Question: When we say we respect the literal meaning of the text, that doesn’t mean that we can’t go beyond it, correct? For example, when in the parable of the good Samaritan, “the man took out two denarii, and gave them to the innkeeper,…”, yes I respect the letter, he really gave him two denarii, but I can go beyond that. In doing so, I am not throwing it out, I am not saying the two coins didn’t exist. In the two coins I am seeing for example the double commandments of love, or maybe the full divinity and the full humanity of Christ. So, how do I keep this principle, because we don’t stay with the literal, we respect it, as we first encounter the text we first want to understand the literal meaning but then the Spirit invites us to go beyond. Is that a good way to put it?

Answer: What you say is correct and correctly balanced. But still, allow me to take the opportunity and explain a few things regarding the way we read the Scriptures in Lectio Divina.

Like anything that has to do with our faith we are under the law of Incarnation, where human nature is introduced into the Divine Person (theologically we say that there is an assumption of the human nature into the Divine Person) and is simultaneously united to the divine nature. Incarnation doesn’t imply just uniting the human and the divine nature randomly or equally. On the contrary, union in Christ is unique, very specific and precise.

Similarly, the majority of the aspects of our faith follow this precise integration and union which we find in the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. Things which initially seem very different, very distant (like the two natures), we find combined in a specific way (in one Person). Christ is the sacrament of the Father, or the Icon of the Father.

We find this specific union in our act of faith. See how St. John the Evangelist describes the act of faith: he says that faith is about seeing a sign and believing that there is infinitely much more to it. An example of this is observing Jesus of Nazareth, seeing a sign given by Him, and believing that He is the Son of God, then this belief allowing us, like Thomas, who put his hands into Jesus’ side, to be touched by his divinity.

We find this also in the Sacraments. The structure of all sacraments follows the “logic” of the Incarnation: a visible sign of an invisible grace. In a way we can also talk about the sacramentality of our faith, because of the law of incarnation. It is the same law. The human being also is a flesh and a soul-spirit, in that while the brain wants to understand, the heart also needs to be fed.

The same can be said of Mary whom we say on one hand is created, a daughter of Eve, and on the other hand, simultaneously, we say that she is the “Mother of God” (“God” here being the Second Person of the Trinity incarnate).

With this dynamic in mind, if we choose one side over the other, one “extreme” over the other, we forfeit orthodoxy and we no longer have the right attitude vis a vis the Mystery of God or any one of his mysteries. We would be deviating. Also, if we “combine” or integrate the two poles wrongly (we say for instance that Jesus is made up of two persons), we also make the mystery fall apart.

We can – erroneously – choose one pole over the other. Therefore, it is important that we understand that the Incarnation is sacramental: it offers two poles. It is meant to offer us a dwelling place, Jesus our true Temple, but also to communicate God’s life to us.

Incarnation and Scripture

The same law applies to the Scriptures. Until today we have been struggling enormously to find Christ’s law of incarnation, or Christ’s sacramentality of the Scriptures. A few decades ago, the Church opened up to the study of the literal meaning of the text using all the tools of science available to us. But in so doing, this became almost our exclusive approach to the text. The “letter kills” says St. Paul, i.e. if we stick to the letter only we will find that it is not transmitting divine life. It needs to be vivified by the Holy Spirit, the main author of the Scriptures.

In recent decades, however, some have started to veer toward a more spiritual reading of the text. Having said this we still continue to address the literal meaning of the text, its historical context, the literary style, the external criticism, the internal one, the history of redaction and the different methods of analysis of the text. This latter study certainly makes us find many things in the Scriptures and it is absolutely necessary even if it can overstep the mark. It is like having Jesus in front of us and spending our life studying the hair follicles of Jesus’ arm. Analysis and going into detail can be almost an endless endeavour, and if on one hand it can give intellectual satisfaction on the other hand it does at least two things: 

  1. it dries up our mind and heart, 
  2. it disintegrates the object completely and we lose sight of its unity and action. 

It is like a young teenager who takes a transistor radio, opens it, dismantles it, destroys a few parts in the process, all because he wants to know what is inside and, more so, how it works. He has certainly found the pieces which comprise the radio. But is the radio now working? Can it ever work again? Similarly, we do this with certain schools of psychoanalysis: pursuing a goal ad infinitum, and in the end, we have nothing to show for it except some crumbs of knowledge and we have lost sight of the living person in front of us.

