The Fifth Day of Christmas: Educating the Heart

The Great Room in the Maria Laach Monastery Library. https://www.maria-laach.de/bibliothek/

The Great Room in the Maria Laach Monastery Library. https://www.maria-laach.de/bibliothek/

Today, at the Fifth day of Christmas, we continue our round of rooms in the monastery. In every room we have found connections to how we open ourselves to the divine, how the wondrous child is born in us. Today we move to the monastery library where we will learn how to do holy reading, a practice that informs and educates the heart.  

Why should a monastery have a library?  Because its use is central to the education of the heart for the monastics who live there. Today we will look a bit at monastic libraries past and present, examine carefully the use to which they should be put, and then draw some lessons for how we might use our own sources for the education of the heart. We will find that learning and knowledge that changes us is central to our spiritual life and calling.

The Library Itself

Though St. Benedict describes many monastic spaces in some detail, there are no instructions in the rule about what the library is to look like or what books it should have.  He does mention what we today call the “Church Fathers” and the Bible as things that should be read, but nothing more. Monasteries even in Benedict’s time had large libraries, because monasteries see the love of learning and the desire for God as inextricably linked. As monasteries became centers of culture and learning in medieval Europe, monastic libraries became in parallel huge centers of collected books and reading.  The Maria Laachs library (pictured above), near Bonn, Germany has today over 260,000 volumes. Monastic libraries have now extended into the internet. The Hill Monastic Library (at St. John’s Abbey, MN) has high-quality photographs of more than 250,000 manuscripts from over 500 monasteries around the world.  They have in addition photographic archives of more than 100,000 Islamic texts in several languages in Africa and the Middle East. Much of this collection is available on the internet – so if you can read this post, you now have access to this library too.

What one does with books

Even if he gives no plans for what a library looks like, Benedict is very clear about what is to be done with the books in it. They are to be used to increase and shape the desire for God. We should note that Benedict’s instructions on the library come mostly from the chapter in which he talks about Lent, the time of fasting and spiritual preparation for Easter.  During this time every monastic is to be given a book to read during the extra time devoted to meditation during Lent. This time is in addition to the one fourth of the monastic day already given over to reading that Benedict gives in his rule.

One might think you could get a lot of reading done in that time. But here is the crucial insight. The point is not to have the reader go through the book. It is instead for the book to go through the reader. How would we read the Christmas story differently if this was our goal? On a first reading, what goes through us might be Mary and her speaking with an angel (an Angel!) with the courage and presumption to say “let it be done.” On a second reading we might be transfixed by the ordinariness of the stable and manger and the hidden pulsing of the presence of the infinite in an infant. Another reading might change the way we think of fatherhood by seeing Joesph’s faithful and merciful consistency. Each reading takes time. Each reading slowly changes us.

The point is not to have the reader go through the text. It is instead for the text to go through the reader.

Monastic reading is not merely for inform-ation, it is instead for form-ation.  We think of information as a thing, but the Latin root of the word (informare) means more “to shape the mind or character.” This meaning was still there in Old English, but in the transformation from medieval to modern times we lost it, and it became mere communication of something.  So in fact, information in its old sense is based in a verb, and it is, or should be, the shaping of the character, the education of the heart.

Therefore, doing it well requires so much time in the day. The education of the heart takes practice, effort, and time.  It is about slow reading that forms the heart. It is about reading that concentrates on how the text speaks of things that are holy, things that touch or reveal the infinite, and how meditation on those things changes the heart of the reader. It is, in short, holy reading, or Lectio Divina.

Lectio Divina for the REst of US 

There is a standard set of steps for Lectio Divina that has been much copied and much modified over the centuries.  Here is the method as we teach it in our seminars:

1) Lectio (reading): Choose a text or passage of a text (you find a suggestion below). Begin with gentle centered breathing to clear your mind and heart. When you are ready, slowly read the passage through. What does it look like, or sound like, remind you of? What do you find yourself drawn to? What do you like and not like? What are your initial thoughts? What feelings are evoked?  Notice these responses without judgment.  Return again to reading.  

 2) Meditatio (meditation): What is your response to the reading?  Return to the reading with an open heart and mind, now reading slowly or concentrating on one passage, phrase, or word, or one image you noticed in step 1.  New thoughts, meanings, and feelings may arise; initial impressions may expand and deepen. Explore more fully the meanings that come to you, and the feelings associated with it. Be aware of any assumptions or expectations that you bring to it. No matter what your response is, – delight, disgust, indifference, confusion – ponder prayerfully the reason for your various responses and what these responses might mean for you.

3) Oratio (prayer): Open yourself to what the reading, phrase, or image might reveal to you. What does it and the Spirit want to say, evoke, make known, or express to you as you attend to it in quiet meditation? Become aware of the feelings, thoughts, desires, and meanings evoked by the reading and how they are directly connected to your life. Does it evoke for you important meanings or values, remind you of an important event or season, or suggest a new or different way of being?

4) Contemplatio (contemplation): What desires and longings are evoked in your seeing? How do you find yourself wanting to respond to what you are experiencing? Respond to God in ways commensurate with your experience: gratitude, supplication, wonder, lament, confession, praise.

You can see this process takes time, and you can really only do it with a small amount of text at a time. But it is indeed at the center of the monastic journey. And it can be the central practice of any journey of education of the heart.

An exercise in Lectio Divina

On this Fifth Day of Christmas, or several times during these 12 days, take some time to practice this holy reading. Since it is Christmas, try doing so with my philosopher-wife’s favorite Christmas story in the first chapter of The Gospel of John. It refers to the Divine birth as divine word (logos) which seeks room in us. Read it slowly, savor it, and then begin to meditate on it with the steps outlined above:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … 

And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.


(John 1:1-5,14)

The Sixth Day of Christmas: Pausing at the Threshold

The Fourth Day of Christmas: Nurturing, Feasting and Fasting