Lectio: Listening as Communion

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Part of "Lectio: Listening with the Heart"

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Good morning, and welcome to New Kemeldele Hermitage and this weekend retreat entitled
Lectio, Listening as Communion.
And I chose this title very carefully, and I think it reveals the basic approach that
I will be sharing with you of Lectio Divina.
I also hope to, during these four talks, share with you out of my own personal experience
of Lectio, rather than anything I might have read in a textbook.
Certainly that is in the background, what's in the tradition and the descriptions of the
experience of Lectio throughout the monastic tradition, but I hope what can come across
more so is my own personal experience, and to bring that very much to these talks.
I'd like to begin with a reading from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.
If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will
come to him.
The one who loves will keep God's word.
Keep it in this way.
Let it enter your very being.
Let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life.
Feed on this goodness and your soul will delight in its richness.
Remember to eat your bread or your heart will wither away.
Fill your soul with richness and strength.
If you keep the word of God in this way, it will also keep you.
The Son with the Father will come to you.
The great prophet who will build the new Jerusalem will come.
The one who makes all things new.
So, the novelist Chaim Potok, who some of you may be familiar with, has produced quite
a few successful books since the 60s, and his first big success was the book Chosen,
and he writes out of the Hasidic Jewish experience.
Hasidism, as you may know, is a renewal movement which began in Eastern Europe, I believe,
in the 18th century, and it's a movement that sought to reignite the fire of love and devotion
in the believer with particularly intense listening, concentration, mysticism, passion,
celebration of the grandeur and wisdom and presence of God, the master of the universe.
Now, they made a movie of this in the 70s, and there's a number of powerful scenes in the movie,
but one in particular relates to our topic, and this is a scene in the synagogue,
and the scroll of the scriptures is being taken out of its enshrined place
and brought in procession by the rabbi up through the middle of the congregation to the place
of reading, and all the people are weeping for joy and filled with awe and reverence and deep
emotion and exhilaration and hope and longing, attentiveness, faith, devotion, etc.
You can just see the intensity in their eyes and the glow on their faces.
You can see that their scriptures for them are a kind of presence.
They're not just words, but somehow they capture, they bear the very God that they point toward,
that they are somehow cherished as a unique link or bridge between God and themselves,
and therefore the rabbi who interprets these texts for his community is also shares in that
role of a bridge between the community and God, and it's just a powerful scene to see this response
to the word in the movie, and it reminded me of that text in the prophet Nehemiah chapter 8.
Now, when the seventh month came around, the Israelites being in their towns,
all the people gathered as one in the square in front of the water gate and asked the scribe
Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which Yahweh had prescribed for Israel.
Accordingly, on the first day of the seventh month, the priest Ezra brought the law before
the assembly consisting of men and women and all those old enough to understand. In the square in
front of the water gate, in the presence of the men and the women and of those old enough to
understand, he read from the book from dawn till noon. All the people listened attentively to the
book of the law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden dais erected for the purpose. Beside him stood
other leaders of the community. In full view of all the people, he stood up higher than them all, and
he opened the book, and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed Yahweh, the great
God, and all the people raised their hands and answered, Amen, Amen. Then they bowed down and
faced to the ground, prostrated themselves before Yahweh.
Ezra read from the book of the law of God, translating and giving sense, so the reading was
understood. Then His Excellency Nehemiah and the priest scribe Ezra and the Levites who were
instructing the people said to them, Today is sacred to Yahweh your God. Do not be mournful,
do not weep, for the people were all in tears as they listened to the words of the law.
He then said, You may go, eat what is rich, drink what is sweet, and send a helping to the one who
has nothing prepared. For today is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad. The joy of Yahweh is your
stronghold. And the Levites calmed all the people down saying, Keep quiet, this is a sacred day. Do
not be sad. Then all the people went off to eat and drink and give helpings away and enjoy themselves
to the full, since they had understood the meaning of what had been proclaimed to them.
I think you can see the connection and one wonders if Chaim Potek, when he portrays this
scene in the synagogue, was thinking of this text in Nehemiah because it is so closely similar.
As Roman Catholics, particularly as Roman Catholics, but perhaps so all other Christians
to some extent or another, I think we need to recapture this sense of the word
and its importance. Just as Roman Catholics have developed a deep sense of the presence of Christ
through the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist, so too do we need to discover the
presence of Christ, not any less real or effective, but hidden in paper and ink of the Scriptures.
Lectio Divina presumes that one is a seeker, that one is seeking God.
It's about God's Word through which God can be encountered as a living presence. Now there are
many ways a person can approach Scripture, but all I want to talk about is the way, the approach
that is demanded through Lectio Divina, and that is one comes to the text, above all,
seeking a living presence, a living God, an engaging God,
and that this approach to the Scripture involves an encounter through
the text, that God's presence in the Word of God, capital W,
is hidden in the text of human words, small w. This does not deny the fact that the Word
of God is hidden in all of creation, in all living things, and in one's own heart.
