality – a journey into God, deep into the inner life of the Trinity.”6
From this view of and approach to the Scriptures, one in which the Scriptures are prayed and not studied, per se, we can see that the aim of Lectio is not knowledge, from an academic perspective, but rather knowledge of an intimate nature — knowledge of a Person. St. Benedict is not concerned with an academic analysis of the Scriptures; he is rather, interested in coming to know and experience the Person of Jesus Christ. Thus, for the Benedictine, the Holy Scriptures are not primarily informative, but rather, transformative. As St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says, a Monk (indeed a Christian) should “occupy himself with all possible care and attention with the reading of the Holy Gospel. He should make such a study of the Gospel that it may always be present in his memory, and at every moral step he takes, for every act, for every thought, he may always have ready in his memory the teaching of the Gospel.”7
Thus, in this deeply rooted practice of Lectio Divina, we do not grasp the language, and hear the poetry, just for our enjoyment. Rather, we find in it God Himself. This is the heart of the Christian life, the Monastic vocation, Benedictine Spirituality, and the practice of Lectio itself: to seek God (Quaerere Deum). In our time of Lectio, “we are hoping to hear God’s voice and do God’s will, but we are operating in search mode. We have not yet attained the goal of our ambition, and so our reading is fundamentally an expression of our desire for God… Authentic reading, therefore, has the character of dissatisfaction; we always want to go further and deeper.”8 As can been seen plainly from these descriptions, this is not a mere academic exercise.
An academic streak would run through the Benedictine Order in later years, but this was not the case from the beginning. Benedict was not opposed to the pursuit of knowledge as an exercise; however, within the basic Benedictine framework, we see that this is a lesser exercise. Benedict is concerned most of all with the call of the Lord, and the response of the disciple to it. In the Prologue to the Rule, he proclaims to us:
“What can be sweeter to us, dear ones, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold, in His loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life… Having given us these assurances, the Lord is waiting every day for us to respond by our deeds to His holy admonitions. And the days of this life are lengthened and a truce granted us for this very reason, that we may amend our evil ways.”9
This call is answered by the self-sacrifice of the monk, in giving himself to the monastery, the brotherhood, the liturgical services, and to the life in the Scriptures. All of these pieces of the Monastic life, each its their own special way, direct the monk toward Christ, into Whose life the monk has, of his freewill, entered. The discipline of Lectio Divina, in its own way, accomplishes this union with Christ in the heart of the monk.
Lectio in Practice
Having established this basis, we will now turn our attention to the actual discipline of Lectio Divina, and how it is practiced. It should be pointed out that in Monasteries which kept the Benedictine Rule, a set daily time was given to Lectio for all the Monks. Individuals could, conceivably, have further time for Lectio in their private time, but it was a required practice for all on a daily basis, and this set time could be as much as three hours a day (RB, readings during Lent).
Lectio Divina is a discipline which encapsulates within it four steps; Lectio, the act of reading; Meditatio, the act of meditation; Oratio, or prayer; and Contemplatio, or contemplation of the prescribed text. None of these practices individually makes up Lectio, as they could be done independently, but rather, all of them done together. Lectio Divina involves a kind of feasting on the Word of God. The four parts are, first, taking a bite (Lectio, the reading); then chewing on it (meditation). Next, one savors the essence of it, lingers over a word, phrase or feeling (prayer) and the word is digested and made part of the person (even their bodies): contemplation.
What must be understood before we begin our discussion of these “steps” of Lectio, is that these are not the kinds of steps that are taken one at a time. Rather, they are like a jigsaw puzzle, that must be pieced together to see the entire picture. Reading without prayer, meditation, or contemplation is an academic exercise or entertainment; prayer without reading is simply prayer, and so on and so forth. So it must be understood that each of these pieces of Lectio Divina must be present, in a manner of speaking, at the same time. In this way, Lectio, properly followed, is a practice that will lead to deeper conversion into Christ. Indeed, it is a major tool on the path to the Benedictine Vow of Conversatio Morum, which we will discuss in a later chapter.
As we have already seen, the first “step” of Lectio Divina is, of course, Lectio, the act of reading itself. This may seem an obvious point; however, we often we don’t think about this in its original context. In the ancient monasteries this reading was done in silence, at first as a group in an oratory, and later alone in a cell, with absolutely no other distractions. The monk is to read the assigned passage[s] with as much exterior and interior silence as can possibly be found. Silence, and lack of distraction, is an important aspect of the study of Scripture, as well as the whole of St. Benedict’s view of the Christian life. Benedict tells us, “Monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times.”10
However, this “silence” does not necessarily mean “quiet.” In practical terms, Lectio was historically communal. This was largely due to the fact that books were so expensive to obtain, and to produce. Lectio would have been done largely as much by listening as by reading. As time went on, and monasteries obtained or created more copied or printed volumes, monastics could read on their own. This reading, in centuries past, while done “silently,” was still done out loud. The practice of reading silently and mentally to one’s self is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Individual reading, in the ancient world, was done aloud, even if at a whisper. The connection between written words and the hearing of them did not stop at the public reading of the text. Rather, it was seen as an essential piece of Lectio that the text be taken from the lips to the ears, from the ears to the mind, and from the mind to the heart. It is rather humorously said that during Lectio time, the Benedictine Monastery becomes a “community of mumblers.”
