This guest post is by my good friend Don Volent, whose letters, journal entries, and conversations have encouraged, challenged, and delighted me for many years. Thanks, Don!
I was first introduced to the practice of Lectio Divina in the autumn of 1976, though I didn’t know it at the time. The initiation was given as an assignment by the Reverend Albert A. Cardoni, S. J. at Fairfield University in his Medieval Philosophy course of that term. The thirty students of this class were each given a single mimeographed sheet (blue inked sheets, the midcentury version of the photocopy) of only three paragraphs taken from the fifth question of the first part of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica entitled The General Notion of the Good. We were told to fold this sheet into eighths and to pocket it.
“You are to live with these three paragraphs for the next three months until the eve of Advent. If I see you on campus, I will ask you to fish it out for me. Like the peripatetic philosopher Aristotle, I want you to pace with it so that even your muscles and the blood that courses through your veins will question with you what these three paragraphs mean and where they can take you. Speak the words out loud inside your rooms and outside beneath sun and moonlight, because these shall be words that are with, with the being of things, with the sound of your pacing on the sidewalks of this university and with the way the autumn leaves –which you will soon see- blow across the open spaces between your dorms.”
Diligent student that I was, I listened to the man. From the afternoon of that class until the eve of Advent I lived with those three paragraphs. I paced with them on the sidewalks of the university and, just as Father Cardoni predicted, I saw the yellow aspen leaves swirling at my feet and gusting across the open space. “A thing is good insofar as it exists.” The words have stayed with me to this day. “Being is good! Shout it from the rooftops!” And God is the fertility of the Actual, the heart that beats in the what is. And the words were seeds, go figure, if one stays with them long enough to see that they actually germinate, break through the soil, peeking, seeking light, drinking in, nourishment, space, fertility, song.
Twenty years after this initiation I came across Luke Dysinger’s 1996 translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict and there, within the introduction, I found the description of the practice that Father Cardoni had introduced me to: Lectio Divina (Latin for “Divine Reading”). Mr. Luke speaks of the “art of lectio divina” as beginning with “cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to hear ‘with the ear of our hearts’ as St. Benedict writes in the Prologue to the Rule.” To listen. To listen deeply. To listen with the heart (the heart that has moved into the mind, the mind that has moved into the heart). To everything. To the sound of the man sweeping under the lintel of his shop. To the sound of a woman talking about a farmer’s porch. Mr. Luke further says “The reading or listening which is the first step in lectio divina is very different from the speed-reading” which we “apply to newspapers, books, and even to the Bible.” Yes, to slow the mind down from its dizzying whirl. This, too, I learned from Father Cardoni’s assignment, and which was further corroborated by the feeling of depth I felt once while, oddly, reading a passage from the writings of Thomas Merton that I happened to disagree with. But whence the depth? From the slowing down, from the staying with.
Mr. Luke, that fine friend of mine, also shed light, etymologically, on our “information” age, and, quite simply, it’s not. ‘Information,’ etymologically, points at a staying with something long enough for it to be formed in us (in formed, formed in), which is seed, germination, living with. But this is quite different to the norm of data surfing (surfacing) that we do nowadays, enticed by span to the detriment of depth. In fact, it seems like a variation of the canary in the coal mine that, when using the word ‘depth’ recently, in a conversation with a young 30’s gentleman, I was told that the word was pretty much an anachronism in the current age of expansive networking. Span versus depth? But why not span and depth, balanced? Which is to say, mustn’t our breathing out be balanced with our breathing in?
Trails we follow,