Terrence Kardong, O.S.B.
Reading as Survival
When I was in the novitiate almost fifty years ago, I learned how to read. Of course I had been able to decipher books long before that in order to get through school and even for pleasure. But during the novice year reading became for me a survival technique and indeed a way of life.
In order to understand my remark about survival, it helps to know that even though the Benedictines modified almost everything else in the ancient Rule of St. Benedict, we applied its arrangements for the novitiate to the letter. We thought that required strict separation from the world, and even from the other professed monks of the community. Since there was only one other novice with me, plus a novice master and his socius, my world suddenly shrank to almost no one. Add the fact that we had absolutely no access to the wider world via the media and you have solitude that could daunt a Carthusian. My only means of survival was a cabinet full of books at the back of the study hall.
What kind of books were they? Most of them were of a devotional type that could kill a diabetic. One author described the ecstasy of standing in the center of a big monastic church and genuflecting in all directions as the consecration bells tinkled at the various private Masses in progress. The plenary indulgences were piling up. Yet when we asked for The Seven Storey Mountain, we were told it was too controversial for beginners such as us. Even Abbot Marmion was deemed too far out for us. What went unnoticed, though, was a complete set of the back issues of Worship magazine, which took me about six months to plow through. The novice master had no clue what was in those back issues or he would have passed out on the spot.
Granted, all this reading could go too far. One of the main texts that we were asked to read during the novitiate was The Liturgical Year by Prosper Gueranger. This excellent set of books runs to fifteen volumes and maybe 4500 pages. One got the impression that Gueranger could write indefinitely on any liturgical subject. The novicemaster loved this author. Indeed, his motto, "Gueranger, every day!" When I answered back "Parsch, by garsh," he was not amused.
Normally we read Gueranger about fifteen or twenty minutes a day, but during Holy Week the novice master disappeared to a parish and we were left to read the French abbot from morning to night. Apparently the abbot noticed that we were going slowly mad so he intervened. "Why don't you go down and clean up the bird dung in the courtyard?" he said. At that point, we had to be rescued from reading.
This same problem is not new for monks. In the seventeenth century, the great French monastic scholar Jean Mabillon went to the monastic prison at Mont Saint-Michel to visit a young friend of his. What he found there left him aghast. The monks had no work, no exercise and could not even attend Mass. All they had was discarded books. Mabillon exploded. In his letter to the monastic authorities, he put it bluntly: "You cannot read all day!" This from the greatest monastic historian of his age.
Nevertheless, reading was generally a godsend for me in my first monastic days. In these straitened circumstances, it was the doorway to another, brighter world where one could escape the loneliness and boredom of the long, Jesuitical retreat called the novitiate. It was here I learned to flourish mentally when the physical existence around me was unbearable. This novitiate skill is one that has served me very well throughout life. As long as my bag is full of good books, I can survive almost anywhere. From the jungle of Mindinao to an eleven-hour layover in the Amsterdam airport, good books can get me through. Of course, one also needs air, water and food, but these are secondary to a good book, or the latest issue of the New Yorker.
At this point, some one might wonder what this has to do with monastic life as such? Surely there are hard-core readers in every walk of life; they are not limited to monasteries. Conversely, to judge from the history of monasticism and its classic texts, there were always illiterate persons in monasteries and nobody denied they were authentic monastics. Nevertheless, the Rule of Benedict makes it clear that there is a specific kind of monastic reading that he calls lectio divina. For the rest of this paper, I propose to ruminate on lectio divina according to Saint Benedict.
When we look at the chapter 48 of the Rule, we do not find a treatise on lectio but a time frame into which are inserted five basic activities: meals, sleep, public prayer, manual labor and lectio divina. When I first began to study this chapter seriously, the biggest surprise for me was to find how little time is earmarked for work, and how much is devoted to lectio. During an average day, his monks worked about six hours and read for three! As for us, we have drastically modified this arrangement so we work eight or nine hours and squeeze in a bit of lectio whenever we can. I would suggest that this is one of the most serious modifications we have made in the Rule.
This is not meant as criticism. Modern Benedictines think they cannot make ends meet while working any less, they are probably right. Historically, monasteries that tried to live the classical Benedictine horarium usually had to live partly by alms, not by productive work. St. Benedict does not want his monks begging: "If they live by the work of their hands . . . they are real monks." Yet I doubt seriously if anyone can actually make a living by working only five or six hours a day.
