Monday, February 24, 2020

The Call of Lent: Purity of Heart

Jesus drew criticism from his opponents because he and his disciples failed to wash their hands and purify themselves and their eating utensils when they came in from the street to eat a meal.  The rebuke was directed at their failure to observe ritual prescriptions, but those prescriptions, like many of the dietary laws inherited from the biblical law codes and their later interpretations by teachers of the law, certainly offered practical protection against disease.  The contemporary lists posted everywhere online about ways to protect ourselves from the corona virus echo that ancient wisdom.  Jesus did not actually tell his listeners not to observe the code for physical protection, but he put them in perspective:  quit worrying about making sure that everything that you take in has been properly purified and pay attention instead to what you put out from the depths of your hearts.  He warned against hearts that produce “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”  His list would make quite an examination of conscience for Lent!

The monastic tradition drew on Jesus’ wisdom in reading human hearts to produce a succinct description of what became the central goal of monastic spirituality:  make your first aim purity of heart.  Unfortunately, more modern spiritualities have sometimes narrowed that down to avoiding impure, that is, sexual thoughts, but as Jesus’ list shows—and he gave several of them, as did St. Paul—the biblical and monastic traditions take a much wider view.  Danish philosopher whittled the various lists down into a simple definition of purity of heart: to will one thing.  St. Benedict, centuries before, identifies that one thing very clearly for his followers: prefer nothing to the love of Christ.  Keep Christ – who is God’s love made flesh—and the love that binds Christ to us and us to Christ right in the forefront, and the rest of the list will take care of itself.  It’s a question of focus and attentiveness, which the monastic tradition calls “mindfulness.”  Easier said than done in our busy world, with attention grabbers bombarding us form every kind of screen and every kind of loudspeaker.  Multitasking, not singleness of focus, will get you to the top, they tell us!  (Behavioral sciences have begun to discredit that bit of wisdom!)

As we enter into the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, we may already have drawn up a worthy list of Lenten resolutions to keep us on the right track, the track of conversion of heart, so that we have a deeper sense of what we mean when we renew our baptismal vows at Easter.  (This is the custom of the Catholic Church among others, but if your church doesn’t offer the opportunity to renew your vows publicly in a church ritual, you can certainly recommit yourself to living the life of Christ in your own prayer.)  But it might not hurt to take a moment on Ash Wednesday to review the list to see how it serves our central priority as Benedictines as well as Christians: keep this one focus before you always—preferring nothing to the love of Christ.

Reading Suggestions:
Mark 7:1-23 and parallels in the other Gospels
Galatians 5:6-26
The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 49.  The entire chapter is devoted to Lent with a focus toward Easter.

Also, Leo Tolstoy left us a story that illustrates the single focus of the pure heart.  It’s called “The Three Hermits.”  You will find it here: Three Hermits--Tolstoy

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Lectio Divina 1

As you can see, this is the first post to be added after a long interval, for which I apologize.  Circumstances beyond my control have changed, so I hope to post much more regularly from now on. 

This is the first in a series of posts on Lectio Divina, the style of prayerful reading of Scripture characteristic of Benedictine prayer.  

What is lectio divina?
Lectio has also been called by the more modern name “slow reading.”  Stories are told of people in situations where they had no access to reading material beyond the book or two currently in their possession. So they read what they had very, very slowly, pausing to chew over each word or sentence before going on to the next one.  And when they had finished, they started over at the beginning.  That’s a bit hard to imagine in a society where reading material overflows shelves, libraries, and web markets to the point that we finally have to admit we will never, ever finish the list of books we want to or think we should read.  It’s not true for everyone of course, but it’s truer for more people now than has ever before been the case.

Early generations of Christian and monastic readers couldn’t have imagined such a plethora of reading materials.  They couldn’t even have imagined the plethora of Bibles we have readily available.  They had to rely on handwritten texts that were few, expensive and fragile.  Or, more often, they had to rely on their own memories to rerun scriptural passages they had heard read in church.  But what they had available, they read and re-read and pondered and drew out deep nourishment for the hungry heart.  They also left us the legacy of lectio divina that developed over time.

Lectio is “slow reading” focused on Scripture or other spiritual classics.  It follows a pattern practiced for centuries before it was finally recorded by a Carthusian monk named Guigo in the twelfth century.  The pattern is very simple:  after you’ve chosen a text (more about that in a later  post), you simply read it.  Perhaps you read a whole passage to start with, perhaps not.  Then you read it again very, very slowly.   (Gather up everything you’ve ever learned about speed reading and lock in a closet in the back of your mind.)  You read your chosen text over and over again, pausing to chew over each word or phrase or sentence before going on to the next one. Early authors compared it with cows chewing their cud.  At some moment in this very patient process, God (sometimes disguised as an anonymous inner inspiration) will likely interrupt with an insight, a thought, a connection that invites you to stop and think about it.  Out of your reading and pondering, you find yourself turning to God in prayer, which may be simple conversation or quiet awareness.  Sometimes the quiet awareness will take over and keep you still in God’s presence for a while, briefly or longer.

That is the general pattern, but it has a thousand exceptions.  It’s a pattern drawn from long years of Christian practice by lay people, clerics, and monastics.  It’s a pattern—not a rule! Sometimes you may find yourself reading—slowly, though!—without any interruption or inspiration at all until the time you’ve set aside comes to an end.  Sometimes a few words will send you off into a long reflection or conversation with God, so that there is no recognizable boundary between reflection and prayer.  Sometimes, you’ll go back and forth among the pieces of the pattern over and over again.  Or sometimes, you’ll be seized by silence right at the start.  Or you’ll be silent for a time and then be drawn to read….You get the picture!  It’s a personal interaction between you and God, not a controlled set of obligatory steps!

The pieces of the pattern came to be identified and named:  lectio (which means reading), meditatio (which means meditation, but more on that in a minute), oratio (prayer) and contemplatio (silent presence).  “Meditatio” requires a little historical footnote.  Originally, it didn’t mean thinking about a text.  It meant reciting it over and over and over in your mind, squeezing the juice out of it simply by reciting it and letting it do its own work.  That could be done during one’s prayer session or while one went about simple manual labor. You might call it getting the text “by heart.”  Meditatio later came to mean reflection, asking the text questions or thinking about the questions the text is asking you.  It can still mean either or both!

There is also a fifth piece of the pattern that is taken for granted but not named.  It’s the takeaway, as we might call it now.  The Word of God doesn’t actually sit still once our prayer time is over.  It tends to come back and tap us on the shoulder from time to time, maybe often, maybe not, as we go about our day.  In other words, the conversation begun in lectio continues.  And the monastic tradition encourages readers to let it, or, better, encourage it!     

Next time: Why lectio?

© 2020 Abbey of St. Walburga