Lectio Divina - a Franciscan approach

Mother Maria Francesca of the Annunciation

Mother Maria Francesca of the Annunciation

What is Lectio Divina?

 
We may know a little bit more about it than we realize. Go back to some basic realities: when God made us, he made us with five antennae: hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling. These antennae relay to the brain and the brain assesses the facts that are important. If you put your hand on the hot oven your brain reacts very quickly with‘hot – beware!’ so that your hand gets the message that it should withdraw and not stay on the oven! These are instinctive reactions that the brain conveys to the hand or foot, or whatever it is. That is how you learn. If any of these faculties are impaired you discover very quickly that your whole output becomes impaired in the process because of the needed assessment.
 
Look at the brain.  Brain, by the way, really is grey matter, very soft; through it we can reache further into the interior of our being, where we have faculties of the soul: free will, intellect and emotions.
 
Because we are suffering from the consequences of original sin – the actual sin has been taken from us in baptism, but the consequences have not – our will is weak, our intellect is blunted and our emotions run rampant. None of these faculties is functioning as they were designed to function. In other words there is disorder. That in turn means that the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity which is our greatest treasure is often rendered ineffectual – it is not that it is not there – it is just ineffectual.
 

The mountain of the mind

In Dante’s Purgatory there is a very steep mountain which Dante and his companions have to climb. It is a similarly steep climb from our brain, which registers, to our inner
being, which creates action.  So, in order to climb that mountain, the ancients, long before Christianity was discovered, had such a thing as we now call Lectio Divina.  If you had a boy, (it was mostly boys, not girls!) in the Jewish synagogue or in the reading rooms of Egypt, Rome and Athens, they were taught to memorize – the psalms, poetry, oratory, or the legends of the great heroes.  This they committed to memory so to interiorize the content and then apply it. Thus the Lectio Divina is not necessarily something that we read, it is something we obtain by our senses, smelling, tasting, whatever. It is a tool by which we learn, not necessarily just reading.
 
The description Lectio Divina was coined by St Benedict (480-547) who gave it a definite shape, but even in the Church, the actual practice is much older.
 

Lectio for the Desert Fathers

The Fathers in the Desert when they received a young man, said to him “What have you come for?” If the answer was, “to serve God”, they asked no more questions – for all they knew he could be a murderer!  They gave him a spiritual father, they gave him work to do andtold him to memorize the psalms. On that he spent a year.  If he persevered after that, he advanced to further instructions. He memorized the psalms because, as his spiritual father pointed out to him, the devil, who was not going to leave him alone, knew where to find him in the desert and he was to have holy words prepared for his defense.
 
The Desert Fathers taught the young man that if he said, ‘O God come to my aid’ (Psalm 40), that God would come to his aid. In other words the presence of God as he pronounced the holy words reassured him. He may never had the Bible in his hand, but in his memory he had the holy words of God. One purpose of the Lectio Divina was to make God present, be it by seeing, touching, tasting or whatever.
 
There are many stories told of the Desert Fathers suffering great demonic temptations. There is a story of St Anthony, (not our St Anthony OFM) the one
with the pigs, that he suffered such great sexual temptations, unheard of in a man of great sobriety and of good age (thats why they pictured him with the pigs, because that is how he described the scene to a friend) it was so awful, he wanted to kill himself.  At the end, when it was more or less over, he said to the Lord “Where were you, Lord?  Where were you when all these demons attacked me?”The Lord said “I was right in the middle, or you would have died!”
 
The weapon St Anthony used was the holy Word of God. When the devil tempted him with images of ladies (with and without, usually without) and such, I mean, he was a man of ninety plus, and had lived in the desert seventy years, it was so intense and alluring that all he could cling onto was: “O God come to my aid” That’s all he could hold onto. He kept crying it, saying it, shouting it, weeping it– and this went on for weeks, until he almost despaired of his life.   If he hadn’t known the psalms by heart, the temptation might have overcome him.
 
This proves the point that the ear-to brain-to memory relationship is that which enables us to fight.  Don’t say ‘I couldn’t help it’ . There is nothing in life that we have to succumb to, just nothing!
 

