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Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina Paperback – 1996
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Michael Casey, prior of the Cistercian abbey of Tarrawarra in Victoria, Australia, places the practice of lectio divina near the heart of the Benedictine tradition. Although this is not a "cookbook," it is a practical guide as well as a theological and historical introduction. For Casey, lectio divina is a spiritual discipline with particular relevance to an age marked by individualism and resistance to discipline. Readers will find his application of traditional imagery of a spiral journey into the depths of Scripture particularly illuminating as a guide to reading sacred texts. That a spiral journey is marked by repetition leads Casey to remark that "there is a kind of monotony that is not boredom but paves the way to a more profound experience." This is reminiscent of advice from Zen tradition: if you find something boring after a minute, do it for two; if you find it boring after two minutes, do it for four. "Enlightenment," Casey writes, "comes not by increasing the level of excitement, but by moving more deeply into calm." Readers will find this book a most helpful companion in making that move. Steve Schroeder
About the Author
Michael Casey is a monk of Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia. He is a well-known retreat master and lecturer on monastic spirituality. He holds a doctorate from Melbourne College of Divinity in the areas of the life and writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Casey is the author of A Guide to Living in the Truth: Saint Benedict's Teaching on Humility; Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology; Toward God: The Ancient Wisdom of Western Prayer; and Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.
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Casey's point is precisely that: all Catholic Christians are indeed medieval monks, those who toil in the "middle times" between the Cross and the Second Coming, with a very keen eye on the past and a fierce hope for the future. Christian identity is all consuming, and Casey examines how Christians have embraced the Sacred Scriptures and the treasury of historical and ecclesiastical writings to discover our pasts, our current identities, and our future destinies. If there is one word that does not describe this work, it is "casual."
Those who are familiar with the Liturgy of the Hours, the official daily Catholic prayer format, have no doubt come across the Office of Readings, a nocturnal prayer service noted primarily for its two lengthy readings from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Church Fathers or spiritual writers. The Office of Readings takes its inspiration from the monastic Lectio Divina, "Sacred Reading," a time of intensive and devotional reading that occupied much of a monk's life, as reader [and copier!] Casey observes that this study formed the monk's identity, commanded his obedience, and directed him toward intensive meditational prayer. In this work the author democratizes the process, making a persuasive argument that as baptized persons we cannot imitate a God we do not know.
Shakespeare observed that "knowledge maketh a bloody entrance," and Casey is not sanguine about the intensive dedication necessary to a life of immersion in the divine sources. Two features in particular come immediately to mind. The first is a dedication of time. I recall a time not so long ago when I realized I needed a daily physical workout in the early morning. The AM purview of Facebook and the New York Times had to go for the good of "Brother Ass," Francis of Assisi's colorful phrase for the human torso. Similarly, a commitment to at least thirty minutes to one hour of immersion in Lectio Divina will require a major investment and, no doubt, divesting of more earthly pursuits. One needs to recall that "Shrouds have no pockets," and that Sacred Reading is, after all, the saving of one's soul.
A second consideration is attitudinal. Casey instructs his readers to embrace Lectio Divina with humility. I tend to read critically or pragmatically [as in, can I use this material in a class?] The author advises us to approach the text purely for its own sake, its access to the wisdom of God. We read for grace and guidance, for introduction to a world of the Holy Spirit that to some measure will be foreign to all of us. Casey is cognizant of the human tendency to rebel against new ideas and to avoid any trace of the ancient as "irrelevant," that favorite curse word of 1960's Catholicism. He calls to mind that the theology of both Hebrew and Christian Scripture is in fact backward looking, toward the saving deeds of God. A Christian who is not historically minded does not know himself.
As to the object of our study, Casey cites the Church's practice of reading Scripture and the treasury of its saints, thinkers, and leaders. With regard to Scripture, he cautions against cherry picking, the practice of hopping through sacred texts for the familiar or "what I need at this moment." Casey puts that responsibility in the hands of God; a reader makes a commitment to a particular book of the Scripture and remains with the text in its entirety. He wisely urges the use of a biblical commentary both for textual clarity and theological clarity. For example, I found Robert Alter's "The David Story" indispensible for profitable reading of 1 and 2 Samuel. Similarly, the Catholic commentaries known as "Sacra Pagina" from Liturgical Press are eminently useful in reading New Testament books.
As to non-Biblical works, the author might have been more helpful in assisting a novice reader through text selection. His elaboration of famous publishers through the last two centuries gets ahead of his purpose. I did a double take at the mention of the House of Migne [France] which published thousands of texts of ancient church fathers in a venture dating to the 1800's. Thus, while much of Chapter Five is highly useful, some cherry picking might be in order on page 126. I would recommend "Classics of Western Spirituality" produced by Paulist Press [127ff] which addresses precisely the need for which this work is written. Casey does provide a more personal list of recommendations [130-131] which incorporates multiple types of sacred writing, from the ancient pastoral letter known as the "Didache" through Church fathers of the first five centuries and on to the great body of monastic writing and eventually to Christian mystical writing.
Throughout his work Casey never loses the purpose of Christian study, the grace of prayer and meditation. The discipline, humility, and sheer immersion into Sacred Reading effects a reordering of human priorities and a lasting hunger for the God of Israel and his Eternal Son. It is a prize of unspeakable value...and it does not come cheaply.