Fall 1983, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 220-229.

M. Basil Pennington:
      A Christian Way to Transformation

An ancient means of nurturing growth in love of God and love of neighbor is lectio divina, which is receiving God's revelation wherever it occurs

Father Pennington, O.C.S.O., of St. Joseph's Abbey Spencer, Massachusetts, is a well-known writer and lecturer on prayer, his most recent book being A Place Apart: Monastic Prayer and Practice for Everyone.

A shrinking global village with its increasingly mobile population often gifts us with very interesting and enriching neighbors. This has been our experience at Saint Joseph's Abbey. Among our neighbors today are a Hindu ashram and a Buddhist meditation center. Swami Satchidananda has established to the south of us a large, prosperous monastery which his disciples refer to as Yogaville East. To the north of us there is an Insight Meditation Center of the Theravada tradition. I am happy to say that relations with these brothers and sisters are the very best. We mutually share by invitation in each other's special festive celebrations. The Buddhist center especially has encouraged Christians who come there to learn meditation to visit the abbey to get help to integrate their new practice into the context of their Christian life and practice.

Periodically there are persons who make the rounds. They go to the ashram and learn what they can of the eight limbs of Yoga. They spend some time at the meditation center learning insight meditation. And then they knock at our door and ask, "What is your method?"

My usual answer is that our whole life is our method. As the early Christians expressed it, we have entered into "The Way." Our Master and Lord, who spoke of himself as "the Way and the Truth and the Life," coming from the fullness of the Jewish tradition, summed up his way in the two great commandments: "The first and greatest commandment is this: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole heart, your whole soul, and your whole strength. And the second is like unto this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." He went on to modify the second, saying: "I give you a new commandment: You shall love one another as I have loved you." Making it clear that "greater love than this no man hath than he lay down his life for his friend," he went on to do just that: he laid down his life for all of us, his friends.

This is the way of the Christian: that we love the Lord our God and one another, even to the point of laying down our lives for each other. Actual physical martyrdom may be the exception, though it is more common today than in any previous period of Christian history. But we are all called to take up our cross daily and follow our Master. "Unless the grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains itself alone. But if it dies, it will bear much fruit."

This response, that our whole life is our method, usually does not satisfy insistent inquirers. They have found among the Hindus and Buddhists a seemingly rather concise method or practice and they are looking for the same among the Christians. At this point, insisting always that the practice must nurture a full pursuit of "The Way" and that outside of such a context it may well be fruitless in the deepest sense of that word -- we are to judge a tree by its fruit -- I tell our inquirers that our method is lectio.

"What is that?" is the usual response to such a statement.

I deliberately leave the word in Latin, for the simple translation "reading" certainly betrays the meaning. More important, lectio, or lectio divina, always connotes for the Christian coming out of our tradition a whole process summed up in the four words lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. This process is geared towards a transformation of consciousness and life. "Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus," says Saint Paul. Our aim is to have the "mind of Christ," the nous Christou, to see things, to evaluate all things, to respond to reality in the way Christ our Lord and Master does -- to see things as God sees them, to share in the divine consciousness. Let me develop now this Christian way or process.

Lectio cannot simply mean "reading," even though that is its literal translation. We are speaking of a way of Christian spirituality that prevailed through many centuries when the vast number of Christian people could not read. I think lactea here can most properly be understood as meaning "to receive the revelation." It can be perceived immediately that this is a way most consonant with Christianity. We Christians, sharing this in part with our Jewish brothers and sisters, are sons and daughters of the Book. God, who of old spoke first through the creation and then through the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us through his incarnate Son, our Lord Jesus.

Lectio most properly resides in hearing the word of God. We do this as a Christian people when we gather in our communal worship. The Reformers of the sixteenth century quite rightly laid great emphasis on this. The recent liturgical reforms in the Roman Catholic church have also emphasized this.

In an earlier period, memories seem to have been sharper, or were used more. It was not uncommon for an average Christian to know by heart extensive passages of Scripture, perhaps even the whole of the Gospels and the Psalter. Men like the venerable abbot Bernard of Clairvaux were reputed to know the whole Bible. These Christians, then, always 'carried the Scriptures with them and at any moment, drawing on memory, could hear the word of God.

