"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Saturday 28 March 2009

Guigo II 0n Contemplation: "THE LADDER OF FOUR RUNGS

Birgitta of Sweden wrote her Fifth Book of the Revelationes concerning a vision she had had riding to Vadstena Castle, of a Doubting Monk upon a ladder reaching up into Heaven, all of whose theological doubts were lovingly and firmly countered by responses from Christ and the Virgin, delivered to him through St Birgitta's vision. The monk in question was likely Magister Mathias of Sweden, Birgitta's initial director, who had studied theology and Hebrew in Paris.

Guigo II, the Carthusian, had written the Scala Paradiso (or Scala Claustralium), its original title, Letter of Dom Guigo the Carthusian to Brother Gervase, about the Contemplative Life, about the year 1150, just before St Bernard's death, for Brother Gervase, and it came to be translated into Middle English, therefore likely for a Latin-less contemplative woman, as A Ladder of Foure Ronges. The image Guigo uses is taken from Jacob's Vision of the Ladder at Bethel, and from the John of Climacus' Scala Virtutum, sometimes called Scala Celi, written at St Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai. This last work Alfonso of Jaén took with him on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, writing into it the diary of Birgitta's journey, though she had counselled him not to bring books, predicting the shipwreck in which many were to be lost.

There are echoes in Julian of Norwich's Showing of Love, particularly in its Westminster Manuscript , of John of Climacus' Scala Virtutum, of this text, and of Birgitta's Revelationes, Book V. So we present Guigo II's A Laddere of Foure Ronges here in translation into modern English, using both Phyllis Hodgson's Early English Text Society (231: 100-117), edition and that made by Abbot Justin McCann, O.S.B., of Ampleforth, printed by the Benedictines of Stanbrook Abbey, 1953, a most beautiful booklet sent me by Christopher Abbot. James Hogg has now published a fine edition in Middle English of the text, repoducing the manuscript, in The Rewyll of Saint Sauioure and A Ladder of Foure Ronges by the Which Men Mowe Clyme to Heven, Edited from the MSS, Cambridge University Library Ff.6.33 and London Guildhall 25524 (Salzburg: Institut fur Anglistik und Amerikanistic Universitat Salzburg, 2003), pp. 253-327. The Middle English text in the context of Syon Abbey clearly is written for women as it audience as well as for men. Sections here that correspond to Julian's Showing are marked with * . We give this text in the hope that Guigo II's work will not merely be read; but also tasted, eaten, consumed, and lived in lectio divina by those in the cloister and in the world.

The text is prefaced with a dedication:

o Brother Gervase from his dear friend, Brother Guy:

reeting and joy in the Lord! I am bound to love you for the love which you first showed to me, and I owe you a letter in return for yours. I send you, therefore, these thoughts of mine concerning the spiritual way which monks should follow. I send them that you may judge and correct my work, for you know much more about the matter than I do, since you know it by experience and I only by study. I owe you some return for all you have done for me. You stole me, O happy theft, from the slavery of Egypt and the delights of the wilderness, to make me a soldier in the ordered army of God. I was a shoot of wild olive , and you cut me off skilfully and wisely grafted me on to the fruitful tree. The first-fruits of my toil are yours by right, and to you I now offer them.



hen I was at hard at work one day, thinking on the spiritual work needful for God's servants, four such spiritual works came to my mind, these being: reading; meditation; prayer; contemplation. This is the ladder for those in cloisters , and for others in the world who are * God's Lovers, by means of which they can climb from earth to heaven. It is a marvellously tall ladder, but with just four rungs, the one end standing on the ground, the other thrilling into the clouds and showing the climber * heavenly secrets.

This is the ladder Jacob saw, in Genesis, that stood on the earth and reached into heaven, on which he saw heavenly angels ascending and descending, with God leaning upon the ladder. From the ascending and descending of the angels is understood that the heavenly angels delight us with much spiritual comforting and carry our prayers up to our Lord in heaven, where he sits on high, and bring back down from him the desire of our hearts, as is proved by Daniel. By God's supporting the ladder is understood that he is always ready to help all who by these four rungs of this ladder will climb wisely, not fearing nor doubting that such a ladder will really help us.

Understand now what the four staves of this ladder are, each in turn. Reading, Lesson, is busily looking on Holy Scripture with all one's will and wit. Meditation is a studious insearching with the mind to know what was before concealed through desiring proper skill. Prayer is a devout desiring of the heart to get what is good and avoid what is evil. Contemplation is the lifting up of the heart to God tasting somewhat of the heavenly sweetness and savour. Reading seeks, meditation finds, prayer asks, contemplation feels. Vnde querite & accipietis: pulsate et aperietur vobis. That is to say 'Seek and you shall find: knock and the door will be opened for you'. That means also, seek through reading, and you will find holy meditation in your thinking; and knock through praying, and the doors shall be opened to you to enter through heavenly contemplation to feel what you desire. * Reading puts as it were whole food into your mouth; meditation chews it and breaks it down; prayer finds its savour; contemplation is the sweetness that so delights and strengthens. * Reading is like the bark, the shell; meditation like the pith, the nut; prayer is in the desiring asking; and contemplation is in the delight of the great sweetness. Reading is the first ground that that precedes and leads one into meditation; meditation seeks busily, and also with deep thought digs and delves deeply to find that treasure; and because it cannot be attained by itself alone, then he sends us into prayer that is mighty and strong. * And so prayer rises to God, and there one finds the treasure one so fervently desires, that is the sweetness and delight of contemplation. And then contemplation comes and yields the harvest of the labour of the other three through a sweet heavenly dew, that the soul drinks in delight and joy.

The first degree is for beginners, the second for those profitting from it, the third for those who are devout, the fourth for those who are holy and blessed of God. The four degrees are so bound together, and each of them so ministering together to each other, that the first as reading and meditation helps only a little or nought all, without those that follow it, such as prayer and contemplation. Also without the first two we delay winning the last two. What use to spend your time in reading or listening to the deeds of the Holy Fathers, unless we bite and chew on them through meditation, and draw out somewhat and swallow it and send it to the heart, so that we may find, and by this understand, our own defaults, and after such knowing that we set ourselves to work that we may attain those virtues that were in them? But how may we thus think or take care that no false or unclean thought pass the boundaries set by our Holy Fathers but if we first either through hearing or in reading be so lawfully taught. Also what does it help a man if he see through meditation what he ought to do unless he through the help of prayer and of God's grace do what he can to win and to hold what he has found in meditation, and understand what he must do for his soul's health? For as the Apostle James says: 'All good gifts and all perfection comes from above from the Father of Light', without whose help we are unable to do any good.

But the good that is in us, if there be any, he does it in us, but not without us, for as Paul says: ' Cooperatores Dei sumus'. That is, we are God's helpers for our good; that is, we open our hearts when he sends us goodness through his grace, and do what is in us to keep and to hold it. But because we may do nothing in repayment, nor for our soul's health, except through his grace, it is therefore somewhat needful to speak of God's grace in this little book.

You shall understand there are three graces from God.

The first is a common grace given by God to all creatures. And this is God's help that he through his goodness gives to all creatures after their kind that they may move and feel, and without his grace they may do nothing, nor in the kind last or endure. For as you just as does water, when it is hot through the force of fire, when fire is removed from it, it ceases to stay warm and naturally it cold; just so is it with each creature and St Augustine notes. For as all creatures are and are made of nought, unless they are sustained and preserved by his grace, soon they will become nought again. St Paul understood that well when he said, 'Gracia Dei sum id quod sum '; as if he said, 'That I am, that I am alive, that I see, feel, or go, or stand, all is from God's grace'.

There is another grace from God, and this is more special. And this grace God only gives to us, to take if we will. And this grace stands always at the door of our heart, and knocks upon our free will to ask to enter, as it says in the Book of Secrets: 'Lo, I stand at the door and knock. Whoever hears my voice and opens the door to me, I shall enter to him, and I shall dine with him and he with me'. Behold here, the gentleness of our Lord who offers himself so humbly of his merciful grace. And this grace is called the grace of God's free gift to us. We need to receive this grace when God sends it, and dispose ourselves with the help of this second grace that we may be worthy to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, that moves us to good and recalls us from evil.

You will understand that for the health of our souls two things are necessary: the first is grace, of which we shall now speak, and the other is free will. Without these two no human creature may achieve soul health for ought that is in us. For free will cannot help without grace, nor grace without free will's help and consent. This St Augustine notes where he says: 'Qui creauit te sine te non iustificabit te sine te'. That is to say, 'He who made you without you', that is, without your help, 'cannot justify you without your help'. And though our free will cannot make grace in us, nevertheless we may do what is in us - cast out the old, which is the old corruptible sin that draws us from grace, and so make us ready that we may receive this grace. As you see that you may not through your own strength make the house be light, yet you may open the window and let the sun shine in to show its light; and if you close your eyes against the sun, who is to blame if you see nought? And if you will not open your mouth to take food, you complain wrongly if you are hungry. God says to you, 'Take heed, if you will open your mouth I will fill it' That means, 'Open your heart to me, and I will fill it with my grace'. And therefore we are greatly to blame who lack this grace, for St Augutine said, 'We lack not grace because God has not given it'. that means, we do not what is in us to receive it, for if we did, the grace of God would come to us to dwell in us. Therefore St Augustine says, 'Deus ingenti liberalitate replet omnes creaturas pro captu earum'. That is to say, God through his great freedom, so free and so generous that he fills all creatures according as they are able to receive. Therefore if we who are moved and called to this grace will open open the gates of our heart and with our free will grant it entry freely he will dwell wholy with us and make us to be in work his true companion. And therefore the apostle says, 'Gracia Dei in me vacua non fuit '. That is, 'The grace of God was not void in me'. No more it was, for he showed in his outer works that the grace of God wrought in him. He does so utterly with all those with whom he makes his dwelling, for he may not be idle, for he must doo ther work for which the Father of Heaven sent him. Of this grace St Augustine spoke and said, 'This grace is ever ready to me, if it finds me ready. Where ever I go, he never leaves me, unless I leave him first'.

