More About Lectio Divina

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I realized, after I spoke to the fine priests of the Archdiocese of Armagh on Monday evening last, that there was much more that I wanted to say about lectio divina. I had to work within the constraints of the time available, but once I started speaking, the floodgates opened and I could have gone on for a full retreat of seven days!

Lectio Divina and the Most Holy Eucharist

I should like to say something about the Eucharistic finality of lectio divina. The more a priest is immersed in the Word of God, the more will he be magnetized by the altar and this not only for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, but also because he finds there in the tabernacle the very Face and Heart that he seeks in opening his Bible and in scrutinizing the sacred page.

Eucharistic adoration is not a static form of prayer. It is, rather, like all authentic Christian prayer, ecstatic, that is to say that it draws the soul out of itself, and upward and outward into the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.  The brilliant 1989 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation— a document that deserves to be better known— makes this clear:

Christian prayer is always determined by the structure of the Christian faith, in which the very truth of God and creature shines forth. For this reason, it is defined, properly speaking, as a personal, intimate and profound dialogue between man and God. It expresses therefore the communion of redeemed creatures with the intimate life of the Persons of the Trinity. This communion, based on Baptism and the Eucharist, source and summit of the life of the Church, implies an attitude of conversion, a flight from “self” to the “You” of God. Thus Christian prayer is at the same time always authentically personal and communitarian. It flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut, imprisoning the person praying in a spiritual privatism which is incapable of a free openness to the transcendental God.

Eucharistic adoration is a movement of ascent to the Kingdom, a movement initiated by the proclamation and hearing of the Word of God.  In Eucharistic adoration as in all Christian prayer, the initiative is divine not human.  It begins, as we sing in the hymn at Lauds on the feast of Corpus Christi, with “the heavenly Word proceeding forth, yet leaving not the Father’s side.”  God reveals Himself in uttering His Word; the descending Word, proclaimed and received in the heart of the Church, becomes the Word through whom, with whom, and in whom we ascend to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The same 1989 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church says:

There exists, then, a strict relationship between Revelation and prayer. The Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum teaches that by means of his revelation the invisible God, “from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends (cf. Ex 33:11; Jn 15:14-15), and moves among them (cf. Bar 3:38), in order to invite and receive them into his own company.” This revelation takes place through words and actions which have a constant mutual reference, one to the other; from the beginning everything proceeds to converge on Christ, the fullness of revelation and of grace, and on the gift of the Holy Spirit. These make man capable of welcoming and contemplating the words and works of God and of thanking him and adoring him, both in the assembly of the faithful and in the intimacy of his own heart illuminated by grace.

This is why the Church recommends the reading of the Word of God as a source of Christian prayer, and at the same time exhorts all to discover the deep meaning of Sacred Scripture through prayer “so that a dialogue takes place between God and man. For, ‘we speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles.'”

The Word by whom the Father redeems us, heals us, and raises us even to Himself, becomes in us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word by whom we praise, bless, adore, and glorify the Father; the Word by whom we give Him thanks for His great glory and implore His mercy upon the world; the Word through whom we make reparation for the evil wrought by sin.  Catherine de Bar, in religion, Mother Mectilde du Saint–Sacrement, foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration in 1653, puts it compellingly: “Our Lord Jesus Christ alone can adore God perfectly in spirit and in truth, and we cannot do it apart from our union with Him.”

Cristo Giovanni CenaA Long Familiarity with the Word of God

Eucharistic adoration is enkindled then, not only when one abides before the Sacred Host, hidden in the tabernacle or exposed to one’s gaze in the monstrance, but even before that, when the Word of God is proclaimed, repeated, prayed, and treasured in the heart.  The seeds planted in the corporate lectio divina of the Sacred Liturgy — Holy Mass and the Divine Office — and in the solitary lectio divina that the Sacred Liturgy shapes and inspires come to fruition in silent adoration before the Most Blessed Sacrament.  Eucharistic adoration presupposes a long familiarity with the Word of God received and sung in the liturgical assembly, repeated and prayed in lectio divina, pondered and held in the heart.

