Fr. Joseph wishes to acknowledge that this presentation is heavily indebted to the work of his mentor and friend Fr. Michel de Verteuil.
The Weekly Guide to the Sunday Gospel published on the WEB and Dominican Noticeboard will give you a small taste of the Lectio experience.
What follows here will hopefully give a deeper appreciation.
Through the word of God we come to encounter the presence and activity of Jesus in our lives and in our world today.
- Method of Bible reading
- Method of Prayer
- Method of Doing/Experiencing Theology
- Method of Building Community
The Three Stages of Lectio Divina.
- Lectio: (Reading)
- Meditatio: (Meditation)
- Oratio : (Prayer) Thanksgiving, Repentance, Petition and contemplation
The Three Principles of Lectio Divina
- The text itself is sacred
- The text always speaks to live experience.
- The text is life-giving (Celebration of grace and confession of sin)
Fruits of Lectio Divina
- Growth in Love (Heart of Jesus)
- Growth in Wisdom (Mind of Jesus)
- Growth in Kingdom of God (Dream of Jesus)
Lectio (Reading the text):
This stage is characterised by a deep respect for the text: listening to the text, familiarisation with the text / passage.
Read text slowly, carefully, deliberately. Read again and again for familiarity with content and language. Read the text aloud for fuller experience. Reader is in “observer mode”.
A Observe what is given in Text:
- Where did this event happen?
- When did this event take place?
- Who was involved?
- What happened back then?
- Become accustomed to the words, images, metaphors. Hear the words. Feel the words. Enjoy the words. Allow the words to sink into consciousness.
- Uncover meaning of words (not passage) if required – words in general or particular “biblical words
B Observe the context:
In the Scriptures: what comes before and after?
- In the life of Jesus: infancy; public ministry; or passion, death and resurrection?
- Geographical context: Galilee; Jerusalem etc.?
- Historical background: Some awareness of history of period and culture can be helpful.
- Literary character: Narrative prose, parable dialogue etc.?
Some knowledge of the above can be helpful purposes for meditation – to help recognise God’s presence today.
C Dividing the text for the purposes of Meditation:
When dealing with a long passage it might be helpful to divide up the text into sections as this makes it more accessible for meditation. Summarising for ourselves what happened in each section will confirm our appreciation of it.
In the context of Lectio community:
It is normally the role of “The Guide” to help others to come to a deeper appreciation of the historical event, encounter, happening contained in the text /passage
Some background Points
What we mean by Meditation in Lectio is different from what is currently meant by Meditation in popular usage. In popular understanding today Meditation describes a practice of quietening body, mind and heart and coming to a place of inner silence, stillness and centeredness. There are various techniques employed to bring one to this point. Meaning of Meditation in Lectio is something quite different; mind is active – particularly the imagination through making connection with memories – but also feeling, emotions and intuitions.
The meditation stage is founded on faith conviction that the “work of God” or “activity of God” or “movement of grace” contained in the passage is not merely a “work” done in the past, but is a “work” that God continues to do today in our lives and in our world. This conviction is crucial: What God did in the past, he continues to do today. He is always doing! So that the passage acts as a “pattern”, or “model” or “symbol” or “type” of what God is doing today. Every passage, therefore, invites us to discover where and how God is doing the same thing today. At the same time, and in the same way, we are invited to discover that the story of “sin” in the passage is as real today as it was back then.
In the Meditation Stage we experience the text as a king of “magnet” which has the power to draw to itself similar events, happening, and encounters from our own life experience. So the surfacing of memories is not so much an experience of “digging and searching” on our part, but more of a “waiting” on the Holy Spirit, at work in the passage and in us, to stir up and attract memories which are partial or full manifestations of the same “work of God” going on today.
This process of Meditation is not tied to any particular time, place or circumstance. It can be going on as we engage in many of our daily activities, and in this way encourage a greater integration of “spiritual life” and “ordinary life”Meditation –
In the Meditation stage the Reader
Has now become a participant, “entering” into the passage, or better still, allowing the passage to “enter” us.
