July 26, 2011 by Matthew Mason
My sense is that many in my generation of evangelicals have “grown out of” what we perceive as the legalism and pietism of previous generations’ stress on personal daily reading of Scripture and prayer. I think this is bad news, not least because, at their best (which was much of the time), previous generations were motivated not by duty but by love. They loved Scripture. And they loved Scripture because they loved Christ.
In a passage of great beauty, Mariano Magrassi captures the same attitude in the fathers and the medievals. They were greedy for God’s word because as they read, they encountered Christ through the sacred page.
Hunger for the Word is a need of love. The drought that creates this thirst is the fire of love; it is the “soul obsessed with Scripture” which Jerome admired in Origen. Lack of reading is an unbearable fast which saps the life of the spirit. Love inevitably brings with it an irresistible need to know. Everything pertaining to the beloved takes on special interest and becomes the object of intense searching. Augustine’s love of Truth, which prompted his search and made it so fruitful, is of this kind. it is not intellectualism. It is the discovery of the mystery of a Person deeply loved, in whom every truth comes together like the lines on his face. He is the Truth, and every text of Scripture speaks of him. (Praying the Bible, 65)
This therefore shapes the way we read.
All of this has consequences for lectio divina. It is not so much a matter of reading a book as of seeking Someone: “With all its ardor, the Church seeks in Scripture the One who she loves.” Exegesis is not technique it is mysticism. The meaning of Scripture is not an impersonal truth, but the fascinating figure of Christ. “The meaning of Christ, mysterious and hidden.” The whole science of exegesis is the ability to recognize Christ. And when great saints such as Origen, Gregory, or Bernard pore over the text, their exegesis becomes an ardent search, a joyful and almost dreamlike discovery, a poem of love. (Praying the Bible, 52-53)
January 10, 2011 by Matthew Mason
The following from George Steiner challenged me to work harder on memorizing Scripture. It’s an act of love. (I could, of course, have learned exactly the same thing from Psalm 119.)
What you love, you start learning by heart…
We started in the French Lyceé, tiny children in those ridiculous blue Smocks: five lines and ten lines and twenty; learning by heart. For what you love, you will want to have inside you. We learned Pope’s Iliad by rote. We learned Lear’s nonsense rhymes by heart. Those whildren learned to tell the two apart and never say, “that ought I wrote in love I wrote only for love of art.” These lines of Robert Graves accompany me day and night. But there are so many others. What you have by heart, no one can touch. They cannot take it from you.
Consider the example of a Russian woman who was a teacher of English Romantic literature in the University in Kazakhstan. It was the Brezhnev years, relatively less hellish than Stalin, but still hell. She was imprisoned, with no light, on some trumped up charge, for three years, in solitary. Now, in Russia, for reasons I am not wholly competent to judge, Byron’s Don Juan has canonic presence. It’s regarded, maybe justly, as one of the transcendent achievements. This young woman knew it, thirty or thirty-four thousand lines by heart. And in the dark she dictated to herself a Russian verse translation. She lost her sight. But when she emerged, she dictated her translation, which is now the classic one in Russian. There is nothing you can do to a human being who is like that. No state can touch this. No despair can touch it. What you don’t know by heart, you really haven’t loved deeply enough. The poetry of Mandelstam, you remember, survived when Nadezhda, after the death of the poet, had ten people, no more, learning one of the poems. That was enough. There were no copies, and the KGB could do nothing. As long as ten people know a poem, it will live. Ben Johnson had the wonderful word for it, which we have lost: to ingest the text, to internalize it in the viscera of your spirit. The culture decays in precise proportion to its neglect, or suppression of memorization. (George Steiner, ‘Grammars of Creation’, emphasis added)1 Comment
October 29, 2010 by Matthew Mason
Contemporary life bombards us with text: emails, feed readers, newspapers, books, magazines. Most of us encounter an overwhelming amount of reading matter daily, much of it trivial and immediately forgotten. We move instantly from one thing to another, and in order to deal with it, we read quickly and superficially. And these habits surely affect our reading of Scripture.
In contrast, according to Mariano Magrassi, if we are truly to benefit from reading Scripture, we need
…contemplative calm. All haste is excluded. We moderns, when we read, are usually in a hurry. Our haste stems from curiosity and a thirst for novelty. We can see this in the avalanche of written words in which we are drowned, thanks to modern publishing. But this is deadly when dealing with a Word that holds the mystery of God. It prevents us from understanding, and above all, from assimilating….
In the prologue to his Orationes sive mediationes, St. Ambrose notes that “we should read them [the words] not in agitation, but in calm; not hurriedly, but slowly, a few at a time, pausing in attentive reflection…Then the reader will experience their ability to enkindle the ardor of prayer.” This is essential if reading is to lead to prayer. Prayer is one of those things that cannot be done in a hurry. If we are in a hurry, all we can do is read formulas. (Mariano Magrassi, Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998], 105f)
In order to cultivate this kind of reading, we need to cultivate space in which to read – at least a measure of uninterrupted, intentional time. But even when we take time, we need to develop different habits in order to use that time well. At a purely practical level, this week a friend recommended the following aids to slow reading: if you can read Hebrew and Greek, use them for meditative reading; if not, turn your Bible upside down to read.0 Comments