How does Lectio Divina take place?   
 

There’s a difference between reading for knowledge’s sake and reading for the sake of meeting the holy Word of God. I can read the holy Word of God as a book – and many do; its interesting.  It tells me about human nature, it tells me lot about failure, it tells me a lot about about battles, it tells me a lot about life in the Old and New Testament– but I may completely miss that it is the holy Word of God: it is quite possible to do that!
 
If I want to do Lectio Divina I take something that has good things to say and I read slowly one sentence, then I stop, then I say to myself what have I read?  Something in that sentence may begin to speak and, at that point, I must discipline myself to stop. Many good inspirations get lost because they’ve been passsed over. So when it happens, if “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 22)  speaks to me, at that point I stop.  
 
In other words Lectio Divina is not achieving a measure of reading. I may read three pages and spend four days on it; it doesn’t matter!  Nor should I read in such a way as to think to myself, I must finish this paragraph – it doesn’t matter! When the Word speaks to me I stop. I say to myself, what is it trying to say to me? Maybe it doesn’t speak to me and I read on slowly till I come to something that does and I say to myself what is this going to tell me, then I read a bit more … its like taking food slowly.
 
If the Word speaks – that’s wonderful, if it doesn’t, and it doesn’t always, actually; close the book, after some time, and move on to the next thing.
 
When you go to bed it is good to recall what you have learned, you may be surprised how little you remember!  Constantly ask yourself: what am I reading?  This is important.  It is a long journey between what we take in with our brain and what we register in our inner being.

 
The persuading Word

There’s another point to be considered; psychology has proved now that our grey matter is affected by the thoughts that we think – its a soft matter and every thought grooves into it. Now, if I want to lead a wholesome life, the grooves I engrave on my brain need to be worth keeping.  It is like when you do a bit of carving, if you take a carving knife and scratch here, there and everywhere on the surface, you will spoil the wood.  If you keep on grooving that groove then the deeper it goes, the more difficult it will be to eliminate it.   That’s how you memorize.  There used to be a very interesting book back in 1957 called The Hidden Persuaders.  Advertisements had really begun to flourish and the man who wrote it, Vance Packhard, said it doesn’t matter whether you take notice of an advert positively or negatively, as long as you take notice.  It doesn’t matter whether you like the song – you have taken note of it, you see it in the shop and you think: Ah!  So apply that principle when you read.  It is of the utmost importance what we read that it grooves a good groove, because that groove stays put.
 
My one and only weapon against temptation, emotional problems and the rest is a clear-cut ready-made thought pattern, which enables me to say that my emotion-based judgements are not correct. Too often other people have to supply that for us.
 
I will give you a very exaggerated example: if I should feel tempted, because I’m a very angry person, to murder someone, my feeling of injustice could be so strong that it overrides all other emotions. The only way for me to diffuse that bomb is to say to myself, ‘that is not the case’.  The only way I can tackle the emotion, is to provide my reasoning with sober material and that can only be found through continuous repetitive thoughts. Only repeated good thoughts can change an emotional pattern and because the emotions are so strong, the antidote has to be very strong to have any power at all.
 
So Lectio Divina provides us with the means of moving from the presence of God here in the book, to the presence of God in our hearts.
 
In Scripture, God, because he is a lover, appears to each person as that person most
needs it, to the intellectual through the intellect, to the warm-hearted through affectivity.  It can be as thrilling to the intellect, as it is to the heart: and no two people are exactly the same. That is why I, personally, have strong hesitations to recommend the reading of the mystics (by this approach) early on in one’s relationship with God. One’s relationship with God should not and will not
be, like the relationship of other people– and why would one want it to be so?  I’ve met too many people in my time who are so discouraged because their life did not work out the same as some other saint!
 

To sum up:

Read Scripture!  Chew on it, absorb it, fill yourself with the word so that you can live with the Word.  With this, through perseverance and discipline you can exorcise your heartand learn and experience the indwelling of the Holy Trinity.