With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Chewing on the Word of God

Recently, much of my thought has turned toward Scripture. I’ve always had a terribly lackluster competence with Scripture (good Catholic upbringing), and I always silently approved of the separation of powers between theologians and Biblical exegetes. Two separate spheres, I always thought. I will stick with Aquinas, Gregory, Palamas even; but Sirach, Isaiah, Paul? That’s a different language.

Now, I have become exceedingly critical of the modern divide between the disciplines. I think it was my encounter with Medieval thought in general, which I learned was so centered on the sacra pagina. To be a doctor in theology was to lecture on Scripture. How different the times we live in now! If Scripture is the “living water,” the very font of all revealed truth, than I believe my reflection is in much need of a return to the source. I think of Husserl’s maxim: back to the things themselves!

Recently, I have rediscovered the tradition of lectio divina, or “divine reading.” Lectio divina is a method of prayerful reading that has existed in some form since the early Church, with figures like Origen. It was eventually formalized in the Benedictine lifestyle via the Rule of St. Benedict. In the 12th century, divine reading was further formalized by the Carthusian prior Guigo in his Scala Paradisi. In this letter, Guigo shaped the method into its current form, consisting of 4 “rungs:” lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer), and contemplatio (contemplation).

One begins by reading a short passage over and over, “chewing” on the words. Meditation leads us to focus on certain words or phrases that speak to us in a personal way, reveal some aspect or emphasis in the passage. We ruminate on those words and let them open up a depth in the revelation that was not present to us on a first reading. Next, with prayer, one opens a dialogue with God about the passage and about one’s meditations, placing one’s thoughts before Him and asking Him for his guidance. It is a way of turning the words of Scripture into an encounter with God Himself, using the very words of God Himself (think of one appropriating the Psalms as his prayer). Finally, in contemplation, we silently allow our minds to rest in God, as the traditional understanding of the term implies. We allow ourselves to let go of our own words, any interpretations that have a source in our ego and in our selfhood apart from God. We allow God to become the exegete within us, presenting our will and our minds at the disposal of His movements.

In the same monastic tradition, Jean Leclercq has identified a strong connection between prayerful reading and devotion to Christ.[1] Many monks viewed Biblical exegesis as reading “Christ the book,” in which is contained the entire plan of God’s salvation (a plan that Christ lived). Further, they view their practice as a participation in Christ’s exegesis of Himself. There is thus in the tradition of lectio divina a central role of one’s relationship with Christ. One of the Scriptural foundations for such a connection between Christ and prayerful reading is the Book of Revelation, chapter 5.

In Rev 5, God (upon the throne) is in possession of a scroll “in the right hand of God”, likely containing his plan for salvation (as Scripture itself does), sealed with the seven seals: totally hidden from all but God. The angel asks (v.2-3): “’Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to examine it.” John sheds many tears, but the elder reassures him (v.5): “Do not weep,” for Christ, the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David,” has won the right to open the scrolls and examine them. By completing his salvific work and carrying out God’s divine plan, Jesus is able to break the seals. Christ then appears as the Paschal Lamb that “seemed to have been slain” (v.6), who having shed his blood for the salvation of Israel, now returns to the Father’s right hand. The Lamb had “seven horns and seven eyes; these are the seven spirits of God sent out into the whole world” (v.6), which refer to his fullness (7=perfection) of power and knowledge, respectively. The song of the elders in v.9 shows that Christ’s worthiness to receive the scroll derives from his purchasing all peoples and nations for God by his blood.

It seems that the scroll is a fruitful image of Scripture as a whole. If in fact the scroll contains the revelation of God’s saving plan for creation, the seals provide a good image of the hidden nature of God’s plan. In the Pauline Epistles, the Wisdom of God is often interpreted as his plan for salvation, which was His eternal secret, hidden to others and only revealed graciously in the age of the Church (cf. 1 Cor 2:7), to “little children” and not to the wise and learned (Mt 11:25; Lk 10:21). The inner logic of salvation history is only revealed, and the seals broken, when Christ enacts salvation in his Incarnation, death, and Resurrection. The risen Christ is the true exegete of Scripture, and holds this role because of His Passion: itself the culmination of God’s saving plan.

This reinforces the monastic tradition which holds that reading the Bible prayerfully is always an attempt to read Christ, who is in a sense Himself “the book” (or scroll, by his Incarnation); and more specifically, in this tradition, such reading is properly a participation in Christ’s reading of Himself. There is a fitting analog here with St. Thomas’s understanding of true wisdom (sacra doctrina), illumined by faith, as a participation in God’s eternal knowing of Himself. Likewise, lectio divina can be viewed as a participation in Christ’s exegesis of Himself. For as Revelation 5 points out, only Christ has the right to examine the scroll. Only He is in a position (at the right hand of God, with perfect power and knowledge of divine things) to grasp the secrets of God’s plan of salvation, and reveal it to those He chooses.