No one can decide for us where we are going to enter the passage.
The passage always respects us. The following “triggers” might be helpful in the stirring up of memories.
- What does the passage, or any part of it, remind us of?
- What touches us or moves us in the passage?
- Who do we find ourselves feeling with or for in the passage?
- When and how have we been or seen Jesus (or any other character) in this passage?
- Listen to whatever life experience surfaces in us. Respect it. Stay with it. Let the memories surface in all their historical reality – where? When? Who? What happened?
As we do so we are invited to relive the memory with the help of the passage (details from the passage opening up and illuminating aspects of our life experience). At the same time we relive the passage with the help of the memory (aspects of our life-experience throwing light on the passage). It is a process in which the passage and the life experience get to know each other, converse with each other, discover each other – both what they have in common and their differences. The Meditation Stage is characterised by a coming together or growing oneness or “communion” between the passage and life experience.
Continue with this process until we can spontaneously exclaim:
“I now recognise that passage”. The same movement of grace (activity of God’s love, work of God), or of sin (obstacles to that grace) that I have read about in the passage – I have seen today! I can now appreciate a new sacred depth and meaning in the historical events, happening, encounters in my own life and in what I see going on around me in the world today. This is good news. God/Jesus with us. God alive and at work in the world today.
Normally we will find a number of memories surfacing:
The important thing is to go deeply into two or three rather than superficially into many. These memories will come from the area of one-to-one relationship (involving oneself or someone close to us); or from the area of relationships between one community and another, or in the workplace, church, society or country (of which we are a part, or indeed, between one country and another, one religion and another; or something we have seen with the world of nature; or within oneself alone. Ideally we will experience the passage fulfilled at least at two of these levels. The important thing is that each passage invites us to look deeply into our own personal journey, and at the same time to look deeply into the lives of those around us locally and globally so that we are in touch not only with the truth of ourselves but in solidarity with the truth of other and humanity itself throughout the world.
In the context of a Lectio Divina community:
The giving and receiving of these meditations is central to the gathering. Ideally, we will come to Lectio community having already meditated on the passage and ready to offer something that we are comfortable with – a down-to-earth, concrete instance of the passage or any part of it, fulfilled today. In making “the offering” we should try to make as much reference to the passage – words, images, metaphors, movement etc. as we can.
We offer it humbly as an experience of “good news”:
For ourselves, and confident that it will be “good news” for others. At the same time, we listen to other offer their experience of the passage, and their offerings will most likely awaken new memories in us as well. Together we will come to a fuller and deeper appreciation of the work of God going on today. This represents the ideal of a Christian community: followers of Jesus coming together to nourish and support each other with “good news” affirming and confirming for each other the truth that Jesus is truly risen, and alive and at work in our lives and in our world today.
In order to allow time for everyone who wishes to make their offering:
We should also try to keep our offering as short as succinct / concise as we can.
Oratio or Prayer:
(Praying the text and our life experiences)
Spontaneously we feel to turn to God in prayer.
This prayer usually finds expression in three types.
Our prayer can take the form of any one of these or of all three. Using a combination of our own words and the words from the passage puts our own life experience of the word on a par with the word of God in scriptures.
The desire to pray a prayer of thanksgiving is the hallmark of a good meditation. In recognising the passage in life experience – events, happenings, encounters in our own personal lives or the life of our neighbourhood community parish community, society, country and world – there arises a spontaneous desire to give thanks for the passage, for the memory of such events etc. and for the same presence of God (work of God) encountered in the passage and in the memory of life experience.
We are invited to talk to God directly in our own words expressing the gratitude, repentance or petition that is in our heart.
In relation to all three types of prayer there is a further invitation to bring some of the words of the passage, indeed as many as possible, into our prayer. Praying our life experience in the language of the passage lifts it up, gives it a new dignity, clothes it with the word of God in scripture.
