Lectio Divina for Our Times
by Brother Andrew CSWG
Brother Andrew is a member of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God, a small community of Anglican monks living in Crawley, UK.
I thought I would discuss Vassula Ryden’s Conversations with Jesus with reference to Lectio Divina. Spiritual reading forms an important part of the life of prayer. A well-stocked library is a feature of every monastery. Specific times of the day are set aside for reading. The silence of the monastery and the curb on speech which it places upon even the most talkative is conducive to profitable rumination, as we go about our business, upon what is put before us in our reading. It is rare for a monk not to have a book (or two) ‘on the go’. We read in refectory, and the refectory thus becomes a place where both body and spirit are nourished and renewed, food on the plate and on the bookrest in front of us. In some houses the meal is taken in silence, while one member of the community reads aloud to everyone, but in ours, each reads silently the book in front of him. “A little reading well digested at each session,” as our Rule states, “is the best mental diet for a monk. He should therefore discipline himself to read slowly, contemplating what is written in the light of the Holy Spirit.”
In the earlier stages of our life of prayer we select a passage from the reading material in front of us – it might be a paragraph, a phrase or even just one word, – and ruminate upon it. The Holy Spirit, who always stands ready to guide us, approaches from his side and sheds his light on what we are reading. If we will allow him, he will grant us a depth of insight into what we are reading to which we could never attain on our own. John Henry Newman speaks of “an angel’s reach of thought.” St Paul refers to the gift of “wisdom, knowledge and understanding,” and has much to say about spiritual maturity.
En route, so to speak, to this spiritual maturity, something happens. We find that we are no longer able to meditate upon our reading the way we used to, indeed whatever reading matter we might select, we find it dull, boring, lifeless, and ‘closed’. We frequently pick up texts that used to grant us refreshment and joy, and find nothing in them. If we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us through what has now become something of a desert experience as far as reading is concerned, he will lead us on to a later stage in which God, from his side, selects what we are to think about, ruminate upon, meditate on, and leads us in our thinking on the subject he has given us. The initiative is now on God’s side. Truly, now, “God proposes, man disposes.”
It is a joy when this begins to happen, the more so for its being such an unexpected turn of events. I was on my rest one summer in St David’s Hermitage. I had open on the table before me a book by Father Gilbert. I alternated my reading with manual work in the garden and as I worked, I found myself thinking along certain given lines, and enjoying it hugely. I worked and thought for some twenty minutes then went inside and sat down to my book again, and there in front of me, as if highlighted, was the matter I had just been reflecting upon, lucid, clear, ‘open’, the meaning revealed. I spent much of that sunny afternoon thus occupied -working a little, reading a little, and each time it was the same – there in front of me as I sat down to read was what I had been thinking about outside, and as I subsequently resumed my work in the garden, I was given to reflect on what I was about to read, before I read it. I was being led in my reading by the spirit, and not just led, but taught as well. It was a happy man who sat down to tea later that afternoon and reflected upon the words of the psalmist,
“In the scroll of the book it is written of me, that I should do your will: oh my God, I long to do it, your law delights my heart.” (Ps 40)
Understanding received in this way is ‘perfect’, that is to say, it is not a conclusion arrived at after thought. It is complete as given, and this quality of ‘perfection’ is immediately perceived by the recipient. It reassures, it calms, it is steady, stable, serene, it needs no verifying, it is above controversy, and the wisdom and knowledge that come with it share these characteristics. It is discrete. It does not belong in the debating chamber. It belongs, rather, in the heart of those whom the Holy Spirit has been preparing to receive it. I often think that if people would allow the Holy Spirit to teach them in this way then all the controversies over the meaning of Scripture and how it is to be interpreted would cease and they would then be able to answer the only question that really matters, namely, “Do you believe this?” with a definite“yes” or “no”.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit will lead us to think along specific lines for a short period before leading us to find its verification on the page in front of us, as I have just described. At other times his leading of our thinking may last considerably longer. If he wants to prepare us to read a work such as, say, St John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, we might be given to think and reflect for some weeks on themes as supplied by the Holy Spirit. Then, as we begin reading the book in question, we find laid out before us by the author the very themes we have been ruminating on over the previous weeks. It will be seen here that the reading of the book does not initiate a period of reflection, rather it concludes it. Reading the book becomes a matter of recognising what we have already been given, in the spirit, to understand. Primed, expectant, we have been looking out for what we now find before us, and we accept without hesitation, this, the fulfilment of our reflections.
