This is a book review of Michael Casey’s Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.
Michael Casey’s book Sacred Reading offers a valuable and well-written overview of the ancient art of lectio divina. As a Cistercian monk himself, Casey writes about the ancient tradition as a participant in the Trappist monastic tradition (at the time of writing, he was a part of Tarrawarra Abbey in Victoria, Australia). As a practitioner, his words in this concise overview of lectio divina hold immense weight. I felt as if I were participating in lectio through reading his words because it was written so well.
Lectio Divina means “divine reading” or “sacred reading” (the title of the book), and readers of this book get a crash course on this ancient practice. The book feels more like a heart-warming invitation from a wise friend with only hints of “how to,” than it does a strict technical guide into the practice. He provides the background and first steps necessary to start, but his main goal seems to be focused on the more intangible aspects of the practice—offering motivation, inspiration, and invitation—than it does the practical steps.
In fact, I was surprised at how little attention was given to the “how to” of the four moments of lectio: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. He downplays these so called “steps” and says that the “method” does not happen mechanically (59). They are not necessarily chronologically connected but overlapping elements of lectio.
See all HIM Publications books on prayer here.
Casey writes Sacred Reading primarily for the practitioner of lectio divina who has done it enough to run into bumps on the road yet wants to delve deeper into this practice.
A secondary audience for this is the series student of Scripture who has much experience in what Casey calls the “literal” level of meaning but also wants to go deeper in experiencing God in Scripture. While it’s helpful to have some background in lectio to maximally benefit from this book, the principles and perspectives Casey offers provide value for those who simply want a richer experience reading Scripture.
He rightly begins with the spirit of lectio in Chapter 1 and its theological basis in Chapter 2, setting the groundwork for the levels of meaning of the biblical text in Chapter 3. Only in Chapter 4 (out of a total of five chapters) does he get into the practice of lectio. This seemed appropriate because lectio itself is more of a mystical practice than a technical one. The final chapter is about employing lectio for non-biblical texts like the patristics.
The Value of Sacred Reading
The value of this book, in my opinion, is the historical background, precedents, and inspiration (along with a few tools) necessary to successfully incorporate and enhance this practice into one’s own devotional life. Casey is clear that learning how to read through the lens of lectio takes time, but the investment of time is worth it. He says, “Sacred reading will function creatively over a lifetime only if it is allowed to fulfill, at one point or another, all the functions that this diagram suggests” (57).
The diagram he’s referring to is called “The Four Moments of Lectio Divina”:
The Four Moments of Lectio Divina
|1. Literal||Intellect||Understanding the text||Lectio|
|2. Christological||Memory||Contextualizing the meaning||Meditatio|
|3. Behavioral||Conscience||Living the meaning||Oratio|
|4. Mystical||Spirit||Meeting God in the text||Contemplatio|
This diagram contains the Latin terms associated with the four moments of lectio, but Casey adds other parallel dimensions that accompany those movements.
Sacred reading involves more than just reading; it also involves prayer. In fact, “Without prayer, lectio is less divina; it becomes mere reading” (83). “Prayer is the meaning of lectio divina; that is why the exercise of sacred reading is sometimes said to be a technique of prayer” (61). Yet it goes beyond prayer too. Prayerful reading is just the first essential step.
Read our post “How to Listen to God in Prayer: Asking Open-Ended Questions” by Chad Harrington for more on prayer.
He helpfully encourages readers to delve deep into this practice by choosing a particular book of the Bible for a period of three to six months. He says, “Our selection of material for lectio is something of an adventure. It is like choosing a companion for a long journey” (14). Since, in taking his advice, we’ll be reading a particular text for months at a time, Casey suggests that for many of us it helps to do some preliminary study so we can understand the background, author, and context of the original piece of literature.
Reading a Single Book in Scripture
Then, he suggests reading one book repeatedly, or at least slowly, for a sustained period of time. This has been called lectio continua, which means the “continuous reading of a single book” (as opposed to reading only snippets of texts here and there). He retraces this emphasis back to Benedict’s Rule of Life and the circumstance of monks for many years following Benedict’s life, where monks had access to very few books relative to today. By necessity they would chew on a certain text—not just biblical texts but other important Christian texts, too—for a long period of time. Sometimes they did this as a cloister, and sometimes they did it individually.
