Lectio Divina update

Last night I had the opportunity to lead my small group from church in a little discussion of lectio divina followed by a guided time of meditation on John 6:35-37, as mentioned here.

I started with asking whether any of them had heard of lectio divina before Sunday’s sermon, and if they had any engagement with any other Christian meditative practices. Turns out that this is not the first time that our minister has talked about lectio divina, and that he had even led all the small groups in lectio divina himself once.

But none of us was a regular practitioner of the discipline — and the whole point of our minister bringing it up on Sunday and having it our focus on Thursday was to help us get into this way of reading the Bible.

I then talked a bit about the practice and its goals, noting that although we often associate it with monks, the practice of praying through Scripture as described by Martin Luther is basically the same thing (Tim Keller discusses this in his book Prayer). That is: meditative and prayerful reading of Scripture with an openness to the movement of the Spirit is for all Christians.

I then had to give my little ecclesiastical historian spiel about the practice and how we actually have very few details on method before, say, Guigo II around 1180, but that what we’re doing is in the same spirit as people like St Augustine or St John Chrysostom or St Anselm, even if the exact details may not match up.

Finally, before leading the actual meditation, I shared the following foundational principles for lectio divina laid out by David Foster in Reading with God:

  • Scripture is the inspired Word of God
  • Jesus is the key to the meaning of the scriptures, as of all existence
  • The Word of God is alive because of the power of the Holy Spirit speaking to the community of the faithful
  • The word also addressed personally to each of Jesus’ disciples
  • Scripture brings us into fellowship with God and with all other Christians ‘who gather round Jesus and listen to his word’
  • Lectio divina draws us into an encounter with the Church and with Jesus Christ, and therefore also into the life of the Holy Trinity

And then we used the guide sent out by our minister, which he adapted from J. Linman (2010), Holy Conversation: Spirituality for Worship (p. 35). This approach has three readings as the initial read, for which ‘the usual Bible study rules apply’. Then four more for meditation, prayer, contemplation, and incarnation. We shared our insights on the passage., which is as follows (NIV):

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.

We all got something out of it — insights such as the comfort that Jesus will never drive us away. There is also a personal challenge — we come to Jesus as children with great readiness, but somehow it gets harder as we get older. And the reminder that Jesus is all we need to be satisfied spiritually.

Everyone said they liked it, and we’re going to try practising lectio divina on our own using the text from Sunday and see how it goes.

And then word got back to our minister, and he wants to know if I’ll lead three monthly seminars on lectio divina soon. We’ll see if I have time…

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Lectio Divina!

Aelred of Rievaulx (he practised some of lectio divina)

This Sunday, our minister preached about learning about the practice of lectio divina helped him go deeper with the Scriptures, enjoy them more, and profit more from his reading — more so than the advice he had been given over and over again, ‘Read your Bible and pray’, which he found singularly unhelpful. Anyway, he didn’t actually give any details as to how on earth one does this, but…

Our Bible studies are based on the sermon! And I, not knowing this would be the topic and for reasons entirely unrelated, volunteered to lead this week’s study for my group.

So now I get to lead my small group in a discussion about lectio divina as well as a guided session of reading.

As a trained ecclesiastical historian and enthusiast about pre-modern Christian spiritual practices, I don’t know what to do.

For example, is it really worth talking about how the set procedure we (post)moderns call lectio divina isn’t what even St Benedict meant? That, out of Christians who write in Latin (and thus may have used the pair of words lectio divina), most of them before the High Middle Ages used the phrase to mean sacred reading in a broad sense, including prayerful and meditative reading as well as what we today would distinguish as ‘study’ and sometimes not reading the Bible at all but commentaries on it or spiritual writers of acknowledged richness?

The fact is, if I do say that, it may not really affect the way any of us in the room practise the reading of sacred Scripture. The procedure our minister has outlined for us in preparation for Thursday will help us ruminate upon the word in a quiet, prayerful manner, and, even if it is not absolutely and precisely ancient has its roots in ancient Christianity.

Then again, I feel like history matters. The modern practice of lectio divina is itself part of tradition as a living thing. We are seeking the same God with the same Scriptures, and we engage with the practices of our predecessors in making something like this, something that does utilise ancient and medieval beliefs about Scripture and about how God talks as well as about prayer and the relationship between the individual Christian and Scripture and whatnot.

