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13.09.50, Robertson, Lectio Divina

13.09.50, Robertson, Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is an erudite and thought-provoking work. Its author applies the broadest possible definition to medieval reading in a spiritual context, so that it encompasses reading out loud, reading in private, reading for devotion, and reading for knowledge, if these activities can be divorced from each other. Robertson surveys the changing practice and intent of reading from the apostolic period through the twelfth century, with an introductory historiographical excursus. The resulting study is dense and yet also accessible. Although the author has called on a broad array of patristic, later medieval, and modern theologians in support of his points, all of the many primary source passages are provided in translation and each writer's scholarly and cultural context is introduced. The book should appeal to both specialists in and novices to the overlapping realms of spiritual practice and theological argument in the Middle Ages.

Robertson chose as his brief the study of what he terms "the monastic Middle Ages," by which he intends the period when intellectual culture was primarily centered in monastic institutions, before the rise of the cathedral schools and universities. His rationale is that "our ongoing scientific and humanistic investigations of reading have not yet sufficiently taken the medieval religious experience into account" (xi). The term "monastic Middle Ages" is itself problematic. Its implication is that the monastery was the primary locus of literary invention and that monks were the primary readers. An examination of the movements of high-ranking clerics who were the most educated authors and readers reveals that they traveled between monasteries and episcopal, royal and imperial courts with great regularity. Presumably they took their reading with them. Undoubtedly they shared it with the lay people they encountered, along with some of their reading practices, a point well illustrated later in this study when Robertson describes Jerome's communications with Paula or Fabiola, or Anselm with the Countess of Tuscany. On the whole, however, Robertson demonstrates his overall point, that dominant reading practices arose in monasteries and were justified by monks and canons as a means of spiritual development, very convincingly in the many chapters that follow.

Chapter one presents an historiographic survey of the foundational scholars of medieval exegesis, primarily Jean Leclerc, Henri de Lubac and other members of the ressoursement movement of the twentieth century. While these scholars sought to enhance our modern understanding of medieval theological studies as a means to a contemporary spiritual end, in the process they revealed how the goals of medieval theologians were achieved through the lectio divina, whether undertaken individually by a highly educated cleric, or communally, through the voice of a single, literate, oral lector. Robertson argues that modern literary critics, particularly Stanley Fish, have ignored the medieval reader's aim of enhancing his or her spirituality through an experience of the text, and thus reinvented "the ruminative meditation prescribed by the church fathers" (31). He surmises that the insights that a study of medieval reading in a spiritual context could afford have been neglected largely because of the contemporary scholarly antipathy for approaching questions of faith, a scruple that did not hinder the participants in the ressourcement movement, to the benefit of medieval studies as a whole. These themes are revisited briefly in a final chapter that serves as an epilogue.

The intervening chapters leap back in time to examine the works and reading philosophies of the medieval authors themselves. The second chapter introduces Paul, Origen, Augustine and Gregory, embedding the reading practices that would shape the medieval religious experience in the origins of Christian literature and exegesis. Robertson explains how the forms of exegesis flowed from the examples offered by the New Testament authors, and how the earliest exegetes established a pathway or process for spiritual edification that assumed a sustained experience of scripture. The Fathers worried about impediments to understanding, including barriers of language or the use of faulty translations, and offered solutions and techniques to facilitate understanding of often-allusive texts. The sustained attention necessary to draw both meaning and edification from these texts demanded seclusion, and as the process of religious reading was elaborated, the setting for this reading came more and more to resemble the enclosed community of intellectuals that was now the monastery.

The third chapter explores the practicalities of reading as explained by Quintilian, Jerome, John Cassian and Benedict of Nursia, among others. The steps to a meaningful relationship with scripture were defined as slow and incremental. First, the words must be read repeatedly and memorized, before the meaning of each word is interrogated. Then, the attentive reader must meditate on the words that have been acquired. Finally, at length, a nourishing understanding could be achieved. While the method of reading that they advised could vary, between solitary reading or communal psalmody, each of these early authors acknowledged the lengthy gap between a reader's first encounter with the words, and his or her eventual comprehension of the import of the text.