At the same time we also feel humbled by the experience: while we recognise a little bit of the movement of grace (activity of God) in our story we know it could have more. Certainly there were other times and situations where we fell short and just feel to say “Lord have mercy”. Every passage is at the same time an invitation to profess the story of grace – God’s activity, God’s work – in our lives and world, and to confess the story of sin – when we or others have been obstacles to that movement of grace. Every passage is calling us to grow in holiness. Again we address God directly expressing sorrow or regret in our hearts.
At the same time we just feel to ask God’s help, that more of the attitudes and actions of Jesus (movement of grace) that we have experienced in meditation might live in us, in our church, our world.
The prayer of petition can be expressed beautifully in the words of “Maranatha” – come Lord Jesus!
“Come more perfectly than you have come before”!
“Increase your presence within me and within all of humanity “.
“Your kingdom come”.
In the context of a Lectio Divina Community:
An individual offering of “meditation” is followed immediately by prayer of this kind and this prayer is often followed by “silence” before another individual makes an offering.
Contemplative Moment in Lectio Divina.
In his book “The Way of Paradox” the Spiritual writer Cyprian Smyth reminds us that in our Catholic tradition there are two paths to the Contemplative moment. He describes it in terms of a journey to the top of a mountain…where God waits to meet us. There are two ways to the top: the direct route, up the rock face; or the indirect way, that follows the meandering path. Both are valid.
In the “direct way”, we go to into the presence of God by “switching off,” as it were, from ordinary everyday life, people and situations. It is the experience of “withdrawing” physically, mentally and emotionally from the world around us and coming to an inner silence which disposes us to encounter the presence of God at the top of the mountain. If we go into God’s presence via this “direct path” it is imperative that we come back down via the “meandering path,” and as we do so, recognizing the presence of the same God in ordinary events, happenings and encounters in the life of the world around us. This is crucial because the greatness of our Catholic Christian tradition is precisely its stress on the presence of God within life, within people, within nature – the truth of God incarnate.
The other option is to journey to the mountain top and into the God’s presence via “the meandering” path. On this path we enjoy experiences of God’s presence along the way – recognised in ordinary everyday events and happenings – in “the beauty of the surrounding hills, the valleys, the mountain streams, the wildlife…etc” The danger with this indirect route is that we might linger and loiter so much along the way, enjoying God’s presence as we go, that we might never actually reach the top of the mountain. And yet reaching the top – the Contemplative Moment – is an experience that God desires for all his children.
The experience of the contemplative moment in Lectio Divina is clearly the fruit of journeying on the meandering path.
The beauty of Lectio is that we come to the contemplative moment, at the end of a long meandering path which involves reading, meditation and prayer, in which we recognize God’s presence in ordinary life, ordinary people and everyday situations. There is no shift of consciousness necessary: no need to switch off “this world” in order to switch on to God’s presence. We come into the presence of God from where we are – rooted in the realities and issues of family, neighbourhood, society, nation, and world.
In the context of a Lectio Community this contemplative moment describes a point that you come to on your journey with the passage. After journeying for so long with words – at the reading, meditation and prayer stages – we now find ourselves naturally quietening down and the silence becoming longer and deeper, as we are drawn more and more into the presence of the God, whom we have encountered in the passage, and in the various offerings and prayers that we have made. This loving God, whose presence has been “hidden or concealed” in the various events, happenings and encounters that we have celebrated in our meditations, now comes to the fore, and takes over, and draws us to himself.
The words become fewer and fewer and the presence of God becomes stronger and stronger until we come to a point where there is no longer any need for words, and we find ourselves simply resting, trustingly, in the presence of God, allowing ourselves to be held and carried by the loving “embrace” of God.
Some find it helpful in dealing with ‘distractions’ to allow one or two words from the passage, that have become special for us, and in many ways sum up our experience of God’s presence in the passage, to act as a ‘mantra’ that keeps us focussed on this presence. Repeated over and over in the quiet of our hearts the mantra draws us into deeper and deeper silence until we no longer need to say “our word” anymore, and the awareness of the presence of God can take over completely.