But I am excited about trying something different from standard Bible study group fare. I am not the most generous person, and I often find the takeaway from Bible studies fairly low. There are times I would rather have read a commentary on my own and simply had coffee with my Bible study people. Okay, so it’s not yet been bad at this church, but this week will only be my fourth time making it to Bible study.

I am also excited about getting people into any of the older spiritual practices. This one is a good entry point — something about Scripture (evangelicals rightly love the Bible) with ancient and medieval roots, tweaked for today’s Christian. It’s probably an easier sell than St Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise or 100 communal Jesus Prayers.

Glorious Now, Behold Him Arise: King and God and Sacrifice

Giotto, Adoration of the Magi from Lower Basilica of St Francis, Assisi (1310s)

The most popular English-language Epiphany hymn is, of course, ‘We Three Kings.’ This was certainly one of my absolute favourites as a kid. In this hymn, John Henry Hopkins articulates the traditional typological/allegorical significance of the Magi’s gifts:

2 Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.

3 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.

4 Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

The final verse makes it abundantly clear:

Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies.

Now, it is highly unlikely that the magi actually thought that Jesus was God and a sacrifice. The fact that they worship Him in Matthew 2 is attributable to the fact that that’s how you treat a Persian King. Frankincense certainly has uses beyond the worship of deities, and myrrh beyond the preparation of corpses for the stone-cold tomb. Both are also of high importance in desert cultures.

Nevertheless, when you look back at Matthew 2 and the magi, and their encounter with the Christ Child, when you remember that Epiphany isn’t just about some nice, little story that inspires some great art and singable songs, but about the revelation of the Messiah to the nations, about the fulfilment of Isaiah 60 where the nations come to Israel who is their light. (Isaiah 60 is an intertext of Matthew 2.)

So, in fact, history suddenly becomes allegory, for Jesus the Christ, enthroned on His Mother’s lap is King and God and sacrifice.

Adoration of the Magi from Old St Peter’s, now in Santa Maria in Cosmedin (pic from Wikipedia)

Alcuin on the Psalms

A quote from Alcuin of York (735-804) that reminds me a bit of St Athanasius:

If you come to the psalms with a serious mind, and look with the spirit of understanding, you will find there the word of the Lord incarnate, suffering, risen, and ascended . . . you will find every virtue in the psalms, if you deserve to find the mercy of God in revealing to you their secrets.

Hrabanus Maurus (left), supported by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (Right). Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod.652, fol. 2v (Fulda, saec. IX 2/4)

Liturgy and Scripture (reflections on a phrase of Sr Benedicta Ward)

In the thorough Introduction to her translation of St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations, Sr Benedicta Ward discusses the relationship of the liturgy to St Anselm’s works. At one point, she writes:

here … it is impossible to distinguish between the influence of the Bible and that of the liturgy, which after all is composed almost exclusively of biblical material. (p. 34)

This is a noteworthy statement. It is certainly true of the Book of Common Prayer — as a meme I encountered a while back noted, ‘Ever notice that the Bible quotes the Prayer Book so much?’ Indeed, I have spent a lot of my life happily discovering bits of liturgy hiding away in my Bible readings.

Now, praying a liturgy assembled from bits of Scripture is not the same thing as sustained study of Scripture and meditation upon its application to our own lives. Nonetheless, it strikes me as good practice.

It also reminds of an oft-repeated falsehood. Someone (indeed, employed by an Anglican church) said that neither the BAS nor the BCP would do. I asked what would be better. Answer: the Bible.

Well, pull out BCP! Pull out your Missal! Pull out the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom! Pore through the Liturgy of the Hours. Not only do the services of church contain space for reading Scripture, they are also full of Scripture, as we make the words of God our own.

Anyway, I have little to take away. But if you find yourself praying a traditional liturgy, be aware that you are soaking yourself in Scripture in a particular way. Thank the Holy Spirit for the grace of the liturgists and let the Word dwell in you richly.

Christmas Spirit

St. George’s Anglican Church, Prince Albert SK

Yesterday, on the fourth day of Christmas, we watched Elf. I like Elf. My wife likes Elf. She particularly likes watching me watch Elf. Last night, a corollary to my thesis ‘Santa Claus is Jesus’ emerged. In the film Elf, Santa’s sleigh is, by nature, powered by ‘Christmas Spirit’. But since no one believes in Santa anymore, there is not enough Christmas Spirit to power the sleigh, so it has a jet engine installed underneath.

