Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lectio Divina and Bernard's Reading of Luke

Our discussion of Bernard of Clairvaux’s four homilies was largely informed by the elements of Benedictine monasticism that Bernard identified through the exemplification and praise of the Virgin Mary: the emphasis on humility, simple lifestyle, and obedience to one’s superiors (best exemplified by the fantastically pointed line from Homily III, Paragraph 11: “Be subject to his vicars, your leaders, not only to those who are modest and gentle, but also to the overbearing”). We also observed that the form of Bernard’s homilies were related to his monastic tradition as well, in that his frequent incorporation of scriptural language into his writing derived from the familiarity he had developed with the Psalms and the Song of Songs through the daily recitations of the Liturgy of the Blessed Virgin.

Another element of monastic life that seems very important to the form of these homilies, however, is the practice of Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina is a scripture-reading practice most notably associated with Benedictine monks, designed to help readers of scripture engage more fully with the text. To this end, Lectio Divina follows four steps: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Those engaging in the exercise first read a scripture passage very deliberately and often multiple times, and then engage in a very thorough internal reflection and prayer on the passage’s divine significance.

Bernard’s homilies seem very clearly to be the result of this sort of close reading and long contemplation. Many of the paragraphs of the homilies begin with a single line from Luke’s Annunciation story and proceed to very thoroughly analyze both the story itself and often very specific details of Luke’s depiction. Most strikingly, he often goes on at length about the theological implications of Luke’s phrasing – for example, Homily III, Paragraph 1, his exploration of what and how the angel Gabriel “went into”, or why it is important that the angel said “God is with you” and not “God is in you” (III, 4), and likewise the use of the phrase “he will be” rather than “he is” great (III, 13).

If Bernard’s homilies were derived from the formal meditation, prayer, and contemplation on Luke’s narrative prescribed by Lectio Divina, what does that tell us about the actual content of the homilies themselves? For surely every other writer who discusses Mary must, at one time or another, have read Luke’s story of the Annunciation and then prayed on and contemplated the text thoroughly, even if they were not formally adhering to the structure of Lectio Divina. What makes Bernard’s technique different from any other understanding of the Marian Annunciation?

For one, this understanding does help us better understand the context in which Bernard was writing. As established in his prologue, Bernard was taking a bit of a forced sabbatical from his monastery, to spend a year in private contemplation and let his monks forget some of their frustrations with him. In our class discussion, we all found his claim that he was writing for his own personal, private devotion to be laughably untrue, what with all his pointed comments about how proper monks should be behaving. However, while Bernard certainly did seem to expect his brother monks to be chastised by his homily, Lectio Divina could also explain why Bernard so obviously applied the problems of his own life into his understanding of Luke’s Gospel. Amadeus, another Benedictine, wrote his homilies to Mary while serving as a lay bishop of a very tumultuous diocese, writes very image-heavy homilies drawing on the scriptural traditions of early Mary homilists. Bernard, however, is sitting all alone in quiet contemplation for the vast majority of his time, and has plenty of opportunity to sit and stew on his own troubled abbey. Small wonder that these temporal challenges would also be on his mind while meditating on the Gospels, and that in his contemplation he would be able to draw clear parallels between monastic life and the Virgin Birth.

Perhaps more interesting, however, Bernard’s homily is unique from many others we have read this quarter in that it does not draw at all on the information about Mary derived from the Apocryphal Gospels. Bernard does not talk at all about Mary’s parents, her own conception, or the slightly unusual circumstances by which Joseph won her custody in a Temple lottery, but instead focuses almost entirely on the story as told in the Gospel of Luke (incorporating, of course, the frequent references to Psalms and the Song of Songs he acquired from frequent prayings of the Liturgy, as well as the usual Old Testament allegories for Mary used by many eastern homilists we have read).

As we discussed in the first week of class, direct scriptural references to Mary are pretty few and far between. Bernard manages to take the story of the Annunciation, easily the longest biblical narrative about the actual life and actions of Mary, and manages to derive from just that one short narrative pretty much all the major theological elements laid out by earlier homilists who were drawing from a much wider textual tradition. And certainly Bernard as well is drawing from Old Testament prophets as evidence of Mary’s holiness and purpose, but the point is that his reading of the Annunciation is so thorough and so deep that it has set the stage for modern understanding of the Marian narrative, which derives its authority entirely from scriptural references to Mary, rather than the Apocryphal texts (of dubious canonical authority) on which many earlier homilists drew elements of Mary’s blessed existence.



  1. Very nice attention to the methodology that Bernard was using in composing his meditation on the Lukan narrative (although the fourfold structure of lectio divine that you invoke is actually a slightly later twelfth-century formulation, given to us by Guigo II the Carthusian). I think you are right to caution us about taking Bernard's comments to his audience too much out of the very personal context in which he was writing: he was clearly troubled by his forced retreat and you make a good case here for how he used his reading to help him work through what had happened. I wonder what you would make of Bernard's great emphasis on Mary's consent in this context: although, as you point out, he does not reference the apocryphal accounts in retelling the narrative, he does expand on Luke's version in significant ways, most notably in the way in which he highlights the moment of her speaking her "Fiat mihi" as the moment on which the salvation of the world depended. How does this focus on her consent fit with his other monastic themes of humility and obedience? RLFB

  2. "Lectio divina"--not sure if this was my typo or autocorrect's! RLFB

  3. To be honest, I hadn't really thought much about the element of Mary's consent in the context of this reading, despite how clearly important it was to him in his reflection on Luke's narrative. The explanation I would (perhaps tentatively) venture is that Marian tradition necessarily treats Mary as a person specifically created to be the Mother of God. In the Protoevangelium of James and other apocryphal texts, the angels who announce Mary's conception to Joachim and Anna also allude to the special role God has chosen for her. More pointedly, Bernard himself states that God "had to choose one person out of all the living, or rather, he had to create someone whom he knew would be worthy" (Homily II, Paragraph 1). While the idea of God creating his own Earthly tabernacle is essential to the Christian understanding of God and his relationship with humans, the thought that Mary's motherhood was preordained is hardly the kind of thing to inspire monks struggling with worldly troubles (who might then be tempted to argue that Mary should be held to a higher standard than those not created specifically to serve as the mother of God). But if that human woman created to be God's mother still had to consciously choose to accept the task (and consciously vocalize that choice), she is far more relatable to human beings who must choose between virtue and sin every day, and would have made a much better role model for Bernard and his fellow monks.