Using a degree of wisdom it would be advisable, on a daily basis, to place a limit on the endless analysis of the text in order to move to another dimension, the sacramental dimension. To explain this, I would like to take the example of stained-glass: one can do a PhD on the use of the pigment of which one of the pieces of stained-glass is composed. Can this make the dynamics of the stained-glass work, i.e. allow the light to come through and show us the biblical scene or person or saint? Of course, we need to study the pigment, but this is not the final goal of the stained- glass. So, the question is: when should the study of the literal meaning stop in order to move on to the other plane, the plane of the dynamics of sacramentality, the logic of incarnation?

Note: A “plane” is to view an object projected, as it were, horizontally or from above. Therefore, moving from one plane to the other is like changing levels.

There is a fine line between two activities and attitudes when facing a Sacred Text: when we practise Lectio Divina, there is a time we need to dedicate time to understanding from a human angle, using all the sciences at our disposal, either a word or a verse or a context. But then we need to move to another plane. We need to create the sacramental distance in order to start listening. It is the same with stained-glass: if we zoom in on a microscopic level to study the pigment used in one of the glass pieces, we are using a certain plane, a close-up level. If we draw back, if we create a certain distance from the pigment, we start to see the whole stained-glass picture, but also we start to see the light coming through and suddenly we can see what we are supposed to see: the beauty of the scene or person represented in the stained-glass and it looks more alive. This was the goal of the designer of the stained-glass: we need to look at it from a certain distance, not too far, not too close-up, but at a certain range, in order to see what he saw when he first conceived it.

In fact, we are now focusing from a certain distance on the entire stained-glass scene, but we also have our focal point, almost mysteriously beyond it, where the light comes from. This focal point might be more apparent, for example, in the case of Icons. Icons are supposed to unfold before us, in forms, shapes, lines, colours and meanings, a mystery of our faith. Any mystery, in the first instance, has an “incarnational” structure to it or a sacramentality. But the icon offers something even more powerful than the stained-glass; it is like a theological contour or a window open toward the mystery itself, to the point that it makes manifest to us the mystery itself. An icon, once blessed for liturgical and prayer purposes, stands in between the Blessed Sacrament and a Sacramental. I am talking from an Eastern perspective which the West is still struggling to fathom out. When you enter an Eastern church, say Byzantine, you are greeted by Our Lady in the form of her Icon waiting for you there – she is the real entrance door.

The mystery was contemplated first by the iconographer and then “written” theologically, in shapes, lines, and colours, following the theological rules which allow it to “write” theologically in an orthodox way. One is then drawn to the icon and is placed in front of the mystery itself as contemplated by the iconographer, now made present and active here. Entry into the mystery then follows.

Why am I talking about this second example of the icon? Because it is more helpful to us when aiming at entering the reading of the Scriptures in an “orthodox” (upright) way so to speak. Attitude is important. Many, for example, saw Jesus in front of them but they didn’t believe in Him, they weren’t able to access his divinity, His deepest identity. They came to a stop, like the pharisees and the scribes and the priests, at the skin of the fruit, and they couldn’t go beyond it. Their minds held them prisoner. Their culture held them prisoner.

Ironically, although they respected the letter, they ended up, unconsciously, by worshipping the letter, thinking that they would find in it the answers to their questions: their hunger for God.

The Act of Faith in the Scriptures is necessary. One sees the sign of the sacrament, Jesus clothes for example, one can analyse the letter, and one has to do it to a certain extent because God the invisible, God the silent, became visible and audible. God in toto so to speak became visible and audible. All of the Second Person, the Eternal Word of God, all of it took Flesh, assumed a human nature. Therefore, we have to respect this fact, and every day we need to study something according to the letter, as this prepares us for the Act of Faith. But then afterwards, we need to create a sacramental distance so to speak (go backward a little bit), in order to make a proper act of faith in the presence of the Risen Lord who wants to talk to us, and in the Holy Spirit who gives life, vivifies the Scripture, the text, makes it alive and “audible” so to speak. He not only inspires these words but also knows us inside out and knows where He needs to go in us to touch and heal, to shed divine light and transform us.

In summary, then, we can say that we need to have two attitudes: an initial more literal one, and then move on to the sacramental plane. The latter entails switching our attitude, from active, intellectual, effort-filled, to receptive, listening, digging deep in us to create a space in us for the Holy Spirit to enter in us using this or that word.

For at least eighty years, because of the acceptance and development of the literal analysis of the Scripture texts, we have adopted an extreme attitude from which we have often been unable to fully extricate ourselves. Till now, in fact, the main teaching in the Faculties of Theology, the main study of the Scriptures, tends to be purely exegetical. Very little is given on the Biblical Theology side of the Scriptures, and we have almost nothing on the spiritual meaning. At best it is taught as something from the Fathers of the Church, something belonging to the past.

