Body and Blood of Christ

Lectio

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KEEPING HIS WORD

          

Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home in him. Those who do not love me do not keep my words. And my word is not my own; it is the word of the one who sent me.   John 14:23-29      


Lectio

Lectio divina has come a long way.  I was touched to read that the Presbyterian Youth Ministry in New Zealand promotes lectio divina as part of its ministry to nurture young people in the Christian faith.  For many centuries lectio divina was hardly heard of outside of monasteries; now the words are becoming part of our vocabulary.  Small communities of poor people in developing countries have used it for many years; Cardinal Martini introduced it to thousands of young people in his diocese of Milan.  It featured prominently in the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in 2008.  Pope Benedict promoted it for the universal Church. When Pope Francis spoke at the Eucharistic Congress in Quebec five years ago, he presented his teaching as a lectio divina.  I would like to give a short history of lectio divina to show that it has been a precious part of our Christian heritage from the beginning.

These words shall be on your hearts
‘Lectio divina’ means prayerful reading and pondering the word of God, allowing it to make us wise and to transform us.  We find lectio divina within the Bible itself.  Devout Jews recited these words from the Hebrew Bible every day: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.’ The first of the Psalms begins: Happy indeed are those whose delight is the law of the Lord and who ponder his law day and night.’  We find the spirit of both the Old and the New Testaments in the words of Mary: at the Annunciation she said, ‘Be it done to me according to your word,’ and after the events that surrounded the birth of Jesus, she ‘treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.’

Fathers of the Church
Two groups of people gave lectio divina a central place in the life of the Church for the first seven hundred years of its existence.  The Fathers of the Church make up one group.  These were preachers, teachers, writers and usually pastors whose authority carried special weight.  Most, but not all were bishops.  They studied the word of God, they pondered it, prayed it, lived it and preached it to their parish communities at Sunday Mass.  Their teaching was reliable and their lives holy; they were recognised as saints.  Pope Benedict gave the life stories and teachings of thirty of them in his weekly public audiences in 2007 and 2008.  These included: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Origen of Alexandria, Basil of Cappadocia, John Chrysostom of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), Ambrose of Milan, Jerome of Rome and Bethlehem, Augustine of Hippo (in North Africa) and Pope St Gregory the Great.

Desert Fathers and Mothers
The members of the second group are known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  St Antony of Egypt was twenty when his parents died and left him all they owned.  One day when he was at Mass with his local community, he was struck by the words of Jesus that were read in the Gospel: ‘If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’  Antony allowed these words to change his life. He sold all he had inherited, gave the money to the needy, withdrew from the locality and gradually made his way into the desert.  There he spent his life in communion with God in prayer, until he died at the age of a hundred and five. 

Thousands of men and women followed the example of Antony in subsequent decades and came to the desert in Egypt.  In the beginning, each person lived in solitude; later they lived in communities.  Their goal was to be in constant communion with God in prayer.  Copies of the Bible were scarce, so new members were expected to learn the New Testament and the 150 Psalms by heart.  Whether they were working for their keep, preparing their sparse meals, or praying alone in their cells, they could recall God’s word and ponder it.  Antony’s original experience in his parish church shaped their understanding of lectio divina: they pondered the word to allow it to transform their lives in whatever way that word required.

From Egypt to Ireland
Inspired by the example of these people in the Egyptian desert, monasteries were founded in Italy, the Holy Land, Cappadocia (Turkey), on the continent of Europe, in England, Scotland and Ireland.  These monasteries served the people around them and became centres of prayer and worship; they set up schools, helped the poor and sometimes cared for the sick.  The monks nurtured all that was good in the new cultures in which they found themselves. 

Cherishing all that is good
In the fourth century the great Roman Empire began to collapse.  Hordes of people from what are now Germany, Eastern Europe and Asia forced their way into Italy – the Romans called them all ‘Barbarians.’  In 410 AD the Goths sacked the city of Rome, in 475 the Emperor was deposed and the Roman Empire in the West came to an end.  An Italian, named Cassidorus in the sixth century was concerned that the vast treasures of learning and culture that had flourished in the pagan Greek and Roman Empire –in  literature, poetry, art, architecture, philosophy and law – would be lost, as they held no interest for the newly arrived conquerors.  He founded a monastery which combined a life of prayer with the work of preserving and copying the great pagan works.  Many monasteries, including those in Ireland – took up this work; the monks copied and preserved the writings of the Fathers of the Church and of the pagan authors, preserving both for benefit of future generations.

This was a Church, built on lectio divina, committed to God and to cherishing all that is good and human; it is coming to be again in our day.  Pope Benedict said that lectio divina, effectively promoted, will bring to the Church ‘a new spiritual springtime.’


                                                                            Brendan Clifford
 

 

 

Quill Pen

Antony of the Desert

Lectio Divina

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Lectio

 

 

Antony of the Desert 

 

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