Personally, I have, for some years read and re–read every Thursday chapters XIII through XVII of Saint John’s Gospel, Our Lord’s final discourse to the Apostles, his first priests. These are words of fire and light, uttered in the Cenacle, in that very hour when Christ washed the feet of the men He had chosen, burned his own priesthood into their souls, and gave them the commandment by which His sacrifice would be made present in the Church until the end of time. Reading and re–reading these pages of the Fourth Gospel, the voice of Jesus strikes the ear of the heart with accents that are, each time, new, and fresh, and life–changing. I give this as a personal example of the “long familiarity with the Word of God” that is the ground of a fruitful Eucharistic Adoration.

The Divine Office and Eucharistic Adoration

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Saint Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1868)

Saint Peter Julian Eymard, among others, insisted on the Divine Office as the primary and highest corporate expression of Eucharistic adoration.  The Saint’s particular grace was, in fact, the unified focus of his entire being, spirit, soul and body on the Divine Person of Jesus Christ really, truly, and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament.  Understanding the Divine Office in this light, he presented it as the solemn and collective glorification of Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, the prayer of the redeemed to the Lamb, the prayer of the Mystical Body addressed to Christ the Head, the prayer of the Bride addressed to Christ her Spouse.

This being said, Saint Peter Julian Eymard in no way distanced himself from the Trinitarian character of all liturgical prayer.  Rather, he applied to the Divine Office prayed in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament what Saint Augustine wrote concerning the Psalms in general:

When we speak with God in prayer we do not separate the Son from Him, and when the Body of the Son prays it does not separate its Head from itself: it is the one Saviour of His body, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who prays for us and in us and is Himself the object of our prayers.  He prays for us as our priest, He prays in us as our head, He is the object of our prayers as our God.

God is Altogether There in the Scriptures

Experienced on a daily basis, especially in the life of a priest, the Divine Office, personal lectio divina, and Eucharistic adoration become an effective school of the prayer without ceasing to which Jesus calls all His disciples and, most particularly, His priests.  The quality of the prayer of Eucharistic adoration is moreover, in some way, proportionate to the quality of our exposure to and reception of the Word of God.  One of the great adoring souls of the nineteenth century, Blessed Théodelinde Dubouché, foundress of the Adoration Réparatrice Sisters present in Ireland and in France, illustrates this in writing:

Théodelinde Dubouché (1809-1863)
Théodelinde Dubouché (1809-1863)

By a singular grace, for me who have not much of a memory, all the texts of the Gospel, and much from the Sacred Scriptures, came into my thought with no effort; and this nourishment was so abundant that even when I was not carried away by love, I was holding very real conversations with Our Lord. . . .  I have often understood, or rather sensed, that God is altogether there in the Scriptures, but that the full intelligence of them will be the occupation of eternity.

Two Gospel Paradigms of Eucharistic Adoration

Saint Luke’s Gospel offers two paradigms of Christian worship that can be brought to bear upon Eucharistic adoration.  The first is his account of the feeding of the five thousand.

[Jesus took the apostles] and withdrew apart to a city called Bethsaida.  When the crowds learned it, they followed Him; and He welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing (Lk 9:10-11).

If the crowds follow Jesus and seek Him out, it is because the Holy Spirit is already at work, assembling a body of believers, fashioning a community — a Church — hungry for the Word of God.  “No one can come to me, says Jesus, unless the Father who sent me draws him. . . .  It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’  Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (Jn 6:44-46).  Jesus welcomed the crowds.  He is the perfect expression of the Divine Hospitality, of the God who, in the Most Holy Eucharist, makes Himself our shelter, food, and drink.

From Word to Sacrament

“He spoke to them of the Kingdom of God” (Lk 9:11). Our Lord’s word is efficacious and full of power.  It sows the seeds of the Kingdom within us and causes the glory of the Kingdom to open over our heads and to unfold within our hearts.  This is why the Gospel at Mass is heralded by alleluias, framed by acclamations addressed to Christ Himself — Laus tibi, Christe!  Gloria tibi, Domine! — and proclaimed amidst clouds of incense.  Christ speaks, unleashing the power of the kingdom and making whole those who are in need of healing.  Flowing from the abundance of His heart, the word of Jesus held the attention of the crowds for a long period of time, until the day began to wear away (Lk 9:12).  Only then does Jesus pass from this protracted “Liturgy of the Word” to the breaking of the bread.

Taking five loaves and two fish, “He looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd” (Lk 9:16).  Saint Luke highlights the four verbs that constitute the very shape of the Eucharistic action: to take, to bless, to break, and to give.  He takes bread.  Then, with eyes raised to heaven, Jesus blesses His Father, praising Him and offering thanks over the bread.  He breaks it for distribution to the many and finally, He gives the bread, or as Saint Luke says, gives it to the disciples  “to set before the crowd” (Lk 9:16).