Like children who have played and worked all day in the knowledge of the presence of a loving parent, we are now ready and content to be picked up and held by the parent and to rest in his/her loving embrace. Or you might compare it to the experience of becoming captivated and absorbed in the beauty of the setting sun in whose light and warmth we have moved all day. This is the contemplative moment.
This moment is always gift of God: we cannot force it or make it happen. All we can do is dispose ourselves to receive this gift. This is precisely what Lectio Divina offers us: it can bring us to the edge of the “lake”, and if we find ourselves carried out onto “the water”, this is always God’s doing.
Some Lectio traditions speak of the contemplative moment as a fourth stage in Lectio, but in its most primitive tradition it was celebrated as another form of oratio or prayer. This makes sense because there is a contemplative element in all the earlier forms of prayer – Thanksgiving, Repentance and Petition – an experience of trust in God’s presence and God’s love. What happens in the contemplative moment is that this “God dimension” comes to the fore, and becomes the dominant reality, holding and absorbing us.
The experience of contemplative moments nurture in us a contemplative attitude which is the ideal of the Christian life – to live in the midst of the world with an attitude of trust that God is there, that God’s love is there, that God is at work in our lives and in the life of the world, moving everything towards wholeness and harmony.
It is important that we are able to talk about this “moment”, to recognize it, welcome it and celebrate it, not boastingly but humbly, accepting that being in God’s presence is part of our birthright as children of God.
Wisdom Moment in Lectio Divina.
“Wisdom” is not a word that we hear so much of today and yet it is central to our experience of Lectio Divina. The goal of Lectio is not only to make us more loving, in the sense of growing in the attitudes and actions of Jesus, but it is also meant to make us wiser, in the sense of growing with the understanding and perception of Jesus, as St Paul says “putting on the mind and heart of Jesus.”
The wisdom received from Lectio is not a learning from books, not an academic learning in that sense, but a learning from life-experience, as illuminated and interpreted by the Word of God in sacred scripture. It has been well described as the “Aha!” moment of Lectio Divina: “Now I see it!”
The “wisdom” of the passage might have traditionally been described as the “message” it contains, and in the reading of scripture in the past that was all that mattered. But in Lectio “the message” is only a small part of the nourishment that a passage contains.
With Lectio we experience the joy of discovering this wisdom for ourselves. We experience it as our own work, our own discovery. It is one of the fruits of our journey with the passage. It is like a ripe fruit on the tree of Lectio Divina that is only waiting for us to grasp.
Every time we journey with a passage, following the method of Lectio, we are meant to come to the wisdom moment. But it takes time and effort to uncover and articulate the wisdom of a passage for ourselves. It can be helpful to work on this formulation of the wisdom statement together as a community.
In the context of a Lectio Community we ask ourselves the questions: What living lesson has our journey with this passage taught us about life’s meaning, purpose and values? What new insight have we received into any of these? How has our understanding of “life” grown through our meditation on this passage? What is the “truth” or what are “the truths” (as there may be a number of them) that emerge from our journey with this passage?
What is it that we see happening over again in the passage and in our offerings? What is the “movement” that repeats itself?
What is the common thread or pattern that repeats itself?
And we are encouraged to put this into our own words and formulate a statement. What the statement does, then, is to extract “a truth” that we find both in the passage and in some of the offerings, and summarises what they have in common. Therefore, this “statement of truth” can be verified by the various instances of it that we have recognized in the passage and in our various meditations.
There are several hallmarks that can guide us in the formulation of the wisdom statement.
- It is expressed in the form of a short statement but not a moralizing one.
- The wisdom statement will always be universally true, i.e. true for people of all religions and none, therefore not just for Christians or even less for Catholics alone. The Good News of Jesus is for all of humanity and seeks to bring us into greater solidarity with all our brothers and sisters.
- The wisdom statement will be true for individuals, as well as communities, and true in every sphere of life.
- As a statement about “ life,” “ love” etc. it will have all the flavour and power of life experience. In other words the statement will be borne out of the belly of experience.
