Lectio Divina as School of Prayer
The hermeneutic of Ricoeur teaches us that when one reads an ancient author one enters not so much into relations with the thought of the author as into the very reality of which the author is speaking. That is why there is no possible understanding of a text without a pre-understanding which consists in a certain relation already existing between the reader and the reality of which the text is speaking. Now, one already finds a similar intuition in Cassian at the end of the tenth Conference. Isaac, after having explained the means of arriving at pure prayer adds:
"Brought to life by this food (that of the Scriptures) on which he does not cease to nourish himself, he penetrates to the point of all the sentiments expressed in the psalms, which he recites henceforth not at all as having been composed by the prophet, but as if he himself were the author, and as a personal prayer... " And he adds: "This is, in fact, what the divine Scriptures reveal to us most clearly, and it is their heart and in some way their marrow that are shown to us, when our experience not only allows us to know, but makes us anticipate this very knowledge, and the sense of the words is made known to us, not by some explanation, but by the proof that we ourselves have made of them. (Conf. X, 11)..."
Instructed by what we ourselves feel, the things that we learn by hearsay are not, properly speaking, for us, but we examine the reality in them, so to speak, in order to penetrate to their depths; in no way do they have the effect of having been entrusted to our memory, but we bring them to birth in the depth of our heart, as natural feelings which are part of our being; it is not the reading which makes us penetrate the sense of the words, but the experience we have acquired." (ibid.)
There is no understanding and interpretation without a pre-understanding. From this point of view it is clear that the life the monks led in the desert, a life entirely of silence, solitude and asceticism, constituted a pre-understanding which to a large extent conditioned their understanding of Scripture. Silence and purity of heart were seen as pre-conditions for understanding and interpreting the Scriptures in their full sense.
One can only understand what one already lives, at least up to a point. This is why Saint Jerome points out an order in which to learn Scripture: first the Psalter, then the Proverbs of Solomon and Quohelet (Ecclesiastes), then the New Testament. And it is only when the soul has been long prepared through a long relationship of loving intimacy with Christ that it can fruitfully approach the Song of Songs.
The Fathers of the Desert sometimes responded to a question put to them with a word from Scripture, but they also replied with other words, to which their hearers gave practically the same importance. They were convinced that the power of these words came from the great purity of life of the holy old man who uttered them, for he had himself been transformed by Scripture.