The genius of historic Anglicanism is found, at least partially, in its ability to synthesize and simplify. Thomas Cranmer simplified many aspects of an exceptionally complicated “Catholic” tradition in order to make it accessible to common people who sought to live common lives of uncommon prayer. Cranmer’s devout approach to accessibility applies, although unequally, to the Bible, public worship and private devotion. Cranmer’s broad Nihil obstat is in some way affixed to each of these, most especially as we remain faithful to the English Reformation and the Book of Common Prayer.
Of the many prayers that he conflated, compiled and composed, the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent exemplifies Cranmer’s profound simplicity:
BLESSED Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.
Commenting on this prayer in The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F. M. Zahl tell us that “Cranmer invites us to love the Bible and learn it.…” The question is, however, how can we most effectively learn it? Although many answers to this question have been offered, one stands the test of time: Lectio Divina.
Lectio Divina, Holy Reading, is an ancient practice that has garnered a great deal of attention over the past quarter of a century. Books abound, and many groups have been formed around the priority, principle and practice of reading the Bible in this manner. Nevertheless, and in spite of my being associated with a monastic community for many years, I have often struggled with the three-fold or four-fold process of Lectio. The words used to explain this process were foreign, unfamiliar and frustrating.
And then I discovered Cranmer’s Collect! As I reflected upon his prayer, several words dominated my thinking: HEAR…READ…MARK…LEARN…DIGEST. These are important words. Cranmer was not only devout, he was deliberate. When examined his words frame the practice of Lectio Divina, Holy Reading. They provide us with a broad and brief outline for reading the Bible well.
HEAR: The first word centers our considered concentration within the context of community. The Holy Reading of Holy Scripture is not an isolated activity. We read within the context and confines of Church. (In this sense, Lectio is very much like “doing” Theology.) Many in the primitive Church could not read. In order to hear God’s Word they needed to attend some form of public worship. Bibles, as such, were not (generally speaking) in homes. Although we are afforded such a luxury, and often have three or four Bibles on our bookshelves, this was not the experience of the early Church. Hearing was a community event that was corporately embraced and enjoyed. Consequently, to some degree, community determined interpretation.
What this means for us is that contemplation must be set within a community context. Meditating upon Holy Scripture is not a serendipitous enterprise. We should not read the Sacred Text as if it is a Ouija Board, hoping that in some way, somehow, God will have something to say to us– if we could only discover the right letters or words. Certainly we need to listen. Certainly God has something to “say.” We must, indeed, be alert and attentive. Nevertheless, and importantly, what we hear must be honed by community consensus. In other words, our hearing must not simply confirm us in our perspectives. Rather, God’s confirming and comforting words (that sometimes convict, convince and convert) must in some way conform us to the community of the Church to which we belong. It is God’s Word to God’s people of which I am just a small, albeit important, part. ME and MY Bible conforms to WE and OUR Bible– as revealed by God and revered by US.
READ: There are many ways to read the Bible. Many read the Bible consecutively, beginning with Genesis and ending at Revelation. Some people study a theme. Certain passages tend to dominate the attention of others. Others read texts in keeping with the historic Lectionary. All of these have value and, although some methods to be commended above others, all can be edifying and instructive.
Lectio Divina, Holy Reading, provides us with a unique way of reflection. Although any of the methods cited above can be used, Lectio tends toward brief readings. That is, Lectio tends to focus upon short passages for sustained attention. Many years ago, almost forty to be exact, I was introduced to the life and writings of the Eastern Christian mystic, Sadhu Sundar Singh. This man’s method of reading Scripture was in keeping with the practice of Lectio Divina. He would take a VERY small portion of the Bible and meditate on it. I, in contrast, would read extensively from the biblical text. Singh read for DEPTH and I read for breadth, but, regarding the practice of Holy Reading, DEPTH is what we are seeking. As such we must read less in order to read more. Certainly there is a place for broad reading. We must be attentive to the “whole counsel of God” within the whole community of the Church. And yet, at times, reading deeply is to be preferred. To grow up we must grow down, we must allow ourselves to “sink” and “drink” deeply into and from the Sacred Text. Reading well means that we devoutly delve deeply into the text– and that without Commentaries. No tree grows tall with shallow roots!
MARK: We often rush through our reading. Passing from one verse to another we, at best, note passages of personal import. Sometimes we may even write it down. Sometimes, if very lucky, we may even try to pray the Text. Marking means that we, in our reflective reading, have identified a word, passage or idea that has special significance for us. We “mark” it “important.” As such we spend time with this text. We read and read and read it. We think about it. We ask it questions. We let the Text question us. We turn it around in our hearts like a special marble (dare I say pearl!) in the hand of a child. We sit silently before it.
We understand this within our relationships. One of the best things about my relationship with my wife is that, although we DO speak, we often just enjoy each other’s company. We mark each other’s presence by being and waiting and enjoying. We embrace the presence of each other and, on many occasions, say very little. I am sure that you enjoy this with your spouse as well– or I at least hope you do. Marking the word is to wait within it. Marking the word is waiting upon it. “I wait for the Lord / My soul does wait / and in His word do I hope.” Marking the word is letting it have its way with us.
LEARN: Catholic devotional writer, Thomas á Kempis, has rightly acknowledged that some learning is only achieved by doing. He writes, “He who would completely understand the words of Christ must entirely conform himself to the life of Christ.” Western Christians often think of learning in academic terms. Rarely do we think of learning by doing– or learning as doing. Information is valued far more than transformation although, thankfully, this is beginning to change. Education without application produces, at times, doubts. Education without transformation is damning.
In the practice of Lectio Divina, Holy Reading, reflection always leads to action. We must DO in order to develop. At times our “doing” may move us inward. We may need to attend to our own private attitudes and orientations. At other times our “doing” will move us outward, toward others. Both however, upon learning, move us upward into God.
This upward action moves us outward beyond ourselves. Lectio is about encounter. It is about being with God. It is about being with others. It is about being with our deepest self, in all of its glory and ruin, as we encounter the God within which we “live and move and have our being.” Insight is important. Understanding is critical. Action is crucial. Learning has both lips and legs.
DIGEST: Digestion is aided by thorough chewing. The more we chew our food the more our digestive system will be aided. This applies to the practice and priority of Holy Reading. As “hearers” and “doers” of the word we must also learn to be efficient and effective “chewers” of the word.
One of my many bad habits is gulping my food. (Certain Eastern monastics do the same thing, but for radically different reasons!) My wife often tells me, politely but pointedly, “CHEW!” Of course she is right. Because I do not chew as well as I should I at times have stomach problems, my teeth do not get the workout they need, and the nutrients I should derive from chewing are minimized. The same is true for HOLY Reading. Holy Reading means that we must wholly read. We must chew, chew, chew, chew, and chew the biblical text if we are going to derive the nutrients we need from it.
This means that we never move beyond the Holy Text. To read the written word well is to encounter the Living Word. We cannot dispense with one without dispensing with the other. Word and word are connected and, properly understood and articulated, are one.
Christians should and must concern themselves with Bible Study. Study, as Richard Foster has so capably stated, is a discipline for disciples. As such there will always be a place for devout academic inquiry. These things said, however, Holy Reading graces us with the opportunity for encounter. It provides us the essential luxury of being with God. Loving the written word, which Cranmer commends, requires living in and with the Living Word. Are we luxuriating in Lectio– in Holy Reading?
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