Summary: In this article we will see that if a person can be understood as not having quite reached second conversion, then that person will have to be content with the initial practice of Meditation and avoid diving into Lectio Divina. This will mean that when a person is facing difficulties in the initial implementation of Lectio Divina we will need to discern between two possible reasons: 1- the legitimate normal difficulty any person faces when practising Lectio Divina, and 2- the fact that the person hasn’t undergone the second conversion yet. If so, the person is not ready yet and needs to practise Meditation and not yet Lectio Divina.
In this article, for the first time I do address in a new way the difficulties we face when we need to implement Lectio Divina and seem to struggle and/or fail. I consider Lectio Divina as we teach it (i.e. with the personal and direct intervention of the Holy Spirit allowing us to really listen to the Lord) under the perspective of whether we do or do not need to practise it. I do open a new horizon to our theological reflection attracting our attention to the difference in the working of the grace of God before and after second conversion. Considering second conversion as a tool of discernment regarding this issue is therefore new.
Lectio divina as we present it, takes for granted that the second conversion has occurred in the life of the practitioner. This is why the direct and supernatural action of the Holy Spirit (Contemplation) is involved. If the second conversion hasn’t occurred, we will then need to be patient, wait and, in the meantime, exercise ourselves in Meditation which doesn’t involve the direct personal action of the Holy Spirit (Contemplation).
1- Lectio Divina as we teach it
Until today, I have generally assumed that the main criterium of discernment for applying Lectio Divina or not as we teach it at the School of Mary, is to ascertain if the person has read at least once the four Gospels, Acts, one or two important letters of St. Paul (Romans) and some extracts from the Old Testament. Otherwise, I used to invite people to read a paragraph from a Gospel before going to sleep, as a starting point, until the person acquired a minimum of familiarity with the Bible. I used to use the image: before reaching the motorway, we need to take the small roads first, then larger roads, until we reach the motorway (i.e. the Lectio as we teach it). I still taught the supernatural Lectio Divina that involves the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit to allow us to really listen to Jesus and put his Word into practice.
The question is should we reconsider this option and not merely assume that any Baptised person would be able to practise Lectio Divina as we teach it, i.e. with the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit?
Lectio Divina as we teach it involves looking at the two ways of the working of the Grace of God. The General and the Particular Help of the Grace of God. The General Help is constantly given to us, and it helps us read, think, study, meditate, ponder. It is a general help of the grace of God given to the mind, helping it to see, understand and act with the ordinary light of faith.
The Particular Help of the Grace of God is the direct and personal intervention of the Holy Spirit in us that makes us enter into direct contact with the Risen Lord. The Particular Help is typical of the post second conversion way of acting of the grace of God.
St. Thomas Aquinas talks about these two ways of acting of the Grace of God (see Summa Teologica I-IIae Q. 109, A.6). He actually uses the expression of “preparative grace” for the General Help and “Grace” itself for the Particular Help. St. Teresa of Avila, on the other hand, keeps the expressions “General help” and “Particular help” ((Life 14,6; see as well 3Mansions 1,2; 5Mansions 2,3)).
What, then, is the dividing line between the two modes of action of the Grace of God? Can any person receive the Particular Help of the grace of God? No, it is typical of the post second conversion time.
Do we use either one or the other? Or better said, does it mean that after the second conversion all the workings of the grace of God is made according to the Particular Help of the Grace of God?
It is fundamental to understand what is at stake here and how the two modalities of the action of the Grace of God interact. We don’t have one for the pre-conversion and the second for post-conversion. Rather we have the general help for the pre-conversion, but after conversion the two are used, as one prepares and leads to the second as St. Thomas Aquinas rightly says. In this sense we continue to read, think, study and meditate, but all these activities lead us toward the direct and personal intervention of the Holy Spirit in us, the particular help of the Grace of God.
The Lectio Divina as we teach it bears in itself the two workings of the Grace of God. One leads to the other.
2- Can everyone immediately apply Lectio Divina as we teach it?