The word of God revealed itself in other ways, too: in the shared faith of sisters and brothers. The Reformers laid great stress on the sermon, as did the Fathers, whose great sermons have come down to us. Faith is also shared in less formal settings, in small groups, or in the one-to-one encounter. Out of our experience of the word, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, we speak the word to one another.

The word can be heard through other media. Music, certainly. Powerful hymns repeat themselves insistently within us: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound." Art, the frescoes, icons, and stained glass windows. The earliest Christian assemblies gathering in homes and catacombs adorned the walls of their meeting places with scenes from the Scriptures. Our eastern Christian sisters and brothers find a real presence in the icons and enshrine them in their homes as well as in their churches. The whole of the Scriptures are depicted in the windows of the great medieval cathedrals, such as Chartres.

The Master Artist does not cease to reveal himself in his masterpiece, the creation. As Saint Paul reminded the Romans, for the mind that would see, God has always been there to be seen. Bernard of Clairvaux is noted for the saying which has been rendered into rather trite English: "I have found God more in the trees and the brooks than in the books." Above all does God reveal himself in that which is greatest in all creation, his own image and likeness, the graced person. In others and in our very selves, we can experience the goodness and love of God, God himself, if we would but be still and know that he is God.

In colloquial English we have had the expression: "I read you." It implies that I fully get what someone is trying to convey to me. This is perhaps a good translation of Lectio, to "read" in this sense: to get God and all he is saying in all the many ways he is speaking.


Lectio, then, does not necessarily mean sitting with a book. It can mean looking at a work of art, standing before an icon, listening to a friend's word of faith, or taking a walk, letting the beauty of the creation, that often lies beneath layers of sin's ugliness, speak to us. But for most of us, the most constant, chosen, and privileged hearing of the word will be when we sit daily with the Book, the inspired word of God. I would like at this point to take a few minutes to share a very simple and practical way of doing our daily lectio. This simple method comes from the age-old practice of the monks and nuns as expressed in their customaries. I will present it in three points, for that seems a very traditional way to do it and aids memory.

1. Come into Presence and call upon the Spirit. The old monastic usages say that when a nun or monk is going to do lectio, she or he takes the Holy Scriptures, kneels, prays to the Holy Spirit, reads the first sentence, and then reverently kisses the Sacred Text. We have two elements here: coming into the presence of God dwelling in his inspired word, and asking his Holy Spirit to help us in our lectio.

If one enters the abbatial church at Spencer Abbey (and I am certain this is not the only place one will find this), one will always find two lamps burning: one burns before the tabernacle, proclaiming the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; the other burns over the Sacred Text enthroned in the middle of the choir, proclaiming a real presence of Christ the Word in his Scriptures. The Word abides in the Bible ever ready to speak to us. Our Bibles should never be just put on the shelf with other books or left lying haphazardly on our desks. They should be enshrined in our homes and offices, proclaiming a real Presence. When we come to our lectio, we take the book with great reverence and respond to that Presence. The monastic customary had the monk kneel before his Lord and after listening to his first words, kiss the text as a sign of reverence and homage. It is good to bring even our bodies into our acknowledgement of this Presence; we are incarnate persons. Acknowledging the Lord's presence in his word, we are ready to listen.

And we call upon the Holy Spirit to help us to hear. In his last discourse at the supper on the night before he died, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to abide with us to teach us and call to mind all he had taught us. It is the Holy Spirit who inspired the writers of the Sacred Text. This same Holy Spirit dwells in us. We ask him now to make the message, the word of life in the text he inspired, come alive now for us and truly speak to us.

2. We listen for ten or fifteen minutes. I say ten or fifteen minutes. One can choose any length of time that satisfies. But ten or fifteen minutes can be enough for the Lord to give us a word of life. We are busy people; it is difficult for us to make time -- we don't find it; we have to make it -- for all the things we want to do each day. But who cannot make ten minutes for something if he or she really wants to? The point here is that we listen for a period of time. The nun or monk will usually sit at his or her lectio until the next bell rings. We do not usually have bells to summon us from one thing to another, but we can set a time. What we want to avoid is setting a goal for ourselves to read a page, a chapter, or a section. We are so programmed to speed reading, to getting things done, if we set ourselves to read a certain amount, we will be pushed to get it done. We do not want that. We want to be able to listen to the Word freely. If he speaks to us in the first or second sentence, we want to be free to abide there and let that word of life resound in us, going on only when we feel we have responded to him as fully as we wish for the moment. If in our lectio time we hear only a sentence or two -- fine! The important thing is to hear the Word, to let him speak to us. That is why in the second point we say "we listen," not "we read."

