By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 3/02/12 in The Madera Tribune
Did you hear about the student whose mother had bought him a really cheap dictionary app for his smartphone? He couldn’t find the words to thank her.
It gets worse. While defending her purchase, she declared that a good education was a man’s best friend.
The family dog bit her.
Nonetheless the son took her words seriously. The next day he was suspended for hacking into the school’s computer and raising his “U.S. History” grade. When asked why, he said he was just trying to make his mark in history.
At least he was brighter than his classmate. She had been offered an iPad and told it could take her all over the world wirelessly. She became frightened and demanded a seat belt.
I can empathize with her confusion. The other night I was in the mood for heavy reading, so I read the telephone book. But I couldn’t make sense of the plot. There were too many characters.
So I picked up “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” and skimmed through some life stories. To my disappointment, all the biographies were the same: the main character always died at the end.
Even so, I know literacy is important. One of my job interviews went smoothly until I was asked if I had read Shakespeare. Not wanting to appear ignorant, I confidently replied: “I’m sure I have. Who wrote it?”
I think I impressed her.
As Shakespeare wrote, “For my part, it was Greek to me.” But some of you might instead insist: “Give thy thoughts no tongue.” To that I would respond: “I am not bound to please thee with my answer.”
By the way, if I’m going too fast for you to follow along in your complete works of Shakespeare omnibus edition, let me know and I’ll type slower next time.
Now, all of my above ramblings are utter fiction, but “give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.” Let us speak of a literacy more sublime than that of the so-called “Immortal Bard” (AD 1564-1616). There is an ancient practice of prayer known as “lectio divina,” a phrase that literally means “reading God” or “divine reading.”
It traditionally involves reading the Bible slowly and with imagination and thought.
We tend to read the Bible like we drive on the freeway, eager to reach our destination. But lectio divina requires reading it like a car trapped in rush hour traffic — stop and go.
Begin by silently putting your focus on God and letting go of distractions. A prayer may help. Next, read a sentence or phrase, and then reflect upon it. Put yourself in the circumstance mentioned, ponder what it must have meant to those present, or listen to its echoes in your own life. The exact meditation isn’t important. But in whatever way you choose, “Go to your bosom: knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know,” as Shakespeare would say.
Then speak to God about it or just spend time with God.
After an uncomfortable pause, continue on. Lectio divina will test one’s patience at first if done properly. But the temporary breaks are necessary, like in any conversation, to make space for a two-way exchange.
Lectio divina isn’t “Bible study.” It is meant to be an encounter. The goal isn’t to master knowledge. It is to embrace God.
The Cistercian monk Charles Cummings sums it up better than I: “Sacred reading allows the word of God to touch and awaken my heart. 'Indeed,' says the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘God’s word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword... It judges the reflections and thoughts of the heart’ (Heb. 4:12). When I spend time in sacred reading I invite God’s word to penetrate my heart and to evoke from that deepest center of my being a response of surrender, wonder, praise, regret, petition, love. In the words I read, God speaks to me; in my prayerful pauses I respond to God, verbally or wordlessly.”
Lectio divina generally remains a daily prayer for monks and nuns as it has been since their earliest predecessors, the “desert fathers” and “mothers,” who fled Roman decadence by seeking the desolation of the deserts of Egypt in the 4th century.
By grace, may we all be able to say: “Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a child has rest in its mother’s arms, even so my soul” (Psalm 131:2-3).