God is as a partner in half getting God's works, and works with us as a partner who will profit. He gives his grace, and we our works, as merchants who will profit from what they have coming to them. And he marvellously challenges the love and respect that he has of us, but we as false wretches cheat him fraudulently. And we think we gain all, and we lose all, for we do injury and fraud, we give our love to the devil and our respect to the world and the flesh, and so our love is withdrawn from our gracious partner. As John says in his Epistle, ' Nolite diligere mundum neque ea que in mundo sunt '. That is to say, 'Do not love the things of this world'. Whoever loves the world, the charity of the Father is not in him, for all that is in the world is covetousness of flesh and covetousness of eye and pride of life, which is not of the Father but of the world. And the world shall pass, and covetousness of it. These things are beloved contrary to the counsels of our Lord God and partner. And we defraud him of his part that he bought at such great price, that is with the blood of the undefiled Lamb, Christ Jesus. We separate ourselves from the bliss of our Lord wilfully, just like the hound that carried a cheese to the water bank, and as he looked in the water he saw a shadow of the cheese and he opened his mouth to take it and it fell from him. And God says to such people through Isaiah the Prophet, ' Gloriam meam alteri non dabo'. That is, 'My loving and my worship I shall give to none other but to them, that is to say, who are my true servants'. Be then, man, to God as a true partner and let him have his share.

The third grace is more special, for this is not given to all men, but only to those who open the gates of their heart, and their free will ready to receive this grace that is described here. This grace is the gift of the Holy Spirit that moves us to do good deeds. This grace God gives to us that through it we may gain merit. Without this grace nothing is worthy that we do. This graces rises out of three, the first grace that is freely given that moves the will freely, the other is the assenting of that will, and the third is God making and giving this grace. This grace is the token of God's special love to those whom he sends it. This grace makes us patient in all angryness and meekly endure the loss of goods, loss of worldly friends, bodily harms, sicknesses and penance to remove sin without grudging. This makes us continue in goodness, this makes us wary of evil and to know all good. This God gives her to us as an earnest of the endless bliss if we will hold to it. Therefore by this grace the angels speaks in the Book of Secrets thus, 'Tene quod habes'. 'That is, 'Hold what you have'. As if he said, 'If you will have that joy that is endless, hold fast to that grace that God has sent to you, for this grace leads to bliss.


ut God wills that we pray for this blessed grace, and he wills that we open the door of our heart to his coming, and that is that we assent with our free will to receive his grace. This consent Christ Jesus asked of the Samaritan woman to whom he spoke at the well, as she stood there to draw water, to whom he said: 'Go, and call your husband', as if he had said, 'I will give you my grace if you will assent with your own will.' Also, he asked prayer of her when he said, 'If you knew God's gift, and who he is who says to you "Give me drink", perhaps you would ask of him and he would give to you living water'.

When the woman heard Jesus' words, she thought in her heart that it was good and needful to drink of this precious living water of which Christ spoke. And immediately with great desire she prayed to have this water and said, 'Lord, give me this water'. See now how hearing of Christ's word and following that meditation with deep thought in her heart moved her to pray for this water. How should she have been so moved to pray unless the meditation of her heart had stirred her to this? Or what should the former thought of meditation have brought to her, unless the prayer that followed had won of Christ what she desired? If you will have your meditation richly rewarded you must pray with devotion, through which you may win to the sweetness of contemplation.

Through this then you may understand that reading without meditation is idle, meditation without prayer is without effect, but prayer with devotion wins contemplation. To win to the high ladder of contemplation without prayer, would be miraculous. The power of Almighty God is endless, and his mercy above all his works. Another time he raises of the hard stones Abraham's sons, when he moves and stirs those who are as hard as stones in wickedness to love God. And so as they say, 'He gives the ox by the horn'. That is when he called offers his grace and, neither sought nor desired, joins himself to them. If we read that this can happen so to any, such as to St Paul, nevertheless we should not tempt God and trust that God will do so to us we lying in sin. But we should do what we should - read and set deeply our hearts on God's holy law, and heartily pray him that he help our feebleness, and that he would with the eyes of his mercy see our wretchedness, and always hold ourselves unworthy and wretches. We must ever mistrust ourselves, and lean on him with hearty love, making our moan to him, for to that blessed Lord is the cure of our souls. As Peter said, 'Omnem sollicitudinam nostram projicientes in eum, quoniam ipsi cura est de nobis'. And therefore he comforts us and says, 'Petite et accipietis'. That is, 'Travail with holy love after my grace, and you shall have what you desire. This grace we must win with strength. Lo, now I have told you the properties and the four degrees of the four staves of this wonderful ladder.

Blessed be all who leave vanities and spend their time and occupation in these counsels, and those that sell all and buy the field in which lies the surpassing treasure of sweetness. As our Lord says, 'Vacate et videte quam suavis est Dominus'. That is, 'Think only and see how sweet God our Saviour is. Thus should we climb by this ladder from degree to degree, from stair to stair, and from virtue to virtue, until we see the God of gods in Sion, that is, in the bliss of heaven.


n Matthew Christ says, 'Beati mundo corde, quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt'. Lo, this is a little word, but it is of much virtue and sweetness, and of great effect, and makes way to life. When we hear this little word with our bodily ears, and with the ghostly ears of our heart we have seen it, he speaks to our soul and says, 'It seems that this word may make way to God. I will' - we say - 'try in my heart to seek with his guidance how I may understand and win to this cleanness. For a rich thing it is, and truly it makes them that have it win to the bliss of heaven. And Christ himself promises us that we shall see God, which sight only is the fulfilling of all joy to all who are the *Friends of God .'

When we hear or read this lesson, 'Beati mundo corde, quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt ' - that is to say, 'Blessed are they who are clean in heart for they shall see God' - we begin to chew it and break it with mind and reason, and seeks busily how we may come to this cleanness that is so precious and so mighty that it makes those who have it to see God.

Then meditation goes and searches quickly and finds truly that this so. He does not say, 'Blessed be those of clean body, but those that be of clean heart', for it is not enough to have one's hands clean from evil deeds unless the heart be clean within of thoughts. Therefore David asks in the Psalter when he says, ' Quis ascendit in montem Domini aut quis stabit in loco sanctis ejus ?' And there it is immediately answered, 'Innocens manibus et mundo corde' That is to say, 'Who shall climb or ascend into the hill of God,' that is in heaven, 'or who shall stand in that holy place?' - that is, there to see God in his Godhead. The Holy Ghost in David says and answers, 'Those who do no evil with their hands and whose hearts are clean within'. Yet in meditation we think deeply how the same prophet David, God's darling, fervently prayed for this cleanness, where he says, 'Cor mundum crea in me, Deus '. 'Lord', he says, 'make in me a clean heart'. And we also say, ' Iniquitatem si aspexi in corde meo, non exaudiet Dominus deprecationem meam '. That is to say, 'If I know any wickedness in my heart, God will not hear my prayer'. We think about the holy man, Job, how fearful he was that he were not filled with foul thought, when he said, ' Pepigi foedus cum oculis meis no cogitarem de virgine '. That is, 'I have made a covenant with my eyes that I should not think of a woman or of a virgin'. Lo, how strictly that holy man restrained himself who shut his eyes that he should see no vanities, that he not cast his eyes unwisely on the thing that might cause foul love to rise and to undo the cleanness of his heart.

* When he is thus afraid of losing this cleanness through vain sight, he begins to taste the great reward that rises that is so delectable, so joyful, to see the glorious face of God, that is fairest before all that ever were - not loathly, grisly, and deadly, as our deadly sins make him, but goodly, gracious and lovely and crowned with all joy and clothed with all bliss, as his Father clothed him at his Resurrection. He thinks that in this fairest sight shall be all perfection of joy, of which the prophet said, ' Saciabor cum apparuerit gloria tua'. That is, 'Lord, I shall be fulfilled of all manner of joy when you show your glorious face to me', and surely not before then. Then when he sees that so much sweetness comes from so little a word, how much fire is kindled from so little a spark as that is - Beati mundo corde : Blessed be the clean of heart - he beats it out, hot as it is, and draws it out in length and breadth.

* When the soul of a glowing brand of this fire is enflamed and so ravished in desire to that thing that is the true reward to the cleanness of heart, that is, to see God, then the alabaster box with sweet ointment begins to break, and soon he senses the sweet smells come forth. But not with tasting, but as it were with smelling, he understands the sweet savour, and it is joyful to feel this sweetness. Truly it is said in the meaning of this, that we find in such seeking.

But what shall we do who desire to feel this delight, and find we may not have it by ourselves. For the more we sustain our meditation on this, the more sorrow we find, because we cannot find the sweetness of the cleanness of heart. Meditation shows him, but does not give to him, for neither through reading nor through meditation's thinking can we come to this sense of sweetness, but through the gift that comes from above. Always to be reading and being in meditation is common to both good and to evil: for the philosophers through exercise of their reason found that thing was the goodness of God, but because they did not know God and his goodness, nor loved him, nor worshipped him as God, were unworthy to have this sweetness and the liking of God that would have come of that knowing, and therefore God withheld from them as unworthy. And so all went to nought. That study of our intelligence does not give us the spirit of wisdom, the spiritual gives intelligence and savour to the soul to which it comes, and stirs us with liking, and furthers us with spiritual joy. And this only is spiritual joy and the gift of God and teaching to his chosen disciples. This knowledge is taught by nothing but grace that comes from above. To this wisdom we must open not the ear but the heart. This wisdom is hid from wise men of the world, and shown and opened to the lowly and meek, truly to understand and to feel.

