Skills in right-brained reading

Sacred Reading is a study of lectio divina, the most widely-used form of Christian meditation over the past fifteen hundred years or so. Author Michael Casey is a scholar and a Cistercian monk, and his book has the balance and depth of both his scholarship and the cool, steady flame of his lectio divina practice. It is both a very good primer for and a companion to someone’s practice in lectio divina.

Casey structures his book like a few of the shorter Pauline epistles – theory first, then practice. The theory includes a brief history of lectio, beginning with St. Benedict’s Rule in the sixth century, and it includes a summary of the scriptural basis for lectio. His theory is most interesting when it speaks of reading in general, because it is here that a modern (or postmodern) newcomer to lectio needs to make major adjustments.

Lectio involves reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation, but all four of these “steps” are based on the reading. Lectio reading is purposeful and yet mostly slow and right-brained – a contrast to the reading-for-information most of us have learned to master. Casey advocates approaching the reading stage much as St. Benedict decreed: choose a book of the Bible carefully, and then use it almost exclusively in one’s lectio practice for several months.

Casey’s section on spiritual reading, while certainly not comprehensive (the book contains only 151 pages), is a fascinating study of reading itself. Casey theorizes that the monks of the Middle Ages fell into successful reading practices because of the paucity of books, the practice of corporate reading, and a certain docility of attitude toward books. Casey believes that the modern reader generally does not expect to be changed by his reading. Our more critical approach, ironically, may contribute to our distrust of “anything that cannot be said plainly.” Because we approach most texts for information, we are proficient at picking out information we need and discarding the rest. The unfortunate result is impatience and superficiality. “We have lost the skill of tracking through a complex argument to arrive at unassailable conclusions.”

Benedictine monks, on the other hand, were more selective about their reading, since books had to be copied out by hand. Each day in the monastery included time for corporate reading, during which monks read the works they copied, omitting nothing.

Concerning meditation, Casey points out that we moderns are generally less willing to live in ambiguity, less willing to abide in “a patient receptivity” that may lead to enlightenment more fully than may a clamorous search for truth. “There is a kind of monotony that is not boredom but paves the way for a more profound experience,” Casey writes.

Lectio reading and meditation is more circular than lineal, and it is more Platonic than Aristotelian in temperament. Casey believes that lectio reading “is like reading poetry: we need to slow down, to savor what we read, and to allow the text to trigger memories and associations that reside below the threshold of awareness.”

[book cover]Lectio is not the same thing as study, but it benefits from our study of the text we have chosen. It is good to find out as much as we can about the text, and Casey lists a number of resources for the study of Scripture and of the Fathers.

To describe the skills we take to lectio, Casey resorts to the traditional “senses” of Scripture: the literal sense, the Christological (or allegorical) sense, the behavioral sense, and the mystical sense. He sums up the lectio progression in these terms this way:

In our industrious uncovering of the literal meaning of a text, we employ our . . . intellect. This is the level of brain work, where correct conclusions do not necessarily depend on faith or commitment. The Christological sense operates in a different space. It engages our memory. What we read is gradually relocated in an existing world of meaning, touched by grace and with a high level of personal persuasiveness. Progressively our conscience is activated. The word now comes to us as an inner command, understood only in honesty and embraced only by a practical willingness to obey. More and more, lectio divina is being marked by a relational character. We are more truthfully conscious both of God and of our essential selves. At this point the word has penetrated to the inmost level of our being, to the summit of our personhood. The word is addressed to our spirit, and at that level we become aware that the Word is no longer an intermediary between us and God; we experience the Word as Person.

Casey adheres to the traditional Catholic and mystical understanding of contemplation, which is that contemplation is a gift of a closer union with God here on earth. While unmerited, the gift may be cultivated through a lifelong commitment to lectio as well as other forms of meditation and to living out the Scriptures. Our notion of contemplation as something we do should not eclipse this important traditional concept.

Casey cautions that the progression among the four movements in lectio is merely a guide and not a cookbook. For instance, one may find her experience moving from reading to meditation and then back to reading again, as the practitioner becomes more used to guiding her soul through a session of lectio. He points out also that the existence of the “oratio,” or prayer, portion of lectio does not suggest that prayer is not a part of every stage of lectio.

Casey tangentially includes a great section on memory, which he defines as “more than the ability to recall information. In a traditional sense it involves living in the presence of what is ‘remembered,’ just as mindfulness of a loved one may accompany all our activities.” Casey credits Augustine with bringing a Platonic understanding of memory into Christianity: memory both as a faculty and as an act of perception. It is this faculty of memory that allows us to move from hearing the word to doing it. A lack of memory leads to a lack of freedom, since freedom requires the ability “to distance ourselves from immediate influence . . .”

Casey suggests that we allow Scripture to find its way into our memory, along with the assets and liabilities of our personal history, so that we will not be as quick to “dismiss the relevance of what exceeds our present understanding” as we read and meditate.

Sacred Reading also contains a short primer in the Patristic texts. Casey defines the texts of the early Fathers and Mothers in the faith, and he explains how we may ford the differences between the Patristic and modern mindsets. (This topic leads Casey into an excellent introductory discussion of the Greek influence on Christian thought.) He explains the relevance of the texts in terms of fleshing out concepts generally only touched upon in the New Testament: discernment, mystical union, and the dynamics of virtue and vice, for instance. Finally, Casey includes a short list of Patristic texts for the reader’s consideration.


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