The Word Among Us

September 2008 Issue

A Lively, Ancient Tradition

A new book teaches us how to meet Jesus in the Scriptures.

By: Craig E. Morrison, O.Carm.

About forty years ago, the Second Vatican Council invited all believers to set out on an adventure. While the adventure began with what seemed like a dutiful task—reading Scripture diligently—the destination was nothing short of life-changing: a personal encounter with Almighty God (On Divine Revelation, 25).

Since a growing number of Catholics are now taking up this adventure, it's no wonder that there has been a great reemergence of interest in lectio divina, the church's most ancient way of reading Scripture. References to this "sacred reading" pop up like a refrain in Pope Benedict's talks, and the practice will receive widespread attention at next month's synod on "the Word of God in the Life of the Church." Benedict is convinced that lectio divina has the potential to bring a spiritual springtime to the whole church.

You might say that author Stephen Binz is like a sower preparing for this coming springtime. With his new book about lectio divina—Conversing with God in Scripture-—he has planted a seed that has the potential to yield a rich harvest of food for the journey.

Spiritual U-Turn. As its title indicates, this book describes lectio divina as a heart-to-heart dialogue between us and God. Binz says it is just the kind of encounter that the two disciples experienced on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Cleopas and his companion are walking along, feeling that their hopes were dashed when Jesus died on the cross. Still, the signs of their own times—an empty tomb, Mary Magdalene's report, Peter's visit to the gravesite—have them wondering, and so they are keen to discuss them with a mysterious stranger they meet on the road.

As he reads the Old Testament with them, the disciples begin to grasp the meaning of what they have heard. "Beginning with Moses and all the prophets," this stranger reveals the significance of the cross in salvation history and concludes: "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" (Luke 24:26).

On the road and later, at table, the travelers' eyes and hearts are opened, and they realize that the stranger is none other than Jesus himself. Their lives take a new direction, quite literally, as they make a 180-degree turn back to Jerusalem. They had left the city unconvinced by the empty tomb, but when they return, they are able to explain its significance to the apostles. In a similar way, Binz says, everyone who reads Scripture prayerfully can encounter "the life-changing power of God's word."

A Tradition Ancient and New. Lectio divina may be a new discovery for many Catholics, but it has always been a vital part of our tradition. Conversing with God includes numerous references to saints like Irenaeus, Gregory the Great, Jerome, Augustine, and the Carmelite mystics Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

For these people, biblical scholarship and lectio divina went hand in hand. Thus, in the fourth century, St. Ephrem sprinkled his learned commentary on the Gospels with reflections and prayers. "Who is able to comprehend the extent of what can be discovered in a single utterance of yours?" he wrote, in praise of God's word. It seems that Ephrem's commentary is his lectio divina!

As Binz points out, studying Scripture is not opposed to a prayerful reading of the texts. "Rather, we must integrate them." Likewise, I encourage my students to see our research and discussions as one aspect of lectio divina.

Don't Worry about "Steps." The most common question I hear from people who are on the road of lectio divina is, "Are we doing it right?" Thankfully, Conversing with God addresses this question head on, for there is no single method that must be strictly followed.

"The desert fathers and monks who began the tradition of lectio distrusted methods of prayer and spiritual practice that were too rigidly defined," Binz writes. "They understood that we need a certain amount of spontaneous freedom to relate to God's Spirit." To bring out this flexible approach, Binz describes lectio in terms of "movements," not as steps or rungs of a ladder.

Traditionally, the exercise of lectio divina involves four such movements: reading (lectio), meditation (meditatio), prayer (oratio), and contemplation (contemplatio). Conversing with God adds one more: witness (operatio). The question operatio asks of us is, "How can I live out the word of God, which I have heard, read, meditated upon, prayed about, and contemplated?"

I can see the desert fathers nodding in wholehearted agreement with this addition. They insisted that their disciples bring the concrete events of their lives into harmony with the Bible. Through our practice of operatio, the word of God can become the prism through which we see the entire world.

On to Emmaus! Conversing with God in Scripture explains lectio divina in a way that can help us get the most out of our own personal journey to Emmaus. It is like a road map that can be used by individuals and groups alike. Parish groups in particular will enjoy the questions for review and discussion that follow each chapter. The examples of lectio divina at the end of the book will teach some how to get started and help others to refine their practice.

Wherever we are on the way to meeting Jesus in his word, we shouldn't be surprised if we can't see him from time to time. Cleopas and his companion listened to him until sunset, and still their vision remained a bit cloudy. But we can rest assured that Jesus is talking with us on the road, even when we fail to recognize him. For our part, all we have to do is stay the course.

Carmelite Father Craig Morrison teaches at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, Italy.