22 November 2016

Lectio Apocalypse!



Revelation 14:14-19
Luke 21:5-11

"Use your sickle and reap the harvest, for the time to reap has come, because the earth’s harvest is fully ripe.” So the one who was sitting on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.
Revelation 14:15b-16

Your host honestly got excited Monday morning when Pope Francis released an Apostolic Letter, Misericordia et Misera: it's the first "magisterial document" to come out since I started attending a Roman Catholic parish. But your host is a church geek and such events usually get him in a heady mood, regardless of one's ecclesial status. Most of it was about stuff that was meaningless to me. Certainly the events and the scripture citations were understood, but a lot of the cultural context, the "Catholic Meaning" was unsurprisingly lost on me.

Section 7, however, spoke in a very direct way to my heart, as I write these posts:

The Bible is the great story of the marvels of God’s mercy. Every one of its pages is steeped in the love of the Father who from the moment of creation wished to impress the signs of his love on the universe. Through the words of the prophets and the wisdom writings, the Holy Spirit shaped the history of Israel as a recognition of God’s closeness and love, despite the people’s infidelity. Jesus’ life and preaching decisively marked the history of the Christian community, which has viewed its mission in terms of Christ’s command to be a permanent instrument of his mercy and forgiveness (cf. Jn 20:23). Through Sacred Scripture, kept alive by the faith of the Church, the Lord continues to speak to his Bride, showing her the path she must take to enable the Gospel of salvation to reach all mankind. I greatly desire that God’s word be increasingly celebrated, known and disseminated, so that the mystery of love streaming from this font of mercy may be ever better understood. As the Apostle tells us clearly: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). 
It would be beneficial if every Christian community, on one Sunday of the liturgical year, could renew its efforts to make the Sacred Scriptures better known and more widely diffused. It would be a Sunday given over entirely to the word of God, so as to appreciate the inexhaustible riches contained in that constant dialogue between the Lord and his people. Creative initiatives can help make this an opportunity for the faithful to become living vessels for the transmission of God’s word. Initiatives of this sort would certainly include the practice of lectio divina, so that the prayerful reading of the sacred text will help support and strengthen the spiritual life. Such a reading, centred on themes relating to mercy, will enable a personal experience of the great fruitfulness of the biblical text – read in the light of the Church’s spiritual tradition – and thus give rise to concrete gestures and works of charity.
It was so wonderful to read Pope Francis recommending Lectio Divina - a traditional Benedictine monastic meditational practice - to the wider Catholic World. Lectio uses the words of the scripture as a point of meditation, sometimes singularly, sometimes in phrases. It is so hard for one as inexperienced as I to describe this practice, but it's like a cow chewing its cud: each word becomes part of the meditation, slowly. BY way of example, the Venerable St Bede, an Benedictine Monk from the northern part of England, wrote an extended Lectio on the Book of Revelation, taking, for example our verse at the head of this post in this wise:
15. angel. The angels, of whom we read in the Gospel as “the reapers of the earth,” are all sent forth to minister for those who have the inheritance of salvation,” and they take account of the several merits of the Church, and report them daily to the Lord 
reap. Behold, He says, “Through iniquity abounding, the love of many has waxed cold,” and through the burning heat of evils falling upon it, the harvest of the earth has now almost ceased to be green. So, then, for the elect’s sake, the days are shortened, in order that grains already ripe may not fall off. And do thou commit the tares and the chaff to the flames, but the heavenly fruit to the garners of bliss.
A verse or two later, still chewing, St Bede gives us this:

"Use your sharp sickle and cut the clusters from the earth’s vines, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and cut the earth’s vintage. He threw it into the great wine press of God’s fury.
Revelation 14:18b-19
18. fire. The office of the angels, as Jerome says, is twofold. For some assign rewards to the righteous, while others preside over the several torments; as it is said, “Who maketh His angels spirits, and His ministers a burning fire.” The two angels who proclaim that the harvest is dry, and the corn ripe, may be understood to be the prayers of the Church, which, with a great voice, that is, with a great desire, prays daily that the kingdom of the Lord may come, and with these words. 
Thrust in. As the harvest, so also the vintage is partly earthly, partly heavenly. But the maturity of both indicates the end of the world. 
ripe. That is, her sins are complete. But the perfection of the good may also be called ripeness. For, as the holy Gregory says, although the end of the world depends on its own course, yet by overtaking such as are more perverse, because they are deservedly overwhelmed in its ruin, it becomes known through them. 
19. sickle. He who has the sickle of the reaper has also that of the grape-gatherer. For the judgment is one, and will take place at one time; but in the harvest and the vintage he shews the beginning and the end of the same affliction. 
winepress. If this harvest also of the vintage pertain only to the bad, the winepress signifies punishment; but if to the good as well, the treading of the winepress, as the threshing of the floor, crushes what is useless, and proves what is of use. And so the Apostle says that the precious metals are preserved by fire, while the hay and the stubble are consumed, both which are done without the heavenly Jerusalem. But the winepress of wrath is so named in the same form of speech, as it is said, “The Lord delivered him in the evil day.”
Notice it's not so much an exegesis ('this text in Greek means this... blah blah, but in Latin it reads this way... blah blah blah) as it is a poetic unfolding. "Winepress could mean this - in which case this follows, unless it means that other thing... in which case this other follows." St Bede is not telling us the "Real and final meaning" of the Apocalypse. He is walking us through a garden planted by the Evangelist and pointing out the more interesting flowers, asking us to smell them and commenting on the scents and colors. This is the way the Church Fathers all read the Bible: what I compared it to "Bible as Tarot Deck", if that doesn't cause too much of a shock in the saying of it.

It's a different way to open the Bible, far from "Study" per se and closer to "Contemplation." It can take, as you might imagine, a week or more to get through a chapter - longer if you're writing it down! It is more fruitful to the prayer life than simple study, though. The realization that there is another way to approach this (or any difficult) text may lead to more comfort with the Bible, opening it with less fear.