The Rule of Benedict--An Introduction--Week 4

Week Four-- Prayer and Lectio

In the movie, Jonathan mentioned something that Benedictines do when they read the Bible-- he called it lectio divina, or "sacred reading." Lectio is a kind of reading with which we are vaguely unfamiliar-- when we read, especially biblically, we normally take a passage at a time and then reflect on that specific passage. Lectio takes this a bit further. Michael Casey speaks of lectio as "more than the pious perusal of spiritual books. Lectio divina is a technique of prayer and a guide to living. It is a means of descending to the level of the heart and finding God. In the past two decades many people have been initiated into lectio, although often this is been merely a matter of refining an existing practice. It has been a common experience to discover that binding prayer to the Scriptures is an effective means of overcoming the obstacle of subjectivism and of finding a way out of what had become a blind alley of blank spiritual experience."

Christine Valters Paintner and Lucy Wynkoop tell us that lectio "is a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures, which leads us to union with God. It is an invitation to listen deeply for God's voice in Scripture and then to allow what we hear to shape our way of being in the world." Paintner again describes it this way:

  • The rhythm of lectio's four movements reflect the natural opening of the Spirit in prayer

  • The foundational belief of lectio that God speaks through the sacred texts in unique ways to each one of us at a particular moment in our lives

  • The cultivation through lectio of our capacity to listen deeply for God in the whole of life

"Lectio divina is a practice of being present to each moment in the heart centered way. We invite God to speak to us in an unmediated way. Our memories, images, and feelings become an important context for experiencing God's voice active in us, and we discover it when we pray from our hearts those words moving through us break open God's invitation to us in this moment of our lives and call us to respond."

According to Benedict, Scripture has four "senses." These are what we would refer to as the literal sense, the Christological sense in which we find added meaning to Scripture through the use of allegory and metaphor, the behavioral sense, which is also referred to as the moral or tropological sense, meaning the way in which Scripture shapes our beliefs and values so that our behavior is eventually evangelized. The final sense is the mystical sense, which is the sense that refers to the leading of us deeper into prayer.

Each of the senses requires different responses on our part-- the literal sense engages our intellects, the Christological sense engages our memory, the behavioral sense engages our conscience, and the mystical sense engages our spirit.

So how does one choose texts for prayerful reading? There are any number of ways in which this can be done. One may choose a brief passage from any part of Scripture, and then using that daily for two or three days. One may use the lectionary in the same way. Ancient monks would select a book of the Bible and began at the beginning, and then pray with the words until a particular word or phrase struck them, either positively or negatively (even disturbing words or phrases can be used most effectively), and then they paused there to allow their prayer to unfold. When they returned to the text they picked up at the same place and continued forward from there. In this way a specific book of the Bible might sustain a prayer for many weeks. And the passages chosen do not have to be from the Bible. Other texts can be used, such as noncanonical texts or other spiritual books, such as those I have referenced from Richard Rohr, Michael Casey, Joan Chittister, and others.

Let's experiment with a couple of passages taken from different sources. The first passage we will take from the book of Exodus (3:1-5).

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."

The second passage is from the Rule of Benedict, Chapter 31.

Let him regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. Let him not think that he may neglect anything. He should be neither a miser nor a prodigal and squanderer of the monastery's substance, but should do all things with measure and in accordance with the Abbot's instructions.

And finally this one, a poem written by the great Persian poet Hafiz:

Now is the time for the world to know

that every thought and action is sacred.

This is the time for you to compute the impossibility

that there is anything

but Grace.

Now is the season to know

that everything you do

is sacred.

Homework

Begin the practice of lectio divina, either on your own or with the company of others. Typically, monastics did their reading in groups, though they were silent during this time. It can be done in any way, and please know that there are no hard and fast rules about how it may be done. It is simply a matter of using spiritual texts in order to deepen one's prayer.