Those who receive the teaching on Lectio Divina as we teach it in the School of Mary are on their spiritual journey. If they are receiving the teaching on Lectio and they are before their second conversion, the chances for them to be able to apply it as we teach it are very slim. Why? Because at this stage of growth the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit is not yet active.
Therefore, one needs to be careful not to push people too much into applying Lectio Divina as taught, or try to “torture” them by asking them to repeat the process and to keep on trying to do so, as this could lead to their even feeling guilty because it is not “working”.
We need to be able to discern between the intrinsic difficulty of implementing Lectio Divina and the impossibility to do so if the person needs first to do “meditation” (the person is before conversion).
3- Is Lectio Divina for all?
Yes and no. Yes, Lectio Divina is for everybody, but not immediately; it all depends as we said above where they are on their journey. If they are before their second conversion, people should start by meditating, which is using the general help of the grace of God in order to learn from a text they read and implement what they have learned. It is not yet the supernatural Lectio Divina, but purely “Meditation”.
4- The medieval meaning of "Meditating"
It is important to understand the differences in the use of the word “Meditation”. Today, in modern life, the expression “meditation” is used and applied in a very broad way, sometimes even for just some body relaxation. This is not the way it is being used here. We use it according to the traditional Christian meaning of it acquired especially during the Middle Ages.
Meditating in the Middle Ages is to use one’s mind, while reading a text (Scripture or Spiritual or Theological or Philosophical text), trying to find clarity in the text, discerning the main points, seeing the connections between them, to think about them, ponder, and from this work of the mind we deduce new lights or lessons, or resolutions. It is normally meant to lead us to improve in our Christian life, our practice of the virtues, our understanding of our faith and more so, the practical implications we draw from them.
To meditate implies a predominant use of the mind, under the General Help of the Grace of God. It involves the general light of faith.
It is in this meaning that Guigo the Carthusian uses the verb “to meditate” in this spiritual ladder: read, meditate, pray, contemplate.
St. Teresa of Avila uses the verb and St. John of the Cross as well, in the same meaning.
5- St. Teresa of Avila comes to our rescue
All the above is in a way summarised in St. Teresa of Avila’s life and works. Her conversion (which is a second conversion) leads her to experience the direct and personal action of the Holy Spirit (the “supernatural as she calls it” (see Mansions 4, first paragraph)), putting her in direct contact with Christ. It is from that moment on in her life, at the age of almost forty, after twenty years of monastic life that she experiences this change in herself. The majority of what we know about her, then, is the “new Teresa”, the Teresa of Jesus, what comes after her second conversion.
In her works, we can easily find the dividing line between her life before and after her conversion. For instance, in the book of her life, where she explains prayer, and talks about four ways of watering a garden (i.e. receiving the grace of God), her first way, is “meditation”, which falls before the beginning of the supernatural action of God in her. The following three ways of praying all involve the particular help of the grace of God, or the “supernatural”.
The same applies in the masterpiece, “The Interior Castle”. The first three mansions are pervaded by the action of the general help of the grace of God, while from the fourth mansions onward (4, 5, 6 and 7) we see in action both the general and particular help of the grace of God.
It is also significant to note that even if St. Teresa of Avila speaks essentially of Mental Prayer (i.e. Prayer of the Heart) and never about Lectio Divina, it is absolutely fair to apply her theology of the working of the Grace of God to Lectio Divina.
In this case, as we have just said: Meditation is the main activity before the Second Conversion. Any person who hasn’t yet gone through her second conversion is bound not to be able to practise the supernatural Lectio Divina, i.e. Lectio Divina as we explain it in the School of Mary. Why? Because the latter involves the direct and personal intervention of the Holy Spirit, allowing us to meet and hear the Risen Lord talking to our heart.
|Meditation||Second Conversion||Lectio Divina|
|General help of the grace of God||General and Particular help of the grace of God (supernatural)|
|Working of the mind with the general help. Extracting thoughts that nourish the progress in faith and moral life.||Elevation of the mind with the power of the Holy Spirit, healing the will and transforming it, allowing a new knowledge.|
Note: Second Conversion in itself deserves a separate article and treatment. Often it is regarded as only a grace from God, a grace where human effort is not involved. But when we study the teaching of the Doctors of the Church, especially St. Teresa of Avila, we start to understand more clearly what is at stake in the second conversion, i.e. what are the exact proportions between on one hand the direct intervention of the grace of God (the “Particular help of the Grace of God”) and on the other hand the human effort in using the “General Help of the Grace of God”, and that it takes time to occur. In fact, St. Teresa’s life and writings are uniquely rich for the learning of the “second conversion”: it is at the centre of her life and of her teaching.
