I sometimes have trouble finishing books. As soon as I get halfway through one, another chants to me from the bookshelf, “Take up and read; take up and read”—the words that sixteen centuries ago issued from the mouth of a child and prompted the then-playboy St. Augustine of Hippo to pick up the Scriptures.
As for Augustine, grace is often disguised, and we don’t know when the next grace-filled moments of decision will occur, or the people or events from whom or which they may arise. Our world is also one where “reading” (lectio) is ubiquitous but not the sort of thing we usually associate with deep conversion. Yet the Word is forever essential to the Christian mystery. With so many competing “words” from which to choose, how should we approach the grace of particular moments and choose to hear them in ways that help us grow in virtue and broaden our minds?
For Christians, a lectio approach to life is not something reserved to Scripture alone, but an attitude that ought to pervade every thing and “word” we encounter.
In the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite,” George Costanza steps out of his comfort zone with everything he encounters, making choices opposite of his habitual tendencies, and we witness him grow in assertiveness as a result of the unexpected outcomes. We see the same in the movie Yes Man, when Carl Allen reverses his normal behavior of declining invitations and accepts everything that comes down the pike, completely transforming his dull life into an adventurous one.
Of course, these fictional characters aren’t judicious about when to act opposite of their inclinations. Nonetheless, they give us a glimpse of what might happen if we were to put aside our habitual preferences and continuously don a more receptive disposition toward people and events, allowing these to transform the way we look at things—in essence, if we were to adopt a lectio approach to life.
In the Christian tradition, lectio has primarily been associated with lectio divina, Latin for “divine reading”—an ancient art that Benedictine monks regularly practiced to cultivate a docile receptivity toward Scripture, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide their minds and hearts as they prayerfully read and meditated upon sacred texts.
In his book Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, Cistercian Father Michael Casey describes how, in sixth-century Benedictine monasticism, a monk was to discern and choose a book of the Bible to read for a period of time. Whichever book he chose, he must commit to reading it from beginning to end rather than jumping to passages of his choosing or starting another book of the Bible altogether. The discipline involved in continuously applying such lectio principles, Casey writes, was meant to help the monk live out the Christian life and, ultimately, to aid his salvation.
We all have the tendency to open the Bible and select passages that interest us, or to which we can relate. We tend to stray from passages we don’t understand or that challenge us, or from passages that are boring or from which we don’t think we will benefit. But often what we think we need most at the moment, we don’t. God may prefer to tell us something different, but we would have to commit to reading all of Leviticus or Numbers to discover it.
“We cannot afford to be too selective about what we encounter,” Casey warns. “God’s saving of us takes place by dragging us beyond our own comfort zone into new territory and new adventures.”
If we can stretch our comfort zones through lectio divina, we can stretch them through lectio encounters with daily life, which God also uses to teach and develop us. In many ways, everyday people and events mirror those of the Bible; only the particulars are different.
For instance, in daily life, as with reading Scripture, we are sometimes tempted to avoid some truth or to dismiss a certain viewpoint. As Christians, we are continuously expected to make moral and ethical judgments according to standards revealed in the divine and natural laws. When we fail to adopt a continuous lectio approach to life, we hold fast to our own standards of truth without opening ourselves to the possibility that we are wrong.
At other times we are tempted to view people as disposable, not persevering in relationships with friends and spouses, turning away from them if they don’t suit our whims and desires. With television, we have almost endless viewing options and the ability to skip from channel to channel at the click of a remote. If we neglect to apply lectio principles to daily life and instead habitually act upon our fleeting desires, we would likely develop an impatient disposition and thus undermine our growth in the Christian life.
On the other hand, if we adopt a lectio approach we further our growth in virtue—and perhaps even aid our salvation. This is evident through one’s own, very common experience. My co-workers and I, for example, often critique one another’s work because we are required to collaborate closely as a team. Accepting feedback from peers has sometimes been difficult. But over time, by leveraging the lectio principle of cultivating a docile receptivity to their suggestions, I have grown to be more open to their feedback. I have also grown—and continue to grow—in humility, realizing I’m not always right.
There are many ways we can begin to put lectio principles into daily practice, ways that may not necessarily make us more virtuous, but can at least help to broaden our minds and make us better rounded people. Next time we have the urge to pull up our favorite playlist in iTunes, for instance, we could choose to listen to an entire album instead, allowing artistry to open us to new experiences and broaden our appreciation for music more generally. Or if we read an author like John Muir but are not naturalists, we might avoid skipping over the sections of detailed, naturalist observations to get to the pithy philosophical points about nature. Doing this might engender in us a greater appreciation for another branch of knowledge.
If we apply lectio principles not just to Scripture but to daily life we will grow in ways surprising and unexpected, even if that growth turns out to be an exercise in patient endurance. And if another, seemingly more exciting book begins chanting from the shelf, “Take up and read,” we’ll feel confident with our decision—grounded in the Christian intellectual tradition and good sense—to keep calm and read on.