February 18, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Now that we are drawing near to the start of Lent, it is good to consider how we will observe it so as to purify ourselves of sin and prepare ourselves for the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord. We need to think about what prayers and penances we will take up before Ash Wednesday is suddenly upon us. That, indeed, was the purpose of the old preparatory period of Septuagesima, which is still observed by communities that utilize the traditional Roman rite.
We need to be concrete about what we will do, rather than vague, and we should include something positive, not merely “giving up” this or that — although, to be sure, it would be a liberating penance to give up not only dessert or liquor, but something that (for many) cuts more into the bone: television, movies, the internet on Sundays, etc. Here, however, I want to concentrate on a positive Lenten practice that we may very well find so fruitful that we will decide to keep it going afterward: lectio divina.
The “Desert Fathers,” the first monks in the wilderness of Egypt, can teach us a lot of lessons: they fought manfully against the world, the flesh, and the devil and left us their wisdom in the form of stories and aphorisms.
Abba Poemen once said: “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard. But if water ceaselessly falls drop by drop, the stone is worn away. So it is with the word of God. It is soft and our heart is hard; but the one who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.”
Our basic problem is hardness of heart, so we are looking for any outside source that can carve out an opening for the Spirit, or better, soften it — as if turning stone into soil where new life can grow. God gave us the Bible for many reasons, but surely one of the reasons is that we might let His word work upon us, day by day, to melt that frozen heart, to penetrate into it and bring life. We have to steep ourselves in God’s Word if we expect it to become connatural to us: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the light we see in, the food we live on.
In her book Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation, Terryl Kinder writes: “Lectio divina is not reading as we understand it nowadays, which is reading for information. Lectio divina is quite another form of reading, namely, reading for transformation. It is a slow rumination of the words of Scripture.” Kinder reminds us that the words were read slowly with the moving of the lips, not just silently in one’s mind, as we typically do when we read. The purpose of actually saying the words softly and repeatedly is to give them room to “breathe,” to burrow into our memories, to be absorbed, and to make a difference in how our thoughts move. Kinder again:
In lectio divina — unlike lectio scholastica [i.e., reading for study or curiosity] — the words are chewed, digested, and absorbed as food is chewed, digested, and absorbed; and just as physical food is metabolized and transformed into the material of one’s own body, so in lectio divina the spiritual food of the sacred texts is metabolized and transformed into the substance of one’s own soul. It is an assimilation of the text into oneself[.]
Archbishop Magrassi, in his Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, emphasizes the same point:
The biblical text … obviously does not reveal all its riches at first hearing. Much less can it sink immediately into the deeper part of human life and become a vital part of each one’s inner world. Vital hearing requires loving, calm, reflective, personal poring over the text[.] … It is not enough to eat; we must assimilate, or as the ancients would say, “ruminate.”
This image of a cow chewing its cud (rumination) is both amusingly humble and profoundly true. We stand to benefit the most from picking one Gospel or Epistle of St. Paul and reading it slowly, chapter by chapter, throughout Lent — even re-reading parts of it more than one day in a row. We can also profitably take up a daily missal and read carefully one or the other reading of the day’s Mass. It is good that Scripture is read at Mass, but it usually goes by too quickly to be of much benefit in that particular moment. We have to “cut the groove” more than once. When we walk slowly through a reading in solitude, something we may have heard many times at Mass without taking much notice can suddenly strike us and transform us.
In this way, in Magrassi’s words, “going deeper becomes personalization”: God speaks to His people, yes, but He is also speaking to each person. His Word is so inexhaustibly powerful that it is “custom-made” for me: “His Word takes on a special tone and resonance for me, a function of the special and unique plan he has for my life[.] … What the Lord first said to all, I hear addressed to me. I hear a Word that responds to my problems, enlightens my steps, expresses my ideal.”
Where do we learn how to listen? In the quiet; when we are not working, acting, doing, but simply being present. We have to fight our fallen tendency to be “movers and shakers” rather than humble beggars who receive everything from the hand of the Lord. Of course, once we receive something, we need to act on it, and so there is not finally a contradiction between receptivity and action, being and doing. But there is a primacy to the former that is largely neglected or even denied by the Pelagianism of modern civilization. “What have you that you have not received?” is the motto of the Christian; “I am a self-made man” is the motto of the modern Westerner.
This Lent, let us first be receivers of the Word, like Our Lady, so that we can then be doers of it. Set aside ten or fifteen minutes (or more, if you can) first thing in your day; sit down with the Bible (and perhaps a cup of coffee or tea, which some find an indispensable aid to early morning prayer); begin with a prayer; and set to reading that short passage slowly, making the words with your lips, repeating the verses, pondering, and letting the words draw forth from you a response in your own words, in the form of a prayer to the Lord.
For further reading, I highly recommend these items by Dom Mark Kirby, OSB on Vultus Christi:
- Lectio Divina: The Eucharist of the Intelligence
- More About Lectio Divina
- Lenten Lectio Divina
- Saint Jerome and Lectio Divina