Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lectio Divina

"Oh, how I love Thy Law! It is my meditation all the day." So sung King David, and so should we sing at all times in our fervor for the Lord's Word. Many ways are there for us to be soaked in Scripture in order to "swim in the Law of the Lord" (in the beauteous phrase of St. Seraphim), and one of these is the way known as lectio divina, the divine reading. A great guide of this practice is Guigo II, a Carthusian prior. Let us learn from him how the Law of the Lord can always be our delight.

Guigo shows us for degrees for entering into the inner chamber of the Word: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. We can even see these in the Psalms: "Make me understand the way of Thy precepts, and I will meditate on Thy wondrous works...I long for Thy salvation, O Lord, and Thy Law is my delight." Guigo's words show us how these verses are a lamp for our path into the Scriptures: "Reading is the careful study of the Scriptures, concentrating all one's powers on it. Meditation is the busy application of the mind to seek with the help of one's own reason for knowledge of hidden truth. Prayer is the heart's devoted turning to God to drive away evil and obtain what is good. Contemplation is when the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness….Reading seeks for the sweetness of a blessed life, meditation perceives it, prayer asks for it, contemplation tastes it."

How else can we understand these four degrees, which Guigo calls "a ladder for monks by which they are lifted up from earth to heaven"? By the image of our consuming the Word of the Lord, just as we consume the Word in the Eucharist. "Reading, as it were, puts food whole into the mouth, meditation chews it and breaks it up, prayer extracts its flavor, contemplation is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshes." Thus we read a verse of Scripture and bring it into our minds; then we delve into the Word, "digging for treasure," seeing the ever-deeper layers of beauty and holiness, until we are in full sight of the treasure of the Spirit that we wish to obtain; then we pray and "beg for the treasure we long for, which is the sweetness of contemplation"; and then, if the Lord so wills it, He floods us with His grace and love, the same graces we asked Him for after learning of them in His Word, "the treasure house of divinity," as St. Ephraim says. Emphasis must be maintained on the fact that the contemplation is not our own work: "a man will not experience this sweetness while reading or meditating 'unless it happened to be given him from above.'" Thus too only occurs if we pour out our longing to the Lord as the ointment that flowed from the broken alabaster. Occasionally the Lord may bestow His grace upon those turned away from Him, as He did with St. Paul, but His typical manner is to give to those on fire for Him the gift of partaking in His divine energies. "We ought not to presume" that God will grace us as He did Paul, "for this would be like tempting God"; instead, "we should do our part, which is to read and meditate on the law of God, and pray to Him to help our weakness and to look kindly on our infirmities."

These four degrees act as a ladder, for we must ascend through them sequentially; yet they are all of importance, for all are needed for the fullness of this grace experienced. Lacking the others, each one is not enough: "reading without meditation is sterile, meditation without reading is liable to error, prayer without meditation is lukewarm, meditation without prayer is unfruitful, prayer when it is fervent wins contemplation, but to obtain it without prayer would be rare, even miraculous." Always should we climb the ladder in its plenitude, at least as far as we can (for we cannot force the Lord to give us the blessings of contemplation, as we can never win in a struggle with the Lord; if Jacob the strong could not even win in his wrestle with an angel, how much less can we win in a wrestle with the Lord Himself). As Photina, the Samaritan woman, heard the words of Christ, meditated on them in her heart, beseeched Him for His living water, and received the Spirit in abundance, so should we be, always reading, meditating, and praying, so that we can be prepared and yearning for the contemplation given by God, for "the reading of Holy Scripture is the opening of Heaven," as St. John Chrysostom writes.

In this way, may we follow the counsel of Guigo and of King David in soaking in Scripture, ascending "from strength to strength" and "from glory to glory" along this four-runged ladder to Heaven. May we do this constantly, following the precept of Joseph the Solitary: "Toil at reading the Scriptures more than at anything else: for in prayer the mind frequently wanders, but in reading even a wandering mind is recollected." Through the Spirit we receive from our lectio divina, may we act on the words of David: "Seven times a day I praise Thee for Thy righteous ordinances." Thus may we come to ever more be filled with the Holy Spirit in our union with Jesus Christ the Son, ever praising the all-glorious Father unto the ages of ages.

"O God, make my mind worthy 
to find delight in understanding 
the dispensation of Your beloved Son. 
O Lord, take away the veil of passions 
that lies over my mind, 
and let Your holy light shine into my heart, 
so that my mind may enter 
into the interior of the outward ink-written text, 
and that with the enlightened eye of my soul 
I may behold the sacred mysteries 
that are hidden in Your Gospel. 
And by Your grace, Lord, 
grant that the thought of You 
shall not depart from my heart 
by night or by day. 
--Joseph Hazzaya's prayer before reading the Scriptures 

Nota Bene: The quotes from Guigo II are from his work Scala Claustralium (Ladder of Monks), as found in the volume The Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations, translated by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J., published by Image Books (Garden City, NY, 1978).  The prayer by Joseph Hazzaya (the Visionary) is found in The Wisdom of the Pearlers: An Anthology of Syriac Christian Mysticism by Brian E. Colless, #216 in the Cistercian Studies series, published by Cistercian Publications (Kalamazoo, MI, 2008).

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