List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Monte Cistello

Christmas 1978

My dear Brothers and Sisters,

Once again Christmas has come round and I would like to send you my best wishes at this season. May it be a very happy one for you and may you be filled with the newness of life in Christ which is the special grace of this period.

1.         After thinking over the possible topics for a circular letter I decided to write about Lectio Divina. In the fourth conference at the Abbesses' General Chapter this year I mentioned that Lectio is probably the weakest point in the Order at the moment. However, I went on to explain that I did not mean that our monks and nuns do not do spiritual reading - although even in this there is room for improvement - but that Lectio as a special monastic exercise is not well understood nowadays. If this is true then it would be sufficient motive for devoting a circular letter to the subject. However, there are several other reasons for choosing this topic. In most of our houses there is a much better equilibrium now between the three pillars of the monastic day - Opus Dei, Lectio Divina and manual work. But in some monasteries it could still be improved. In particular, one sometimes finds an attitude of suspicion towards Lectio, as if those who are faithful to it are somehow lazy and not pulling their weight. In saying this I do not wish to give a handle to those who neglect their work. No, definitely not. But I am making a plea for a proper balance between work and Lectio and am criticising the sort of attitude I came across in one house where I was told that work was the most important element in the life and that if it were done in peace and quiet lectio was more or less superfluous. The ideal, surely, is what I have found in some houses viz. that those who are most faithful to Lectio are the hardest and most responsible workers. There is another reason why I would like to speak of Lectio. Nowadays a significant number of monks and nuns are interesting themselves in oriental techniques, such as Yoga, Zen, transcendental meditation. These methods for attaining a certain interior calm and concentration may be helpful if used properly but I can't escape the impression that if Lectio were better understood and practised in the Order we would find that there was no need for them. In other words, lectio divina properly understood is a monastic technique which helps us, among other things, to reach the same goals as these oriental methods.

2.         As I pointed out to the Abbesses, there are a number of factors which make it difficult for modern people, at least in the west, to appreciate the nature of lectio. Let us look at these factors a little more closely.

Firstly, there is the desire for quick results. We live, whether we like it or not, in the so-called 'consumer society" where everything is organised to produce more and more goods in less and less time. The mass-production system is pursued with relentless logic and affects every aspect of life so that most people become imbued with a utilitarian mentality even unconsciously. As children of our age we are affected by this and find it hard to put ourselves to an exercise which does not seek for immediate results.

Secondly, there is the abundance of reading material in comparison with previous ages. When books were scarce and had to be copied out by hand people valued them highly and read them slowly and thoroughly. Even a hundred years ago books were still comparatively scarce. But nowadays there is such a proliferation of books and reviews that people are inclined to rush from one book to another and there is a subtle pressure to keep up with the latest publication, so that reading habits have changed considerably.

Then there is the modern insistence on intellectual processes to the detriment of the intuitive and affective side. Man is a whole, but the emphasis in modern education has been on the mind and very few, if any, educational systems have paid much attention to feeling and emotion. The result is that we have tended to have an unbalanced view of man and of life and we have regarded the affective side as inferior and even dangerous. This makes Lectio, which is concerned with the heart as well as the mind, seem more difficult and perhaps less desirable to the contemporary monk or nun. Some even go as far as to ridicule it as being "pious emotionalism" fit only for the weak, whereas solid study is regarded as meat for the strong!

A fourth source of difficulty is the examination system of education. Our contemporary world puts much weight on degrees and diplomas as proofs of education. To obtain these awards one has to pass examinations. So, much of the time in school or university is spent in preparing for them. In practice this means gathering a great deal of information through rapid reading and it tends to form habits which are difficult to change afterwards.

One could mention other things which make Lectio difficult-

watching television if one is exposed to it for a long time, courses on speed-reading, addiction to newspapers and so on. However the main point I am trying to make should be clear: even before we begin lectio there must be admitted that there are texts which show that monks of other ages did not always find lectio easy.

3.         But this brings me to the main point of this letter: what is lectio? As already hinted above, if we take lectio in the original sense it is not just spiritual reading, although nowadays many people equate the two. As I understand it, lectio is a special type of spiritual reading. It is an unhurried, meditative sort of reading which engages the whole person and helps him to be in communion with God.

It is unhurried in the sense that there is no desire to get through a fixed number of pages or even one page. We are not looking for information or trying to form concepts as such. Lectio is not valuable because it gives us new ideas but for what it helps us to become. There is a certain disinterestedness about it. We do not seek material for a sermon, or knowledge for the confessional, or arguments for a debate or anything else beyond the reading itself.

It is meditative. That is to say, it is done in a prayerful, recollected way and is interwoven with prayer. In his "The Love of Learning and The Desire for God" Dom Jean Leclercq has shown the close connection between lectio and meditatio and the richness of the two words. We must not understand the now classical formula: lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio as four watertight compartments to be tackled in ascending order but rather as four elements alternating with each other in an ever changing pattern.

It engages the whole person - not just the mind but the imagination and the heart and the body. In bygone ages reading was an audible process as a general rule i.e. done with the lips as well as the eyes. This is not the normal practice nowadays but it can be helpful sometimes if circumstances permit.