Now, I’m not going to argue as to how much or little Christmas Spirit we have today. But I do think it’s interesting to equate Christmas Spirit with belief in Santa Claus. This is not exactly the idea of Christmas Spirit we get from other sources.

As a button my mother-in-law wears says, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’. But we’re not going to start with the Nativity, for the novelty of ‘belief in Santa Claus’ = ‘Christmas Spirit’ is not merely relative to Christianity.

For example, in the great classic A Muppet Family Christmas, Christmas Spirit has something to do with togetherness and gift-giving, which comes out when Robin explains Christmas to the Fraggles. In A Christmas Carol (best viewed not with Muppets but with Alistair Sim in Scrooge), it is self-sacrifice, self-giving, service to others, and great-heartedness that represent the Christmas Spirit. In most Christmas episodes of TV shows, Christmas Spirit is either self-giving or forgiveness combined with togetherness.

And I think that perhaps this is the Christmas Spirit, especially given that Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.

At Christmas, we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. We recall the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God the Father Who flung the stars in the sky. He ’emptied himself of all but love’ (Charles Wesley) (this might not be true, but it’s poetic); he, who had the very form of God, took on the form of a slave (Philippians 2). ”Tis mystery all, th’immortal dies’ (also Charles Wesley).

He left his Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace (Charles Wesley), and Lo! he abhors not the virgin’s womb (O Come All Ye Faith). And why does He set all this aside? Why does love come down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine? (Christina Rossetti)

Self-sacrifice, self-giving, service to others, great-heartedness, forgiveness, combined with togetherness. God desired not that His good creation (humanity) would continue in the path to death and destruction, so He came himself (St Athanasius, paraphrased), for God desires not the death of a sinner (Ezekiel 18:23). God became human so that humans might become god (St Athanasius again) — that is to say, togetherness.

So our response to this? Well, he gave everything to be with us. So, what shall we give Him? Give him our hearts, first of all (Christina Rossetti, paraphrased). Second, give to others. Self-giving, self-sacrifice, service to others, and great-heartedness. Forgiveness. Togetherness.

This is Christmas Spirit, not belief in Santa Claus.

(That said, I still like Elf!)

Incarnation and Creation

Ebstorf Map, Jesus encompassing the world

This Advent, my mind has been drawn to the doctrine of creation and the place of the Incarnation in the great drama of the cosmos. I am not entirely sure why this is so. Certainly last week I noted Oliver O’Donovan’s statement in On the Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity that much Reformation theology was weak on the doctrine of creation, and this has had an effect upon the sciences and theology, etc. He wonders what different roads we may have taken if the doctrine of creation had been one of the parts of St Thomas Aquinas we had kept.

Anyway, if we think theologically about Christmas, I imagine our thinking is typically something along these lines: Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity; He took on the form of a slave for our salvation; He became a baby so that He could die for us as a Man.

Yet today at church, the sermon closed with some beautiful words of Madeleine L’Engle, pointing towards the pre-Incarnate reality of the Second Person of the Trinity, bringing home the force of what it means that God became man as Jesus. If we do that, we need to realise that something as well as salvation from sin, death, damnation, devil, is going on.

Why?

The eternal life of God is an extra-temporal reality. God is. God is reality. Or maybe not — maybe God is beyond reality. God has no being because being relies entirely on God. A robust doctrine of God should make the dramatic event of the Incarnation that much more potent.

And a robust doctrine of God makes for a robust doctrine of creation — God made everything very good. As the Fathers, including St Augustine, were ever keen to note, all of creation is good by nature. It was created good, even if now it is fallen and tending towards entropy. Creation was made because God willed it. Creation was made to glorify God.

God entered into that creation. The timeless creator joined the creation in time.

Why?

Not simply to save us and make us what Adam was, but to make us what Adam was meant to be.

To make us god.

This is the emphasis of St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, as well as of Robert Grosseteste’s work (which is to say, it is not the sole preserve of the Eastern Church). It is a consideration of salvation history primarily as Creation – Incarnation – Paradise, whereas we tend to think in terms of Fall – Crucifixion – Redemption. Both are true, but the former we usually neglect.

We usually think of the biblical drama as an arc from Genesis 3 with the Fall to Revelation 21 with the lake of fire.

This Christmastide, let’s meditate on the restored creation, on that arc from Genesis 1 with creation to Revelation 22 with the crystal river and lamb upon the throne.