Reading in the Season of Lent

It is interesting that in the authoritative Dictionnaire de Spiritualité there is a very long essay on the history of the practice of lectio divina (the meditative reading of Scripture), but only a very short follow-up entry on spiritual reading. The old practice of the meditative reading of Scripture has its roots in the ancient monastic tradition and today has been rediscovered to become a very popular spiritual practice. Spiritual reading, by contrast, is somewhat more modern, since its widespread possibility depended on easy access to booksan access not open to the many before Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the mid-15th century. Spiritual reading, as opposed to lectio, covered a whole range of literature, with the lives of the saints a perennial favorite (one of the first books printed by the English pioneer William Caxton was the old medieval hagiographical collection known as the Golden Legend) as well as various manuals of devotion. Those who know the story of St. Ignatius Loyola will recall that in his recuperation after the battle of Pamplona he read both a version of the Golden Legend known as the Flos Sanctorum and a devotional book on the life of Christ written by a late medieval Carthusian monk, Ludolph of Saxonya good example of spiritual reading.

One could do worse than devote some time during Lent to reading the Scriptures prayerfully. One very useful, readable and accessible book introducing that method of lectio divina that I often recommend is Michael Casey’s Sacred Reading: The Ancient Practice of Lectio Divina (Liguori/Triumph, 1996). Casey, an Australian Trappist monk, is an excellent writer who wears his considerable learning lightly. His book would act as a pedagogical prelude to engaging the Word of God not for information or instruction but as a platform for prayer that leads to contemplation. If one wishes to partake more deeply of the life of prayer, one might read that book in tandem with his other work, Toward God: The Ancient Wisdom of Western Prayer (Liguori/Triumph, 1996) in which his discussion of lectio is subsumed under his more general treatise on prayer. I have often used the latter book in a little course I teach on prayer for undergraduates who, uniformly, have found it instructive and, in the best sense of the term, edifying.

In recent years, perhaps as a reaction against the limitations of historical-critical approaches to biblical scholarship, there has been a renewed interest in reading the Bible as the church’s book. Two different publishers have been issuing volumes that provide the biblical text along with commentaries from the tradition of the church: the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity Press), under the general editorship of Thomas Oden, and The Church’s Bible (Eerdmans), with Robert Louis Wilken as general editor. Each of the series has its own merits, but I prefer the Eerdmans series for the capaciousness of the commentary material. Along this same line, Brazos Press has just begun a new series in which noted theologians comment on a single book from the Bible. The initial volume, on the Acts of the Apostles, written by the late Jaroslav Pelikan, has set a very high standard for the volumes to come. Any book from any of these series would make a very good companion for the Lenten season and beyond.


Of course, Lent is also an opportune time to go back and read some of the great spiritual classics. So many of these texts are now available in affordable and reliable translations that it is hard to know where to send a willing reader. On my own bookshelf I have over 60 volumes of the estimable series Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press) and perhaps an equal number of volumes from other series. In addition, secondary literature and/or biographies of the spiritual writers roll off the presses in such numbers that it is a task just to separate the wheat from the chaff (there are mountains of bad spiritual books out there!), which is why my own penchant is to go back to classic texts and read them in their own right. After all, one definition of the classic is that it has a surplus of meaningsaying something new every time the text is engaged. I cannot count the times I have gone through Augustine’s Confessions, but each time it speaks to me from a new and different angle.

One conspicuous benefit of the contemporary interest in spirituality is that it is now possible to build a library of spiritual classics in excellent editions for very little expense. A good reason for this accessibility is that many religious communities have been assiduous in making available foundational works of their school of spirituality. The catalogs of Cistercian Publications, the Institute of Carmelite Studies and Liturgical Press, for example, are fair evidence of this trend. I especially like the offerings of New City Press (underwritten by Focolare), which have given us not only the excellent volumes of early Franciscan writings but also the exemplary ongoing translations of the works of Saint Augustine.

Let me cite just a few of many examples that can be found from such specialty presses. TheComplete Works of Saint John of the Cross (ICS, 1991), in the estimable translation of Kieran Kavanaugh, is a great bargain for under $30. New City Press has just issued in paperback format a collection of Augustine’s treatises on Christian doctrine including his little commentary on the Creed under the title On Christian Belief ($24.95), while Cistercian Publications, now distributed by Liturgical Press, has a translation of Guigo II’s The Ladder of Monksthe classic medieval exposition of the practice of lectio divinain paperback for about $16. From those same presses one can find a nearly complete library of Carmelite classics (Teresa of Avila, Elizabeth of the Trinity, Thérèse of Lisieux, Edith Stein and others), an ongoing series of the Cistercian writers from Cistercian Publications, as well as new translations of the works of Saint Augustine from New City Press.

