THE LIFE OF A MONK SHOULD ALWAYS BEAR THE CHARACTER OF LENT (Ch. 49). Saint Benedict was sufficiently experienced in the ways of human nature to realize that the ideal observance of the monastic life was possible only to a very few. He did not attempt to legislate into existence a norm that would prove beyond the powers of the average person of good will. At the same time he understood that all of us need to be challenged at times in order to maintain the spiritual tone essential to a life dedicated totally to seeking union with God. The individual needs more than an ideal norm; the example of others with whom he lives serves to make the abstract norm a living presence. When the example is given by the whole of the community in which he lives he experiences a still stronger stimulus to call upon all of his resources to put into practice those observances which are most conducive to spiritual progress. Not only example but also community structures come to the aid of our weakness. Acting together as a united body and faithfully putting into effect the activities which sustain prayer and assist virtue make possible the learning of good habits and the reinforcing of character traits that have grown somewhat slack in the course of a less rigorous manner.
St. Benedict, then, relied upon the forty days of Lent as a time of spiritual renewal. For him there was no period of annual retreat such as we know it today and which we celebrated just a week or so ago. Rather the liturgical season of Lent filled that same purpose of rejuvenating the spirit and sharpening observance. Lent still provides us with that same opportunity in our own times. In certain respects it is calculated to prove more effective than having an outside speaker give a series of talks. Above all, its effectiveness is heightened by the role that the liturgy itself plays in the monastic day when it is integrated with the increased emphasis on spiritual reading (lectio divina) and a more austere silence, separation from the world's distracting activities and fasting. I remember how B. Hugh would come to see me at the beginning of Lent and set before me various practices he undertook to observe. The one that cost him the most, I believe, was to renounce reading the weekly newsmagazine, for he had a strong interest in political and civic events, being a true son of Brooklyn.
The Liturgy of the hours and the mass present us with readings carefully chosen from the Bible and the Fathers for their appropriateness in cultivating conversion, preparation of the heart, purer prayer and keener awareness of the passion and resurrection of Jesus as they bear upon daily life. It is the cross of our Lord and his resurrection that give direction and meaning to the various practices that we engage in during this holy season. The focal point of our observance lies beyond our own immediate practice; we are to be centered upon the risen Lord himself and seek to accompany him in the fulfillment of his Father's plan which is still being lived out in his members. The setting aside of extra time for spiritual reading and prayer allow us to become more sensitive to the world to come( ha olam habah) to use the classical Hebrew phrase. Monastic life has as one of its major functions to maintain the perspective of eternity alive in the Church. Life on earth for the true believer is lived in the presence of the higher world, the place where reality is true, as St. John the Evangelist puts it, because it exists in the full presence of God. This eschatological dimension of our existence readily becomes clouded over by the clamorous demands of daily life. More, the very needs of the human spirit and heart are increasingly neglected as the fast pace of modern life pushes aside the silence and quiet in which the spirit flourishes. This process often goes on so intensely and for so long a time that people lose their taste for what is most essential for the health of their soul. The way to return to this deep center from which flows what is most personal and intimate in our being is not easy to find once one departs from it. The entrance narrows down and the path is readily obscured and twisted by unnatural rhythms and desires for excitement and ever renewed stimuli.
Solitude and silence provide an environment which favor a rediscovery of the inner self. The first stages of such a return are often a mixture of relief and pain. We find it hard to give up certain activities and interests that had become habitual and so satisfying to our senses even while frustrating our deeper aspirations. It is not enough to give up distracting occupations, however; we require to engage our mind and store our memory with thoughts and images that contribute to the life of the spirit. We must see fairly clearly just what attachments are holding us back from advancing into the freedom of the heart. In the light of the understanding that comes from meditation and study of God's word we are enabled to recognize more concretely precisely the nature of the obstacles that block up the entrance into the place of the heart. Thus one of the most useful and even essential occupations that we are to engage in while in silence and a measure of solitude is lectio divina, meditative, spiritual reading.