This is true.
Scripture, though not the only place of encounter with God's Word,
we say in our tradition is a privileged place,
which according to the Judeo-Christian tradition actually teaches us how to hear and listen to
and recognize God's Word hidden in the world, hidden in other people,
hidden in human hearts. The Scriptures actually teach us how to do this.
God's self-utterance, which is what we mean by the Word, capital W, God's self-utterance,
we could say is like a seed, hidden yet active in everything,
or to use a different image, a more feminine image,
we could say it's like a womb out of which creation is born.
Why do the Scriptures have such a privileged place
in our Lectio Divina, our divine reading? This is what we need to explore in the course of these
talks, as well as other things. As the movie Chosen illustrates so powerfully,
the Scriptures contain in a certain special and powerful way God's hidden Word to the people who
belong to God. Now that expression, God's Word or the Word of God, the Hebrew for that is dabar,
is a verb. It's not a noun, it's a verb. The Hebrew Semitic sense of God's Word is it's a verb,
it's a word action. It's always active, it's always in movement, like a verb in a sentence
is the action word. It's the movement of God's presence with humanity.
Now for the Semitic peoples of the Near East, words were living realities of power.
They believed that words came up from within a person's mysterious depths or inner life.
One can remember perhaps the experience of a child's first word and how we long for that
moment and we try to even take our hands and shape the lips and the mouth of the person as
they're trying to give shape to this breath coming from within and saying a word, mommy, mama, or
dada. And what a great event it is when that first word, it's as if the child has crossed
a threshed hole into a new world and something powerful has happened. This is a bit of what I'm
talking about, the Semitic sense that words come from within a person's depths. They come from our
inner life and they give form and shape to breath. Without breath, there is no language.
And without a particular skill or technique or art of shaping the breath,
in a certain way, there is no speech. So for the ancient Semitic peoples, speech was a very
mysterious thing. And because it involved breath, that made it even more mysterious.
Breath was seen as that mysterious, elusive, divine force breathed into the first humans,
as the Genesis story talks about God taking the clay and breathing into it.
Breath, as well as blood, were seen by these people as divine principles of life in a person or animal.
Therefore, words derived their power from the divine breath in a person.
Words had something to do with God, excuse me, with the creator.
In this sense, for these people, every word had a kind of power, which once expressed,
was released and could not be retrieved. Think of the story of Isaac and his old age and the time
for him to bless his eldest son and his two sons, Jacob and Esau. And if you remember the mother
favoring Jacob and dressing him like Esau to fool Isaac into giving his blessing. And then
Esau coming and realizing what has happened, begs for that first blessing. And Isaac says,
it's too late, it's gone. I can give you another one, but I can't give you
that first blessing of the eldest. A power has gone out with those words.
For the Semitic peoples, words had a power to bless, as well as to curse,
to build up and to dare down, to wound and to heal.
Now, though we are far removed from the Semitic world and mentality, I think we do know a bit of
what I'm talking about. I think we do know from personal experience the power of these kinds of
words. There are words, both positive and negative, that remain with us for the rest of our lives.
A few months ago, my dad died. And a powerful example of word, at his deathbed, my mother and
sister and myself were there and were waiting for my two brothers to arrive. And they finally came
in and my dad was on the brink of life and death. And I told my two brothers to sit down and to
tell dad who they were and that they loved him and that they were there. And they had just done
that. And I said, Dad, we're all here now. And at these words, my dad chose to breathe his last.
Who could have imagined the power of those words?
This is why the Bible so often and in so many places cautions us about our words,
to be careful of what we say, to see their sacredness and power,
and to use words in a divinely inspired fashion.
You see, all words are meant to partake or reflect or echo the one word through which God
created the universe. We see this, if I can look up here for a moment, in the very beginning of
Genesis, we read, in the beginning God created heaven and earth. Now the earth was a formless
void. There was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters.
And God said, let there be light and there was light. And this text goes on, for each part of
creation, God said. God speaks a word and creation happens. This is so key to the whole
Semitic understanding of God. Somehow, out of God's very breath, his word breath,
from within the very womb of God or heart of God, creation comes forth. Now from the Christian
point of view in that text, we see that divine wind as the presence of the Spirit, which is again
breath, hovering over the primordial void, the shapeless void. And then when God speaks,
he speaks one word, even though many things are created, the ten thousand and one things,
he speaks one word for us, that is the Logos, that is the second person of the Trinity,
who later took on flesh and became Jesus Christ. And so we see the Trinity there, present there,
in creation. And so creation is impregnated with this one word, and so all other words,
all human words, are derivative from the one word of the Logos.