Great strength arises out of humility that is worthy to conceive and win what through our intelligence may not be learned, nor heard with bodily ear, nor told with tongue. This wisdom God keeps only for his chosen, that all reasonable creatures may know and understand there is a Master teaching and reading in heaven, who teaches true wisdom and learning to his chosen scholars, and through his grace enlightens them within, and makes them know and feel what no worldly intelligence may gain. You may see this if you will behold how a simple old poor woman who is of little intelligence, who cannot truly say either the Lord's Prayer or the Creed, will find such liking in so short a time, in innocent sorrow her heart all melts, and without tears and mourning she may not pray.

Who, do you think, taught her how to pray so? Not this world's wisdom but grace from above. See, too, how a poor innocent man who lives by his toil, who is so dull of wit that though he should lose his head he would not stop thinking, may gain this learning and this wisdom as perfectly, if he do what is in him, as the wisest in the land, whosoever he be. Truly he may well be called a Master over all others that bear this name who without wisdom can thus teach wisdom, so that without intelligence they may feel and understand what we may reach to with no wisdom of this world. But we must do what is to be done, and bow the ear of our heart to listen to this learning.

This wisdom is only the gift of God that he has kept to himself to give to those whom he will. Even as God has given the office of christening children to many, but the power in baptism to forgive sin - this he keeps to himself alone. Therefore St John says, 'Here is he who baptises truly' - that is to say truly forgives sin. Thus may we say of him that it is our God, he who gives wisdom to feel and to taste how sweet he is. Many there are who the grace of word; but this grace is given only to few. That God gives to whom he will and when he will.


hen when we see that to the knowing or to the feeling of this wisdom we may not come nor reach by ourselves, and the more we think to travail to climb there, the more we see what the Godhead does, then we see our strength and our intelligence are nought, and we begin to know ourself, and as a poor needy wretch we humble ourself and fall down meekly with a lowly heart to pray, and say,

'Lord, you will not be seen, but by those who are clean of heart. I have done what is in me to do, read and thought deeply and searched what it is and in what manner I might best come to this cleanness that I might somewhat know you. Lord, I have sought and thought with all my poor heart; and, Lord, in my meditation the fire of desire kindles to know you, not only the bitter bark without, in feeling and tasting in my soul. Lord, this worthiness I ask not for myself, * for I am wretched and sinful and most unworthy than all others. But as much, Lord, as the puppy eats of the crumbs that fall from the board of the lord, I ask of the heritage that is to come one drop of the heavenly joy to comfort my thirsty soul that burns in love-longing to you'.

With these and other such desires the heart is enflamed. God is called and prayed as the dear spouse that is to come to this mourning soul that languishes in love. What does God then, whose help is ever upon the righteous and our ear at our prayer? He doesn't wait until the prayer is fully ended, but he pierces in the midst of the burning desire of that thirsty soul, and with a secret balm of heavenly sweetness softens the soul and comforts it, and makes it be so overcome with delight and joy that it forgets all earthly things for that hour, and he makes it to lose itself in wonder, as if it were dead from knowing ourself. And as in fleshly works we are so overcome that we lose the guidance of reason and so become all fleshly, right so in the ladder of contemplation our fleshly stirrings are so cancelled out that the flesh does not win over the spirit but is become all spiritual.

But, Lord, by what thing may we know when you do this, and what is the token of your coming? Are sighs and tears the messengers of this liking and comfort? And if it be so, it seems marvellous, it seems uncommon, that comfort comes with sighs and joy with tears. And it seems they should not be called tears, but a heavenly dew that comes from above, that moistens without, and cleanses the soul within, as comes about in the sacrament of baptism. The outer washing with tears means the inner washing. They are innocent tears, through which outer washing the inner spots are taken away, and the fire of sin is quenched. Blessed are those who weep thus, for Christ says of them they shall laugh. In these tears the soul recognizes God, its true Spouse. This is the solace your loving Spouse gives to you, sighs mingled with tears. But, dearworthy Lord, since these sighs and these tears are so sweet that come from you and liking of great joy, what joy, Lord, and comfort shall your lovers and your chosen have of you when they shall know you and see you as you are! But how of a thing that is so hidden and so unknown can we speak to others that they may understand, since none can understand it unless they have felt it, as those to whom God has sent to a joy and liking of him as to taste here what kind he is and shall be in sweetness to his lovers without end? For all that men read and may hear in books that ought to be read, is unsavoury, unless the heart understands it.


ow, my soul, we have talked of this at length. It seems good and merry for us to be here with Peter and John, to have mirth and joy with our Spouse, and make we our dwelling here with him. There is no need to make three tabernacles, for one is enough to shelter us all, in which we may be together and have our talking in measurable mirth. But what does our Lord say? 'Let me go,' he says, 'for the light of the morning is here'. The light and the comfort that you desire, you have. After the blessing is given, and the sinews in the loins be dried and dead, and the name of Jacob turned to Israel, then the spouse who is desired with jealous love, glides away and withdraws that sweetness that he sent to his lover in contemplation. And he nevertheless is with him, through dearworthy grace and submission of will, as with his dearworthy spouse.

Therefore do not fear that he has forsaken you, though he is gone for a little while, for he does all this to keep you and only for your good. This coming and this parting is gain to you, and know well that through this you gain greatly. He comes to you, and he leaves you. He comes to comfort you, he leaves you that you may be more wary that you, like the ignorant, for that comfort and liking do not believe that you were intimate with him, and think that he sends this to you for your holy living, and therefore think well of yourself and so leap into pride.

Also, if your spouse were always with you, you would think less of him. And this liking and this comfort that you take and feel at different times you would feel it were of nature and not of grace. Therefore know truly that God your dear spouse gives this grace and this comfort when he will and to whom he will, not as an inheritance to have in this life. For it is said in English, 'Familiarity breeds contempt'. Therefore he departs from you so that his long stay with you make him not unworthy to you, and that you when he is departed from you desire him and mourn after him the more heartily, and seek him more quickly that with more grace you may find him. And if it were so that our spouse let his lovers have here at their will the liking that he sends them in contemplation, they would have such liking therein that they would the less desire the great liking that is to come in heaven, that shall last with joyful life without end. Therefore they shall not believe of this exile, that they are cast in their penance to do, that it were heaven when it is a place of woe. Therefore now our spouse comes and now he goes, now he brings comfort and now he withdraws it and leaves us in our feebleness to know who we are; and lets us somewhat feel how sweet he is, but before we may feel him fully he withdraws himself.


o does God Almighty to his Lovers in contemplation like a taverner, who has good wine to sell, to good drinkers who will drink well of his wine and spend well. He knows them well when he sees them in the street. Quietly he goes to them and whispers in their ear and says to them that he has a claret, and of good taste in the mouth. He entices them to his house and gives them a taste. Soon when they have tasted of it and think the drink good and greatly to their pleasure, then

They drink all night, they drink all day;
And the more they drink, the more they may.
Such liking they have of that drink
That of none other wine they think,
But only for to drink their fill
And to have of this drink all their will.
And so they spend what they have, and then they sell or pawn their coat, their hood and all they may, for to drink with liking while they think it good.
Thus it fares sometimes with God's lovers that from the time that they had tasted of this potion, that is, of the sweetness of God, such liking they found in it that as drunken men they spent what they had and gave themselves to fasting and to watching and to doing other penance. And when they had not more to spend they pledged their clothes, as apostles, martyrs, and young maidens did in their time. Some gave their bodies to burn in fire, some let their heads be smitten off, some gave their breasts to be carved from their bodies, and some their bodies to be dragged by wild horses. And all that they did they set at nought, for the desire of that lasting joy that they fully desired to have in the life that is without end. But this liking is given here only to taste; but all those who desire fully to have it, need to follow Christ foot by foot and continually stir him with their loves, as these drinkers do the taverners.

Therefore when God sends any ghostly liking to your soul, think that God speaks to you, and whispers in your ear, and says: 'Have now this little, and taste how sweet I am. But if you will fully feel what you often have tasted, run after me and follow the savour of my ointments. Lift up your heart to me where I am sitting on the right hand of the my Father, and there you shall see me, not as in a mirror, but you shall see me face to face. And then you shall have fully at your will that joy that you have tasted for ever without end. And that joy or liking none shall snatch or take from you.


ut who ever will taste of this liking in contemplation and climb the ladder that stands so high, he needs to be Jacob here in this life, that is, he must do all that his name spells, that is to trample under all worldly wealth, and tread under foot all folly and sins; for the more that a man casts underfoot, the more it helps him climb or reach on high. And then shall his name be changed to 'Israel', which in English means 'God he shall see'; through which sight he shall be fulfilled of that liking that passes all other without comparison. Of this Jacob in the Book of Genesis it tells that the angel wrestled with Jacob and struggled for a long while to have the mastery. But Jacob as the mighty stalwart withstood and won the mastery. When the angel saw that he might do no more, he touched the hip of Jacob and the sinews dried, and ever after that time he was lame in the one foot. And so the foot was benumbed, and his name was turned from Jacob to Israel. By this Jacob is understood man who is lifted on high in contemplation. Then he struggles with the angel and strives, when he travails with all his might to know God. But then at the last is the angel overcome and cast under, when man (through deep thought in a love-longing to know what God is and to feel in contemplation what he desires, conceives and feels in his soul of this sweetness) and si is overtaken by the liking of him that he sets at nought all the wealth of this world. But what is the meaning of this, that when the angel saw that he was overcome he touched Jacob upon the hip and the sinews dried? Because mighty God that can do all things, when he sends his grace to his lovers, would through his grace have them truly know that by sinews are udnerstood all fleshly desires and other vices. So he takes them and makes them dry as though they were dead. And they that before went on two feet and that would have liking both in God and in the world, after they have found sweetness in contemplation, that one foot in their love is whole, and in the other they halt, for worldly love quenches in them and grows all dry. The love of God is whole and sound, and ever more and more strong. Whosoever stands on the foot stalworthily, no woe of this world may overcome him. By a foot in Holy Writ is understood love.