St. Benedict gave considerable prominence to such reading in his Rule. His followers took this prescription very seriously with consequences that became significant not only for the inner life of each monk who was faithful to it, but also for the tone and the general culture of the monastic communities where it was assiduously practiced. Monastic scriptoria produced abundant and often finely wrought volumes; libraries were formed and carefully maintained where the expensive manuscripts were preserved. Reading, writing and study became important activities in all fervent communities. The study and prayerful reading of Scripture could flourish only in those places where such activities were regularly pursued.
Study of the Sacred Book included a formation in Latin letters for monks of the West down to modern times. Only in the last twenty years or so has this tradition been seriously altered with introduction of the vernacular liturgy and theology texts, biblical commentaries and nearly all learned writing being done in one of the European vernaculars. As recently as 1960 when I did some studies in Rome, the lectures and texts were all in Latin. It was permitted to speak in class only in that language. Among other merits, this practice had the advantage of assuring that the lecturer did nearly all the talking!
Obviously, there are many advantages to the use of modern languages for study, even for the study of the Bible. At the same time the case with language is very much the same as with tools. A way of thinking and feeling, a large part of culture is altered when a group accepts a new tool, or when a language is changed. This may be illustrated by many examples. In the case of the introduction of a new class of tools it is inevitable that before long they effect a decided alteration of methods of working. More sophisticated tools also alter one's way of thinking and, once their use is fully assimilated, they end by determining perception of many realities. Studies of the effect of the automobile, the radio, TV, the fax, the computer, the Internet on the culture of our own country have demonstrated with abundant evidence the radical influence of each of these tools as they were progressively employed by members of our society. Large segments of our culture have markedly changed with the introduction of each of these new inventions. Their cumulative effect on society as well on individuals has been and remains pervasive. Any society that lacks any one of these instruments of communication is perceived to be backward and deprived by those who have become accustomed to their presence. This is obvious to all of us. What we are less aware of is the loss of certain values that disappeared quietly as these instruments gradually exerted increasing influence on education, the family, the neighborhood, the city and the nation. A lessening of stability of relationships, to mention but one, is particularly significant in that it affects people in each of these areas of life.
The effect of the introduction of a different language in a culture is no less radical and pervasive However, from the very nature of language, certain of the alterations produced are considerably more subtle. One result of the subtle character of language is that while its influence for good is readily perceived, the losses deriving from the suppression of the traditional tongue and the limits of the modern language are readily overlooked by the majority of persons concerned. I would like to point out briefly a couple of the skills associated with the study of Latin and its use, which run the risk of being neglected in our present practice. Being made aware of the potential detriment to our formation will hopefully encourage some of us to devise ways to avoid, or at any rate to minimize any undue loss of values or techniques that were effectively preserved and communicated in the course of learning and utilizing Latin literature.
The first value that is strikingly characteristic of traditional Latin letters as practiced by the Fathers in their reading of Scripture is their sensitivity to words, to their sound as well as their meaning and to their placement in the text. Latin and the Romance languages deriving from it lend themselves to rhythmic phrasing and to rhyme more readily than do English and the other Germanic tongues. The better writers of Latin cultivated a sense of rhythm and gave considerable care to choosing words for their sound as well as for their sense.
St. Augustine and St. Bernard were particularly attentive to these qualities and employed them in order to stress ideas and suggest the special importance of a thought, which they wished to be remembered. Employment of these features of language is associated in many patristic texts with a sensitivity to the nuances suggested by the use of specific words. Very often the presence or absence of a particular word in the Biblical text opens up an otherwise hidden meaning. The use of the word ;poor to mean pious, faithful, or simply good is a case in point. How often does St. Augustine find a lesson in the use of a special word in the passage he is commenting because he finds in it an association that is frequently lost in translation.