Casey advises that we would benefit from this type of sustained reading in one biblical text, without jumping around from text to text:
Here our contemporary culture is no help. We are so obsessed with getting to the bottom line that we are inclined to short-circuit necessary preliminaries. As a result our understanding of the content is often approximate and superficial. We have lost the skill of tracking through a complex argument to arrive at unassailable conclusions. Instead we make a snap judgement and, to protect ourselves, leave our options open. We have lost the sense that sustained mental exercise is required to understand such ideas as the theory of relativity or the theology of the Eucharist. We are distrustful of anything that cannot be said plainly. (7)
He compares those of us who jump around from text to text to children who need their food cut up into bite-sized pieces in order to digest it. This means that we get fed, of course, but we also remain childish in our ability to read large portions of text and digest complex carbohydrates. He prescribes we learn new skills.
Staying with the Book for Three to Six Months
Once we pick a certain book, we should stick with it, even if the initial excitement might wear off.
In order to successfully sustain a practice of lectio divina in a single particular book for months at a time, he advises that we chose the book by paying attention to our personal attraction to a particular book of the Bible. This is important because sometimes a lectionary or one’s church’s particular text of study during a season doesn’t nourish one’s soul in the same way as when we choose it ourselves: “Sometimes our personal situation means that we need to cover more distance to find nourishment; at other times a single sentence may keep us occupied for days” (13).
He prescribes the reader to take a minimum of about thirty minutes each day to practice lectio divina for a period of years in order to be formed by the practice.
He admits this is a significant commitment. This should be worked into your schedule at set times, so that you don’t have to go to the trouble of making the decision over and over again.
I appreciate his treatment of the “feelings” side of this discipline: While he rightfully warns the reader of letting their mood or mere emotions dictate their reading, on the positive side of the feelings spectrum, he affirms the more intuitive aspects of our person. Casey uses the term “compunction” to describe the feeling we gain from successfully practicing sacred reading: “Compunction operates on the level of our feelings, but it is more than mere sentiment. Our feelings alert us to changes taking place at a much deeper level of our being, at the level of our heart” (29).
Consolations from the Lord
This seems to be what St. Teresa of Avila describes in Interior Castle as “consolations” from the Lord, unexpected affections from God that sometimes come to us as gifts from our spiritual practices. Casey carries with his message the same emphasis evident in St. Teresa’s work that these special inner workings of the Spirit are gifts to be received as God gives them. We cannot presume they must come in order for our investment of energy to have been worth our time. They are simply what may come in due time, as God sees fit.
He encourages readers with the benefits of lectio: “Renewed zest for lectio divina is one of the most powerful means of escaping from the limbo of feelinglessness,” says Casey. “Those whose religious enthusiasm declines during the years because ‘nothing ever happens’ will take heart,” he continues, “once God appears to speak to them again—even though the message may be a challenge to the status quo” (30). He concludes his encouragement to those for whom feelings of spiritual growth have abated: “After a period in which our personal discipline has—for one reason or another—become slack, the best way to start reversing the decline is to reinsert ourselves into regular lectio” (30).
This is like what the Spirit said to the Ephesians in John’s Apocalypse:
“You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (Rev. 2:4–5, NIV, 1984).
Reading Sacred Reading as a Discipleship Book
Sacred Reading is a discipleship book. Repeatedly, Michael Casey emphasizes the role of this practice for us as disciples. “The whole purpose of discipleship is to accept to be influenced” (38).
“Reading the Bible is our means of expressing our discipleship; we come as willing learners to our master” (36–37).
This is perhaps the greatest point of the book.
Casey describes the dynamics of discipleship that take place as we, as disciples, read Scripture through sacred reading. Disciples are students, and the object of our study is not a book but a person: “We belong to the school of Christ,” Cistercians love to say, and in this school we “learn Christ,” as Paul says in Ephesians 4:20 (which the ESV, NRSV, KJV make clear). Importantly, we cannot separate our reading from our acting, our understanding from our action. This is the completion of lectio Casey says.
