Reading Like a Monk or Church Father

I grew up in a Christian tradition that emphasized the importance of Scripture. The authority of Scripture and the way that Christians interact with it continues to be important to me. The most interesting interpreters of Scripture, in my mind, are the church fathers and their followers, medieval monks. The primary methods of writing about Scripture that I learned in school and seminary were explication and the use of proof texts. Both methods shade into each other, but in general they approach Scripture either as something to be explained or as a point in a proof logical. The works of medieval authors and church fathers use both methods, but they also display another, richer form of inclusion of Scripture. Biblical phrases and allusions slip naturally into the works of these writers. It is difficult to give a succinct example of this because the borrowing of Biblical language only make sense within the larger context of the passage. Authors don’t call attention to these allusions because they are not their focus. Such borrowing stands out in modern editions of books because because an editor has taken time to mark them. This usage of Scripture reflects minds that have so internalized the language of the Bible that it becomes a natural part of the the way that writers express themselves. Interesting phenomena often prompt me to ask questions. What is different about the way that these writers read and interacted with Scripture from our own? What caused Scripture to become embedded in their consciousness? From there I did some informal research to come up with answers.

One of the primary ways that pre-modern reading differs from our own is that most reading was done aloud. There is a famous anecdote from Augustine’s Confessions (Book 6, Ch. 3) in which Augustine describes how his mentor Ambrose read silently. The assumption is that Augustine wouldn’t have taken the time to describe someone reading in this way if it wasn’t unusual. Jean Leclercq’s survey of medieval monastic culture, The Love of Learning and The Desire for God, comes to a similar conclusion about reading in the Middle Ages. In the same way we typically think of reading as silent unless specified as aloud, so medieval and patristic people thought of reading as aloud unless otherwise indicated.

Churches with traditional forms of worship still place a high value on reading aloud or singing Scripture. Scripture itself is full of examples of this. Acts 2:42 describes the practice of the infant Church devoting itself to the apostles’ teaching. After the death of the apostles, this seems to have developed into reading the apostles teaching in churches, i.e. the reading aloud of Scripture or extra-canonical works. Even before the death of the apostles, we see their writings being reading. Acts 15:31 mentions a decision of the apostles at Jerusalem being read in Antioch. Paul’s letters to churches also came with an expectation that they would be read aloud to the congregation and in some cases passed on to other churches for reading (e.g. Col. 4:16, 1 Thess. 5:27).

The reading aloud of Scripture had a long history in Judaism. Acts 15:21 mentions the reading aloud of Moses in synagogues every Sabbath. Since the earliest Christians were Jews, the practice would have been a familiar part of their regular worship and easily adapted to Christianity. Justin Martyr, who lived from roughly 100 to 165 AD, gives us a picture of Christian worship not long after the death of the apostles. He writes that each Sunday Christians gathered, “and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things” (First Apology ch. LXVII)

Personal reading aloud of Scripture is far less common today, but is still beneficial for Christians to practice. It engages the mouth and ears in a way that silent reading is unable to do. Reading aloud of passages of Scripture helps cement the words in the mind in ways that silent reading cannot. Reading Scripture aloud also brings reading to the point where it intersects with prayer. When we read aloud its words, the desires and attitudes expressed in the text become our own. Prayer becomes the repetition of God’s words back to him as our words. Through this our lives become conformed to God’s own life.
Another aspect of reading like the church fathers and monks is lectio divina. Lectio divina meaning “divine reading” in Latin. Lectio divina is not a form of reading with fixed rules; rather it is a tradition of reading Scripture that stretches back to the church fathers and beyond. Today lectio divina is usually associated with the method proposed by Guigo II, a twelfth century Carthusian monk. His Scala Claustralium, or Ladder for Monks, lays out a four-step process for reading Scripture. These are lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate. It is hard to say how widespread this four step approach was. However, I think it provides a good starting place for someone looking to practice lectio divina. Many of us needed training wheels to provide us with balance before we could learn to ride on two wheels. Guigo’s work provides this kind of support while we learned to read Scripture in a deeper, more meditative way.

Though it would be far better to read Guigo’s short work, I will give a brief summary here. The reading part of divine reading seems obvious, but it is important. Reading is done aloud. The idea is to read the words, multiple times, even to memorize them, before trying to interpret. Breaking down the grammar may be helpful. When we jump to interpretation before we fully observe a text, we are likely to read our interpretation instead of the text. As Sherlock Holmes says, “You see, but you do no observe.” Meditation flows out of reading. It involves taking the words apart and looking at their meaning individually, then putting them together and looking at them as a whole. What do these words mean and what are they saying? Guigo likens the whole process of lectio divina to eating. Where lectio involves putting food into ones mouth, meditatio is the chewing of that food. As with bodily eating, small bites are best.

