By Michelle Francl-Donnay
In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. – Jn. 1:1
“Has anyone seen ‘Three Cups of Tea?'” Mike asks as his eyes roam the shelves. His spring semester starts in a few days, and with it the English course that assigned this book to read over the summer. “Did you read it yet?” I wonder, trying to gauge what the crisis level is if we can’t find the book. “Of course,” came the response, complete with eye roll. “I just want to refresh it.”
Living in a house where bookshelves occupy nearly every bit of free wall space, finding a particular tome in the collection can be a challenge. The books are set in motion by their serial readers and the silent conversation they’ve had with the author. And since each conversation is a bit different from the previous one, so is a book’s landing place. At times I’ll find Marilyn Nelson’s poetry sharing shelf space with the Desert Fathers, until it takes up residence with Annie Dillard’s essays; while bits of the science fiction collection are in orbit from living room to Victor’s office and Chris’ school bag and back.
The early Christians, too, let books speak to them – and move them. In the Apostolic Tradition, a third century collection of Christian practices attributed to Hippolytus, Christians are encouraged to undertake sacred reading: If there is a day when there is no instruction, let each one at home take a holy book [from Scripture] and read enough of it to gain some profit from it.
Over the centuries, the Church’s monastic tradition encouraged the sacred reading that second century theologian Origen called lectio spanina. Guigo II, a Carthusian abbot of the 12th century, writing to his friend and fellow monk Gervase, described the practice: “Reading is the first ground that that precedes and leads one into meditation; meditation seeks busily, and also with deep thought digs and delves deeply to find that treasure; and because [that treasure] cannot be attained by itself alone, then He sends us into prayer that is mighty and strong.”
Guigo used the image of a ladder to provide a more formal guide to lectio spanina. The four rungs to climb were lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio. In more modern terms: read, consider, and pray.
Begin by picking a passage from Scripture and read it, slowly, contemplatively. Read it aloud if you can. Pause when a word or phrase speaks to your spirit. Let that phrase ring in your mind, soak in, spin around to be seen from a different perspective.
Turn to God, let Him speak to you. Speak to Him in your heart. Pray to rest in Him – to be granted the grace of contemplation. End by speaking to God of your gratitude for this time.
This practice of sacred reading should be unhurried. St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us not to be anxious to move on. It is a practice of simplicity and humility; it should be approached without a desire to get through a text, or without any expectation of great spiritual insights, or of mystical experience. It is a way of waiting in joyful hope.
Like the migrating books of my household, sacred reading sets the Word in motion. It moves us to prayer but also to action. Guigo tells us what is expected of those who climb the ladder: “after such knowing that we set ourselves to work that we may attain those virtues that were in them.”
The Church continues to enjoin us to risk conversation and conversion through sacred reading. Pope Benedict has encouraged us to renew our commitment to the practice, certain that it will breathe new life into the Church: “Assiduous reading of sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer makes that intimate dialogue possible in which, through reading, one hears God speaking, and through prayer, one responds with a confident opening of the heart.”
This Lent, I recommit to seeking God in the sacred books, desiring to move beyond the words, to follow the text back to the beginning when the Word was with God, in hope that the Word will become flesh in me.
God our Father, You are the author of true consecration and peace. Please grant that we may fittingly worship Your spanine majesty by this gift and, by our participation in this sacred mystery, may truly be made one in mind and heart. Amen. – From the prayer over the gifts, seventh day of the Christmas octave
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: email@example.com.