But ever, as God's lover, be you watchful and wary, and understand in what way he withdraws himself from you, your dearworthy spouse. Know well for a truth that he withdraws himself not from you, though you never see him alike. He sees you, for he is full of eyes before and behind. You may hide nothing from him. He has set his spies on you that they watch by day and by night how you bear yourself while your spouse is from you. They are ready to betray you, if they may take you or find any countenance or token in you to any evil. Your spouse is jealous of you. If you take any other love or make any advances to another, he will soon forsake you and turn himself away from you, and withold himself from you until you truly love him, for he will have no lover in between. He will have all or leave all. He will have all your love here, if you in bliss will be his companion. Your spouse is delicious, most noble and very fair before all those that were ever born from a mother. Therefore he wills nothing but what is honest and fair. If he sees anything in you of evil, soon he turns away from you his precious sight, as he may no uncleanness suffer or see. Therefore if you desire to have liking of your spouse, and to have mirth with him at will, you must be modest and chaste.


ut be ever wary, whoever you are, once you are raised so high in contemplation that you think for liking to clasp your spouse with mirth in heaven, lest you from that high stair fall downward to hell and you after that sight of God turn to wanton works or fleshly lusts.

But since it is so that the meditation of our heart that is ravished on high with spiritual delight - as happens in contemplation to God's lovers - may feel the feebleness of the flesh that through its heavy weight ever draws downwards through its heavy burden will not suffer that the liking be fully filled, not let him see the brightness of the true light. Therefore since we must through the burden of the flesh fall downwards from so high a stair, it is good that we make our coming down into some of the degrees by which we climbed upwards, warily and gently so that we not hurt ourself, and rest now in one and now in another, according as our free will stirs us and place or time requires. And as near are you to God as you climb the higher from the first degrees.

But four causes there are that sometimes draw one downwards from these degrees. The first is need that cannot be prevented. The second is lovely and honest work. This third is weakness of nature. The fourth is vanity of this world. The first does not harm, the second may be permitted, the third is wretched, the fourth requires penance be performed. And this especially in those who have climbed to the highest rung of this ladder, and of this dearworthy liking have felt wisely, and before others have tasted of that heavenly sweetness, that from such high freedom have descended so low into the thraldom of this world, to have their liking in it. And where they thought to find honey, they find bitter gall. Wellaway! We may call this a bitter bargain, for it would be better to have no knowing of God than after knowing him to leave and go back.

What defence have they against God for their sin? As who should say, 'None'. For God may rightfully argue with them and say, 'What should I do to you and have I not done it? When you were nought, then I made you. And after that you sinned and made yourself slave who were free, then with the price of myself I bought you from slavery. And after you ran with the sinful of this world, I caught you from them, and before others gave you my grace, for I wanted you close to me. And when I would have made my dwelling with you, you shut me out as a stranger from yourself; and when men spoke my words to you, you lightly caste them behind you, and followed the vanities of the world and the desires of the flesh.

But, dearworthy Lord, sweet friend, wise counsellor, and so strong a helper, foolish, unwise and unhappy is he who casts you out, so gentle and so needful, from his heart. Ah, wellaway! How baleful a change is this: our Maker, our Lover, and All that is, and nought is that is good without him, when we cast him from us, and draw foul and evil thoughts into us; and that secret abiding of the Holy Spirit, that is in our soul, that a while before was lusting in heavenly mirth, so soon is cast down to wicked thoughts and to vanity; and there as were the hot foot steps of your spouse, to bring in on us lecherous desires. It is not seemly that the ears, that right now had heard these words that are not lawful for us to speak, should stoop to vain tales and to backbiting; and the eyes, that just now were baptized with holy tears, now overturned to see vanities; and the tongue, that a little before with loving and praising and other love tokens and petitions had drawn her spouse to her bower and brought him to her chamber, to clasp and kiss him sweetly, should now have her mirths turned one by one into vanity and to foul speech, to cursing and forswearing and to other jangling.

But would God for his pity that all such vices and all that were misliking were put away from us; and if it were so that we in any of them did fall or stumble, that we might soon turn again to our true Physician who heals the sick and comforts the sorry of heart.

To him heartily we pray that he help us to do away from us all evils that might hinder us from loving him.


Explicit Scala Celi

And now it is time to end this letter. Therefore let us pray to God that he lessen here and wholly remove hereafter the hindrances that keep us from his contemplation. May he lead us by the aforesaid rungs until we see the God of gods in Sion, where the chosen enjoy the sweetness of divine contemplation, not drop by drop, nor now and then, but where they are ever fulfilled with the torrent of pleasure and have that joy that no one shall take from them, and peace unchangeable, peace in the selfsame. And do you, Brother Gervase, if it is given to you to climb to the top of the aforesaid ladder, remember me. And when it shall be well with you, pray for me. So friend draw friend,
and he that heareth, let him say, Come!

William of St Thierry on "Lectio Divina"

Lectio Divina

William of St. Thierry on Lectio Divina

§ 120. [A]t fixed hours time should be given to certain definite reading. For haphazard reading, constantly varied and as if lighted on by chance does not edify but makes the mind unstable; taken into the memory lightly, it goes out from it even more lightly. But you should concentrate on certain authors and let your mind grow used to them.

§ 121. The Scriptures need to be read and understood in the same spirit in which they were written. You will never enter into Paul's meaning until by constant application to reading him and by giving yourself to meditation you have imbibed his spirit. You will never understand David until by experience you have made the very sentiments of the psalms your own. And that applies to all Scripture. There is the same gulf between attentive study and mere reading as there is between friendship and acquaintance with a passing guest, between boon companionship and chance meeting.

§ 122. Some part of your daily reading should also each day be committed to memory, taken as it were into the stomach, to be more carefully digested and brought up again for frequent rumination; something in keeping with your vocation and helpful to concentration, something that will take hold of the mind and save it from distraction.

§ 123. The reading should also stimulate the feelings and give rise to prayer, which should interrupt your reading: an interruption which should not so much hamper the reading as restore to it a mind ever more purified for understanding.

§ 124. For reading serves the purpose of the intention with which it is done. If the reader truly seeks God in his reading, everything that he reads tends to promote that end, making the mind surrender in the course of the reading and bring all that is understood into Christ's service.

From: William of Saint Thierry (d. 1148), The Golden Epistle: A Letter to the Brethren at Mont Dieu 1.120-124, trans. Theodore Berkeley, The Works of William of St. Thierry, Cistercian Fathers 12 (Spencer, Mass.: Cistercian Publications, 1971) 51-52. In the Migne Patrologia Latina, volume 184, this would be Book 1, paragraph 31

A Letter by the last Abbot General of the Cistercians (OCSO) on "LECTIO DIVINA"

Prot. N 93/AG/01

January 26, 1993

My dear Brothers and Sisters:

I trust that this new year will be a year of grace for all of you. The Lord gives himself without measure to those who have infinite desires. Let us pray for one another that the divine action may not be in vain in us.

In my circular letter of last year I presented the Good News of the Schola Caritatis in the context of the New Evangelization. My intention was, at the same time, to say something about monastic contemplative identity; or, better yet, attempt to conceptualize my own experience in order to communicate it to you.

Once again, I wish to thank those who have written to me sharing their reactions and reflections. I renew, through this letter, my invitation to dialogue and to a sharing of the gifts the Lord gives us.

I would like today, in the context of the Gospel of the School of Charity, to offer you some thoughts concerning Lectio Divina.

I consider that the two pillars of our contemplative life are: the Eucharist, the Opus Dei, Lectio Divina, and Intentio Cordis; and these pillars are set upon the foundation of asceticism, work and solitude; all being dynamized by the prudent alternation of these exercitia, in the ambitus of a communion of love and convergent pluralism. Not being able to include everything in one letter I will focus on Lectio.

I am very much aware that two of my predecessors have written on this most outstanding exercise of our monastic conversatio. It is not possible to improve on what has been written. Nor do I think that I can say anything diverse, but I assure you that neither will it be adverse.

In his 1978 letter Dom Ambrose said to us: "If we succeed in developing the practice of lectio it will have far-reaching effects on the quality of our monastic life and the contemplative dimension of our monasteries will be enriched." When I read those words then I could sense and sound all the truth contained in them. Today, being more convinced than ever, I am their spokesman.

Well, enough of preambles. I want to spare you the fatigue and annoyance of a long and wide-ranging document. For this reason I have written what follows in the form of brief maxims or sententiae. I trust that this will prove more profitable and, perhaps, more pedagogical.

I follow in this the examples of the ancient spiritual writers. Many of them were accustomed to draft their works in sentence-form, each conveying a central theme. The sentence is a brief and succinct saying offering advice and a rule for living, or shows forth doctrine, morals and good sense, and, in the best examples, wisdom. But for the sentence to convey wisdom it is necessary that he who writes and they who read feel and savor the taste of what they do and live.


1. The Spirit inspired the Scriptures, therefore: it is present and speaks through them. If it breathes in, it also breathes out.

2. The Scriptures breathe life by the inspiration of the Spirit, that is why they are the breath of the Christian monk.

3. All of this living book converges on Christ. The Divine Scriptures are one book only: Christ. He is the concise, living and efficacious Word.

4. All Scripture points to the mystery of Christ: prefigured in the Old Testament and present in the New, interiorized by each Christian and consummated in glory.

5. Because God is Infinite, his Word is also Infinite: Scripture enshrines infinite mysteries, its meaning is unfathomable.

6. The literal meaning of the text is always the point of departure: the letter reveals the deeds and presents the persons, history is the foundation.

7. The Spirit takes us beyond the letter, our theological life opens the doors of meaning to us:

Allegorical, building faith through the discovery of Christ and his Church.

Tropological, teaching us to act in the truth of love.

Analogical, showing us and drawing us towards that for which we yearn.
8. The Gospel is the mouth of Christ, ever-ready to offer to us the kiss of eternity.

