By the book

A book’s a funny place to look for answers. If customer support took that long to answer my question, I’d hang up.

Some books make the Bible into an answer book. On supermarket displays back by the butcher’s and druggist’s counters, you may pick up books of Bible verses, helpfully categorized by issues. Spin the display, and the cookbooks appear.

When I was younger, many of my Jesus friends made decisions by closing their eyes, opening the Bible, and pointing to a verse. They honed their prophetic sense by learning how to read the sometimes-opaque tea leaves.

I’m not reading much differently if I’m still reading just for answers. I’m not living by the book; I’m limiting my reading to my narrow questions. Michael Casey puts it better:

Anything that feeds into our current concerns is accepted as relevant; everything else is dismissed as of lesser importance. . . . As a result, we do not build the infrastructure on which “relevant” insights will depend.

My reading must, at least, broaden an issue until the original question becomes, in retrospect, a fillip, and now an afterthought – maybe even irrelevant (ironically). But I must not set out on my more important reading to find anything relevant to the day’s exigencies. Casey:

Not everything is immediately relevant. Sometimes we have to juggle two apparently divergent themes in our minds until some sort of connectedness links them.

Living by the book means, in part, carrying the word around and watching it shape life. Casey:

Perhaps we hear the word and understand it intellectually. Because we do not carry it around, bridges are not built between the text and daily life.

Seek wisdom, the Bible says. But wisdom may not have answers.1 Maybe wisdom isn’t even only the expansion of a question into a broader, more comprehensive issue, though that’s often important. Maybe wisdom is God’s fellowship.2

Answers are overrated.

Am I like Saul, going to the prophet Samuel to find my donkeys?3 “Blah, blah, blah, and your donkeys have been found.” I won’t find the “blah, blah, blah” on supermarket carousels.

Reflections on reading “Irrelevance,” a paragraph on page 74 of Michael Casey’s Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.

  1. Maybe a “word of wisdom” redirects my inquiry – points me to a better path.
  2. Or maybe God himself. The book of Proverbs personifies wisdom as a woman (chapter 9). And Paul says, with little explanation, that Jesus is our wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30).
  3. 1 Samuel 9 & 10.

Lectio: snuggling inside a phrase

3PictureIlluminatedRicePsalterI’ve been reading Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary at about a psalm-every-two-days clip, and I’ve had to balance my excitement of reading an accurate and startlingly fresh translation with my goal of getting back into lectio divina. When the new translation’s freshness or the commentary’s new information unexpectedly leads me into lectio, as it did this morning, my usual balance board acts more like a launch pad.

Today is the first day of Psalm 26. Here are Alter’s versions of verses 2 and 3:

2 Test me, O LORD, and try me.
Burn pure my conscience and my heart.
3 For Your kindness is before my eyes
and I shall walk in Your truth.

Here’s part of his commentary regarding verse 3:

This is a clear instance of what some biblical scholars call a breakup pattern. The phrase “kindness and truth” esed-weemet, meaning something like “steadfast kindness,” is split between the two versets, standing as bookends at the beginning and end of the line. (Kindle Locations 2526-2529)

The psalmist seems to sandwich verse 3 between the two concepts the phrase esed-weemet holds together. Verse 3, then, can be read as an examination of the phrase. He suggests from it, I think, that the Lord’s kindness he insists on keeping before him is the only means of walking in the Lord’s truth (or, as the Revised English Bible and the margin note to the New American Standard have it, his “faithfulness”).

But it’s a personal examination, too, a prayerful consideration of himself inside the phrase. His amplification inserts himself between the phrase’s two meanings like a kid who snuggles between her parents in their bed. It’s the “prayerful reading” that “is the first moment of lectio divina” (Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, 61). It shows a ready and imaginative heart, one willing to pry with prayer into a single phrase’s meaning, willing to section a phrase’s fruit and eat its sections one at a time with slow attention.

(The illustration is a detail from the Rice Psalter.)

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.


Poetry & sacred reading

Lectio divina 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.

Michael Casey’s comparison of poetry and meditation (lectio divina being perhaps the most flexible and durable in the Christian tradition) in his book Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina got me to thinking. What else might poetry and devotional reading have in common besides the slower and more intuitive reading skills they demand?

Perhaps both poetry and meditation offer us the possibility of rediscovering our hearts. Sometimes, at a certain point in poetry reading or devotional reading, the rest of the mind is asked to stay in shallow waters while the heart – something both vague and vital – plays like a porpoise that has just rediscovered the open sea. The mind becomes aware of a certain distinction between it and the heart.

While we’re engaged in poetry or sacred reading, the uniqueness of a turn of phrase or the power of an image may have our attention for a while. At some point after these early motions, however, something strange may happen. We may move, however vaguely or imperceptibly, into a new realm. In the framework of lectio divina, we may move from lectio(reading) into the remaining three “moments”: meditatiooratio, and contemplatio. Our slow reading opens the door to a slow kingdom. Perhaps it is similar to becoming travelers to something like John Keats’s “realms of gold” – the world he discovers himself in while reading Homer.

I love Teju Cole’s occasional references to “the kingdom of poetry” along with the brief parables that accompany them at miracle speech, his poetry web site. Parables, koans, and failed analogies sometimes seem like the only kind of mental diplomacy possible between the realm we normally walk in and the kingdom of the heart.

Asked to disengage from the kingdom it normally functions in, the mind – the more efficient and confident (or confidently unconfident) part of us – may struggle. Perhaps this newly discovered kingdom that attracts our hearts might pose some kind of vague threat to something fundamental: our self-concept or our life’s work. If, as poet Billy Collins claims, poetry helps us discover who we are, then the part of us that doesn’t really exist may feel threatened. While our heart may herald a new kingdom’s arrival, another part of us may hang back like King Herod, sending the heart off for more particulars ostensibly so that we may later come and worship, too.

A comparison of poetry reading with meditation or sacred reading is limited, of course, and perhaps unhelpful to most. I haven’t done justice to either form of reading. For one thing, I’ve limited myself to one experience in reading poetry or devotional works. On the other hand, others may find a comparison unhelpful because there is nothing to compare. Someone inclined to either poetry or to devotional literature may find sufficient reading for any given moment spray-painted on an overpass.