- The wisdom statement is experienced as a gift, and fills us with a deep sense of gratitude, and gives rise to a prayer of gratitude.
- It is also experienced as a new insight, either totally new, or partially new. I’m seeing it, as it were, for the first time. And so it can give rise to a prayer of humility and repentance – How come I didn’t see this before?
- It also generates a longing or deep desire to see the truth expressed in this wisdom statement becoming a reality in our own lives and our world. How different our lives and our world would be if we were to put this into practice? We experience a desire and commitment to grow in the actual living out of this wisdom statement in our lies. Again this can lead to a heartfelt prayer of petition.
Finally, we are invited to ponder the wisdom statement, to savour it, to linger over it, to delight in it, to love it, to allow it to take root in us and become part of us. Trusting that this seed will in God’s own time and in God’s own way bear fruit in us.
Since theology has been defined as “Faith seeking understanding” (St. Anselm, 4thc), and since Lectio Divina is a means of growing in our understanding of God, humanity, world – as interpreted in the light of faith and celebrated in the Wisdom Moments, then it is reasonable to conclude that Lectio is clearly a method of doing theology as well. Furthermore, the goal of theology is wisdom and as we have seen one of the precious fruits of Lectio is wisdom. For a long time the study of theology was only available for the privileged few, with the required means and qualifications, but now through the practice of Lectio Divina it is becoming an activity of the whole Christian community, as God has always intended it to be. It is part of that great work of God in lifting up the lowly, by enabling us to discover and express the great truths of life for ourselves.
The Bible text as sacred.
Bible text is itself “Sacred.”
Reading the Bible passage is an experience of the presence of God. While not a sacrament in itself the word of God is integral to the celebration of each of the seven sacraments. I would go so far as to say that the efficacy of each of the seven sacraments as an encounter with Jesus depends on the quality of the celebration of the word. For example, a deeper our recognition of the Word in life experience will greatly enrich and fulfil our encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist.
The Bible is holy in do far as it is a gift of God to his children. It is God’s work: conceived by God, inspired by God, and sealed by God. Someone once described the Bible as the love letters of God in the handwriting of people. But it is not a question of God merely dictating and the scribe writing it down. Rather it is the story of God at work in human history as perceived and interpreted and formulated by people of faith under the influence of the Spirit of God. And it has been accepted by the church as what God wants us to hear as necessary for our salvation or put more simply so that we might have life in Him. “These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.” Jn.20:31.
So there is not one word in there that God wanted left out and not one word left out that he wanted in. So that every word is important; the arrangement of each word in the sentence is important; the arrangement of sentences in a paragraph is important. This is all God’s doing – And therefore to be treated with the utmost reverence and veneration.
We can go further in faith and believe that not only did God inspire these word in the original formulation of the text but that the spirit of God continues to inhabit these words and can be experienced once we begin to enter into dialogue with text. So in this sense we can say “The word of God is truly alive and active and cuts much deeper than any double edged sword…”
I find it helpful to compare the Bible passages to the letters of a lover or a friend. Such a love letter is not only read for a message the letter in itself is cherished; the paper on which it is written; the handwriting; the choice of words, phrases or expressions. Furthermore the letter is handled with great care, preserved in a safe place, and taken out and read and pondered over and over again as a source of presence and nourishment.
The text is a sacred reality in that it offers us an encounter with Jesus Christ. Christ yesterday, Christ today and Christ forever. In the text we encounter the historical Jesus. Through the text we come to recognition and encounter with presence and activity of Jesus today in the historical events, happenings and journeys in our own lives. This leads on to a further encounter with Jesus in prayer and in the gift of wisdom.
For the past few hundred years the church has made a distinction between the text and the message. And the general impression given was that the message was more important than the text. Once you had extracted the message the text had fulfilled its purpose and could be set aside.
The Bible was treated as a container of messages – doctrinal, moral and spiritual – and the message was taken out and held up as the word of God. It was the message that mattered.