3. At the end of our time, we take a word and thank the Lord. "We thank the Lord" -- it is a wonderful thing that at any time we wish we can get God Almighty, our Lord God, to sit down and speak to us. We often have to make appointments and do a lot of waiting to get his representatives to give us some time and attention. But not so with the Lord. This moment of thanksgiving emphasizes again the real Presence. God has truly made himself available to us and spoken to us through his word; we thank him.

"We take a word." Word here does not mean necessarily a single word; it can connote a sentence or a phrase. It means a meaningful message summed up in one or a few words. In the earliest Christian times, devout women and men would go to a spiritual mother or father and ask them for a "word of life," a brief directive that would guide them in the way of Christian holiness.

A man asked Amma Syncletica, "Give me a word." The old woman said, "If you observe the following you can be saved: Be joyful at all times, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things."

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, "What ought I to do?" and the old man said to him, "Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, control your tongue and your stomach."

Brother Bruno asked Father Basil, "Give me a word of life, Father." "Say, 'I am God's son,' and live accordingly," was the reply.

As we listen to the Lord in our daily lectio, we ask him for a word of life. Some days he does very clearly speak to us. Some word or phrase of the text seems virtually to shout at us. He speaks and we hear him. Many of us have had our Taboric or Damascus moments. Such words change our lives and remain always with us, never far from our consciousness. Other times his word is not so dramatically spoken. And there are days when he does not seem to speak at all. We read on and on, listening, but nothing strikes home. On such days we have to take a word and carry it with us. Often, later in the day, it will speak, if not for us, for another.

Guerric of Igny, a twelfth-century Cistercian monk, in an Easter sermon comments on the gospel scene where the three women who failed to find Christ at the empty tomb suddenly encounter him on the garden path. Guerric says to his brothers: "You know how it is, brothers. Some days we go to our lectio and the Lord is not there; we go to the tomb of the altar and he is not there; and then, as we are going out to work, lo, half way down the garden path we meet him." The word we have taken may suddenly come alive for us as we are conversing with someone else, or drying the dishes, or puzzling over something altogether different.


If each day a word of the Lord can truly come alive for us and can form our mind and heart, we will come indeed to live by faith as just persons; we will have that mind of Christ. This is precisely the aim of meditatio.

Again, I hesitate to translate the word meditatio directly. Meditation has come to have various meanings for us. Perhaps the most prevalent meaning is that given to it in modern English Hindu terminology. This may be a commentary on how poorly we Christians have made our own heritage present and available. We have all heard of transcendental meditation. in this Eastern sense, meditation means a certain emptiness, openness, presence to the Absolute, to the No-thingness, the Beyond, and the practices that seek to take us into such a state. In more recent Christian usage, meditation has meant searching out the facts and mysteries of revelation to understand them better, to be moved to respond to them, and to bring their influence into our lives. It has been largely a rational exercise ordered toward affective and effective response. Meditatio in the earlier Christian tradition has a meaning which perhaps can be seen as lying somewhere between these two modern meanings. Meditatio in this tradition meant repeating the word one had received from lectio -- whatever form it took: reading, the faith sharing of a father, the proclamation in the assembly -- repeating it perhaps on the lips, at least in the mind, until it formed the heart, until, as the Fathers sometimes expressed it, the mind descended into the heart. On a couple of occasions, St. Luke in his Gospel tells us that Mary pondered or weighed certain events in her heart. He is pointing toward meditation of this sort. The word is allowed simply to be there, letting its weight, its own gravity, press upon us till it gives form to the attitude of our heart. The result is oratio.