And it's this word breath of God that gives shape and form and order to the chaos,
to the formless void. It's interesting to note that the word we use for a human being,
the word person, comes from the Latin per sonare, to sound through.
A person is one who sounds through the one word of the Creator.
In some ways, a person is like an echo chamber within which, and through which,
God's word reverberates with life. A person is like a womb, which receives its being from God
as word and gives birth to God as word. We are a word unto ourselves. Or to use another image,
we are perhaps like the moon in relationship to the sun. We do not generate our own light-living
existence, but rather we receive it from another source and are always dependent on that source
and must always be in direct relationship with that source as the moon is to the sun.
Therefore, for the Jews, God's word as the principle of life and spirit and existence
permeates all reality. Thus, to know God, one must first and foremost know how to listen.
If God speaks life, speaks presence, divine presence, then above all, I must know how to
receive that word presence of God as a listener. And in the Semitic Jewish sense, it doesn't rule
out the other senses, but it means all of our senses must be trained and put at the disposal
of this deep listening that we might call a listening with the heart. So one listens with
one's eyes, one's taste and smell and touch, and also perhaps with a sixth sense, one must develop
a spiritual intuition and learn to listen with that. Now when I say this, I don't mean a listening
for human language in and of itself, but rather what we're talking about is a listening for the
language, the self-revelation, the presence of God, which is written, which is spoken
in all things, though is most often unnoticed by us.
And so, for the Jew, the conscious encounter with mystery, and I stress the word conscious,
the conscious awake encounter with mystery requires a listening, a receptive heart above all.
Now to recover, for us moderns to recover this sense of the power of word and the importance
of word, and therefore the cultivation of the art of a deep listening heart,
I think that is impossible without a recovery of the importance of silence.
There is no word, pardon me, without silence.
There is an intimate connection between word and silence.
The word comes out of the silence
and then returns to the silence. The silence is always there as a backdrop, as a background
against which the word emerges, comes to life, is born, is expressed, and then returns to that source.
One cannot begin to appreciate the power of words unless one appreciates the source
of words, and therefore that silence has something to do with God,
just as the word has something to do with God.
Now scripture, as I've said, is the primary teacher
in learning to listen this way for God's word presence. And why is that so? Because
scripture is the inspired account of a whole people's effort through thousands of years,
their effort and their struggles to listen to God's word presence, and to know and recognize
God's word presence. These scriptures contain key and primal and pivotal stories
with very carefully chosen words, much of which are image words, symbol words, poetry,
all designed to evoke in the listener awareness and encounter with word presence,
all designed to wake up one's consciousness to the divine presence that's already there within
one's heart, within the world. Now of the many words and stories that could have been put in
the scriptures, what we have are the ones that were carefully chosen over time by the faith community.
Both the faith community of Israel and eventually the faith community of Christianity, and they
were chosen carefully to pass on to future generations, not so much to pass on information,
but rather to wake up the listener to God's word presence.
Therefore, the words of holy scripture are pregnant with God's word presence and with power
to wake us up. And so Lectio Divina requires a special reverence and awe for the scriptures,
along with the desire to grow in the art of listening.
We must seek to understand the privileged place and the power of these stories and words
for the church's ongoing journey of faith. Therefore, the first stage of Lectio Divina
requires a correct understanding of the Bible as a sacred text with great power.
And what its purpose was for in being written,
we must remember that it is more a library than a book,
containing many books of different literary style, language, culture, time, and place in history,
spanning at perhaps at least 2,000 years, if not longer, if we take the oral sources into account.
And so it's important how we approach the text of scripture.
Scripture was written to lead the listener to an encounter with the word of God,
who the Christian believes is Christ, an encounter with Christ, the word of God,
through the Spirit, hidden in the text. The literal level is therefore the least effective
and the least powerful in this regard, though it certainly has a place. It is the first level when
we come to the text, as we encounter the most obvious literal sense of the text.
But the whole design is to lead us into an encounter with God with us in an ever deeper way.
Scripture always meets us where we're at. The word meets us where we're at, but it never
leaves us where we're at. And so I want to stress that scripture seeks to evoke awareness of presence.
So it is less concerned with communicating information, though there is information and
facts in the scriptures, but how the writers use and weave together those facts is with another
intention altogether, and that is less information and more concerned with communion.
The scriptures were written in a genre meant to lead the person inward into the mystery within
and surrounding you and embracing you, to lead the person to the burning bush,
and to entrust oneself, one's life, to the Holy Other.
Let me just pause for a moment and to see if you have any comments or questions at this point.
Okay, let's continue on then.
I cannot stress this enough, but we must have this right understanding of the scripture and
the importance of preparation for Lectio. Who am I to say that I'm not prepared for Lectio?
The person that I am and the attitudes that I have when I come to the text is at least half of
the experience of Lectio Divina, and I don't think we pay enough attention to that. And a lot of the
difficulties people have with really encountering the Lord through scripture is precisely what
they're bringing or what they're lacking, what they're not bringing to the text that they should.