It is aimed at communion with God. When we seek knowledge we tend, because of our education, to look for clear concepts which we can grasp, dominate and then analyse. But there is another kind of knowledge which is a sort of communion, a being with. We don't reflect on this second type of knowledge (at least, not at the time) but yield to it. It is more an interpretation than a grasping for something. We would call it existential or experimental. This is the sort of fruit which is sought by lectio and it is specially relevant when we are reading the Bible - the inspired word of God.

4.         What I have been saying raises two problems which it will be worth mentioning: should lectio be always concerned with the Bible and is there a distinction between lectio and study ?

Should lectio be always concerned with the Bible? It must be admitted that in earlier times lectio was almost exclusively concerned with Scripture and the Patristic interpretations of Scripture. This is how it came to be called "divina" and perhaps this is why it took the particular form which it did. For the Bible is no ordinary book. It is the word of God. there is something sacramental about it. If read in the correct way it can be an encounter with Christ. We have to see the Sacred Books as a history of God's love for His people. It was because the early monks saw the Bible in this way that they developed their particular form of reading. But what about us to-day? My own answer to this is both "Yes" and "No". Scripture should be regarded as the primary subject matter of lectio but other books should not be excluded provided that we see them as helping us in some way (even indirectly) to understand the word of God. Need it be added, however, that not all books lend themselves to the slow meditative method recommended above.

And this brings me on to the second question: is there a distinction between lectio and study? My answer is that if we take lectio in its strict sense it must be distinguished from study. Several years ago a member of the Order wrote a paper on this point and argued strongly that not only was there no difference between study and lectio but that to insist on the distinction was to divorce theology from spirituality. As far as I could see the only conclusions to be drawn from the arguments offered were (a) that normally study is necessary for a deep spiritual life and (b) theology can be studied in a way that is helpful to one's life of prayer. Both of these conclusions meet with my full approval but they do not prove that study is lectio. Lectio divina is concerned with one type of knowledge, study with a more conceptual knowledge. But we must not over-react against the modern western insistence on the intellect by becoming anti-intellectual. No, the two must go hand in hand. They are complementary not mutually exclusive. Someone with little education should be capable of doing lectio as I have described it and God will give him or her whatever illumination is needed. But if a person has the necessary education God expects him or her to study before He will give illumination.

5.         From all that has been said so far it should be clear what dispositions are needed for lectio. A spirit of prayer and faith is fundamental. Lectio aims at communion with God and it is God Himself who offers us His word and calls us to this intimacy. But in this life such contact with God can only be in faith and it demands an attitude of humble desire, an attitude of prayer.

Secondly there must be a certain detachment which enables us not to be too eager for results. In this, lectio resembles prayer itself. We should not be looking for something sensational, for "experiences", for bright ideas which can be passed on to others. No, lectio is a long term process involving a steady, but often imperceptible, deepening of our intimacy with God.

Then, too, there must be a gift of oneself so that we do not remain merely hearers of the word. Lectio is a real ascesis. It does not remain on the theoretical level but like the word of God itself it is a two-edged sword reaching to our inmost depths and demanding a personal response.

Above all, there must be love without which our faith will be cold and the gift of self only half-hearted. Love is already a type of knowing and it will grow stronger through contact with the word.

6.        As a concluding section perhaps it will be useful to say something about formation to lectio divina, particularly as I have pointed out above the many difficulties encountered nowadays. In passing it may be remarked that there is a close parallel between these difficulties in lectio and the ones we find in prayer - both demand a real conversion. On the community level formation to lectio will be very difficult unless the horarium allows sufficient time for both lectio and study. Moreover, even if the horarium is balanced, it would be useful to see whether it can be observed in practice! Furthermore, formation in this sphere will be nullified if there is a wrong attitude towards lectio in the monastery.

On the individual level the novice master should explain clearly not only the nature of true lectio but also the main difficulties. He would do well to discuss with the novices ways and means of overcoming these difficulties. It is already half the battle to see them clearly.

Secondly he should see that the novices gradually form the habit of lectio divina, giving about 30 minutes to an hour daily to this exercise. Novices will probably need some guidance in the choice of books, at least to begin with.

From time to time it would be good to have a discussion on the subject of lectio so that experiences can be shared. Perhaps, even, the Novice Master can give a practical example of how to do lectio. Also it might help if some form of "Gospel sharing" were organised.

Obviously, anything which helps novices to develop the necessary dispositions will have its reaction on lectio. Above all, just as in the case of private prayer, it is important that the Novice Master give encouragement and talk with the novice about the difficulties he experiences so that a solution to these personal difficulties may be found.

This exercise with its prayerful ruminating of the Word of God is not easy. It demands real effort and self-sacrifice. But if we do succeed in developing the practice it will have far reaching effects on the quality of our monastic life and the contemplative dimension of our monasteries will be enriched. May Mary who knew how to treasure the Word of God and ponder it in her heart be with us in our efforts, especially at this season when we celebrate the birth of her Son.

Ambrose Southey