But the message is not the whole reality of the text; it is also a written word that is more than the message. In this regard it is a little bit like a person who is always more than he or she says or does. The person has a sacred reality over and above what he or she says or does.
In our Catholic tradition the Bible has always been accorded appropriate veneration in the liturgy. This is evidenced in the Lectionary being carried aloft into the assembly in procession.
Also the lectionary is assigned its own throne or lectern in the sanctuary. Furthermore the reading of the Gospel is often accompanied by presence of candles, incense etc.
In the practice of Lectio Divina we see the centrality of the text. We read the text. We meditate on the text. We pray the text. Every gathering for Lectio Divina begins with the text, continues with the text and concludes with the text. Text is not just the jumping off ground but runs right through the whole experience of reading, meditation and prayer. Usually the Text is placed in a central position and adorned with candles, flowers etc. Some gesture of reverencing the text is also encouraged.
The experience of Lectio Divina is a gradual falling in love with the text. As we journey through the various stages with the text we find the text growing on us, becoming more and more important for us, becoming more and more beautiful for us. Eventually we come to point where we just feel to say, “I just love that text. I love it more now than I did when I read it first. I love the movement of that passage. I love the words of that passage. That particular text matters to me. It has a hold on me. I just feel its greatness. I want to sing those words. I want to thank God for that text. There is nothing higher than that in Lectio Divina.
Ideally too, a good homily will lead us back to the text, to engage with the text so as to taste some more of its treasures.
Ezekiel received his prophetic call. Ezk2:8-3:3.
‘But you son of man are to listen to what I say to you. Open your mouth and eat what I am about to give to you.’ When I looked there was a hand stretching out to me, holding a scroll. He unrolled it in front of me; it was written on front and back; on it was written lamentations, dirges and cries of grief.
He then said, ‘Son of man, eat what you see, eat this scroll and then go and speak to the House of Israel.’ I opened my mouth, he gave me the scroll to eat and then he said ‘Son of man feed on this scroll which I am giving you and eat your fill.’ So I ate it and it tasted sweet as honey.”
Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more: Rev.10:8-11 “Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.”
9 So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.” I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. 11 Then I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.”
“The sacred scriptures are drunk and the sacred scriptures are eaten when the sap of the eternal word descends into the veins of the spirit and the powers of the soul…”
Text is life-giving.
The text is also life-giving in that it is always meant to be primarily a celebration of the story of grace in our lives and our world. We celebrate Jesus alive today; Jesus alive in us; Jesus alive and at work in us. This is very much in keeping with the catholic understanding of the human person which has a positive view of human nature. In each of us there is a story of grace and a story of sin. But the story of grace is the deeper story and truer story about each one of us. Even in the worst expression of sin the underlying story is one of grace. Sin has not destroyed our goodness, it has wounded it. At the core we are good – a flawed goodness but non-the-less essentially good. The bible texts will always speak to what is best in human nature while not ignoring the story of sin. In Lectio Divina we celebrate the story of grace and confess the story of sin. But the celebration is primary and it is on the platform of grace that we confess our sin.
The experience of sin in Lectio Divina is like that of a good parent who challenges a child with the words: “You are a good person and the wrong you have just done does not represent the best in you; we both know you are capable of better.” Sin is a falling short of the goodness which we are capable of.
How different that is to our normal experience of bible reading where our experience was that it was a put down; that it always found some fault in us; that we always came away from it feeling badly about ourselves. “Jesus did this – How we are not like Jesus. Jesus said this – How we are not like Jesus. You should change your ways. You ought to behave differently. You must stop doing this or that.”
We all know from experience that it is by affirming the positive that we grow and this is what Bible reading seeks to do.
In Lectio Divina we experience the texts as a “homecoming experience.” Through Meditation we enter into the text and discover that it has been fulfilled in our own life-experience of family, neighbourhood, parish, country and world. In that sense, there is a coming home to the familiar world of people and situations and events that make up our lives. So the Bible stories are not merely stories about the past events that took place in another era, involving a foreign people, in an alien land but are experienced as happening today, in our time, and to our people in a new way.