9. The Gospel is the body and blood of Christ, to pray and live it is to eat and to drink it.

10. The Gospel is the power of God because it shows us the way and gives us the strength to follow it.

11. Herein is found true life, and my spirit neither has nor desires anything but the prayerful reading of these mysteries!

12. The Church is the only sounding-board of the Word of God. Because she is the Body of Christ, she herself is also the Word. Scripture gives us life in the Spirit, when received in the ambitus of tradition and magisterium.

13. Our Lectio Divina should prolong the Word beyond the Liturgy in order to prepare us for a more fruitful celebration of the same.

14. The cenobite understands the profound meaning of the Word only when living in communion and concord with his brothers.

15. Monastic conversatio should create a biblical climate allowing each and all to be protagonists in the dialogue of salvation.

16. The humus of humility is the good soil in which the Word produces abundant fruit.

17. Only he receives who is recollected, only in silence is heard the beating of the heart of God.

18. We speak to God when we pray with love, we hear God when we read his Word with faith.

19. When we are "nailed" to the Book through our perseverance and assiduity in Lectio, then we will comprehend the folly of the good God.

20. To know Christ crucified we must be crucified to the world.

21. "Here I am, may God write in me what he wills," said Mary. When the heart is a letter written by God, all of God's letters resound in the heart.

22. He who lives the Good News offers the world reasons to live and die.

First Movement: riposato

23. Lectio Divina is:

A meditated reading, above all of the Bible, prolonged in contemplative prayer.

A reading about God with the eyes of a spouse and the heart of the Church.

A reading gratuituously made in order to gratuitously receive the Author of grace.

A transformative reading that evangelizes us, making us evangelizers.

An interpersonal relationship in faith and love, with Christ who speaks to us, in the Spirit who teaches us, and under the gaze of the Father who regards us.

A pilgrimage of words towards the Mystery of the Word.

A slow assimilation of saving Truth whilst in dialogue with the Savior.

An enamoured faith that seeks the Face of God in order to anticipate what is yearned for.

Immersion, compenetration, divinization, emersion.
24. Lectio is divina:

for God is read in his Word and with his Spirit.

because we are brought before the Mystery and it is made present in the heart.

when God who speaks is heard and his presence tasted.
25. Because Lectio Divina is dialogue it is therefore reception, self-gift and communion. Reception by attention and reflection; self-gift through our response, communion through encounter.

26. Miriam of Nazareth, in dialogue with Gabriel, offers us a captivating example of Lectio vere divina.

27. Because Lectio Divina is life it is also movement. Movement in that different moments or experienced can be discerned: reading, meditation, prayer, contemplation. . .

28. Reading, meditation, prayer, contemplation . . . is what normally occurs when we give it time to happen.

29. The gratuity of Lectio Divina is different from the utility of study. Study endeavers to master the word, Lectio Divina surrenders and yields before it.

30. Lectio Divina also differs from spiritual reading. The last can have as its end the acquisition of knowledge, the formulation of convictions or the stimulus for generous self-giving. The aim of the former is union with God in faith and love.

Second Movement: coraggioso ed amplio ma non troppo

31. Lectio Divina is not, as a rule, immediately gratifying. It is an active and passive process of long duration. One does not reap the day following the sowing! The worm is not instantly transformed into a butterfly!

32. There is nothing as purifying as enduring the silence of the Word. But all who know how to wait reap the reward.

33. If you allow yourself to be possessed by the Word, you will hear even his silence.

34. In Lectio Divina there is also room for the Fathers of the Church and Citeaux, their writings confirm and amplify the biblical message; because of their Christian spirit they are sure guides of correct interpretation; and by their holiness of life, they teach us how to live, and help us to commune in the Holy Spirit.

35. Other books are helpful in the measure that they allow us to assimilate the Mystery and be transformed by it.

36. When the beginner says: for me, everything is Lectio Divina; it is to be understood that for him Lectio Divina is meaningless.

Third Movement: adagio però continuo

37. Pay attention: it is God who wishes to speak to you and awaits your reply!

38. The various experiences or moments of Lectio Divina come together in one movement of the spirit. They can co-exist and mutually overlap, they can even alternate in an ever-changing order. The pedestrian makes many movements, but all come together in one action: walking.

39. Assiduous practice lessens rigidity. He who exercises little increases rigidity and makes slow progress. He who does not exercise does not advance.

40. Lectio Divina is a daily practice for the monk and nun at a privileged hour, all the time that is necessary to bring about a dialogue with the most faithful of friends.


41. Reading is a form of listening that allows of always being able to return to what was heard. And listening is being and letting be; without listening, there is no interpersonal relationship.

42. If you read to read and not to have read, then your lectio is serene, restful and disinterested.

43. Do not waste time in looking for a text that is pleasing, choose your text beforehand, perhaps the day's liturgical readings, or follow some theme, or a consecutive reading of the whole Bible.

44. The fool falls into the temptation of saying: I already know this text! The wise man knows that it is one thing to know the chemical formula of water and another to savour it by a spring on a summer's day.

45. If you do not comprehend what you are reading, ask the Lord to help you to understand. And you can help the Lord by: if you read the text in its context, compare it with parallel texts, find the key words, determine the central message. . .

46. If you have read well, you will be able to say what the text means.


47. To meditate is to chew and ruminate, for it is to: repeat, reflect, remember, interpret, penetrate. . . One who thus meditates on the Word is transformed according to the Word and becomes a mediator of the Word.

48. If the text read means nothing to you, love the Word beyond the words and do not hesitate to surrender yourself without reserve. And if the text is a hard saying and you apply it to your neighbor, try re-reading it in the first person.

49. There is no meditation without distraction. Return, then, to the reading. Concentrate on the key words.

50. When the text speaks to your heart, you have reached and received a precious fruit of meditation.


51. Prayer during Lectio Divina can take many forms: praise, petition, thanksgiving, compunction. . .

52. Having listened by reading and meditation, you can now speak in prayer. If you know what the text says and what it says to you: what do you say to Him?

53. Silence can also be a response, as much for the one who prays, carried out of himself, as for Him who knows all.


54. To contemplate is to take silent delight in the Temple which is the Risen Christ.

55. To contemplate is to encounter the Word, beyond words.

56. To contemplate is to live in the Risen One, rooted in the now of this earth, reaching out to the beyond of the heavens.

57. Contemplation is vision. The contemplative sees the resurrection in the cross, life in death, the Risen One in the Crucified.

58. Contemplation is the thirst caused by the seeming absence or the satiety of mutual presence.

59. The contemplative is at a loss for words, simply because he knows.

Fourth Movement: codetta


60. Collatio is contribution or provision, confrontation or dialogue. It is to provide fuel for meditation, fire for prayer, light for contemplation, motivation for acts. . .


61. Action refers, before all, to the conversion of one's heart, behaving as a disciple and under the discipline of the Truth revealed for our salvation.


62. Every good work is in collaboration with the One who does all things well. He who collaborates with Him works and prays with all.


63. The Bible is not intended only to tell us about God but to transform us according to the form of Christ.

64. Scripture is the word that informs, giving us the form of Christians.

65. The virginal conception of the Virgin Mother is a mystery of redemption and also a model for imitation: conceiving the Word in the womb of the heart, embracing the will of the Father, makes us brother, sister, and mother.

66. The Word and the words are for man, and not man for the words, because man is for the Word.

67. He who has progressed in Lectio Divina experiences the need for fewer words and more of the Word.

68. He who has been transformed by the Word can read it in the events of each day, and in those signs of the times which are voices of God manifested through the deepest human aspirations.

69. He who has revealed truth engraven in the innermost depths of his heart, does not depend on the sacred text and is for others a living Bible.

70. If you want to know and reach Christ, you will arrive at it much sooner by following him than by reading about him.

Having arrived at this point in the letter I realize that I have written more than I had intended to, but certainly much less than the subject deserves. There are many aspects of Lectio Divina that have been left out, and others that I have never experienced.

We all know that one of our capital "vices" is activism. Dom Gabriel had already mentioned this in 1955, and in the house reports of the last General Chapter it appeared with great frequency. We are dealing with a pernicious vice, for it unsettles monastic otio, shatters the desire for eternal life, interferes with the continual search for the face of God and alters, finally, the very nature of contemplative life.

I know of a powerful weapon with which to attack and conquer this most unnatural activism: the equilibrium and alternation between Lectio Divina, liturgy and work. And the best way to safeguard this equilibrium is to give Lectio Divina a place of priority. Credete expertibus!

Allow me to share some words of Gilbert, abbot of Hoyland, that challenged me deeply during my first years of monastic life, and have preserved for me until the present all of their prophetic weight.

You, who pray on the run but dally with books, you who are fervent in reading and lukewarm in praying. Reading should serve prayer, should dispose the affections, should neither devour the hours nor gobble up the moments of prayer. When you read you are taught about Christ, but when you pray you join him in familiar colloquy. How much more enchanting is the grace of speaking with him than about him! (Serm. Cant. VII:2)
But, actually, the great master of Lectio is William, abbot of Saint Thierry. His prayed meditations are an eloquent testimony to his application to lectio and to his heart, full of desire and divine contemplation. Put yourselves under his tutelage and he, as a good disciple of the one only Teacher, will make masters of you.

This letter has no conclusion. It is each of you who must continue it. But, please, let no one bring it to a close. Let us leave it unfinished, as a sign of the search that is to continue until it ends in Infinity.

I ask your prayers, assuring you of a constant remembrance in the sacrifice of my own. With a fond embrace, in Mary of St. Joseph.