Prayer is the response to what has been meditated upon. Guigo gives the example of the passage “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The prayer that springs from the verse is for God to give a pure heart and through that a vision of God for his meditation has already shown him that a vision of God is only reached through purity of heart. Prayer is the extraction of the flavor from the food. Contemplation is the stage that is most foreign to modern readers. In my opinion, and I think in that of Guigo, contemplation in its full sense does not happen every time. It is a gift from God, an experience of him or a degree of mystical union, that arises out of prayer. Contemplation is not a part of the eating process but the sweetness of the food itself. The process of digestion that occurs in lectio divina helps explain the naturalness of the medieval authors’ use of Scripture writings. Its comes from hearts and minds that have throughly absorbed and assimilated the Bible.

Another aspect of reading that applies to monks specifically is the divine office. This is the practice of praying at set times throughout the day. The church fathers likely had set times during the day to pray, but during the Middle Ages these became formalized for people living in monastic orders. Many monasteries in the Middle Ages and today engage in group prayer seven set times during the day. Prayer involved the reading (aloud) of Scripture and the singing of psalms, in addition to listening to the writings of church fathers. The Rule of St. Benedict, which became the standard rule for most monks in the West, proscribes the recitation of all 150 psalms each week. Not only did monks hear and read volumes of Scripture every day, they sang the entire book of Psalms fifty-two times a year. The Bible was embedded in the mind with the persistence of an earworm.

Not everyone could or can live like monks. Those desiring to draw closer to God in secular occupations during the Middle Ages used the practices of monks as models. Movements such as the beguines and beghards, mendicants, and devotio moderna borrowed aspects of monasticism to varying degrees in their quest to grow closer to God within the world. Even today people use variations of the divine office to pray at set times during the day, such as morning, noon, and evening. Websites and apps have simplified what in the past required jumping between different pages in a prayer book. Even if we don’t separate ourselves form the world and live a life of poverty, it is possible to practice a form of the divine office.

There is one final aspect of reading like a monk or church father that I will mention here. It is the interpretation of Scripture with an eye to multiple levels of meaning. By the Middle Ages the consensus was that a passage could have up to four levels of meaning. These are the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. (Dante’s putative letter to Can Grande contains a classic formulation of these four levels, no. 7 especially). Augustine’s own method prefigures this with a two-fold approach. A passage of Scripture could have a literal meaning and a figurative one, which might be allegorical, moral, or anagogical in nature. For him, the literal/historical meaning of passages in the Old Testament was not as interesting as the figurative. As someone who is trained in historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture, I find many medieval interpretations to stretch the meanings of texts.Do the minute details of the Song of Songs really represent specific aspects of the love of Christ for the Church? There is also the fear of interpretive anarchy, making Scripture say anything. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate the creativeness of the four-fold method, even if I view it with caution.

When Augustine points to the creation of Eve out of Adam’s side as a prefiguration of the creation of the church out of the blood and water which flows from Christ’s side, I hesitate to say he is wrong (City of God Bk XXII, 17).And, as writings in the later Middle Ages show, there are many parallels between romantic love and divine love. The Song of Songs may have something to teach us about the love of God. I also can’t ignore the writers of Scripture who interpreted Scripture in just this way. Paul takes a law from Deuteronomy about muzzling the ox that treads grain and says that it actually refers to ministers receiving material rewards for their work (1 Cor. 9:9-10).

I think this method of interpretation contributes to the freedom and naturalness with which medieval and patristic authors weave Scripture into their writings. It causes them to be more sensitive to imagery, symbolism, and figurative language than modern readers of the Bible typically are. It also grants a greater freedom and creativity to interpreters of Scripture. Since modern critical and interpretive approaches to Scripture, conservative and liberal, have been influenced by modern scientific method, they have the potential to treat the Bible as a fossilized object of inspection. Fossils, while interesting, are dead. They also don’t have the ability to protest the meaning we attach to them. I think it would be helpful to add a little more playfulness, imagination, and creativity into the reading of Scripture. (Mystery plays put on by medieval guilds provide one interesting example.) This ties into my deeper goal in the post. I do not seek to return to some slavish imitation of past practices. That removes creativity and play. Rather, I want to cross-pollinate our modern reading of Scripture with past practices, growing something that is natural and living. In this way our words, and lives, can be more fully saturated in God’s own Word.


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