Monastic Practices Sacred Reading

Monastic Practices

Sacred Reading (known by many as Lectio Divina)

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I have to begin this section by sharing a secret.  I am a horrible reader.  Since my time in grade school I have struggled to be the avid reader that so many introverts and intellectuals take for granted.  I am neither of them.  So for me, Sacred Reading is something that I have learned to do after many years of practice but also of adapting this task to my own ability and stamina.  I do not read long and large books in short periods of time.  Many times I do not finish a book completely.  I generally read books about themes that interest me, and not much else.  But, I read, even if it is a little bit every day.  It may be the small section of scripture set aside for the Daily Vigil office.  It may be listening to “pray as you go”, that wonderful daily reflection on line of the Irish Jesuits that lasts only 10 minutes of which 5 minutes are music and 5 minutes are scripture and reflection.  Whatever it is, Reading has become an integral part of my daily practice, even if it may be short and brief with time to interact with the text and to go deeper. 

Our author early on tells us that “the monastic life is supported by a three fold stool or base, which is sacred reading, manual work, and liturgical prayer.  Manual work is the physical and engaging work of the work week.  The monks at the Jerusalem Community work not full time but half time in some kind of paying job.  This is done for a reason, to help support the expenses of the Monastery, and also to be in constant dialogue and engagement with the ‘city” or the “world” in which we live.  Liturgical Prayer is what is called “fixed time” of prayer which every monk experiences differently depending upon their tradition or community.  (we will discuss this in the next chapter). 

Sacred Reading is just that, setting time aside to read the sacred text, beginning but not exclusively with the Sacred Scriptures of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (Old and New testament).  Our author tells us, “sacred reading is a listening and responding to God’s word wherever it may be heard.”  It is an engagement with the written Word, and even at times with the Word as it is heard and the Word as it is experienced from a human level.  This gives us plenty of space to experience the “Word”.  The “Word” can be written, visual, auditory, and even experiential.  Normally though when we speak of Sacred Reading, it begins at least with the word of the book.  Fortunately for me at least the length is not the matter, but the substance and the depth that one eventually has with the written word.  Even a short phrase can be sufficient to get us thinking about ourselves, the world in which we live and the life that we are living at this time, and this place.

Creating a space for the Word

In order to encounter the Word in all of it’s richness and possibility we are challenged to do the same a farmer does as he or she prepares the ground to plant a seed that with grow and bear fruit.  We need to prepare the ground properly before the seed (the word) can be planted and allowed to grow.  We do this by finding the right place, time, attitude, and sacred disposition.  This is what our author calls  (time, place, being at peace, and prayer).  In other words all of these factors are involved in Sacred Reading. 

We need to create a space for the Word if we are going to engage with it properly.  Perhaps a sacred corner of our house, the right time of the day when we can engage openly and honestly with the text, having the right disposition or peaceful heart in order to receive the word, taste it, ingest it, devour it.  Finally to let the word bring us into the Sacred presence of God.  To let the word speak to our heart, our soul, our mind. This is what our author calls “seeking, finding, knocking, having the door opened.” 

One of the things I learned about Reading from a Monastic perspective is the idea of “reading out loud”.  This is something that we think only children learning to read must do.  But when it comes to monastic practices, reading a text out loud even when you are alone is the norm not the exception when it comes to Sacred Reading.  I have found that when I read a text out loud it forces me to both hear it and see it.  I am now using three of my faculties in order to engage with the word, eyes, mouth, and ears.  Three of my great “scepters” of communication. 

In the middle ages it was normal for people to read aloud to themselves.  Even today in most monasteries all of the prayers are read aloud either by everyone or in call and response form.  Many of them are also sung. 

I will never forget an experience of this that I had with a group of German Lutheran lay-leaders who were learning to lead and preach the Sunday service in their churches because of the lack of pastors in Latin America.  The leader of the workshop was a teacher for actors in Germany.  One afternoon we stood around a piano and opened the lid from the grand piano.  Then each one of the participants was to read aloud slowly and deliberately into the chords of the piano, chanting it in a monotone voice.  I don’t even remember the text of the Gospel that was being used for the day.  But what I do remember was that as one of the participants was doing this exercise slowly and deliberately chanting each and every word of the text, tears began to run down her cheeks, and so all of us began also to cry at the intense power of the written and sound Word, as it was piercing (almost literally) our ears and our souls at the same time. 

Our author reminds us, “The lived experience of sacred reading is something quite simple.  There is the text, the reader, and the hovering Spirit of God.  When these elements come together, almost anything may happen.” 

Sacred reading requires on our behalf only 49% of the effort.  When we take that risk, the other 51% of the effort is taken over by God.  We are asked to prepare the ground, to open the space, to allow the seed to be planted.  The with the sacred sunshine, water, and air, our plant suddenly and on it’s own begins to take on it’s own life and purpose.  This is what Sacred Reading is about. 

This kind of reading of course is only the background for the Real reading that is to take place daily in our lives.  Our author tells us that, “the person who is a master at sacred reading can look back at the course of his or her own life and read there the record of God’s wise and loving activity.  ‘here unfolds the deepest meaning of ‘lectio’ as a reading, the reading of one’s own life-history as ongoing dialogue of grace and conversion of life towards the Mystery of God.” 

Studying what St Bernard calls the “book of our own experience”, is the final end of Sacred Reading. We read in order to find ourselves in the written text.  Our story, our lives, our suffering and our longings, our successes and failures.  We find ourselves in that sacred text and it acts like a mirror showing us and us alone our true selves. 

Our author tells us,  “When I have learned to read God’s Word in the book of my everyday life, then I am aware of a continuity and wholeness integrating all that I do in the course of the day.”   

In conclusion

Literacy is pretty much universal at least in many technically advanced countries.  How many people have learned to read who were our ancestors by only having one book?  This book was of course the Bible.  Imagine that this were your first and only source of education for reading.  If every student had this as their first text.  Would the world be any different?  (there are many sides to that argument).  But the idea is that God is speaking, and has always tried to speak to us.  On a very personal and very individual level this has been the case.  One way God speaks most powerfully is in the written word when we allow it to move gently from the head into the heart and then to the soul.  This is what our author calls the ladder of the 12th century monk “Guigo”.  The relationship with our Creator is one that is active and constantly moving like going up and down on a ladder.  We come closer, we then go farther away.  We are in constant motion.  The classic theologians called this “eminence” and “immanence”.  The  Ancient Aztecs called this the God who is close, and the God who is far away.  (who was only one God and the same) 

Again, it is not the means but the ends of our spiritual practice of Sacred Reading that we are concerned with.  Our author reminds us that,  “Sacred Reading spreads out into daily life as a power of ongoing reformation and conversion and enabling the reader to recognize and respond to the Word of God spoken at diverse times and circumstances.” *

We must daily remind ourselves, the words of Jesus, “We do not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God”. 

Pax Benedictina+

*In this year of 500 years of the Reformation and the life of Martin Luther, we are starkly reminded of the power of the Word to change lives, institutions, political structures, and world views.  This is why the Historical Museum in Berlin called its exhibition on the 500 years of the reformation “The Luther Effect”. 

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