Robertson then turns his attention to the subsequent generations of writers who absorbed, excerpted and recompiled the works of the Fathers into florilegia, allowing a window onto reader reception in its medieval form. Compilers such as Smaragdus, Alcuin and Isidore of Seville, in addition to assembling useful summations of texts tailored to the purposes of spiritual reading, also addressed the act of reading itself. As Robertson explains, however, for these later authors an intellectual understanding of the text was less important than its prayerful efficacy. Whether incorporated into the liturgy or extracted for private prayer in compilations such as the Carolingian libelli precum, the words of scripture and the Fathers were primarily tools. "The text is assumed by the reader individually and personally. It is a 'living word' spoken by God as well as to him" (132).

The final chapters bring the study of reading into the twelfth century. Case studies of John of Fécamp and Anselm cast into relief the similarities between the works these theologians prepared for both lay readers and monks in their care. Both composed what could be considered handbooks designed to lead the reader to a more intimate relationship with God using the words of scripture. Robertson then compares the commentaries of three authors, Origen, Gregory and Bernard, on the Song of Songs in order to provide a diachronic survey of the strategies chosen by different theologians as they grappled with this challenging text.

Robertson is dubious about Bernard's claim that his explanations of the Songs were delivered orally, as a guide to his community of monks. Bernard calls upon them to hear the sermons as he delivers them (179). Within the commentary, he chides his monks for inattention during the Night Office, when such sermons were delivered, recalling for us that this repetitive liturgy was not a rote regurgitation of memorized formulae, as it is sometimes characterized by modern commentators, but the culmination of a spiritual exercise that combined prayer and meditation using the words of scripture. Bernard's commentary explores the Song of Songs in verse order. Robertson suggests, "That systematic (and occasionally arbitrary) procedure contrasts with the discontinuous selection of scriptural pericopes that normally occurs in day-to-day sermons following the church calendar" (180). On the contrary: while mass lections were indeed disordered extracts of scripture, Night Office and refectory lectio continua allowed each biblical book (except for the Psalter and Gospels) to be read from beginning to end. Customaries and breviaries mandated that the Song of Songs be read as part of this annual cycle. Thus Bernard's pretense, which he enhanced by including a liturgical apparatus mimicking the office setting of the sermon, is more accurate than Robertson allows.

Robertson traces Bernard's struggle to come to terms with the physical imagery in the Songs. Bernard returns to the same words and phrases repeatedly, admitting their literal meaning but offering in addition multiple allegorical interpretations, while rejecting others. "He has made the commitment that 'not a single iota,' no tiniest detail of the text, shall pass unnoticed" (188). Robertson vividly recreates Bernard's reading experience. "He will boldly attack the sacred Scripture, rejecting its wording, adding and subtracting terms, rewriting it where necessary to make his own..." (201).

Finally, Robertson arrives at the twelfth-century birth of the schools and what he terms an "integration." While he rejects the theory that the work of masters such as Hugh of St. Victor represents the wholesale abandonment of the "monastic" tradition of reading as meditation, he acknowledges and describes the transition to, or perhaps rebirth of, reading as an intellectual exercise. Nonetheless, writers like Hugh and Guigo still embraced reading as a discipline that must be approached with a devout mind and guided by rules. This chapter includes some repetitions that slow the reader, particularly a passage on p. 217 that repeats one on p. 213, and a quote on p. 219 that repeats one on p. 218.

This is a rich and variegated study. Like the medieval readership it describes, the modern reader will doubtless need to pause and ponder many passages and struggle with some of its interpretations. Robertson reveals an intimate knowledge of an impressive body of medieval theology. By juxtaposing writers separated by geography and many centuries, he charts how the experience of text was shaped by the religious needs of a changing populace. Those who seek to understand the role of scripture, patristics, liturgy and prayer (all of which were mediated by the practice of reading) in the lives of medieval clergy and the elite will benefit richly from his insights.