Bernardo Olivera
Abbot General

Lectio Divina as the school of prayer among the Fathers of the Desert

Catholic Maronite Monastery in Lebanon
Lectio Divina as school of prayer among the Fathers of the Desert

Note: This is the translation of a talk given at the Centre Saint-Louis-des-Français,
in Rome, in November 1995
Scripture, school of life

The vocation of Antony, as it is described for us by Athanasius in his Life of Antony, is well known. One day the young Antony, who had been brought up in a Christian family of the church of Alexandria (or at least in the region of Alexandria), and who had therefore heard the Scriptures read since his childhood, enters the church and is particularly struck by the text of Scripture that he hears read: the story of the call of the rich young man: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me; you will have a treasure in heaven". (Matt. 19,21; Vit. Ant. 2)

Antony has undoubtedly heard this text many times before; but this day the message strikes him most forcibly, and he receives it as a personal call. He therefore answers the call, sells the family property - which is quite considerable - and distributes the profits of the sale to the poor of the village, keeping just enough to support his younger sister for whom he is responsible.

A little later, on entering the church once again, he hears another Gospel text which affects him as much as the first: "Take no thought for the morrow" (Matt. 6,34; Ant.3). This text too goes straight to his heart as a personal call. And so he entrusts his sister to a community of virgins, (such communities have been long in existence), rids himself of everything that remains to him and undertakes the ascetical life near his village, under the guidance of the ascetics of the region.

This story shows clearly the importance and the meaning that Scripture had among the Fathers of the Desert. It was first of all a school of life. And because it was a school of life, it was also a school of prayer for the men and women who desired to make of their life a continual prayer, as Scripture demanded of them.

The Fathers of the desert wished to carry out faithfully in their lives all the precepts of Scripture. And, in the Scriptures, the first concrete precept they found on the frequency of prayer was not that they ought not to pray at this or that hour of the day or night, but that they ought to pray without ceasing.

Athanasius writes of Antony: (Vit. Ant. 3): "He worked with his hands, having heard that he who is idle, let him not eat (2 Thes. 3,10). And he spent what he made partly for bread, and partly on those in need. He prayed constantly, since he learned that it is necessary to pray unceasingly in private. For he paid such close attention to what was read that nothing from Scripture did he fail to take in -- rather he grasped everything, and in him the memory took the place of books@.

We should notice at once in this text of Athanasius, that continual prayer is accompanied by other activities, in particular work, and also the expression Ahe paid such close attention to what was read@.

Obviously, we cannot speak of Scripture as a school of prayer among the Fathers of the Desert without reference to the two admirable Conferences which Cassian devoted explicitly to prayer, both attributed to abba Isaac, the 9th and 10th.

The fundamental principle is given at once at the beginning of Conf. 9: "The whole aim of the monk and the perfection of the heart consists in an uninterrupted perseverance in prayer". And Isaac explains that all the rest of the monastic life, ascesis and the practice of the virtues has no meaning or reason unless it leads to this end.

What does "lectio divina" mean?

Before going any further, I would like to make clear at once that when I speak of lectio divina among the Fathers of the Desert in this conference, I do not understand the expression lectio divina in the technical (and reduced) sense which has been given it in spiritual and monastic literature in these last decades.

The Latin word lectio in its first sense means a teaching, a lesson. In a second, derived sense, lectio can also signify a text or a group of texts transmitting this teaching. Thus we speak of the lessons (lectiones) from Scripture read during the liturgy. Finally, in a still more derived, and later sense, lectio can also mean reading.

This last sense is obviously the one in which this expression is understood today. In our days, in fact, lectio divina is spoken of as a specific observance; and we are told that it is a form of reading different from all others, and that above all we must not confuse true lectio divina with other forms of simply "spiritual reading". This is a completely modern vision, and as such, represents a concept foreign to the Fathers of the Desert, and to which I shall return presently.

If we consult the entire early Latin literature (which can be done easily in our day, either by means of good concordances or with the CDRoms of CETEDOC), we notice that each time we find the expression lectio divina among the Latin writers prior to the Middle Ages, this expression signifies Holy Scripture itself, and not a human activity on Holy Scripture. Lectio divina is synonymous with sacra pagina. Thus we are told that lectio divina teaches us such and such a thing ; that we should listen attentively to lectio divina, that the Divine Master, in lectio divina, reminds us of such and such a demand, etc.

Examples: Cyprian: "Sit in manibus divina lectio", (De zelo et livore, cap. 16)

Ambrose: "ut divinae lectionis exemplo utamur", (De bono mortis, cap.1. par.2)
Augustine: "aliter invenerit in lectione divina", (Enarr. in psalmos, ps.36, serm.3. par.1)

This is the sole meaning of the expression lectio divina during the period of the Fathers of the Desert. It is thus the sense in which I shall use it in this conference, except when I make allusion to the contemporary approach. I shall not speak of a particular observance having Scripture as its object, but of Scripture itself as School of life and therefore School of prayer of the first monks.


To speak of the "reading" of Scripture among the Fathers leads, moreover, to confusion. Reading properly so called, as we understand it today, must have been, in fact, quite rare. The monks of Pachomius, for example, who came for the most part from paganism, were obliged, on their arrival at the monastery, to learn to read if they could not already do so, so as to be able to learn the Scriptures. A text of the rule says that there should be no-one in the monastery who does not know by heart at least the New Testament and the Psalms. But once memorised, these texts become the object of a "meletè", a continual meditatio or ruminatio all the day long and for a good part of the night, in private as well as in the common prayer. This ruminatio of Scripture is not understood as vocal prayer, but rather as a constant contact with God through his Word. A constant attentiveness, which itself becomes a constant prayer.

A story from the apophthegmata shows clearly this relative importance of reading compared with the absolute importance of the contents of Scripture:

"At a time of great cold, Serapion meets in Alexandria a poor man who is completely naked. He says to himself: "This is Christ, and I am a murderer if he dies without my having tried to help him." So Serapion takes off all his clothes and gives them to the poor man, then he remains naked in the street with the only thing he has left, a Gospel under his arm... A passer-by, who knows him, asks him: "Abba Serapion, who has taken away your clothes?" And Serapion, showing his Gospel, replies: "This is the one who has taken away my clothes." Serapion then goes to another place and there sees someone who is being taken to prison, because he is unable to pay a debt. Serapion, seized with pity, gives him his Gospel, so that he can sell it and so pay his debt. When Serapion returns to his cell, no doubt shivering, his disciple asks him where his tunic is, and Serapion replies that he has sent it where it is more needed than on his body. To his disciple's second question : "And where is your Gospel?', Serapion replies: I have sold the one who continually told me: Sell your goods, and give to the poor (Lk. 12,33); I have given it to the poor that I might have greater confidence on the day of judgment" (Pat. Arm. 13, 8, R: III, 189).

As we saw at the beginning, Antony, a Christian from birth, was converted to the ascetical life by lectio divina, or the sacra pagina, proclaimed in the local ecclesial community, during the celebration of the liturgy.

Pachomius, who, on the contrary, came from a pagan family of Upper Egypt, was also converted by Scripture, but by Scripture interpreted and incarnated in the concrete life of a Christian community who lived the Gospel, that of Latopolis. You know the story: The young Pachomius was conscripted into the Roman army and sent on a ship that took him with the other recruits to Alexandria. One evening the ship stopped at Latopolis and as the conscripts were put in prison the Christians of the place brought food and drink to the prisoners. That was Pachomius= first encounter with Christianity.

For Antony, representative par excellence of the anchoritic life, as for Pachomius, representative of the cenobitic, Scripture is above all a Rule of life. It is even the only true Rule of the monk. Neither Antony nor Pachomius wrote a Rule in the sense in which it would be understood in the monastic tradition after them, although a certain number of practical rules of Pachomius and his successors have been brought together under the name of the "Rule of Pachomius".

Scripture as the sole "Rule" of the monk

To a group of brothers who asked Antony for a "word" he replied: "You have heard the Scriptures? they will do very well for you". (Note the word: "heard" - èkousate) (Ant. 19).

Someone else asked Antony: "What must I do in order to please God?" The old man replied: "Pay attention to what I advise you: wherever you go, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Scriptures." (Ant. 3).

Let us notice at once three things in this brief apophthegm. First of all, the monk who questions Antony is not seeking a theoretical or abstract teaching. His request, like that of the rich young man of the Gospel, is very concrete. "What must I do?" -"What must I do in order to please God?" (This is an attitude, moreover, that is found constantly in the apophthegmata). Antony's response is two-fold. One pleases God if one has God always before one's eyes, that is to say, if one lives constantly in the presence of God - which is the concept the Fathers of the Desert have of continual prayer; and this is possible if one allows oneself to be guided by the Scriptures. Antony is not speaking here of reading or meditating on the Scriptures, but of truly doing everything according to the testimony of the Scriptures.

One day, Theodore, the favourite disciple of Pachomius, asked the latter, with the fervour of a neophyte, how many days one ought to remain without eating during The Pasch, that is to say during Holy Week. (The rule of the Church and the general custom was to observe a complete fast during the Friday and Saturday of Easter; but there were some who went for three or four days without eating.) Pachomius advised him to keep to the Rule of the Church, which demanded a total fast during the two days only, in order, said he, to have the strength to accomplish without weakening the things that are commanded us in the Scriptures: unceasing prayer, vigils, reciting the law of God and manual labour.

What is above all important for the Fathers of the Desert, is not to read the Bible, but to live it. Obviously, in order to live it one must know it. And like all Christians, the monk learned the Scriptures in the first place by hearing them proclaimed in the liturgical assembly. He also learned by heart the important parts of Scripture in order to be able to ruminate them all day long. Finally, certain ones had access to manuscripts of the Scriptures and were able to read them privately. This private reading was merely one form among others, and not necessarily the most important, of allowing oneself to be constantly challenged by the word of God.

The hermeneutics of the desert

The few narratives I have mentioned give us a glimpse of the lines of force of what might be called the hermeneutics of the Fathers of the Desert - hermeneutics which are certainly never expressed in the form of abstract principles, but which are hermeneutics nevertheless. The great masters of modern hermeneutics, who considers every interpretation as a dialogue between the text and the reader or the hearer, and for whom every interpretation should normally lead to a transformation or a conversion, invented nothing. They gave expression to a reality which the Fathers of the Desert lived, certainly without being able to formulate it, - or in any case without being concerned about formulating it.

