Oblate Program at Belmont Abbey, NC

Lectio Divina as School of Prayer

11. The modern notion of lectio divina

I would like, now, to give some reflections on the conception one has today of lectio divina, in the light of the teaching of the Fathers of the Desert which I have just presented.

What is today called lectio divina is presented as a method of reading Scripture and also the Fathers of the Church and the Fathers of monasticism. It consists in a slow and meditative reading of the text, a reading made more with the heart than with the mind, it is said, with no practical aim, but simply to allow oneself to be impregnated with the Word of God.

This method, insofar as it is a method, has its origins in the 12th century and is not unrelated to what has been called "monastic theology". In this epoch, the pre-scholastics had developed their method which passed from lectio to quaestio, then to disputatio. The monks' reaction was then to develop their own method: lectio leading to meditatio then to oratio... and a little later they added contemplatio which was then distinguished from oratio.

Even though the approach to Scripture which I have described as being that of the Fathers of the Desert was in reality an approach which they had in common with the people of God as a whole, the new approach or new "method" -- since it was now a matter of an exercise, of an important observance of monastic existence -- took refuge in the monasteries.

Much later, at the time of the devotio moderna, "spiritual reading" became popular, and care was taken to distinguish it clearly from monastic lectio divina. Following a general trend, the spiritual life became specialized, or divided into watertight compartments.

It would be foreign to the theme of the present conference to analyze this long evolution. I will, however, allow myself a few observations. The first is that one may wonder how theology would have developed if the monks had not rejected the method that was coming to birth. In fact, what has been called "monastic theology" had nothing specifically monastic about it up to the twelfth century. It was the way theology developed among the people of God, with, certainly, as much pluralism in the monasteries as outside them. This discerning and contemplative way of expressing theology up to then knew how to take up and transform (inculturate, we would say today), the contributions of diverse methods and diverse currents of thought. One could legitimately wonder how the theology of the following centuries would have evolved if the monks had not rejected the method that was coming to birth and had known how to assimilate it as they had assimilated so many others before. In any case, for better or worse, a way of doing theology called monastic was upheld in the monasteries, while scholastic theology developed in schools outside the monasteries. By a Thomas Aquinas, it is true, the new method was still used in a profoundly contemplative perspective. Among the commentators - and the commentators of the commentators - it became drier and drier.

It was the same situation with the study of Scripture. Up to this time the monks had played a predominant role in the interpretation and use of Scripture, even though their approach was not essentially different from that of the people of God as a whole. From the time when, falling without realizing it under the influence of the new thought, they develop their own method of reading, parallel to that of the scholastic, there exist in the Church two clearly distinct approaches to Scripture: one which concerns a reading with the heart (and which in certain epochs will forget to bring the intelligence along) and one of scientific orientation, which will become drier and drier.

On the other hand, we should realize that the monks , in devising their own method of lectio, were already dependent on the new, pre-scholastic mentality which had created the need for a method. The first monks had no method. They had an attitude of reading.


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