Sunday, January 13, 2008

word into silence

What use are the Scriptures
to anyone who does not known the Source from which they come?
Only those who realize that one as ever present within the heart
attain abiding joy.
The Lord of Love is the supreme creator
hidden deep in the mystery of the Scriptures.
Svetasvatara Upanishad.

We did a communal lectio period together as part of the retreat. I wasn’t sure how it was going to work with such a large crowd, especially Singaporeans who are somewhat reticent of sharing in public, but it went well.

I am so interested in and fond of the connection between Scripture and meditation. My own practice has grown out of that simple phrase of John Main’s that seems to sum up the connection between liturgical prayer, lectio divina and meditation, “Word into silence.” I found some things in Spidlik again that are very useful. (I have brought the second volume of his Spirituality of the Christian East, on prayer, along as my spiritual reading for this trip, like an old friend.)

The Hebrew terms that usually gets translated as or associated with “meditation” derive from the root haga, translated into the Greek as melatan, and Latin as meditari, meditation. There is an immediate tie in with the Asian understanding of the mantra and even the nama japa, as its original root meaning is actually “to make a soft murmuring sound,” and so the seat of meditation is the throat! (OM!) And this haga is mostly associated with God’s word. So Psalm 1 says they are “happy who meditate on God’s law day and night.” The Greek notion of melatan and the Latin meditari expand that a little bit. They carry the notion of “taking something to heart,” as in practicing or accustoming oneself to something. So we have Mary “pondering all these things in her heart.” Spidlik mentions St Paul recommending that his disciples “take to heart” the meaning of Scripture (1 Tm 3:14), but I was thinking of him saying in Colossians 3, “let the Word of God dwell in you richly,” or as we re-stated it in our Psallite antiphon, “let the Word make a home in your heart.”

So Christian meditation proper grew out of encounter with the Word, as we see evidenced in the desert monks, recalling and repeating texts from Scripture as “food for the soul.” The word that comes down to us from St Benedict is ruminare, to ruminate on the Word as a cow on her cud. This word actually derives from Scripture too, in Lev 11:3 and Dt 14:6 where the clean animals are the ones who ruminate, those that “chew the cud.” A clear example is found in a method recommended by Pachomius in his Rule; he tells them over and over again to meditate on something from Scripture (de Scripturis aliquid meditari), which meant for them to recite verses from the Psalms or short biblical texts in a low voice. John Cassian tells us that this practice is what eastern monks did instead of celebrating the canonical hours as the western monks did; all day long during manual labor, repeating or reciting biblical texts or snippets of Psalms. This is the practical application of praying without ceasing. And of course it is in this context that we get Abba Isaac’s famous teaching on prayer in Conference 10 that John Main and others adapt as a Christian teaching on the use of a mantra, Abba Isaac’s “mantra” itself being a line for the Psalms: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me,” taken from Psalm 70:1.

The practice of the monks of the early centuries of the church was that of learning Scripture by heart, usually by means of reading it out loud in a soft voice––haga––murmuring it. This of course comes about partially by necessity given the paucity of printed copies of the Scriptures. There are still monastic teachers who insist that this is the proper and most efficacious way to read Scripture; there are certainly echoes of it in the Rule of St Benedict. Theophan the Recluse taught that it is impossible to describe all the profit one could gain from learning passages of Scripture by heart. It is like putting fruit in sugar to penetrate and preserve it, so the soul is “impregnated by the words of God,” and so preserved against the corruption of vain or evil thoughts. “The goal of reading is to let the Word of God penetrate the heart, where it becomes prayer.” (Spidlik, pp. 140-141) “Let the Word make a home in your heart.”

Spidlik mentions that there is a connection here with St Francis de Sales’ teaching as well as that of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, that even “ignatian meditation” is not as opposed to eastern notion of meditation as some would assume but is rather supposed to lead to the same contemplatio beyond words and images of the intuitive intellect. But Theophan thinks that Catholics never understand what true prayer is because they stay concentrated on rational reflections instead of going all the way to the intuitive intellect. It is not the St Francis or St Ignatius themselves do not lead us there, but that practically speaking going beyond thoughts and imagination, “discursive reasoning,” has been neglected in the western notion of prayer. This of course is where the proper practice of lectio divina comes in and be a real help, a practice of “Word into Silence.”

Said simply, we read the Word, we memorize “learn by heart” something of that reading that has moved our heart, and that little snippet becomes our mantra that we carry around and murmur, if you will. This is the understanding of the practice japa-repetition in the Indian tradition, that we are lead to greater and progressive interiorization by way of the bhajans, japa–repetition either of a name of God or a mantra, leading to dhyana–meditation.