Learning lectio from a master

I wanted to say something on the Anglican Communion's apparently inevitable slide into schism, but today, rather than document disintegration, I'd rather edify.  

This may be because I'm just back from Worth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery an hour south of London, where I went for practical insights into the precious spiritual craft of lectio divina. 


The teacher was Fr Michael Casey, a monk of Tarrawarra Abbey outside Melbourne, Australia. He may not be a household name in the spiritual sections of bookshops; but among monks worldwide, the Trappist is a highly respected author and guide -- arguably the most significant monastic writer today. 

His books are "landmarks in the modern monastic landscape", according to the Abbot of Worth, Christopher Jamison  -- as it happens, another well-known Melbourne-born monk-writer.

Casey's An Unexciting Life, Toward God, Strangers to the City and, most recently (on humility) Truthful Living, are not beach books. Like the man himself, they are tough, direct, humorous, intense -- and penetratingly wise.

He was at Worth Abbey giving talks as part of a three-day conference celebrating the monastic technique of lectio divina, or prayerful reading of Scriptures. Lectio was for a long time seen as a monastic preserve, but its comeback in recent decades is one of the fruits of Catholic popular engagement with the Bible.

Lectio is therefore eminently suitable for lay people -- which is why, appropriately, the conference was organised by the Lay Community of St Benedict, a British lay Benedictine movement which encourages people to belong to "lectio groups" nationwide. The LCSB has been inspired in part by the remarkable Manquehue movement in Santiago, Chile, where people live the full Benedictine commitment to lectio and the daily office, but as lay people.

In the Middle Ages lectio was neither solitary nor a group activity. Each monk read his own text, but with others, usually in the south cloister (quiet, sheltered, temperate), taking care not to disturb each other. Yet they read aloud, vocalising the words.

Fr Casey offered ten principles of lectio divina, deduced from medieval practice, which he suggested were of use to the modern practioner of lectio. They are:

1. Recognise the value of regularity -- lectio should be done according to rules: fixed times, fixed periods, in season and out of season.

2. Allocate time. Nobody finds time; you have to make it.

3. Choose a quiet, temperate, harmonious, dedicated place. The place is more important than most people think.

4. Choose reading that is able to sustain your attention. Try the Gospels, one by one, taking a passage each day.

5. Vocalise as you read -- this will slow down the reading, and helps ensure that your words and your thoughts move together.

6. Progress through a whole book -- "in order and entirely" (per ordinem et integro) it says in the Rule of St Benedict -- rather than leaping about within it, or between books.

7. Read closely, word by word, line by line; every word must be understood. It is all too easy to pass over words that are unfamiliar, challenging or shocking, but these are often the ones that have something to say to you.

8. Allow yourself to puzzle over obscurities.

9. Actively attempt to make the text meaningful -- the purpose of lectio is to form the mind in Christ.

10. Activate, if necessary, the different stages: start with lectio (reading), then move to meditatio (chewing over the words), then onto oratio (prayer) and finally contemplatio (when you allow the Holy Spirit to act in the heart). This is not a method, but a description of what, in the experience of monks, happens in an hour's lectio divina.

The Holy Spirit, says, Fr Casey, is as active in the reading of Scriptures as He was in their writing. The power of lectio comes from the Spirit being present in the interaction between Scripture and our own experience -- of life and of God.

There was much else besides. We were in the presence of a Master.

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8 years 6 months ago
Greetings from Scotland! An excellent account of a fabulous conference. Fr Michael is indeed a Master and it was a privilege to be there. I happened upon this article just by chance and was delighted to see it and be reminded of what Michael Casey said. 


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