And as modern people, we expect straightforward answers. We tend to come to the text looking for,
I don't know, a catechism, a moral instruction manual.
We don't like too much mystery or confusion. We don't want to really have to work at delving into
the text. And yet, the scriptures were very carefully written in order to frustrate the
simply curious reader, in order to stymie the rational, controlling, analytical mind with
contradiction, paradox, to stymie the analytical mind with paradox and contradiction.
And I would say in some ways to fool the literalist,
to withhold from the literalist its secret treasures and its wisdom.
In some ways, one, a person has to be ripe and ready to hear
before the secrets of scripture, the wisdom of scripture,
the word presence of God, reaches out and touches one.
That's why at certain points in our life, why does a text really penetrate us to the heart?
A text we've read many, many times before. It's not the text that has changed, but it's we
and the attitude with which we have come to the text that particular day.
So how we, the state we are in, the attitudes we have, are crucial in coming to the text.
And it is written precisely with this in mind, to invite, to challenge the listener,
to come to the text in a certain way.
Communicating information is one thing, but communion is another.
There are two modes of knowing.
Communication is logical, quantitative, and practical in its application.
And sometimes we try to approach scripture that way,
and I suppose we'll get something, but that's not Lectio.
Lectio is not coming to the text with a linear form of human intercourse.
You see, words are to communion what the sky is to the stars.
The sky does not own the stars, nor contain them like coins held securely in a pouch.
Rather, the sky is the matrix in which the stars appear.
Communion, as Merton writes, is something that the deepest ground of our being cries out for.
And it is something for which a lifetime of striving would not be enough.
And so the scriptures, as religious language, are symbolic.
And as such, what they do is promise communion for the disciple, the listener, who longs to discover.
Symbol opens the unknown depths of awareness,
enabling the disciple to come upon his or her own heart or center,
his or her own ontological roots in a mystery of being that transcends individual ego.
In a sense, we could say symbols tell us nothing new.
They revive our awareness of what we already know in some way deep, deep within us.
And so what is new is the ever new discovery of a new depth and a new actuality
of what is and always has been.
The great line in Exodus, I am who am, is that not what all of scripture is trying to waken us to?
This I am who am and who we are to that reality.
The function of symbol is to manifest a union that already exists but is not fully realized
in the person's life.
Now our union with God is our very person, as we've said, personare, we are a word of God.
It is who we are that is our principle of union with God, not anything we know.
And so not to come to scripture to get to know something,
that that will put us in relationship with God.
Only symbols can awaken our awareness of God.
And a symbol is any reality that comes to us both emptied and filled with God.
Strange paradox.
Now the Bible becomes a symbol only if we prepare for God's coming.
A symbol requires something of us.
In a sense it has a latent power that requires a person to approach with faith.
Faith allows a symbol, gives a symbol permission to come into its own.
And faith must be nurtured and developed.
And so therefore what we bring to the Bible is at least as equally important as what we find
in the Bible.
And I cannot stress this enough.
You'll hear me saying it throughout these talks.
And half of these talks are going to be about what we bring to the text.
Let me repeat that.
What we bring to the Bible is at least as equally important as what we find in the Bible.
And just as a living attentive faith enables us to encounter Christ hidden in bread and wine,
so too does a living attentive faith allow us to encounter Christ
hidden in paper, ink, and human words.
However, faith is not so much an unquestioning belief
or belief in certain teachings or doctrines.
That's not the sense of faith I mean here.
I mean more a biblical faith, more of a listening,
seeking, searching beneath the surface, literal obvious level of the text to the very depths.
The depths of the text, which of course the text leads me,
the word always leads me into my own inner depths.
As we approach the Bible with this kind of searching faith,
which is a trusting faith, it's an entrusting oneself to this encounter.
When we do this, something happens.
This is the witness of all those that have done Lectio.
Their witness is that something happens when we approach the text this way
between ourselves
and the text.
It's as if the word of Christ hidden in the text resonates or reverberates
with the same Christ word hidden in our hearts.
And so let us ponder these things as we move into this retreat.
Let us be careful of looking at Lectio from the perspective of some method,
specific method or technique.
And I'll be talking more about the American fetish for quick and easy techniques.
And Lectio is far more than that.
And to pay more attention to oneself.
Who am I as I come to this text?
And how do I understand and treat this text?
Is it just another book on my bookshelf?
And if I do Lectio every day, there's always the danger of any routine
dulling our awareness
and dulling our sense of the awesomeness of this encounter with the word.
Not any less awesome than our encounter with the Eucharistic bread and wine.
Not any less powerful than the encounter Moses with the burning bush
or the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration.
And so let us ponder this as we go through these talks.
Thank you and good night.