Make knowledge of the Scripture your love … Live with them, meditate on them, make them the sole object of your knowledge and inquiries.
The first time I visited the Croatian Embassy on DC’s famous Embassy Row, I couldn’t help but take notice of the solitary statue of St. Jerome the Priest directly outside. St. Jerome was sculpted in bronze by artist Ivan Meštrović and originally donated to the Croatian Franciscan Fathers, as Jerome was born in the territory of Croatia and is beloved by Croatians.
The statue was captivating – the saint sat hunched over a book of scripture, one hand on his head in pondering agony and the other hand almost melting into the scriptures. A Croatian priest explained to me that the statue was meant to show how Jerome’s many long hours spent with scripture began to actually change him. His once hostile and at times even volatile nature softened and transformed into a more Christ-like persona.
This was not surprising given the many quotes about Scripture authored by St. Jerome, which have become a treasure trove in the Church. One of these most beautiful traditions of prayer, dating back as far as the 3rd century, is Lectio Divina – or Divine Reading. Scripture is of course a staple of the Church and a direct way in which we encounter the living Word of God and Second Person of the Trinity. Yet, sometimes opening the pages of Scripture can be daunting and intense (hence the pensive hand gripping St. Jerome’s head in the sculpture.) Where do I start? How do I understand what I’ve read? Most importantly, how do I know what God is saying directly to me through his word?
It’s true that the depth of scripture is comprised of layer upon layer of history, tradition, and divine inspiration. That is certainly not to be discounted. But as St. Jerome said, “The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians to swim in without ever reaching the bottom.” Only God could inspire a text so complete that each of us can read it and learn more about him each time we do – sometimes historically, other times exegetically, and often personally.
Lectio Divina helps the faithful follow a basic 4-step formula of reading and digesting scripture:
- Read (Lectio)
- Meditate (Meditatio)
- Pray (Oratio)
- Contemplate (Contemplatio)
This helps the reader go beyond the words of text in front of him to the actual encounter of the Living Word of God. It guides the reader to develop a prayerful posture of contemplation, giving him inspiration and wisdom to recognize the direct divine work of Christ in his life.
This popular form of mediation has lived on among monastics through the centuries. Originating with Origen in the 3rd century, he recognized “Scripture as a Sacrament,” and encouraged its readers to seek the hidden meaning of Christ’s divine words within. With Christ as the interpretive key, this form of prayer passed from Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, the Desert Fathers, and eventually St. Benedict, who formally established it as part of his monastic rule in the 6th century.
I find it easiest to understand this form of meditation in the same light as properly enjoying a fine wine or decadent dessert – one in which you slowly smell and taste and savor with every sense you are humanly able. The delightful flavor of that deep wine or rich chocolate lingers on your taste buds for hours, and is imprinted in your memory forever. For years after you can recount every flavor of the experience, eliciting the same desire in those hearing.
This same slow and thoughtful process of reading scripture, in which you properly taste, enjoy, and digest its meaning is the most fulfilling. Begin with the gospel passage for the day or upcoming Sunday, reading it slowly and carefully – out loud if you choose. Sit quietly with the words, allowing them to be digested fully. Perhaps go back and read the gospel again, listening for what is being particularly spoken to you in this moment. Meet God in prayer, asking him to bring his word to fulfillment in your life, that you may be able to recognize and act upon it. Contemplate the depth of the meaning of the words you have just read and allow that truth to transform and continue to elevate you.
As the statue of St. Jerome so accurately portrayed, when one allows the truth of the Word to transform them, they are spiritually elevated closer to Christ in all ways. The appreciation of the experience lingers deep within us and can be easily recognized by those around us.
Lectio Divina is still alive and well in the Church today! Formalized by Carthusian monk Guigo II as a 4-rung “ladder of prayer“ in the 12th century, it has been adopted in the Carmelite Rule, along with the liturgy as a pillar of prayer for the community. The belief that scripture is necessary to properly aid meditation through Lectio Divina was again recommended by the Church in Vatican II’s Dei Verbum constitution and affirmed by Pope Benedict XVI.
Seek in reading and you will find in meditating; knock in mental prayer and it will be opened to you by contemplation.
~Guigo the Carthusian, Scala Paradisi:PL 40,998.
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