Further, the practice was not a sedentary practice of sitting and reading. Rather, we can see that Lectio would have, in early times, been performed standing, and the text spoken in a rhythm, and repeated over and over, and the reader would sway back and forth with the reading of the text. This is a practice that is still famously seen in Orthodox Judaism to this day. These factors show us that Lectio is a saturation of the senses with the Holy Scripture, making it a holistic part of life, and not merely a mental exercise.
Though Lectio embodies a whole way and means of reading and taking in the Scriptures, it is not a “stand-alone” reading of Scripture itself in isolation. It is essential that the reading of the Holy Scriptures, whether alone or in a common hearing, such as the Liturgy, must be accompanied by the proper interpretation— i.e., within the mind and Tradition of the Church. Benedict is well aware that going about the study of Scripture on one’s own can lead to error and pride. Rather, interpreting the Scriptures through meditation, prayer, and contemplation requires guidance. This is why Benedict allows for the reading of certain extra-biblical patristic texts during Lectio time, because he says, when the Ethiopian eunuch was asked if he understood the scriptures, he replied, “how can I, unless someone guides me?”11 In particular Benedict allows for, and indeed recommends, the reading of “the Conferences and the Institutes12 and the Lives of the Fathers, as also the Rule of our holy Father Basil,” as these serve as “tools of virtue for right-living and obedient monks.”13
In these practices we can clearly see the connection between Benedict’s model of reading the Scriptures, and the manner in which the Orthodox engage the Scriptures, especially liturgically. In our Orthodox setting, the reading of Sacred Scripture is done by chanting or intoning the text, and is done in such a way that it rings in our ears. In terms of time set aside for individual reading of Holy Scripture, we find a similar practices in the Eastern Fathers, most notably in the monastic ideal of reading daily.
For example, the Cell Rule of Optina states, “one chapter from the Gospels in order, beginning with Matthew and ending with John, and two chapters from the Epistles, beginning with the Acts of the Apostles and ending with the Apocalypse of St. John the Theologian, with the last seven chapters of the Apocalypse read on the same day. Thus you will read through the whole New Testament every 89 days. Read one kathisma from the Psalter each day, beginning with the first and ending with the last.”14
The second of the four parts of Lectio Divina is meditatio, or meditation upon what is read. As already stated above, lectio is spoken of as taking a “bite” of the text; meditatio is, thus, the chewing on what is read. In the first part, lectio, we find that the faculty of the person that is engaged is the intellect. The reading of the texting engages the mind, and its ability to recognize and respond to the basic level of the text. Meditatio, however, takes this a step further. If the faculty engaged in lectio is the intellect, then the faculty engaged by meditatio is that of memory.
The “technical meaning [of meditatio] is taken over by the earliest monastic rules, where it means chiefly repetition, recitation, and memorization. Meditatio takes place in the memorization process while the text is being learned, alone or in groups, and also in psalmnody and the recitation of previously memorized texts, while the monk is at work, away from the written page.”15
Meditation in this regard is not simply thinking deeply about something, but rather committing it to memory so that it fills your thoughts. In this historical Benedictine practice, the basic idea is to fill the mind with the holy words of God, to repeat them to one’s self until they can be recalled at any time, and to apply them. Indeed, recalling the thought from St. Ignatius which we quoted earlier, the Christian “should make such a study of the Gospel that it may always be present in his memory, and at every moral step he takes, for every act, for every thought, he may always have ready in his memory the teaching of the Gospel.”16
In practice, the monk would even recite memorized passages while walking through the monastery, going to services, or while doing work, constantly “turning them over in memory,”17 once again, bringing the remembrance of God into the mundane. We can clearly see here a pattern forming: from plain reading, we memorize and internalize the Scriptures, making them a part of us, and then on repeating them, reciting them afresh, turning the Scriptures themselves into prayer.
St. Tikhon of Zadonsk tells us, “Whenever you read the Gospel, Christ Himself is speaking to you. And while you read, you are praying and talking with him.”18 Oratio, the third step of Lectio Divina, is, quite simply, prayer. However, it is not merely simple prayer. In the context of Lectio Divina, it is prayer that is focused upon and encased within the Scriptures. At this point within the discipline of Lectio, we are, in the words of St. Ignatius, training ourselves to “pray with compunction to the Lord so that He will open your eyes to see the miracles hidden in His law, the Gospel.”19
Beyond simply looking at the surface level of the text, we can see that the “flow” of Benedictine Lectio Divina begins at the simple text, and eventually finds itself in prayer, asking God for insight on the His Holy Word. In many cases, especially in terms of a doxological passage, or a Psalm, it is possible and encouraged to actually pray the passage itself, as we have already seen. In this form of prayer, we allow the Word that we have taken into ourselves, and on which we are pondering, to touch and change our deepest selves.
