Spiritual Exegesis, Spiritual Life and Lectio Divina
When we practise Lectio Divina, in the process of listening to the Word of God we read the text various times. As one can see in the 15 steps of Lectio Divina we have read (1), read (2), read (3) and read (4). What do they mean? In the Active phase we do read (1) in order to understand the text. While in the more Receptive – listening phase: we read while asking for the help of the Holy Spirit. We read (2) in order to discover Christ’s will: we ask, beg and, pray. We read (3) until we see only one light in the two texts. And finally, we read (4) until this same light becomes clear for us in a practical way. As we can see, we repeat the reading of the same text, but each time with the aim to go further deep into the text.
In other words, we go from the literal meaning of the Sacred Text, read (1): reading in order to understand what the text says in its plain literal meaning, to the Spiritual meaning of the same text (read (2), read (3), read (4)).
The initial work of the Holy Spirit starts when we notice that despite the fact that the two texts are different (different human authors, different moment in history, different subjects…) they start to say the same thing, one thing.
This phenomenon is really amazing, and it is really the sign of the working of the Grace of God. It starts one day when the Holy Spirit opens our mind (see below Luke 24:45) and allows us to see (in fact contemplate) a new spiritual meaning, which shows the unity between the two texts, a unity that lies at a deeper (or higher) level, the Spiritual Level, the level of the Holy Spirit. A unity caused by the fact that the Holy Spirit is the main Author of the sacred text.
“Then he [the Risen Lord] opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:45)
Note: He opened their minds once Risen. The opening of the Mind requires the Holy Spirit who was given after the Resurrection.
Having two texts and not one prevents us from remaining on the literal level, on the level of the letter: “the letter kills”, says Saint Paul, “but the Holy Spirit vivifies” (2 Co 3:6), i.e. gives us Divine Life. We witness the miracle of the Holy Spirit, animating with His Breath the letter of the Text, transforming it into the Living Word of God. In doing this He makes us communicate directly with the Risen Lord, and makes us hear His voice talking to us, guiding us, nourishing us. He really is the one who connects us with the Risen Lord and makes us hear His Voice.
This experience should then lead us to seek clarity on what He has started to say to us. We then would like to understand from Him what He wants us to do. The temptation is to stop at the beginning of Contemplation and rejoice in the “juiciness” of this Supernatural communication of Jesus to us. This new spiritual meaning the Holy Spirit is showing us in the texts needs to come into sharper focus, i.e. pointing within us toward an act that we should make.
Going from the Literal to the Spiritual Sense
In this sense, we are called everyday, while practising Lectio Divina, to have the experience of going from the literal meaning of the daily readings to the spiritual meaning that the Holy Spirit reveals to us. Lectio Divina is not an intellectual exercise or endeavour. Having the spiritual meaning, in itself, is not the goal of Lectio Divina. But having this spiritual meaning touching on some area in us to change us is the goal.
However, the spiritual meaning we get of some parts of the text we are reading today doesn’t mean that this meaning is the only one to be had and the only one that everybody should have. The Word of God is Divine and therefore is versatile. If we don’t lose the direct connection between the literal and the spiritual sense, we will notice that the same word or expression of verse or passage can and will have many legitimate meanings. We can never exhaust all the meanings. In our quest for the spiritual sense of the texts of the day, we should never depart from the literal meaning to the point of losing the connection between the two. This is like taking a word out of its literal context and understanding it symbolically or literally in another way. There is a line between the literal sense and the spiritual sense just as there is a connection and line between the contours of a piece of stained glass and the light that comes through it.
Going from the literal meaning to the spiritual one in fact is the normal process of Lectio Divina, in the sense that it is part of Lectio Divina to have the experience, in the Holy Spirit, of the Living Word of God and not to be dealing intellectually (with our mind) only with a text, even if it is a Sacred Text.
In this sense also, the foundational experience of the Apostles and Disciples of Jesus in Luke 24 (the disciples of Emmaus and the eleven Apostles gathered together), the experience of this opening of the mind to understand what the Living Word of God says, through the powerful help of the Holy Spirit, is crucial for the practice of a proper Christian “Lectio Divina”. (“Proper” here means “supernatural”.) It strongly takes us back to the experience of the Ephphata (Mark 7,34) which is enacted as one of the rites of Baptism where the priest anoints the ears and mouth of the baby (or the adult), opening afresh the inner spiritual ear and the inner spiritual speech, after their having been closed since Adam’s fall! Enacting the experience of this baptismal opening should be lived by each of the Faithful in a personal way… discovering how he or she is really a son of God by adoption and therefore is called to hear his Father talking to him and to talk to his Heavenly Father with His Words.
This capacity comes from God, is given to us in Baptism, and is enacted when Jesus Calls us to follow Him. Nobody can take this grace for granted, ignore it or neglect it. It is part of the richness of each Christian. This is what makes us real Prophets, i.e. capable of having a two-way relationship with God, hearing Him and talking to Him. (Note: No other religion has this experience offered to all the Faithful, even the smallest Faithful.) This is what the Apostles state in the Act of the Apostles during Pentecost: they remember the prophet Joel’ prophecy that says that all will be prophets (see Acts 2:17-18). “And afterward, I will pour out My Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” (Joel 2:28)
Seeing other persons (i.e. the Fathers of the Church, the Spiritual Masters, the Mystics and all spiritual persons) also having the same experience throughout the past twenty centuries (to the point that it has become coined as: “Spiritual Exegesis”) gives a greater confirmation and depth to our Prayer (i.e. Lectio Divina). Seeing so many generations having the same experience gives it a context, and more so offers a confirmation that one is on the right path. Discovering that the meanings that the personal experience of the Holy Spirit in Lectio Divina are similar or identical to persons who lived in the early centuries is a wondrous experience that shows the unity through time of the Action of the Living Word in our life. It shows an amazing continuity, a real experience of the Living Tradition in Action, in us.