Sometimes, depending on what the Holy Spirit has in mind for us, the lead period is even longer and he may lead us to think and reflect along given lines for years before bringing the work to its conclusion by putting the book he intends for us into our hands – and this is what he did with me concerning Vassula’s Conversations with Jesus. For a period of several years he gave me major themes to think about – the nature of salvation, purgatory and beyond, life in the new creation, the defeat of Satan and the ending of the Spiritual War, the transfer of the population of this world into the new creation, the raising of the shepherds needed to guide the flock into the new world, the Dark Night into which the world has been drawn in our times, the end of that Dark Night, and the central role, in all of this, of love, the love of God our creator for his creatures, and our response, in and through the power of love, to Him. Such was my food and drink during those years. Wonderful themes! Tremendous themes! As I went about my business around the monastery I kept them in my heart and reflected upon what I was being shown with what I can only describe as a great and secret gladness. I found in these meditations all the hallmarks of divine provenance which I have been taught by experience to look for and which I mention above – steadiness, stability, serenity and so on. So I went on quietly, and as I did so, I kept an eye open for the book that would draw these great themes together. Such themes! Such themes! Who could write them down? Who could even think of such tremendous matters and not be shaken to pieces? I frequently found myself reflecting upon the scroll, written inside and out, that St John was given to see in the book of Revelation, (5:1) or later (10:10) where the scroll is given him to eat, and in so doing I was restored to the peace, not of this world, that only our Lord can give.
These years of meditation and reflection were brought to their fulfilment the day Father Gregory suggested I read the Messages given by our Lord to Vassula, and I opened the first of twelve books of spiritual reading, the like of which I have never encountered before.I do not intend to say much about the works themselves. As the psalmist says, and I use the phrase advisedly, “They are more than I am able to express”, (Ps 40) but I urge you to read them and judge for yourselves. More than in any other work of theology I have read, the Holy Spirit, who is in them, will reveal to you both himself, and the other two members of the Trinity, the Father, and the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not for me to try to describe what this is actually like when it happens, find out for yourself as you read them. The reader of these works will find his own life in them, in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the very life of everyone, and who is the author of these works. You may not want to meet him, or see your own life laid bare and revealed in the light of his truth, but he himself will grant you the wherewithal to stand in his presence when he comes in his glory, with his holy ones with him. (cf Lu 21:36, Matt 25:31, Lu 21:27, Lu 9:26) This, after all, is what our life of prayer is for. If you find that difficult to cope with then these works are not for you. I was speaking to someone recently who told me that on a recent visit to the monastery she read nine books in four days, and this, she admitted, was to avoid having to look up from her reading and acknowledge the presence of our Lord whom she knew was standing before her as she read. Here indeed is that mis-use of religion so prevalent in our own day, where religious practice itself becomes a “place” in which to hide from God.
As you read these works then, reader, when he who is their author appears to you, look up from your reading and speak to him, face to face. It is what you were born for. Once you have left this world you will no longer be able to meet him in this way, so make the most of the time given you. Give ear to what he says to you, look at him, smile at him, and read as he invites you. He has much to say to you, to us, and he says it in these volumes. Tremendous themes! The nature of salvation, purgatory and beyond, life in the new creation, the defeat of Satan and the ending of the Spiritual War, the transfer of the population of this world into the new creation, the raising of the shepherds needed to guide the flock into the new world, the Dark Night into which the world has been drawn in our times, the end of that Dark Night, and the means by which he accomplished, accomplishes, all of that, through love, the love God has for all of us, and our response to that love. It is all written in these books. It will be given to you at the time to respond in appropriate fashion. Your response will be a true one, either yes or no.
The theology to which these volumes introduce us is refreshing, lively, and candid. You do not need a PhD in Theology to understand it. Accessible to all who desire it, it is direct, simple, and a joy to read. It refreshes the parts that other theologies cannot reach. It is in fact everything you do not expect theology to be. I have a hunch that those who read it and take to it will be little inclined to argue about it, or enter into the theological polemic that has so riven the separated churches over the centuries and whose fruits are becoming so manifest in our day – their inability to bring their worshippers to the perfection I have been describing. This inability is remedied in these volumes. Our Lord Himself speaks in them, and for those willing to receive him he grants renewal, refreshment, life, and peace.
The work of True Life in God has hardly begun. I have a feeling that in this initial period the Messages are being presented to the churches, that they might give the simple response, yes, or no, that they elicit. Once this initial period is over they will be presented to the population at large, and then I think astonishing, astounding things will happen, things beyond the capacity of human thinking to encompass – huge numbers of people will recognise, in the reading of them, their author, the Lord Jesus Christ. They will see his face, hear his voice, smile at him, rejoice with him, and remember that they know him and love him, and have done, these many years. The amnesia into which the Prince of this world, Satan, has cast them, and which the churches in their present state are unable to remedy, will thus be overcome, and they will come back to the Church, since for those who love our Lord there is nowhere else to go. Their return will transform the Church out of all recognition.
There is a historical precedent for events of such magnitude. In the third century the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and a vast influx of the population into the Church took place. In a very real sense the Church has been coping with the aftermath of that event ever since. The future events I am pointing to will be the completion, the fulfilment, of that great work begun seventeen hundred years ago.
I think, in True Life in God, we are seeing the beginnings of great events. I suggest you read the Messages and think about them.