Monday, July 19, 2021

Lectio Divina: Think Small!

 Think of St. Benedict in his tower at Monte Cassino.  Think of the library of codices to which he had access. (If you weren’t born knowing this, the codex was a stack of pages bound together at the left side, like modern books, as opposed to the scrolls that preceded it.  And no, I wasn’t born knowing that either!) Most likely, the library shelves held single books of the Bible separately bound and single works of the early Christian writers because a whole Bible or a collection, say, of all the sermons of St. John Chrysostom, would have been physically unmanageable. Think of reading laboriously hand written texts, before the advent of the Carolingian miniscule provided clear spaces between words, lower case letters, and other improvements made for legibility.  Think of reading by daylight coming through very small window openings.  Think of reading by the light of small wicks floating in olive oil.  Look at the books on your shelf or stacked by your chair or on the nightstand by your bed, or available on your phone or e-reader.  Different worlds!  And most of us would not prefer to return to St. Benedict’s!

 We have been well trained by our consumer culture to believe that more is better, large is valuable, and new is preferable to old.  So when we take out our Bibles, Old and New Testaments handily bound together and perhaps supplemented with other useful aids, we may think thoughts like, “I’d like to read the Book of the Prophet Isaiah from beginning to end for my lectio this year.”  If we’re organizers, we might plan to read a set number of chapters a day for and perhaps assign a set amount of time for the task—say, finishing the whole book in a year.  (Don’t laugh: I did that one year, though I didn’t set a twelve-month time limit.  Just as well.  By the end of the second year I had finished Chapter 31 out of the 66.  I wasn’t getting any younger, so I switched to the nice little Gospel according to Mark!)  We might persevere—as I did not—but then we might start looking at the Table of Contents and thinking this book is taking too long and maybe we should try something new, maybe a book we have not read.  (This is not including the times when we might be lured to put aside the Bible altogether and try that latest spiritual bestseller touted by Amazon!)   And we might find ourselves discouraged by all we have not read.

 St. Benedict would have been baffled.  As we read his Rule, we might begin to notice the number of small gems, single phrases or verses, he quotes, apparently from memory as scholars have not always been able to track down what Latin version he used.  Many of them have been lifted from their original context in the Bible, like jewels taken from a bracelet and turned over and over to catch the light reflected from different facets and treasured for what they offered, regardless of their original context.  An example for us might be one of my favorite verses: “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path,” lifted out the extraordinarily long Psalm 119 and treasured for itself alone.  Like many verses, it gathers others to itself from altogether different settings:  “I am the light of the world,” and “the one who follows me will not walk in darkness,” and “the light that cannot be extinguished,” and “you are the light of the world.”  And those never get old. 

 What St. Benedict’s tradition teaches us is that oft-repeated bit of advice:  when you are reading for lectio, word count is unimportant, pages covered irrelevant, books checked off our list in their entirety not the point.  When a single line, or a single word, reaches out from the page and jabs you in the ribs, stop and pay attention!  Turn it over and over in your mind (or, better, your heart) for as long as it yields its juice.  Return to it again later when it calls out to you.  Carry it around in the pocket of your mind to pull out and re-examine later in the day. If that’s a matter of a day, or a week, or a lifetime, think of it as gift and don’t worry about achievement.  In the library of the Reign of God they don’t put stickers on our library card for every book we finish.  And they don’t give out prizes at the end of the summer for those whose cards boast the most stars!

 When you sit down to do lectio, think “slow,” think “small,” think “deep.”  And consider do-overs a rich blessing!

Copyright 2021, Abbey of St. Walburga