Last night I had dinner with my friend Linda (visiting from New York), her beau Terence, and their friend Brother Fred. This morning I pulled the following remarks from Emily.
#652, c. 1862
A Prison gets to be a friend —
Between its Ponderous face
And Ours — a Kinsmanship express —
And in its narrow Eyes —
We come to look with gratitude
For the appointed Beam
It deals us — stated as our food —
And hungered for — the same —
We learn to know the Planks —
That answer to Our feet —
So miserable a sound — at first —
Nor ever now — so sweet —
As plashing in the Pools —
When Memory was a Boy —
But a Demurer Circuit —
A Geometric Joy —
The Posture of the Key
That interrupt the Day
To Our Endeavor — Not so real
The Cheek of Liberty —
As this Phantasm Steel
Whose features — Day and Night —
Are present to us — as Our Own —
And as escapeless — quite —
The narrow Round — the Stint —
The slow exchange of Hope —
For something passiver — Content
Too steep for looking up —
The Liberty we knew
Avoided — like a Dream —
Too wide for any Night but Heaven —
If That — indeed — redeem —
So Brother Fred, who is affiliated with the Benedictine order although he is not a priest, explained the topic of his doctoral thesis. It concerns preaching through a meditative practice called lectio divina, which relies on readings from scripture as a springboard into contemplation, the idea being that the holy spirit awakens through “eating” and “savoring” the words. Not reading them for meaning or analysis, but absorbing the words as a slide that plunges one into a non-ordinary state of consciousness that lies beyond words—the realm of holy spirit or awareness of “god within”. The monastic orders of the 12th century popularized this practice, most notably through the Rule of St. Benedict. The practice requires first that one quiets the mind and body by establishing a regular time for meditation in a place that is free of all distractions—no newspapers, email or horoscopes.
Also called “feasting on the word”, lectio divina consists of four steps or rungs in the “monk’s ladder.” First you take a bite (lectio) which is to read the words. Then you chew on it (meditatio), which means writing it down or reading it aloud. Here the mind wants to grasp the meaning. Then you savor it (oratio) which is to place the printed page away from you and wait for the word or phrase that wants to stick to the soul do its work. By meditating on the words, one waits passively for the words to manifest. The idea is that whatever portion of the passage is most relevant, that part rises to the surface. Not necessarily the whole passage but whatever small part of it is most needed, one word perhaps. The soul knows what it wants to hear.
The last part is digestion (contemplatio) which is that you stand up and go about your business with the word (engaged by holy spirit) active within you. You let the word inform your day. Allow the word to manifest itself to you and through you.
When Brother Fred described this practice to me, I shouted, “My god! I’ve been practicing lectio divina with Emily! All this time, and I didn’t even know it.” This took some explaining, but Brother Fred agreed that the text one uses for meditation doesn’t really matter. The scripture is not regarded as the literal word of God, but a tool for the practitioner to awaken the “god within”. The words are a mirror reflecting back to the reader what may be dormant and yearning for expression. You could do it with nursery rhymes . . . theoretically, at least.
Here I had been communing with Emily, having lively conversations with her in my sleep, and thinking that I had gone well and truly buggy—when in reality I have been experiencing just a regular old mystical encounter with the divine. What a relief.
It’s also nice to have this doughty Latin phrase for what I’m doing. Lectio Divina! With a feminine suffix, no less. I remember that much from high school Latin. And how nice to know I am in the company of St. Benedict and all the others.
Thank you Brother Fred.