In this context and in this spirit, he emphasizes the relational aspect of lectio divina as discipleship. This is my favorite quote from the book because it has the power to transform our minds with regard to discipleship more than anything else, in my estimation:
In any master-disciple relationship, the content of what is learned is less important than the relationship itself; it is prolonged mutual presence that communicates to the disciple the spirit and style of the elder. Lectio divina helps us to encounter Christ, it initiates us into the way of Christ. As many persons have said, in Christianity the Word of God is a person, not a book. (39)
This quote is important because in it, Casey resolves a dilemma for many disciples (and disciple-makers) who struggle to see true transformation. We have believed for so long in American church culture that information leads to transformation. But this is simply not true.
The Importance of Relationship
The missing ingredient in discipleship is often relationship. Relationship takes information, appropriates it into a certain person’s situation in life, and issues a timely call to action. This type of relational call to action most effectively leads to obedience, and through the resultant “obedience of faith,” we experience real transformation (Rom. 1:5).
Dave Buehring of Lionshare often says that revelation alone doesn’t lead to transformation. We must obey the revelation of God in order to be transformed:
But Casey writes: “Revelation is subtle. It does not bludgeon unbelievers into acceptance, but charms the heart of those willing to be wooed” (46). And lectio is a weapon of woo on our hearts that can lead to our transformation by God.
Casey goes on to describe the four levels of meaning (depicted in the chart above), the first of which is a literal understanding of the Word. Whenever “study” aides our sacred reading in this first sense, it’s important to remember, Casey says, that while this is “useful in its own right … It’s value is enhanced when it is subordinated to a person-to-person encounter with God’s word” (71). He emphasizes both study and personal encounter.
This was a refreshing emphasis for me.
Study is necessary, he says, in order to understand the Bible, which is not an easy book to understand. In fact, he helpfully goes as far to say, “The more educated we are in our own field of specialization, the more necessary it is to reach a comparable level of intelligence with regard to the Scriptures. If we have a high level of expertise in our own profession, it is unlikely that primary-school information on the Bible will be sufficient to engage our intelligence” (68). I found this to be a keen and unique insight.
On the other hand, study alone does not produce transformation. We must press on past the most literal and literary sense of reading Scripture—as important as it is—in order to encounter Christ in the Word. We must also think on it, act on it, and contemplate the Word.
“This is not merely a matter of dwelling on the hard truths that force us to avoid delusion. Mindfulness is also a matter of deliberately thinking about the positive components of faith and allowing ourselves to be influenced by them” (75).
My Recommendation of Sacred Reading
I highly recommend this book, especially to those who have already practiced lectio divina but who want to go deeper beyond a basic understanding of the practice. Even if you have practiced badly for a period of time, this book will offer fresh insight, encouragement, and guidance for your next step. This is the first type of reader who would find benefit from this book.
It’s not an ideal book for the beginner in lectio. Much of the content will not be useful because there’s no context without some practice or background in it. Casey assumes readers are somewhat familiar with the practice.
I do recommend the book, however, to serious students of Scripture who have much experience in what he calls the “literal” level of meaning but who want to go deeper. While it’s helpful to have some background in lectio to maximally benefit from this, the principles and perspective Casey offers provide value, as I mentioned above, for those who want to experience God in Scripture. This second type of reader will enjoy the read, and with the help of a friend or another resource on the basics of lectio can gain enough experience to benefit even more from reading this book a second time.
In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, the empathy Casey offers throughout the book by clearly enumerating common barriers to various aspects of sacred reading was immensely helpful. As much as this book helped point me in new directions, it also helped me realize that my challenges with lectio are common.
My Only Critique
The only critique I have of this book is that its audience is too narrow. I think Casey would have done well to have broadened his approach for novices. In the preface, he calls his book a “postgraduate” resource, so this makes sense. But if he had taken it down just one more notch perhaps by simply adding more content to this short book, I would be able to recommend it more broadly to not only slightly-seasoned readers of Scripture but also to all serious readers of Scripture.
The remedy for me is to simply send beginners elsewhere for the initial primer into lectio but to also mention this book for “when you are ready for more.”
I recommend this book, and I’m glad I own a copy because I hope to read it again in the future, when I’m needing encouragement and direction for deeper study of not only biblical texts, which are the primary texts he suggests using, but also traditional and patristic texts.