Reading the bible passages according to the method of Lectio Divina nurtures in us an awareness of the sacredness of our own lives, of humanity and of the world in which we live. We come to recognize that our stories too are Bible stories; our stories are sacred stories; our lives are truly great lives. The place to be is just right where we are; the time we live in is a good time to live; the person to be is who we are. Jesus is here; the disciples are here; our community is a Bible community. Our bible reading gives us a sense of our identity and we recognise our dignity and worth as children of God.
“So you are no longer aliens or foreign visitors: you are citizens like all the saints and part of God’s household. You are part of a building that has the apostles and Prophets for its foundations, and Christ Jesus himself for its main cornerstone. As every structure is aligned on him, all grow into one holy temple in the Lord; and you too, in him are being built into a house where god lives in the Spirit.” (Eph2:19-22
“He lifts up the lowly from the dust
From the ash-heap he raises the poor
To set him in the company of Princes,
To give him a glorious throne.” (I Sam.2:8)
“he Lord’s flesh is real food and his blood is real drink; this is our true good in this present life: to nourish ourselves with his flesh and to drink his blood not only in the Eucharist but also in the reading of sacred scripture. The Word of God drawn from the knowledge of scriptures is real food and real drink.” St.Jerome
Text speaks to life-experience through the Imagination.
It is helpful to look at the distinction between textbook reading and storybook reading and to explore where Bible fits in.
When we pick up a textbook to read it we have one attitude or frame of mind, and when we pick up a story book we have a different attitude or frame of mind. In textbook reading we are looking for facts and information whereas with a story we are looking for engagement or pleasure. For example we read a textbook to learn that Newry is in County Down, that Down is in Northern Ireland and that Northern Ireland is in Europe. These are objective facts in the sense that this is the case regardless of my opinions or judgements. It is also true that these facts are static in the sense of unchanging. In learning these facts it is the rational part of the brain that is active.
When we read a story it is the imagination that is active. We find ourselves drawn into the story, entering into the story with our thoughts, feelings and emotions, identifying with the characters or actions, liking some disliking others, feeling with them, suffering with them, celebrating with them, wanting to influence their thoughts, choices and decisions, becoming involved in the movement of the story. A good story engages us at many levels: physically, mentally and emotionally. That is the form of story and that is what it is meant to do. That is how a story works.
And the question is sometimes asked which is the more important: textbook or storybook. And nine out of ten will say textbooks are more important because textbooks are serious whereas storybooks are only for pleasure and entertainment. But if you think about it stories are much more important than textbooks. Because stories communicate values, nurture our attitudes, form our minds and hearts. They are working on us indirectly and moulding and shaping how we see ourselves, how we see others, the kind of people we want to become, the goals or ideals that we want to live up to.
And the question arises: whether the Bible is a textbook or a storybook. The Bible is Story book. Yes, it is possible to read the Bible and glean certain facts and information from it: names of twelve apostles, that Pilate was the governor in Judea at the time of Jesus etc, but that is not why the Bible was written. The Bible was written to communicate values, to form us and shape us into the image and likeness of Jesus, so that we might put on the mind and heart of Christ, that we might become more fully children of God. In his gospel John says that he has written his gospel “so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God and believing this we may have life in his name”, Jn. 20:31. In the Preface for Lent we read “as we recall the great events that brought us to new life in Christ you bring the image of your son to perfection within us.” That’s it. That is why the scriptures were written – so that we might grow into Christ.
The Bible was written as story and if we teach it as a textbook we are going against the very nature of the Bible. If we read it as textbook we are going against how it is meant to be read. The Bible is a collection of story-books and each story book is itself a collection of stories written down so that we might come to experience the presence of God in what he did in the past, in what He is doing today and in what He is always doing.
In this regard you could say that in terms of Christian formation the Bible is far more important than the catechism. For the catechism will only give us facts and information about the life of a catholic and at most encourage us in this regard, while the Bible experience can actually mould and transform us into children of God.