Close attention to the wording and phrasing of a text was taught in the schools of grammar and rhetoric in the Latin world. Proficiency in reading with a greater awareness of the choice and position and sound of words resulted from such training, and at times led to insights into the less obvious content of the author's text. Perhaps as often it stimulated reactions to the passage of a more subjective kind which were sufficiently related to the matter under discussion that they resulted in extensions of the meaning in a way that proved fruitful for the purposes of the commentator and his audience.
Related to this careful attention to words and phrasing so characteristic of the better representatives of the Latin rhetorical tradition is the consciousness that the Biblical words were vehicles of profound mysteries. Even though the Latin text was itself a translation, yet it functioned as a sacramental, symbolizing a communication of grace by means of an interior illumination of the Spirit who had inspired the original authors. Read in a spirit of faith with the desire to discover God's will and to experience his mercy and love, the words of Scripture functioned as a bond of communion with the Lord. They were often associated with a fresh understanding of the meaning of an event for the reader and/or an increase of desire for heaven and the presence of God.
This is the point at which exegesis and lectio divina separate at times. Exegesis attempts to identify the original meaning of a given text; lectio seeks its significance for the reader at the present time. The same Spirit who inspired the sacred author continues to act in the soul of the person who approaches the text with faith and desire to be more at one with God's will. This kind of inspiration can and does occur when one reads a good translation as well as the original Greek or Hebrew. One advantage of the Latin version is the fact that so many saints and talented theologians commented on it that many passages suggest more readily to those familiar with the tradition such insights as stimulate a stronger desire for God. A reading of the more proficient of these learned and holy writers contributes appreciably to forming us to a more responsive reception of the message latent in the inspired word or to a legitimate prolongation of its sense, one that is helpful to us in our present situation. As Fr. Michael Casey points out, these kinds of meanings are a legitimate and fruitful result of engaging the text in the same spirit as did the Latin Fathers (cf. Sacred Reading, Ligouri, MO, 1996, p.53).
Certain of the continuing validity and applicability of the Bible to life, nearly all the early and medieval commentators were persuaded that the text of Scripture had more than one meaning. Discovering the Christological sense, the moral,and the allegorical meanings was the fruit of both grace and personal insight. An earnest student and reader of the Bible could prepare himself by study to receive such insight under the influence of grace. Such preparation for lectio divina was the object of much of the monastic study, as it is of modern exegetical studies. Not only language but also history and now sociology and psychology have a contribution to make to lectio. Eugen Drewerman, to name but a single instance, has a two-volume commentary on Mark that stresses depth psychology as a helpful method of interpretation. Even when he finds meanings that are only loosely suggested by the text, they still contribute some useful reflections that add to the impression made by the reading. One example that struck me was his commentary on the miraculous healing of Simon Peter's mother-in-law. Drewerman makes a plausible case for the affirmation that her illness was caused by worry over her daughter's future when Peter left her to follow Jesus. While this kind of comment may be true or not yet it certainly renders the event more vivid and human. One can see how Jesus may have felt he owed it to her to provide a special healing!
There are many ways then of engaging in lectio divina for the Christian believer and Lent is the time of the year when special attention to this practice is particularly appropriate and fruitful. The habits formed from such attentive and meditative reading will serve us well throughout our lives provided we are faithful to this exercise and strive to sharpen the tools we employ in performing it. Attention to the specific words of a text and a careful study of them is one of the more important secrets of fruitful reading. In St. John's Gospel there are various passages that hint at the reasons for this kind of meditative study of the inspired words. Jesus remarked concerning his teaching that "the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life (6: 63)", and St. Peter, in response to our Lord's question as to whether the disciples would depart from him, exclaimed: "Lord, where could we go? You have the words of everlasting life (6: 6 8)." Some words have the power of life or of death. May we carefully choose the words we allow in our hearts and take upon our lips, for our words too possess a power to enhance or diminish life. During this Lent in our reading and lectio divina, may we fill our memory, our mind and our hearts with the words of Jesus and of his true followers. In this way we shall prepare ourselves for that true life that he won for us by his resurrection and ascension into the glory of the Father.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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