In the desert, Scripture is constantly being interpreted. This interpretation is not expressed in the form of commentaries and homilies, but in actions and gestures, in a life of holiness transformed by the constant dialogue of the monk with the Scriptures. The texts do not cease to be ever more significant not only for those who read and hear them, but also for those who meet these monks who have incarnated these texts in their life. The man of God who has assimilated the Word of God has become a new "text", a new object of interpretation. Moreover, it is in this context that we should understand the fact that in the desert the word of the Ancient is considered to have the same power as the Word of Scripture.

I have mentioned above the apophthegm of Antony when he replied to the brothers: "You have heard the Scriptures? they will do very well for you. In fact the brothers were not satisfied with this reply and said to him: "Father, we would also like a word from you". Then Antony told them:"The Gospel says: if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also". They said: "We cannot do that." The old man said to them: "If you cannot offer the other one, at least allow him to strike you on one cheek." - "We cannot even do that" - "If you cannot even do that", said he, "do not pay back the evil you have received." And they said: "We cannot do this either". Then the old man said to his disciple: "Prepare a little broth of corn for them, for they are ill. If you cannot do this, and you will not do that, what can I do for you? You are in need of prayer."

Sons of the Church of Egypt and of Alexandria

This manner of understanding Scripture as Rule of life was not, moreover, peculiar to monks. We must not forget that the Fathers of the Desert who are known to us through the Apophthegmata, the Pachomian literature, Palladius and Cassian, etc. are above all Egyptian monks of the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth century. These monks are sons of the Church. They belong to a specific Church, that of Egypt, formed in the spiritual tradition of Alexandria.

The myth according to which most of the first monks, beginning with Antony, were illiterate and ignorant, no longer stands up to scientific research. Many recent studies, particularly those of Samuel Rubenson on the Letters of Antony, have shown that Antony and the first monks of the Desert of Egypt had assimilated the spiritual teaching of the Church of Alexandria, which was still profoundly marked by the teaching of the great masters of the School of Alexandria, and in particular by the mystical inspiration given it by its most illustrious master, the great Origen.

The Church of Alexandria was born from the first generation of Christianity in the heart of a highly educated Jewish diaspora counting, according to Pliny, about a million members; this explains the fact that this Church of Alexandria and of Egypt had from the beginning a very marked Judeo-Christian orientation. It explains at the same time its openness to the scriptural and mystical tradition that had marked the Judeo-Christian Churches of the first generations of Christians..

The School of the Desert is, from many points of view, the replica in solitude of the School of Alexandria where we know that Origen had lived with his disciples a form of monastic life completely centred on the Word of God. According to a beautiful description of Jerome's, this life was a continual alternation between prayer and reading, reading and prayer, night and day. (Letter to Marcella 43,1; PL 22:478: Hoc diebus egisse et noctibus, ut et lectio orationem exciperet, et oratio lectionem.)

Nor was this peculiar to Egypt. At almost the same time Cyprian of Carthage was formulating a rule which would later be quoted by almost all the Latin Fathers: "Either pray assiduously or read assiduously; sometimes speak to God, at other times listen to God speaking to you" (Letter 1,15; P.L.4:221 B: Sit tibi vel oratio assidua vel lectio: nunc cum Deo loquere, nunc Deus tecum - which became the classic formula: "when you pray, you speak to God, when you read, God speaks to you").

If all the Egyptian monks were not Evagrius, and if few among them must have read Origen in the text, the fact remains that they were formed to Christian spirituality by the teaching of pastors who remained strongly influenced by the orientation Origen had given to the Church of Alexandria through the School which he directed there for many years.

That explains the solid biblical spirituality of primitive monasticism. One could object immediately that biblical quotations are, when all is said and done, few enough in the Apophthegmata, even though they are much more frequent in the Pachomian literature. The answer is that Scripture had so fashioned the manner of life of these ascetics, that it would be superfluous to quote passages from it. The Apneumatophoros@ monk was the one who, living according to the Scriptures, was filled with the same Spirit as had inspired the Scriptures. (They were far then from the modern custom which demands that no statement, no teaching be taken seriously unless it is embellished with a footnote indicating all the people who have said the same thing before us.)

The tradition of what is now called lectio divina, that is to say, the desire to allow oneself to be challenged and transformed by the fire of the Word of God, would not be understood without its dependency, beyond primitive monasticism, from the tradition of Christian asceticism of the first three centuries, and even from its roots in the tradition of Israel.

From the catechesis received in his local Church, the monk learned that he was created in the image of God, that that image was deformed by sin and that it must be reformed. For that he must let himself be transformed and reshaped to the image of Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit and his life according to the Gospel, his resemblance to Christ is gradually restored and he is able to know God.

We have seen that the goal of the monk's life, as expressed by Cassian, is continual prayer, which he describes as a constant awareness of the presence of God, realised through purity of heart. It is not acquired through this observance or that, nor even through reading or meditating on Scripture, but through letting oneself be transformed by Scripture.

Contact with the Word of God - no matter whether this contact be through the liturgical reading of the Word, the teaching of a spiritual father, the private reading of a text or the simple rumination of a verse or some words learned by heart - this contact is the starting point for a dialogue with God. This dialogue is established and pursued in the measure in which the monk has attained a certain purity of heart, a simplicity of heart and intention, and also in the measure in which he has put into practice the means of arriving at this purity of heart and of maintaining it. This dialogue, in the course of which the Word unceasingly challenges the monk to conversion, sustains this continual attention to God, which the Fathers considered as continual prayer, and which is the goal of their life.

For the monks of the Desert the reading of the word of God is not simply a religious exercise of lectio which gradually prepares the spirit and the heart for meditatio then for oratio, in the hope that it may arrive even at contemplatio (... if possible before the half-hour or hour of lectio is over). For the monks of the desert contact with the Word is contact with the fire that burns, disturbs, calls violently to conversion. Contact with Scripture is not for them a method of prayer; it is a mystical encounter. And this encounter often makes them afraid, insofar as they are conscious of its demands.

Hermeneutic circle

Scripture constantly takes on a new meaning, each time one reads it. Here again modern hermeneutics concur with the intuitions of the Fathers of the Desert: These would have identify with the statement of Augustine: "Yesterday you understood a little, today you understand more; tomorrow you will understand still more: the very light of God becomes stronger in you" (In Joh. tract. 14,5, CCL 36, p.144, lines 34-36).

For the monks of the desert, the words of Scripture (as also, indeed, those of the Ancients), transcended the limited dimension of the "event" in which these words were first encountered and in which their meaning was discerned. These "words" projected a "universe of meaning" into which they tried to enter. The call to sell everything, to give the proceeds to the poor, to follow the Gospel (Matt. 19:21), the exhortation never to let the sun go down on one's anger (Eph. 4:25), the commandment to love; all these texts formed the life of the fathers of the desert in a particular way and projected a "universe of meaning" into which they strove to enter, which they strove to make their own. Sanctity in the desert consisted in giving a concrete form to this universe of possibilities which sprang from the sacred texts, in interpreting them and making them a reality in daily life.

Abba Nesteros (in Cassian, Conf. 14), tells us that "we must have the zeal to learn by heart the sacred Scriptures in their order, and to go over and over them without ceasing in our memory. This continual meditation - says he - will procure for us a double fruit." First of all, it will preserve us from evil thoughts. Then, this continual recitation or meditation will lead us to a constantly new understanding. And Nesteros has this wonderful sentence: "In the measure in which our spirit is renewed by this study, the Scriptures also begin to take on a new face (scripturarum facies incipiet innovari). A more mysterious understanding is given us, whose beauty grows with our progress." (Again, we find this indissoluble link between putting the Scriptures into practice and the ability to understand them at a deeper level).

We could once more compare this vision with the modern approach of a Ricoeur, for example, who says that once a text has come out of the hand of its author it acquires an existence of its own, and assumes a new meaning each time it is read - each reading being an interpretation, which is a revelation of one of the almost infinite possibilities contained in the text.

According to the modern method of lectio divina, one should read slowly and stop at a verse long enough for it to nourish the heart or the spirit, if not the emotions, and pass to the following verse when the feelings have cooled or when the attention is lost. The first monks, for their part, stayed with a verse as long as they had not put it into practice.

Someone comes to abba Pambo asking him to teach him a psalm. Pambo begins to teach him psalm 38: but hardly has he pronounced the first verse:"I said: 'I will be watchful of my ways, for fear I should sin with my tongue?..." the brother does not wish to hear any more. He tells Pambo, "this verse is enough for me; please God I may have the strength to learn it and put it into practice". Nineteen years later he was still trying... (Arm 19, 23 Aa: IV 163).

Likewise, someone asked abba Abraham, who was an excellent scribe as well as a man of prayer, to copy psalm 33. He copied only verse 15: "Turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it", saying to the brother: "Put this into practice first, and then I will write the rest..." (Arm 10, 67: III, 41).

The Bible, for the Fathers, is not something that one knows with the intellect, or even with the heart, as we like to say these days, (often enough, however, confusing the biblical concept of heart with a notion of "heart" more recent and somewhat sentimental). For the Fathers, one knows the bible by assimilating it to the point of translating it into life. All other knowledge that does not lead to this is useless.

Understanding Scripture

But all this is not to say that we must not approach Scripture with the intellect also. The monks are concerned to understand the literal sense of Scripture before applying it to themselves. In the Pachomian monasteries, for example, there were each week three catecheses in the course of which either the superior of the monastery or the superior of the house would interpret Scripture during the synaxis, after which the brethren would discuss among themselves what they had understood, in order to make sure that every one had been understood correctly.