A question that often arises for us in relation to stories is whether they are true or not. You have stories that are fictional – with characters and situations that are creations or inventions of the imagination. While it is an important question it is not the first or most important in relation to stories. Regarding a story the most important question is does it work? Does it succeed in drawing people in? Does it succeed in communicating values – what kind of values does it communicate? Are the values true or false? When Jesus relates stories in the gospel he doesn’t distinguish between true stories and false stories. The story of the Prodigal son begins with “A man had two sons.. Jesus doesn’t preface it with “Now listen to a true story.” What he gives us is one of the great masterpieces of all literature – a story that liberates and inspires and leads us to a truer understanding of God and ourselves. The most important question in reading the Bible stories is not “Is it true” but rather “What does it mean?”
While it is not the most important question in reading a story it is still an important one for us because if the Bible stories are only fictional then our faith is not well founded. They are no more than fairy–tales, good in their intent but deprived of any substance in reality. But the Bible stories purport to be true not only in the values that they communicate but also in their content. In other words the Bible stories are largely based on facts but always experienced and recorded in the light of faith. The Bible stories as they come to us are testimonies of faith. So they are not historical documents per se. They are accounts of the life of Jesus viewed in the light of his resurrection which confirmed Jesus as Son of God, Emmanuel, the Saviour. When it came to writing the gospels, faith in the resurrection would have influenced the choice of historical material recalled, and also how the evangelist would have interpreted it and related it. Furthermore, the experience of the Risen Jesus in the early Christian communities would also have influenced details, emphasis, and memory. Also in writing the evangelists would have been conscious of the challenges in the early Christian community and where it needed to grow; what it needed to hear; what needed to be reinforced and this would have an influence on what is recorded for us in the gospels. Yes, Jesus lived, suffered and died and rose again, and these are the stories capturing how these events were interpreted and written down by people of faith. And these are the accounts that are deemed inspired by the church and given to us for our salvation. It may be intriguing to know what exactly happened, the strict facts of the matter that were later interpreted by faith, but this is not our concern and some would say it is now impossible to determine. But what is more important and what is given to us are stories illuminated by faith.
It is also worth recognizing that the stories of the Bible are suggesting or “indicating stories” rather than “well defined” in terms of colour shape or size. What the bible gives us is a sketch of a situation inviting us as it were to fill it in from our own life experience. In the Bible we get the outline of a story and we are invited to fill it in for ourselves. We are invited to give flesh to it from the circumstances and characters in which we have seen the word fulfilled. It is interesting that nowhere in the gospels do any of the evangelists tell us what Jesus looked like. How tall was he? What colour of eyes had he? How did he wear his hair? What size were his hands? His feet? Was he handsome or ugly? Did he have any unusual physical attributes? That was not because they were unable to describe him or indeed draw a picture profile of him. No, it was a deliberate omission so that He might be free to assume any of the new countenances in which he continues to be present and active among us today. This kind of “indicating stories” invite us to enter in and participate in the discovery and recognition of the Word made flesh today. If you like what we have in the Bible is a résumé in a few lines or verses of some movement of grace but in our correlating life experience such a movement of grace could take a much longer period of time, indeed it could take a lifetime.
This is how God has chosen to communicate with us. And in doing so he has invited us to become free and creative readers of the text. And with this type of communication there is always the possibility of misinterpretation.
The method of Lectio Divina also has some inbuilt mechanisms to minimize the risks of misinterpretation.
In the coming together to offer our meditations we get a sense of whether we are more or less on track.
If our meditations are faithful to the movement of the text we can be confident that our reading of the passage is acceptable.
Our reading of a passage also needs to be in keeping with our experience of Jesus in other passages of the gospels. This is one of the advantages of doing Lectio with the lectionary. As we journey with the lectionary we meet Jesus in all kinds of different situations and we come to a more rounded and more complete picture of the person and values of Jesus. If there is an obvious contradiction, between how we interpret the actions or words of Jesus in one passage compared with the rest of the gospel then we need to look at the passage again.