By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 17 August 2013 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.
As for myself, 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 some life stories. Disappointingly, all the biographies were the same: the main character always died.
But let us speak of literacy more sublime. There is an ancient practice of prayer known as "lectio divina," a phrase that means "reading God" or "divine reading."
It traditionally involves reading the Bible slowly, with imagination and thought.
We Christians tend to read the Bible like we drive on the freeway, eager for our destination. But lectio divina requires reading like a car trapped in rush hour traffic -- stop and go.
A 12th century Carthusian monk, Guigo, wrote of it: “Reading puts, as it were, whole food into your mouth; meditation chews it and breaks it down; prayer finds its savor; contemplation is the sweetness that so delights and strengthens” ("Scala Paradisi").
How to do it
Begin by seeking out silence, letting go of distractions, and focusing on God. 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. In whatever way you choose, "Go to your bosom: knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know," as William Shakespeare once wrote.
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."
The final step of lectio divina is living out God's Word.
In his 2010 exhortation "Verbum Domini" ("Word of God"), Pope Benedict XVI noted: "We do well also to remember that the process of lectio divina is not concluded until it arrives at action (actio), which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity."
Lectio divina remains a daily prayer for many monks and nuns as it more or less was for 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.
These days other Christians of all kinds likewise find light in "reading God."
By grace, may we be able to sincerely 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" (Tehilim/Psalm 131:2-3).
After I wrote of lectio divina more than a year ago in this column, I discovered some Protestants view the practice with hostility, despite it being entirely scripture-centric. Its Catholic and monastic origin is an obstacle to them.
To them I offer the words of Pope Francis, spoken as a cardinal, "Nowadays, the call to the Christian churches is to look at each other as brothers, to pray together, to work together for the others. Let's walk together (and) in this walk... know our (own) traditions. Theologians study theological problems, but we as Christians have to walk as brothers. That is the way to not scandalize the world with our divisions."
Peace be with you.