I suppose it would be dereliction of duty to skip a specific recommendation in the broad area of spiritual classics, so let me simply forge ahead and suggest the Parochial and Plain Sermons of John Henry Newman (Ignatius Press, 1997). I read all eight volumes a few years ago and have found myself going back to them regularly. All of the sermons were preached by Newman in his Anglican years (that is, before 1845) but some of the volumes were published after he became a Catholic. The sermons were based on the scriptural texts of the liturgical calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, and it was a rare occasion when Newman strayed from the appointed biblical text. What makes the reading of these sermons so effortless now is that a few years ago Ignatius Press bound all the volumes into one. Though the print is a bit small, the binding is substantial and there is both a scriptural and topical index.

It would take a great deal of free time and disciplined labor to work through all of Newman’s sermons in a single Lent, but one could manage the six sermons he devotes to the season. If one likes smaller, tidier texts to use for spiritual rumination, one might engage in a close reading of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est. The first part of the encyclical provides a cornucopia of biblical texts to ponder, so a reading of the encyclical, Bible in hand, would be an exercise in scriptural appropriation. Part Two has an extended meditation on the three basic functions of the church in witness, worship and service. It is a brief summary of ecclesiology within the context of thinking about the church as mysterya salutary remedy for those who carp at the church only for its institutional failings.

The pope, of course, is a very fine professional theologian, and his work over the decades is marked not only by technical competence but also by a deeply felt faith. It should come as no surprise that many theologians are also profound spiritual writers whose works, while classified as spiritual, are at the same time also quite learned. I have in mind books like Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Prayer and Karl Rahner’s early work, Encounters With Silence. To overlook the work of professional theologians is to limit the field of spiritual reading considerably.

There are some theologians writing today who exhibit both scholarly sophistication and deep commitment to the historic Christian faith. I have been instructed and edified by the many fine volumes of N. T. Wright on the Bible. Wright is not only an excellent scholar who operates with the hermeneutics of trust but also an active church person (he is an Anglican bishop) who understands that the Bible can be read at an intellectual level but should also be a never-failing source of nourishment. Wright is a prolific authorour library contains nearly 40 of his titlesand it is hard to say where to begin, although I am partial to his Following Jesus (Eerdmans, 1995), which is a beautiful meditative work on Christian discipleship and, as such, an apt work for Lenten reading.

Anyone interested in a hefty volume to take on as a Lenten penance should consider working through Larry Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003). Hurtado, a New Testament scholar who teaches in Scotland, examines Jesus in the New Testament and in the early church from a particular angle: how was Jesus worshiped in the earliest period of Christian history? Contending that the worship of Jesus is a primordial key to understanding the New Testament, Hurtado pursues that theme with rigor and persistence. It is one of the more illuminating books I have read of New Testament scholarship in some time.

The Middle English root reden, from which our English verb to read derives, had the wide sense of grasping, understanding, catching on. We have hints of that old usage in such phrases as to read the situation or to read the look on his face. Lenten reading, then, could plausibly encompass the idea of looking steadily or gazing attentivelypractices very close to an ancient meaning of the word contemplation. The present market is awash in books on icons and, as is commonly asserted in the iconic tradition, one looks at and through the iconic image to the reality behind. It might make an instructive Lenten practice to acquire a volume of icons and simply look at them attentively and prayerfully as a daily practice. In an age when our images come at us fast, furious and pixilated, it would be a wonderful practice to slow down and gaze prayerfully. One book that might inspire such a practice is Icons From Sinai (Getty Museum, 2006), the catalog of icons on display at the Getty culled from the collection of the monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. They are helpful works of classical Byzantine artsome dating back to the period before the iconoclastic controversy in the eighth century.

Whatever path you take this Lenten season, try to be obedient to the voice of the children once heard by Augustine in the garden of his friend Alypius: Tolle et lege!pick up and read! It proved to be the time of conversion for Augustine, as he tells us in the Confessions, and it may well be ours today.

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9 years 7 months ago

It is good that you mention Ludolph the Carthusian's Vita Christi. This work in its French translation by Pere Broquin published between 1870 and 1873 requires SEVEN volumes of Octavo. The Folio Edition of 1642 published in Lyon (a copy of which is held by the British Library) is 754 pages.

In other words this is a substantial work and took many years to complete. The work itself uses extensive quotations from the Church Fathers and includes many meditations by Ludoph himself on the life of Our Lord.

The work must have influenced St Ignatius greatly. Ludolph uses a visual method inviting his readers to see Jesus. It is a great pity that apart from Sr Bodenstadt there has been little scholarly work done on this work - see the Wikipedia entry for further biographical details.


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