The interpretation of a difficult text calls for an effort of the intellect; but this effort would be useless without divine light, which must be asked for in prayer. In this sense prayer ought to precede lectio as well as being its fruit. When two brother questioned Antony on the meaning of a difficult text of the Book of Leviticus, Antony asked them to wait for some time, while he went to pray, begging God to send Moses to him to teach him the meaning of this text. (Arm. 12,1B: II, 148). Before him, Origen did the same, asking his disciples to pray with him to obtain understanding of a particularly difficult sacred text, in order, said he, to find the "spiritual edification" contained in this text. (L. Doutreleau, Origène. Homélies sur la Genèse. Trad. et notes -- SC 7, Paris 1943, Hom. 2,3, p. 96). (Notice the expression "contained in the text". The spiritual meaning of Scripture is not something artificially added to it; but something contained in the text, which must be discovered.)

In the same way, a great monk, Isaac of Nineveh, wrote: "Do not approach then words of Scripture, full of mystery, without prayer... say to God: "Lord, make me perceive the strength that is to be found here". (Voir J. Wensink, Mystic Treatise by Isaac of Nineveh (Amsterdam, 1923), par. 329, ch. XLV, p. 220). What we seek in a text is not an abstract, immaterial meaning, it is a power capable of transforming the reader.

Modern theories on lectio divina generally insist on the fact that lectio is something completely different from study. The Fathers certainly would not have understood this distinction and this division into separate compartments. Their approach to Scripture was unified. Every effort to learn Scripture, to understand it, to put it into practice, was simply an effort to enter into dialogue with God and to allow oneself to be transformed by him in this dialogue which became a continual prayer. Neither they nor Origen, nor above all Jerome, for whom ignorance of the Scriptures was ignorance of Christ, (In Esaiam, Prol. CCL 73,2, CCL 78,66) would have understood a study of Scripture which was not a personal encounter with the living God.

For Jerome, prayer resides not primarily in the heart but in the intellect from where it goes into the heart. It is necessary to know God first in order to love him. He who truly knows cannot help loving. Hence the importance of studying deeply and understanding the Scriptures with the intellect.

Of Marcella, who more than all the other disciples of Jerome had studied the Scriptures in depth and read them assiduously, he said: "She understood that meditation does not consist in repeating the texts of Scripture... for she knew that she would only deserve to understand the Scriptures when she had translated the commandments into life." (Ep. 127,4, CSEL 56, 148).

In his 14th Conference, Cassian, as a good spokesman for the spirituality of the deserts of Egypt where he lived for several years at the same time as Evagrius, distinguishes two forms of science, practikè and theoretikè, this last being the contemplation of things divine, and the understanding of the most sacred meanings. This theoretikè, or contemplation of things divine, he also calls "the true science of the Scriptures", which he divides into two parts, the historical interpretation and the spiritual understanding. Both one and the other belong to contemplation.

Cassian adds: "if you wish to attain to the true science of the Scriptures, hasten first of all to acquire an unshakeable humility of heart. It is this that will lead you, not to the science that puffs up, but to that which illumines, by the consummation of charity". Thus, what decides whether the study of Scripture is a contemplative activity or not, is not the method of reading or interpretation used, but the attitude of the heart.


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, 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.

Word of the Ancients

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.

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.

Often in the course of the past centuries the monks forgot their own characteristic way of reading Scripture and the Fathers and of doing theology, and adopted everyone else's. It was therefore necessary for the monks of our time to return to a way of doing theology other than that of the scholastic text-books, and to return to a way of reading Scripture and the Fathers other than that of modern scientific exegesis. We owe a debt of great appreciation to Dom Jean Leclercq for having pointed contemporary monasticism in this direction. Moreover, we could say, with a smile, that the concepts of monastic theology and lectio divina, as we understand these two realities today, are the two most beautiful creations of Dom Jean Leclercq.

It was important, I repeat, that monasticism rediscover this way of reading Scripture and this way of doing theology. But it has to go further: it has to recognize that this way of reading Scripture and of doing theology is in no way specifically monastic. It is the entire people of God who must rediscover it, since it was the way in which, at one time, the entire people of God used to read Scripture and do theology.

We must, however, take another step. We must go beyond the separation of the life of the monk from that of other Christians. We must rediscover the primitive unity that has been lost on the way.

In fact, if it is true that we should rejoice at the place lectio divina has taken in the life of monks and also in that of many Christians outside the monastery for the past forty years or so, it is also true that the present attitude in regard to this reality is not without danger.

The danger is that, very often, although sometimes imperceptibly, lectio is transformed into an exercise - one exercise among others, even if it is considered the most important of all. The faithful monk makes a half-hour or an hour and even more of lectio each day, and moves on to his spiritual reading, his studies and his other activities. He adopts a gratuitous attitude of listening to God during this half-hour, and often gives himself up to other activities during the rest of the day with the same frenzy, the same spirit of competition, the same distraction, as if he had not chosen a life of continual prayer and constant seeking of the presence of God.

Not only is all this totally foreign to the spirit of the monks of the desert, but this attitude is in contradiction of the very nature of lectio divina. What is the essence of lectio, as described by its best exponents, is the interior attitude. Now, this attitude is not something that can be put on for half an hour or one hour of the day. One has it all the time or not at all. It impregnates our whole day, or the exercise of it is a pointless game.

To allow oneself to be questioned by God, to allow oneself to be challenged, formed, throughout all the elements of the day, throughout work as throughout fraternal encounters, throughout the harsh ascesis of a serious intellectual work as throughout the celebration of the liturgy and the normal tensions of community life - all this is terribly demanding. To relegate this attitude of total openness to one privileged exercise which is supposed to impregnate bu itself the rest of our day is perhaps a too facile way of running away from this demand.

For the Fathers of the Desert, reading, meditating, praying, analysing, interpreting, examining, translating Scripture - all that formed one inseparable whole. It would have been unthinkable for a Jerome to consider that his elaborate analysis of the Hebrew text of Scripture to discover all its nuances was an activity not meriting the name of lectio divina.

It is certainly fortunate that we have rediscovered the importance of reading the word of God with the heart, of reading it in such a way as to let it transform us. But I think it is an error to make an exercise of it rather than to impregnate with this attitude the thousand and one facets of our approach to Scripture.

Furthermore, to believe that the text of Scripture can meet me in my profound life, can challenge and transform me only when I come before the naked text without recourse to all the instruments which can let me meet it in its first meaning, runs a strong risk of leading to a fundamentalist attitude - not rare in our days - or again to a false mysticism, which is also frequent enough.

Since it is generally admitted in our days, that lectio divina can have as its object not only Scripture but also the Fathers of the Church and, for monks and nuns, in particular the Fathers of monasticism, I will allow myself a reflection on this also.

Monastic tradition, being a lived interpretation of the Word of God, has an importance similar to it, although secondary to it. (We have seen, moreover, how the Fathers of the Desert tended to give the same power to the Word or example of an Ancient transformed by the Spirit as to the Word of God or an example from the Bible. But this lived word which is the monastic tradition also needs to be continually interpreted and re-interpreted.

In our days the Fathers have been re-discovered in monastic communities. And we should praise this re-discovery. But their message, even more than that of the Scriptures, is shrouded in a given culture which is not, as is too often assumed, the monastic culture -- as if there were only one -- but rather the cultural context of such or such a particular epoch in which the ancient monks lived their monastic vocation. The modern reader must expose himself/herself without any critical mind set to the transforming force of the grace which they lived and which they convey; but he/she can only do this after having peeled off, with a very fine critical sensitivity, the cultural shroud under which this precious nourishment is hidden.

Just as there does not exist one Christian culture, parallel to all the profane cultures, but many local cultures that have been christianized, - and these in differing degrees; in the same way, there does not exist one monastic culture, but many diverse cultures transformed by their encounter with the monastic charism. The use of the Fathers as matter for lectio divina requires a serious work of exegesis and study to recapture the reality which they lived beyond the cultural shroud. Otherwise, one reads oneself into the texts one admires, and, obviously, the more one finds oneself there the more one admires them.

The monk of today will be challenged, called to conversion, transformed, by reading the Fathers of monasticism, solely on condition that he allows himself to be touched by them in all the aspects of his monastic experience. And that will only come about in the measure in which he unites himself to them in the whole of their experience: which presupposes a detailed analysis of their language and of their manner of speaking, of their thought, both philosophical and theological, of the cultural context in which they lived. It seems to me artificial and even perilous to distinguish this study from lectio properly so called, as if it were only a prelude...

The monk of today necessarily belongs to a definite culture, and to a local Church, therefore to a definite Christian culture. This is the culture which, in him, meets the monastic tradition and must let itself be challenged and transformed by it. I am afraid that, too often, in our approach to the Fathers, we push the young to put on like a garment the monastic culture of a past epoch, at the risk of transforming our monasteries into cultural refugee camps.


The Fathers of the Desert remind us of the primordial importance of Scripture in the life of the Christian and the necessity of letting ourselves be constantly transformed in the crucible of the Word of God.

Moreover, even such a rapid study as we have made of the way in which they approached Scripture, of its very nature makes us call into question certain aspects of the modern conception of lectio divina, or more precisely, calls us to go beyond them to arrive at a deeper understanding of the unity of their lived experience. The monk, more than anyone else, cannot allow himself to be divided. His very name, monachos, reminds him unceasingly of the unity of preoccupation, of aspiration and of attitude proper to the man or woman who has chosen to live one sole love with an undivided heart.

Rome, November 7, 1995.

Armand VEILLEUX, o.c.s.o.

Note: Several of the quotes from the ancient monastic authors, in this conferences, were borrowed from: Louis Leloir, ALectio Divina and the Desert Fathers@, Liturgy, Vol. 23, n. 2, 1989, pp. 3-38. Shorter version of the same: AL'Écriture et les Pères@, Revue d'Ascétique et de Mystique 47 (1971), pp. 183-199.

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