In terms of a chronological process, we have reached the final point of our journey through Lectio Divina. Our passage has been read, meditated upon, and prayed over; the Benedictine now sits in silence, waiting to hear from the Lord in response to his obedience in
reading, his work in meditation, and his seeking God in prayer. This sitting in silence and waiting upon God is called contemplatio, contemplation. In the Western Church, this contemplation has been called “silent love.”
We can see countless examples of God revealing Himself to His people in silence, rather than in pomp and fanfare. This can be clearly seen in what could be the best example of this in the Holy Scripture itself — the encounter between God and Elijah in 1 Kings Chapter 19:
“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”20
What is essential here is the presence of silence: uninterrupted and intentional. Again we point to Benedict’s words that we quoted already, “monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times.” Why is this? Why must a monastic, and indeed any Christian person, be “zealous for silence?” Simply put, and aside from the practical aspect of calming down the senses in order to properly listen, the pursuit of silence is because “silence is the sacrament of the world to come.”21
Even in the monastery, men and women are tossed upon the stormy sea of life, and long for a calm harbor. In the silence of God, we find the fulfillment of the words of Christ to the wind-tossed sea, “Peace, be still!” Remembering that God speaks out of His own great silence, Benedictine Spirituality calls upon men and women to silence themselves, interiorly and exteriorly, so as to be able to hear the voice of God.
Here, with this Benedictine notion of contemplation, we can begin to see the connection with the Eastern practice of Hesychia, and the Orthodox cultivation of silence. Clearly, the reception of the daily reading of Sacred Scripture is essential to the life of the monastic East or West. Upon the simple reading, we see meditation, indeed memorization of the Scriptures, in which we begin to know them “by heart.” This phrase, to know something “by heart,” is a wonderful way to think of this, because we see that knowing the Scriptures is not a matter of the head, but of the heart.
From the spring of the heart-knowledge of the Scripture flows prayer, repetitious prayer of the Scriptures. Though in the East our form of repetitive prayer generally focuses on the Jesus Prayer, we can still see an undeniable continuity of practice. If indeed Christ is present in the whole of Scripture, then praying Scripture repeatedly is a practice of the presence of Christ. Finally, when we have reached this point of Scripture going into our minds through our eyes, and from our minds to our hearts, and from our hearts to our lips and back to God, we then see that our only response is to sit in silence before God, and allow Him to respond.
Once again, we find not a great distance between our Orthodox Tradition and Benedictine Spirituality, but rather, a closeness that stems from the Orthodox context of St. Benedict himself. As we have seen, Benedict, his Rule and Spirituality, especially as they pertain to the approach to the Holy Scriptures, are thoroughly Orthodox in practice and in nature. In the final analysis I suggest that in Orthodoxy, as much as in historical Benedictine practice, the discipline of Lectio Divina is present; it simply exists within the context of Orthodox hesychastic practice.
1 Thelma Hall, Too Deep for Words, p. 7
2 RB (Rule of St. Benedict) 48:1“Otiositas inimica est amimae, et ideo certis temporibus occupari debent fratres in labore manuum, certis iterum horis in lectione divina.”
3 “The Work of God”
4 In the Prayer Book tradition Morning Prayer is referred to as Matins, and Evening Prayer as Evensong, and both contain readings from the Psalter, Hymns, Intercessory Prayer, and readings from the Old and New Testaments according to the Lectionary. The Book of Common Prayer also contains orders for Compline and Noonday Prayer.
5 Taken from the Sarum Lectionary 6 Pennington, Lectio Divina, p. 57
7 St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena, p. 3 8 Casey, Sacred Reading, p.8
9 RB, Prologue: 19-20, 35-36
10 RB, 42:1
11 Acts. 8:31
12 Benedict is referring here to the Conferences and the Institutes of St. John Cassian. Both of these works, as well as the monastic Rule of St. Basil the Great, were very formative for St. Benedict himself, and he encouraged his disciples to take wisdom from them as well. This, again, shows continuity with the Eastern Monastic tradition, as Basil wrote in the East, and Cassian wrote about his own experiences in the Egyptian Desert.
13 RB, Chap. 73:5,6a
14 Prologue of the Cell Rule of Five Hundred of the Optina Monastery.
15 Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading, p. 97 (emphasis added) 16 St. Ignatius Brianchininov, The Arena, p. 3
17 Rule of Pachomius, Chap. 6
18 St. Tikhon of Zadonsk: in Nadejda Gorodetsky, Saint Tikhon Zadonsky, Inspirer of Dostoevsky, SPCK, London, 1951, p. 119
19 St. Ignatius Brianchininov, The Field: Cultivating Salvation, p. 22
20 I Kings 19:11-12 (RSV)
21 St. Isaac of Nineveh, Letter Three