The book of “Way of Perfection”, offered to the sisters of the monastery she first founded, St. Jose, at Avila, in fact is directly related to the lessons learned from her second conversion.
6- Meditation in St. John of the Cross
The teaching given by St. John of the Cross helps shed an extra light on this issue. In fact, in his works, he does mention something very illuminating for our subject. He tries to help us identify the moment when we “cross” from “Meditation” to “Contemplation”. He offers three signs (plus one). One of these signs is the difficulty or incapacity at a certain point to meditate! Which means to go with our mind, with the general help of the grace of God from one idea to another in a text. Why so? Because the grace of God has reached a point where it is shifting to a higher level of working, i.e. the particular help of the grace of God. It is true that he specifically talks about this phenomenon in Mental Prayer (Prayer of the Heart) but it can easily be applied to the rest of spiritual life. It is very interesting to see how he noticed that the person from a specific moment onwards can’t anymore pray using the mind only (with the general help of the grace of God).
Translated into the workings of “Lectio Divina”, we can say that once a person reaches this point in her spiritual life, she won’t be able to simply meditate on a text. The need and urge (and God’s desire) will be to enter into a direct contact with the Risen Lord, through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. In this case, Lectio Divina as it is taught in the School of Mary will be applied without too much difficulty, or better said: with its normal challenge, because there is always a challenge when we practise it, the challenge of going from the general to the particular help of the Grace of God, which is from “reading in order to understand the text” to “reading in order to listen to Jesus”.
7- Why the delay?
One can always ask this general question: why does Jesus delay the action of the particular help of the grace of God? Why can’t He just always act directly with the Holy Spirit? Since the coming of the Holy Spirit is what characterises Christian life, why doesn’t the Holy Spirit work immediately in the life of a Christian?
Interestingly enough, we find different answers to this question in the Gospel, in Jesus’ teaching itself. First, let us consider Jesus' reply to the Young rich man who was asking him: “Good Master what shall I do in order to have Eternal Life?”. Jesus doesn’t immediately say to him: you need one thing, go sell what you have, give the money to the poor, carry your Cross and come and follow me. No. Jesus acts progressively, step by step, like a good teacher or formator. He starts by asking him about Moses’ Teaching: “have you put into practice the [ten] Commandments?”. Jesus in fact is first and foremost checking if the foundations of spiritual life in the human being (the first stage of formation) have been laid. Jesus is checking to see if the young man used the general help of the Grace of God in order to apply the Ten Commandments. In fact, perfection doesn’t come first. The foundations come first. He could have, for instance, asked him about his faithfulness to his duties of state, if he has a job. All these aspects of life are important, implicit and fall into the framework of the Ten Commandments, i.e. of what any human being can do using the general help of the grace of God. Let us remember what we said above: this help is given to each human being, and at all times. This means that is should be used. We can’t emphasise the fact more strongly that these aspects should be done, achieved, realised before even talking about any form of Perfection.
It is only after He asked him this question and made sure that he did, that Jesus looked at him and loved him! Here come the specifics of the second conversion: entering into a direct and personal relationship with Jesus, hearing his Call to follow him. A new life!
The Gospel says that that was Jesus’ reaction: He looked at him and loved him. Why? Because this is the starting point of a new life. This is why St. Teresa of Avila when she wrote her life said: until then (her conversion) it was her life, and from that moment on, it was “Jesus’ life in her”. The phrase “of Jesus” attached to her name then started to have a living meaning.
The conclusion of this first insight given by the Lord is the necessity to lay first the foundations. So, a Supernatural Lectio Divina comes after Meditation, comes after laying the foundations, i.e. doing all that could be done using the general help of the Grace of God.