On the Road to Emmaus

In Luke 24:13-31, the foundational text of Mane nobiscum, Domine, Saint John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter for the Year of the Eucharist, we find a similar paradigm of Christian worship.

The image of the disciples on the road to Emmaus can serve as a fitting guide for a Year when the Church will be particularly engaged in living out the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.  Amid our questions and difficulties, and even our bitter disappointments, the Divine Wayfarer continues to walk at our side, opening to us the Scriptures and leading us to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God.  When we meet Him fully, we will pass from the light of the Word to the light streaming from the “Bread of life,” the supreme fulfillment of His promise to “be with us always, to the end of the age” (cf. Mt 28:20).

The road to Emmaus is the scene of a peripatetic lectio divina.  The risen Jesus walks with two of His bereaved and downcast disciples.  “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Lk 24:27).  The experience of the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit allows the two to open themselves to communion with the mysterious third, the Divine Wayfarer.  “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent” (Lk 24:29).

The prayer of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is the prayer of the Church, repeated so often as she listens to the Word of God: Mane nobiscum, Domine, “Stay with us, Lord.”  The Mass of the Catechumens (Liturgy of the Word) calls for completion in the Holy Sacrifice and in Holy Communion.  What happens at the ambo is ordered to what happens at the altar.  What happens at the altar is prolonged in Eucharistic adoration.

So He went in to stay with them.  When He was at table, He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.  And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished out of their sight” (Lk 24:31).

Once again, we find the same significant sequence of four verbs.  Saint Luke makes the recognition of Christ coincide with the disciples’ partaking of the bread, adding, “He vanished out of their sight” (Lk 24:31).  In vanishing from their sight, the risen Christ does not withdraw His presence.  Rather, in a way wonderful beyond all imagining, He answers and fulfills the prayer inspired by the Holy Spirit, “Stay with us, Lord” (Lk 24:29).  In her pilgrimage towards the kingdom, the Church prays again and again, “Stay with us,” and again and again, her Bridegroom and Lord replies, “This is my Body which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19).  Set as an icon over the portal of the Year of the Eucharist by Saint John Paul II, the liturgy enacted by Christ on the way to Emmaus became, by the same token, an icon of Eucharistic adoration.

The Four Ends of the Holy Sacrifice

In the light of these two Lucan paradigms of Christian worship we see that the inspired impulse of Eucharistic adoration must necessarily be traced back to the hearing of the Word, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” (Lk 24:27).  The Word, made fruitful by the Holy Spirit, quickens those who hear it, causing the four ends of the Holy Sacrifice, as defined by the Venerable Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei, to rise in the hearts of the faithful: the first of these is to give glory to the Heavenly Father; the second end is duly to give thanks to God; the third is that of expiation, propitiation and reconciliation; the fourth is that of impetration or supplication.  It is with these four ends in view that the priest ascends to the altar, there to offer the Holy Sacrifice.  It is with these four ends in view that the faithful unite themselves to the words and actions of the priest.  It is with these same four ends in view that Saint Peter Julian Eymard would have those intent on learning adoration at his school take their place before the Blessed Sacrament.

The Mass of the Catechumens (Liturgy of the Word) sets in motion an irrecusable ascent to the altar and to the rites of the Offertory, Canon of the Mass, and Holy Communion.  The Mass of the Catechumens (Liturgy of the Word) , in some way, remains incomplete or suspended without the Sacrifice and Communion to which it is ordered.  “What shall I render to the Lord, for all the things He has rendered unto me? I will take the chalice of salvation; and I will call upon the name of the Lord. . . . I will sacrifice to You the sacrifice of praise.” (Ps 115:12–13, 17)

Beginning with the Word of God: An Adoration That Is Perpetual

Eucharistic adoration is situated in the prolongation of this same sacrifice of praise. Adoration becomes, effectively, perpetual in the soul of the adorer who, having been nourished by the Word of God and by the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body and Blood, abides in Him.  Thus was the seventeenth century Benedictine mystic, Catherine–Mectilde de Bar, able to say:

Just as Jesus Christ must be your glory and your praise to His Divine Father, abide in Him to praise Him, adore Him, and love with Him.  The Holy Spirit will tell you the rest.