Again, I hesitate to translate oratio simply as "prayer." Too easily do we think of prayer as asking God for something or conversing with him or saying prayers. All of that is indeed prayer and can be good prayer. But here, when the Fathers speak of oratio, they mean something different; they mean something very powerful and urgent: fiery prayer, darts of fire that shoot out from the heart into the very heart of God. As the psalmist sings: "In my meditation fire burst forth." It is prayer in the Holy Spirit. It is brief. It is total. When the word finally penetrates and touches the core of our being it calls forth this powerful response, whether it be a cry of praise, love, petition, thanksgiving, reparation, or some mixture of all of these, according to the particular word and circumstances. This is pure prayer. For a moment it takes us beyond ourselves. It calls forth from us a response so complete that for the moment we are wholly in the response. For a moment we leave behind all consideration of ourselves, all the usual self-refLection or self-awareness; we are totally in the response. It is a moment when we fulfill the first and greatest commandment: we love the Lord our God with our whole mind, our whole heart, our whole soul, and all our strength.

Such moments are very special, very wonderful. We want them to return, we want them to go on and on; in a word, we want contemplatio. For this is what contemplation means in this tradition: the word has so formed us and called us forth, that we abide in total response. Our whole being is a yes to God as he has revealed himself to us. We are, as the Book of Revelation says of Christ, an Amen to the Father.

This transformation of consciousness we cannot bring about by ourselves. It is beyond us. We can prepare ourselves for it, seek it, and dispose ourselves for it. We can actively prepare for it by seeking to let go of the things that have a hold on us and keep us from being free to be a complete yes to God. This is the role of self-denial or mortification. Our Master spoke of taking up our cross daily, denying ourselves, dying to self: "Unless the grain of wheat fall in the ground and die . . . ." We have to be willing to let go of self, that constant watching of self, that wanting to be right, to be always correct, and turn both eyes, our whole attention, on God, so that we can truly and freely hear his word. We seek this transformation by listening to the word of God with openness, letting it in and letting it reform us, through lectio and meditatio. We can dispose ourselves for transformation by making spaces for God to come in and reveal himself in himself and, in that revealing, transform us. "Be still," he says, "and know that I am God."


God made us. He knows us through and through. And he respects us as no one else does. He knows the greatest thing he has given us is our freedom because therein lies our power to love, to be like him who is love. He respects our freedom. He will never force his way into our lives: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. And if one opens, I will come in . . . ." We first open the door by lectio; we further open it by silent attentive presence. When the received word has informed our hearts and, through the passing experiences of fiery prayer, creates in us a desire for an abiding transformation, an abiding state of prayer in presence, we begin to want to cultivate interior quietness, silence, and space in expectant longing. The Fathers have passed down to us a method for cultivating this prayer of the heart. Centering prayer is a modern presentation of this traditional method. But any method is only dispositive. It is a concrete way of asking, of seeking. Contemplative prayer remains gift. We dispose ourselves in a stillness that expresses an intent, loving longing. And then he comes, when he wills. Much of our time may be spent in expectant, silent waiting. We may murmur again and again his name, our word of love and longing. But we can only wait till he comes and with his touch draws us forth beyond ourselves into the knowledge, the experiential knowledge, of himself, which transforms our consciousness. According as he gives, this transformed state of consciousness becomes more abiding until by his grace and mercy it quietly prevails even in the midst of our many activities. In this state of consciousness we come to see things as he sees them, value them as he values them. We seek to become full collaborators with him in bringing about by love and service the redeeming transformation of the world. I will not develop here at length the effects of this lived transformation of consciousness, but I think one can readily surmise how it will effect our relationships with others and with the rest of creation. It certainly provides the base for global community and ecological reverence.

Most striking about this Christian way to transformation is its simplicity. We have but to open ourselves to the revealing and all-powerful Word of God and he will do the rest. It is simple, but not easy. For such openness implies making time and space to hear. Making time is difficult enough in our busy lives. Making space in our cluttered hearts is more difficult, for if each day we do take the next step in faithfulness to his revealing word, in the end we will have to give up everything. But this is only in order to have the space to find everything, with him and in him, in all its potential fullness and magnificence, no longer bound by the confines of our limitations. In this way we come to live the first great commandment to love the Lord our God with our whole mind, our whole heart, our whole soul, and our whole strength, and the second, which is like unto it, to love our neighbors and the whole creation as we love ourselves in that first great love. It is to be wholly in "The Way," identified with the Way, who is the way to the Father in the Holy Spirit of Love.