But, per impossibile, let us say we had sufficient resources that we were really "free for" lectio three hours a day. That is Benedict's exact language: "Free for lectio." Would we do it? Why of course, you say! I have been craving that kind of holy leisure all my monastic life! Really? Don't be so sure. According to Benedict, some people in his time found lectio much harder than manual labor. They were not necessarily illiterate, but they found reading very burdensome. So he arranges for "lectio police" to monitor those people. If they cannot do lectio, he gave them some other work, even on Sunday. Today, he might give them a computer.
What kind of reading was this? No doubt it was biblical. Otherwise, it is hard to see why so much emphasis should be placed on this activity. And it was not conceived as an activity of leisured ladies and gentlemen who did not need to work for a living. It was certainly part of their work, their very existence. So much so that the old monastics were sometimes simply called "the readers." So for three hours they "read" the Bible. How is that possible? From hints scattered throughout RB, we can gather certain concrete details of what it meant.
For one thing, we have good evidence that some of this reading time was simply spent memorizing the biblical text. Now of course to have Sacred Scripture in your memory bank is extremely valuable, for you can then ruminate it while you are at your other work. Not my work, you say. But unlike us, their work was mostly simple and repetitive, so they could spend it reciting, say, the psalms in a low voice. Furthermore, at the Divine Office, the light was so poor and the books so few that one needed to have the psalms by heart to participate. Benedict explicitly tells them to spend whatever time remains between the night and dawn Offices learning psalms and lessons by heart.
Many of these things are explicitly described in Benedict's literary prototype, the Rule of the Master. I have criticized this poor author in many of my writings, and part of my complaint is he is so literal-minded. Sometimes, though, he helps us to glimpse the concrete reality of things that are left rather vague by other monastic legislators. For example, he helps us to see the concrete shape of lectio divina for some monks in the early days. He shows a group of monks memorizing the Bible in a group; one reads the verse and the others repeat it. The same thing continues with the Koran in the mosques of Cairo to this day. Or he arranges for public Bible reading while the monastics work in groups at their various crafts. And certainly table reading was lectio divina for them.
All this may seem like something from another world, a world that has little or nothing to do with ours, but we also know there has been no fundamental change in the human psyche. We still have eyes and ears for taking in words, memories for holding them and souls for contemplating them. And if our mental libraries are not stocked with biblical material, then what do we have in them? Images and thoughts from all over. People nowadays wonder why their prayer lives are so chaotic. They say that the mass media is often an insult to the eyes and the mind, but they do not connect the two things.
Someone might wonder if lectio divina absolutely has to be restricted to the Bible. My answer would be yes and no. We know from medieval customaries that they were handing out cookbooks and such stuff for Lenten reading at that time. Benedict was rolling over rapidly in his grave; probably both sets of his bones were doing so. On the other hand, surely he would not object to biblical commentaries and other works closely connected to Sacred Scripture. That would include most of the ancient Church Fathers, but what kind of modern books would qualify is not so clear. There are writers who are always quoting the Bible but seem to be of another spirit altogether. And some who never quote it are saturated in it. The reader has to decide this for herself.
It seems to me that one of the most important aspects of true lectio divina is that it is for formation and not for information. That means that it is alien to much modern reading and it may mean that one must work resolutely against one's own reading habits. There is a kind of consumerist reading that simply gulps down whole pages as if one is reading by the pound. A lot of our reading today is in preparation for something else: a class, a sermon, a lecture. As such, it is not lectio divina, although I would not want to separate study too sharply from lectio.
Personally, I have found that I need to do everything I can to slow down and crawl through the Bible on all fours. One way to do that is to read the text in a foreign language and preferably one that you are not very good at. When you do that, you simply have to go slow. Of course it is brutally hard work, but who said lectio was supposed to be easy? I insist that it merits prime time and energy or it is not what Benedict wanted.
And there are other ways of paying close attention to the text. Personally, I find that handwriting is a good way to accomplish this. Unlike our ancestors, we hardly ever write by hand and when we do, it is slow and laborious. All the better to deal with the biblical text! So I sometimes write it out word for word, and I do it in Greek. This is rather hard: Greek has two kinds of Es and two kinds of Os, so I make scribal mistakes all the time. There is many a slip between the original and my page! I do not say this in order to show off. Very often I do not even know at first what I am writing! But I do know I am writing the words of Sacred Scripture in the original form. I may be wasting time; I may be a hopeless romantic; but I am groping toward lectio divina. I feel I am wasting time in a way Benedict would have wanted.
I realize that this may be about the oddest way of doing lectio divina that anyone could devise. But I also suspect I am not alone. I met a young nun this summer with a elastic bandage around her arm. I asked her what was wrong and she said tendonitis. From what? I asked. I assumed it was carpal tunnel syndrome from overuse of the computer. Not so, she said, it was from writing Greek.