From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
One day some disciples came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the scriptures and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each one gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one of them the old man said, “You have not understood it.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, “How would you explain this saying?” and Abba Joseph replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Anthony said, “Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ‘I do not know.'”
ontemplation is not a private devotion; it is a way of life. It changes the way we think. It shapes the way we live. It challenges the way we talk and where we go and what we do. We do not “contemplate” or “not contemplate.” We live the contemplative life.
At the same time, there is one tool of the contemplative life which, in a special way, stirs the mind to new depths. It stretches the soul to new lengths. It expands the vision beyond all others. In the Rule of Benedict more time is allotted to this practice, for instance, than to any other activity except formal prayer. Thoughtful, reflective reading – lectio – immersion in the lessons of scripture and what the Rule of Benedict calls “other holy books,” provides the background against which the entire rest of the life is lived. It is in lectio that the monastic mind comes to know itself.
The thoughtful reading of scripture does two things: it tells us what we bring to the Word of God, and it confronts us daily with what the word of God is bringing to us.
Monastic lectio is the practice of reading small passages daily – a page, a paragraph, a sentence – and then milking for meaning any word or phrase or situation that interests or provokes me there. Then the soul wrestling begins. The question becomes: Why does this word or passage mean something to me? Why is this word or situation bothering me? What does it mean to me, say to me? What feeling does it bring out in me? Lectio is a slow, reflective process that takes us down below the preoccupations of the moment, the distractions of the day to that place where the soul holds the residue of life.
Then the hard and wrenching part begins. Now, I must find in myself what this word, this sentence, this situation is asking of me. Here, in this place, at this time. Now. What is this awareness demanding of me and what is obstructing me from doing it? The answers come from everywhere: All the old memories bubble up, all the present struggles take on a new edge. Clearly, there is an emptiness in me that is in need of filling. There is a vision that needs forming. There is a courage of soul that needs honing. What is it?
Suddenly, perhaps, or painfully slowly, I begin to see into myself. The gulf opens up between what I am and what I must be if divine life is ever to come to fullness in me. There is no more concealing it from myself, no more ignoring it. There is nowhere to go now but into the heart of God with arms up and hands open. Then we open ourselves to the work of divinity in us, to the One who binds all brokenness together, to the Life that simmers in our deadest, driest parts.
Day after day, year after year, the contemplative goes down into the scriptures, back through the holy wisdom of the ages, out into the Truth of the time and, in each moment, learns something new about the struggle within, about divinity, about life. Contemplatives, like Abba Joseph, never really “know” what anything “means.” They only come to know better and better in every sentence they read every day of their lives that divinity is at the depth of them calling them on.
To be a contemplative it is necessary to take time every day to fill myself with ideas that in the end lead my heart to the heart of the divine. Then, someday, somehow, the two hearts will beat in me as one.