8- Indications of the Parable of the Sower
Interestingly, the Parable of the Sower can shed a light on this issue of Meditation vs Supernatural Hearing of the Word of God (i.e. Lectio Divina as we describe it). Why so? It does so because its main purpose is to analyse our way of listening to Jesus’ Words, the Seeds He came to give us. It offers four ways of listening, three of them not bearing fruits, each one for one or more reasons. By deepening our understanding of the reasons, we understand better the workings of the grace of God, i.e. God’s part in the process and our part. We can also draw a line between the first three types of persons and the fourth one, this line is drawn by the Lord himself when He clarified that only the good soil is bearing fruits, in multiple ways, some 100, some 60 and some 30.
The first soil: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.” (Mt 13:19). These are the persons who, “though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has grown callous; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn, and I would heal them.” (Mt 13,13-15) The Lord’s comment is tough. But there is a serious teaching here for us. The soil here is not “opened” in order to receive the Divine Seed. A serious effort of ploughing is needed.
The soil is the image of our heart and mind. How can we “plough” the soil of our being? By focusing on what is available, at the reach of our hand: putting into practice God’s Ten Commandments, for they summarise God’s will, and the ordinary grace of God is given to us constantly. We can use it to convert, confess, or simply act and put into practice. This step reminds us of the Lord’s first reply to the young rich man: have you put into practice Moses’ Commandments? They are fundamental, they are very close to what the natural light of reason can reach out to, they are a sort of “natural law”. What else could be done at this stage? Paying attention to having a serious involvement in life, with a job, fulfilling the duties of one’s state, helping in the Parish or Community.
As a consequence, at this stage, the mind needs opening and the heart too. It comes with a personal effort of reading, thinking, meditating and extracting conclusions, acts to be done. We understand here that we can’t offer or teach the person here Lectio Divina as we usually do it. Conversion is not yet there, plus, the person is not even necessarily close to the line of conversion. Let us think of the first or second mentions in St. Teresa. Crossing over from the first to the second mansion, avoiding committing sin. This brings the person to the third mansion and roots the person deeply in this regular ordered “rational” life. It is necessary for many people to achieve this stage. There are exceptions, certainly, for the Lord can have mercy on certain big sinners and offer them powerful graces to take them out of their grave sins, but still, they will have to go back to the fundamentals, and implement them until they have strong roots.
The second soil: “The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no roots, he remains for only a season. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.” (Mt 13:20-21) Once the soil is opened by the effort made by the person to put into practice Moses’ Commandments and have an ordered life, it is necessary, as we just said, to persevere in these new virtues so they can gain deeper and stronger roots in us. Learning perseverance and resilience removes the rocks in our soil.
We have often heard after the Vatican Council about human formation. It is the core of this stage. Human virtues; think of even what the Greek philosophers taught us to practise, and this entire structure has been integrated by St. Thomas Aquinas, showing that the supernatural virtues and the working of the Holy Spirit are grafted onto these initial “natural” virtues. This stage has its proper warfare, i.e. combating vices and bad habits.
9- Conclusion: what should we do?
With attentive discernment, it is important to try to sense if the person is before the second conversion or after it.
If the person is after it, this means that trying Lectio Divina as we do it is possible. How can we check? It is better to give time to the person and check through a one on one session what is not working. We need to discern between the intrinsic difficulty proper to the normal practice of Lectio Divina and the need first for Meditation. This comes from learning more about Lectio Divina and trying to see the personal history of the person if she went through a moment of change.
If the person is before the moment of conversion which is the case of the majority of parishioners, one needs to direct the person toward Meditation. It can be meditation of the Scriptures, or certain books that offer a meditation on a specific subject in Christian life. One can read on spiritual subjects and meditate upon them. One can read spiritual comments on the Bible. One needs to remember the main tasks of this stage: fidelity to the Commandments and Duties of State.
It is not advisable at all to force the person into Lectio Divina, or worse make the person feel undermined about not doing it the way we explain it. One needs pertinent discernment and patience.
At the end of this short article, a question remains: should the School of Mary teach some methods of Meditation?
17th January 2020