Until today Lectio Divina has not been understood properly in its dynamics and in its transformative power. Today, despite a unique emergence in history of the practice of Lectio Divina among the people of God, we have deviating interpretations of what Lectio Divina is:

– some say it is a spiritual meditation, fruit of our own effort,

– others say it is a mysterious contemplation (mixing it with Contemplative Prayer) which might or might not come, on which ignores the real mechanism in us,

– others say it is a reading and studying of the text,

– some fail to see its liturgical roots. 

Until today real Lectio Divina is not being seen in the correct light, therefore it can’t bear its fruits. It can’t also be at the heart of Theology and theological studies. For seventy-five years we have been claiming that the Word of God is at the centre of Theology, but to this day the method of how to place it squarely and practically at the centre of our theological studies has never been seen or presented. Even the correct place of spiritual exegesis – unearthed by De Lubac and many others – in our spiritual life and in our studies has not been understood until this point in time.

The little faith the seminarian had when entering seminary will be in danger of evaporating when he is confronted with pure exegesis. He might lose his faith in the Scriptures because he will be troubled by the purely exegetical approach presented as the full truth and the final scientific truth. He will be troubled and won’t know what to do – to keep his faith hidden, or to renounce it?

Some will say that pure exegesis doesn’t have the final say, but nobody shows the seminarian the “final say” and how we can reach it. Similarly, we say that the Magisterium is the guardian of the correct interpretation, we say that Scripture has to be read in the Living Tradition of the Church. All correct. But these statements never become a living personal method. They reassure some but don’t offer any way to deal directly with the Scriptures. Most significantly we say that the prayerful effort of the faithful brings light and development to Christian doctrine (see CCC), but we are not shown the correct path to implement it.

Why is the proper sacramentality of Lectio Divina not understood and presented? Why aren’t the two planes of movement in Lectio Divina presented? Why isn’t moving from one attitude to the other not explained? Why is there no explanation of the way we can be nourished by the Scripture through proper “manducation” so to speak? Pope Benedict, in his letter “Verbum Domini”, mentioned the sacramentality of the Scriptures. Why don’t we learn how to enact the dynamism of this sacramentality?

Concluding Points

– The Scriptures are like Jesus. When you look at Him therein you have: His Body, His Soul, His Spirit, His Divinity understood and received humanly, His Divinity received divinely. In His person we find many layers. From the outer to the deepest ones. All the layers are one undivided Person. Do we say: let us neglect His Body? No. But knowing He was six feet tall or has brown eyes doesn’t feed us and transform us.

– “Respecting” the letter and making all our effort to understand it is not “being literal” or “stopping only at the literal meaning”. It is like respecting the “frame” of the sacrament or its material sign.

– With Faith, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we put our hands like Thomas between the open pages, read the letter and we are touched by His divinity. Through the letter the Holy Spirit shows us the Risen Lord talking to us. 

– We study and discover the word, the letter. But suddenly, by the action of the Holy Spirit, while praying, it is moved from within and delivers meanings that are alive, divine, touching and transformative. The letter doesn’t do that. The Holy Spirit does it. The Holy Spirit opens the letter so we can find within it divine life.

– Inside of the letter we have the divine meanings. Like the skin of the fruit which peels away. I need to consider the entire fruit, then God will peel away the skin for me. 

– Am I sticking to the painted wood of the Icon? Do I say: let us leave whatever is represented and stay in the dark, He will speak? No.

– I stay fixed on the word like the hen on top of an egg until the egg opens up and life comes out of it. 

– There is a “beyond” the letter which neglects to go through the letter. There is a “beyond” which doesn’t try to understand the letter. There is a “beyond” which bends the letter or the literal meaning or takes it out of context (horror). All these “beyonds” the letter are unproductive and tantamount to wishful thinking and are the wrong “beyond”.

Criteria of discernment to facilitate the correct “beyond”: is what I have found a valid meaning of the text, a true interpretation, God talking to me using this meaning? Or to express it in more practical terms:

1- What I find needs to respect the letter (no neglecting, no bending, no extracting out of context).

2- what I find needs to respect our Faith (the contents of the Creed).

Bearing in mind these two conditions and respecting them we will find different meanings and also different depths.

I think that by properly understanding the law of incarnation one will be able to understand more fully the difficult challenge of the practice of Lectio Divina, namely, the two attitudes we need face to face with the text. In fact, reading this text a second time will underline more fully just what is at stake.