Having said that, it is important to remember two things:
1- going from the literal meaning to the spiritual meaning of the text suggested on a particular day is not a goal in itself and we shouldn’t dwell in it. It is not the goal of Lectio Divina to discover new meanings in the Scriptures. The discovery of a new spiritual meaning of the text is simply part of the supernatural process of Lectio Divina.
2- going from the literal meaning of the text to the spiritual one should lead us toward the real goal of Lectio Divina, which is listening to the Word of God and putting it into practice. In order to do so we need not only a general contemplation but a real incarnation of what the Voice of the Son, in the Holy Spirit, has made us hear in the Text. Thus, once the spiritual meaning starts to appear, one has to aim for the completion of the process of listening, hence the need to keep on asking: “how do you, Lord, want it to be applied by me today in my personal life, in myself?”
The Spiritual Opening
We mentioned above the spiritual opening, the experience one has of a sudden and profound change in the way one understands the Scriptures where the Holy Spirit intervenes and offers a deeper meaning of the text. However, there is a “before” and an “after” in this experience.
This phenomenon raises questions: do all Christians have this “opening” experience? Do all the Faithful have to have this experience? Since there is a “before” this experience, how can one deal with the Scriptures? Does it last for ever or is it a phase?
These questions lead us to introduce an important dimension or parameter for the understanding of “how to read the Scriptures”, and to “what is supposed to happen in Lectio Divina”. This new parameter is spiritual growth. The spiritual journey is not uniform or binary: being Christian or not being Christian. Within being Christian, there are various stages of growth. This reality is addressed by all Spiritual Masters and deserves a minimum of understanding by the Faithful in order to know what the steps are that he or she has ahead of them. Please see the book or articles on “The Spiritual Journey” or read St. Teresa of Avila’s book the “Interior Castle.”
If we consider three different stages (each one of them has sub-stages) we can say that Christian life can be divided into three stages:
1- From first conversion to second conversion,
2- From second conversion to full Union with Jesus,
3- From full union with Jesus to the fullness of Love (Christian Death).
Stage 1 corresponds to the first three mansions in St. Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle”. Stage 2 corresponds to the following four Mansions, and Stage 3 to the “Living Flame of Love” (St. John of the Cross’ masterpiece and testament).
But if we want a more Gospel image, we can use the image of the crossing of the Sea of Galilee: here we would have three phases:
1- Before crossing the sea,
2- Crossing the sea,
3- Arriving on the other side of the sea.
This image doesn’t correspond perfectly to the previously described phases because Jesus’ Apostles were Jews, believers in God and had been prepared for centuries to receive the Messiah, and then prepared more closely by John the Baptist. So meeting Jesus, i.e. receiving His Call, doesn’t correspond exactly to the Second Conversion.
To be more precise we should divide the first stage before crossing the sea into two phases: preparing to meet the Messiah and meeting the Messiah and His calling them to follow Him. This second phase should be in a way put together with the Crossing. So, in a wider way but more with greater precision, the three phases should be:
1- Before meeting the Messiah, until meeting Him and being called to follow Him.
2- Starting to follow Him.
2a- from home till the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
2b- having to cross, the sea (from one shore to the other)
3- Reaching the other shore until death in Christ.
What was described above corresponds to the entire long (very long) Phase 2. The Second conversion to Union with Christ.
Now what happens before this phase? From first conversion to second conversion? How do we read the Scriptures? Is there any direct action of the Holy Spirit in us? No. Do we use the general help of the grace of God? Yes, to its fullest or in its fullness, i.e. we, first, make a serious effort to learn the Scriptures, we use our mind as much as we can to understand God’s Commandments and the entire Catechism. The mind has a greater role here. Meditation is the main activity with the Bible. Meditation means mainly the use of the mind, analysis, reflection, thinking and pondering. Meditation means going from idea a to idea b, and from b to c, so the conclusion we draw is: a to c. All this is achieved with the general help of the Grace of God, until one day Jesus draws closer to us, has mercy on us and calls us to follow Him.
It is very important to fulfil this first stage before moving forward. The long learning process of the Bible (history of it, contents), the long learning process and implementation of the four parts of the Catechism are fundamental.
In fact, sometimes even people who have had a powerful conversion, need to go back and strengthen this initial long phase of rooting and implementation of a solid Christian Life.
This means that for the persons who are in this long phase (it can last years and decades) meditation is their main bread, their main way of addressing the Scriptures and their way of practising Lectio Divina. See for instance (see it and study it) the first way of watering the garden described by St. Teresa of Avila in her Autobiography, where this phase is vividly brought to life for the reader.
– Vatican II, “Dei Verbum”.
– Henri de Lubac, “History and Spirit. The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen.”
– Henri de Lubac, “Medieval exegesis”, 3 vols.
– St. Teresa of Avila, “Autobiography”.
– St. Teresa of Avila,”The Interior Castle”.