How then can we rightly interpret Scripture, if only the Lamb can examine it? Quite simply, we must become like the Lamb. Following Christ, being conformed to His image, provides the foundation for truly encountering God in the Scriptural Revelation. If the Lamb’s worthiness to interpret the scroll derives from His sacrifice, then we too must live that sacrifice, or rather, walk the path of the Cross. We must imitate Christ: it is not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20); likewise, it is not I who reads, but Christ who reads in me. This is, as it were, to read Scripture with the “mind of Christ,” which allows us to judge of spiritual things (1 Cor 2:16); as if having the seven horns and seven eyes. Prayer (namely the oratio and contemplatio of divine reading) is a manner of developing in the image of Christ: imitating him, praying as he prayed to the Father and reading as he read.

Thus, there is an essential Christocentric element to the practice of reading Scripture. I find that nearly everything I ponder has an “essential Christocentric element,” so the term “Christocentric” is quickly losing its novelty for me. But I think this is very true. And it is why I think that Scripture was designed to be read in lectio divina. Surely, according to the human authors, the Psalms were meant to be sung at coronations and bridal ceremonies, etc.; the Book of Genesis was likely written as a response to Babylonian creation myths; and the letters of Paul were meant to be read to the respective congregations. And historico-critical methods have aided in this dimension greatly. But from the perspective of Divine inspiration, I have little doubt that “prayed reading” was the intended mode of encountering the Word of God. For by making one’s reading a prayer, one is essentially achieving an encounter with Christ: the encounter that, according to Scripture, is presupposed by proper exegesis. It is entering into the presence of the Risen Christ, opening a dialogue with Him. I think of the road to Emmaus as the paradigm of exegesis: the disciples encounter the risen Lamb who gave them a participation in His reading of Himself: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures”(Lk 24:27). He opens the scriptures for them, setting their “hearts on fire.”

Is that experience of Emmaus not the end of our reading of Scripture? For in that, we see two men who first follow Christ, both literally and as disciples. They encounter Christ, who alone opens the Scriptures for them. And thereby, their hearts are set ablaze. The prayerful aspect of divine reading adds the dimension of encountering Christ: making the words a medium for encountering the Word.

The bottom line: the descending movement of God’s revelation cannot be conceived apart from the ascending movement of our transformation in the image of Christ. Both aspects occur in one event, and it is precisely the failing of strictly academic Biblical reading to view the motions as practically unrelated. This, I believe, underlies much of Pope Benedict’s criticism of some of the modern exegetical currents.[2] He is himself a learned student of modern analytical methods and praises the fruit they bear. But he also stresses the importance of knowing the limits of those methods, and likewise the importance of reading Scripture theologically: illumined by the principles of faith. As the Pope would no doubt argue, and as an exegesis of Revelation 5 reveals, to read it otherwise would be inconsistent with the content of Scripture itself. Lectio divina provides the perfect complement to historico-critical reading, and the Church as a whole can only gain from a rediscovery of this tradition, and even more so by integrating it into the lives of the lay faithful.

If our transformation in Christ is a necessary element in reading Scripture, it would seem to reinforce the traditional notion that the true exegesis of the Gospel rests with the saints (the “little children”) more than with the scholars. For the saints are truly transformed into the image of the Lamb, live his Passion, and bear the mind of Christ.

[1] Leclercq, Jean. “Lectio Divina” in Worship 58, no.3 (May 1984). p. 239-248

[2] For a great example of theological exegesis, as well as a learned critique of some modern forms of Biblical scholarship, see Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.


  • At 7/25/2007 11:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

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  • At 7/27/2007 5:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    An excellent post, and a welcome reflection on the value of spiritual reading.

    Too often scripture is treated as a text book to be used for proof of doctrine rather than as the word from God to us. Lectio Divina is an ancient and very valuable tradition within the Church.

  • At 8/04/2007 7:33 PM, Blogger Soutenus said…

    Wonderful post!

    BTW! I finally got to the bottom of your blog and found, "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." -- J.R.R. Tolkien

    Isn't that the truth!! You had asked if I'd seen it :-)

    The problem is I come to your blog and get TOTALLY into reading the posts and hardly ever get to the bottom!

    See you here (The Well at the World's End) and there (Vox-Nova)!

  • At 8/10/2007 7:23 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Yeah I wondered if people ever spot the quote because of how large the blog is. But I keep it there as a hidden bonus for those who make it there.

    Many people work together to make this blog good and have its own spirit. I plan to get back to work on some entries for it soon as well.

    I'm glad to see people do read it and enjoy it!

  • At 8/10/2007 7:25 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Oh, and Pat -- keep up the commentaries -- they are very good :)


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