Wednesday, 26 February 2014

94: Lectio divina in daily life 2: The depths of spiritual life

(continuation of "Spirituality 91")

2. The depths of spiritual life

St. Paul speaks about the transition to adulthood: “Brothers, I could not talk to you as I talk to men who have the Spirit; I had to talk to you as men of this world, as to little children in Christ. I had to feed you milk, not solid food, because you were not ready for it” (1 Col 3:1-2). But those who go through this transition receive “the power to understand, together with all the saints, how broad and long and high and deep Christ’s love is”; they know the love of Christ “which surpasses all knowledge” and fully enter into the fullness of God (cf. Eph 3:18-19). St. John of the Cross also mentions this transition in his writings, but in stanza 36 of the Spiritual Canticle he seems to propose even more to the person who is already well advanced: “Let us enter into the heart of the thicket”, i.e. into the profundity of God’s wisdom. Let us consider more closely now the form the two commandments may take, in the light of lectio, for people who have come to these heights.

St. Paul reminds us that God wants us to be holy (cf. 1 Th 4:3). If lectio is a way of searching for God’s will, this implies that it leads us to holiness. And what is holiness? It is full union with God! So lectio takes us by the hand, like a pedagogue, and leads us to Him. It helps us to accomplish the first commandment, which is to love God, by allowing Him to dwell in us.
In this sense, we can say that the Bible is an “accident”[1] (with the scholastic meaning, according to which it contains the substance: the Word of God). This implies that the Bible in fact is not in itself absolute. It contains a substance, i.e. the Word, the eternal Logos, who is the ultimate goal of our search. The role of lectio is to lead us to the Word. Lectio is not an end in itself.
We are going to consider this more closely with reference to some Christian writers, three of whom are Church Fathers. But let us first remember that the two geniuses of Christianity, John and Paul, summed up the Gospel and Scripture in their own manner. St. John says that everything in Scripture leads to faith in Jesus’ divinity: “these things have been written that you may believe” (Jn 20:31). “This is how we win the victory over the world: with our faith” (1 Jn 5:4). Here, “faith” is synonymous with “union with God”. St. Paul sums the Bible up in this way: “For I decided not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ” (1 Co 2:2), and in another passage, where he speaks about love: “I may have the knowledge and understanding of Scripture, but without charity I am nothing” (1 Co 13:2)! Let us now look at how each of these authors approaches the question of the pertinence of the Bible in terms of the written message.

Dionysius the Areopagite and the highest summit of Scripture

Dionysius the Areopagite begins his work Mystical Theology with this prayer: “Deity above all essence, knowledge and goodness, Guide of Christians to Divine Wisdom; direct our path to the ultimate summit of your mystical knowledge, most incomprehensible, most luminous and most exalted, where the pure, absolute and immutable mysteries of theology are veiled in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their Darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories surpassing all beauty”[2].
Here Scripture appears to be God himself. It is no longer a question of exegesis in the usual sense of the term – even in patristics. Scripture, like a sublime sacrament, conveys God himself to us. At the summit we find the “the super-essential Radiance of the Divine Darkness”. In another work, Dionysius speaks of the “Radiance itself (coming) forth from the holy thearchic words” (Divine Names I, 1). This super-essential Radiance has always contained, in a quite indescribable way, the terms of all knowledge. We simply do not know how to conceive it, describe it or grasp it in a kind of vision, because it is separated from all things (cf. Ibid., I, 4). This ray then seems to come forth from Scripture as if out of a tabernacle.
Dionysius discloses a new perspective for us by showing us that Scripture contains a Radiance. He therefore invites us to go beyond our exegetical methods, even the deepest ones, to consecrate ourselves to God and to nothing  less. This idea is certainly out of the ordinary for us, and perhaps it reveals the deepest mystery of exegesis. It is true that his description is very brief. But a good knowledge of mysticism[3] can help us to better understand what he means.
So Scripture is compared to a high mountain which must be climbed by growing through the four levels we have been considering, the last of which plunges into God himself in such a way as cannot be grasped by the intellect alone. And there, at the summit of Scripture, we receive the super-essential Radiance.

St Augustine
St. Augustine considers that the entire Bible speaks of one thing only: Love – of loving and loving with a pure heart… in unity with the heart of God. Summing up all of Scripture, Augustine says: “Only one thing shines forth from the holy pages: Charity”[4]. The Bishop of Hippo teaches us that the Bible leads to love, but not just to any kind of love. This reminds us of the explanation St. John of the Cross gave of the height of spiritual life: the flame, the sparkling. It is then quite understandable how the Bible vanishes in the face of the reality to which it leads us: the “ineffable sighs” of God loving himself in the soul. And here is what Augustine tells us: "it is not necessary for a preacher who wants to talk about charity to read the entire Bible because charity springs forth from every page". Moreover, the Master himself attested this – and the Gospel gives an account of the scene: when asked which precepts of the Law are the greatest, he answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbours as yourself” (Mt 22: 36.39). In order to keep us from searching for anything else in the sacred text, he then added: “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 22:40). If this is already true of the Law and the Prophets it is even truer of the Gospel.
“Of all, then, that has been said since we entered upon the discussion about things, this is the sum: that we should clearly understand that the fulfilment and the end of the Law, and of all Holy Scripture, is the love of an object which is to be enjoyed, and the love of an object which can enjoy that other in fellowship with ourselves. For there is no need of a command that each man should love himself.”[5]
“And thus a man who is resting upon faith, hope and love, and who keeps a firm hold upon these, does not need Scripture except for the purpose of instructing others. Accordingly, many live without copies of Holy Scripture, even in solitude, on the strength of these three graces. So that in their case, I think, the saying is already fulfilled: ‘Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.’ Yet by means of these instruments (as they may be called), so great an edifice of faith and love has been built up in them.”[6]
In fact, what is found in the Bible may be summed up by the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity.[7] Augustine refers all understanding of Scripture to these virtues. This was to be the basis of biblical interpretation throughout the Middle Ages.[8]

In his “answer” in I-IIae, q. 106 a. 1, St. Thomas says: “the New Law is in the first place a law that is inscribed on our hearts, but that secondarily it is a written law”, and then in ad 1 he adds: “The Gospel writings contain only such things as pertain to the grace of the Holy Ghost, either by disposing us thereto, or by directing us to the use thereof”. The Holy Spirit is then the New Law written on our hearts. He is the heart of the Bible.

These examples help us to better understand that we are called to reach the point where one single word suffices to centre us and give us what is essential: God. So, lectio is not a means for finding solutions but the sacrament of the encounter with the Lord; and the Bible, after having taken us by the hand, leads us to the summit of the Mountain of the Knowledge of God.

[1] “accident”, as used in philosophy, is an attribute that doesn't affect the essence of a subject.
[2] Mystical Theology I, 1.
[3] Firstly of his own mystical doctrine; and for this it is necessary to read his entire work Mystical Theology.
[4] En. In Psalmos 140.
[5] De doctrina christiana I, 39.
[6] Ibid.I, 43.
[7] Cf. ibid.
[8] See H. de Lubac, Medieval exegesis. Also see Origen, who says that what we look for and find in the Bible is the Logos himself (H. de Lubac, History and spirit, chapter VIII § 3 and 4), and that the Bible, like the Body of Christ, are transitory realities (ibid.).

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