And so we come to the end of the classic book on lectio divina by Guigo II (d. 1188), The Ladder of Monks. The idea of a ladder is key to understanding his approach to the Bible — despite all the food metaphors I’ve noted in these posts.
He might have done better still with a spiral staircase, but The Spiral Staircase of Monks is not nearly so catchy. And he didn’t ask me.
He is emphatic that each step is vital to the others. Three times he stands with one foot on a lower rung, and considers how it relates to the rung above:
reading without meditation is sterile, meditation without reading is liable to error
All that study he calls reading is just an intellectual exercise unless you do something like meditation to chew it up and make it part of you. But if you just chew on a passage out of context, without really grasping it intellectually, you could end up convinced of all kinds of odd things.
prayer without meditation is lukewarm, meditation without prayer is unfruitful
If you try to seek what you need from God without orienting your request to what God says life is about, your prayer is only half-baked. If you do meditate on Scripture, but stop short of asking God to lead you to the life Scripture promises, you’ve wasted your time.
The relation between the last two steps is a bit different:
prayer when it is fervent wins contemplation, but to obtain it without prayer would be rare, even miraculous.
Prayer is intended to lead you into contemplation, to meet with God who gives what Scripture promises — but that only happens if prayer is really solid. On the other hand, God has set this life up so that the life he promises only comes when we are at the point where we can ask for it.
To take the process in reverse,
- God wants to give you himself in Jesus via contemplation
- But God grants it only if you ask in prayer
- And you only are moved to ask when you digest what Scripture teaches in meditation
- And you can only digest Scripture once you faithfully, studiously, read it.
Every step is necessary to move to the next level. Every step brings you closer to the goal — which is the presence of Jesus.
It is like a spiral staircase, though, in that you do not take one quick trip through the four steps.
You go through the steps. You get a taste of Christ’s presence — but you do not get to remain in that holy intimacy. Christ draws close and then seems to hide himself. Guigo suggests that this is because Jesus knows that, as the saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.”
He is still near, have no doubt. But we find we have to ascend the ladder again.
- Again we read.
- Again we meditate.
- Again we pray.
- Again we contemplate.
And time after time after time, we find ourselves in the presence of Jesus.
That is how Scripture can be life-giving to us. It was true in the 12th century when Guigo wrote The Ladder of Monks. It is all the more true today when it is so counter-cultural.
Dare to engage Scripture more passionately and prayerfully than academic approaches invite — because you read Scripture to enter God’s presence.
Dare to engage Scripture more intellectually and theologically than devotional approaches invite — because God chooses to meet you through ancient texts that take work to understand.
Dare to go up the ladder. Step by step toward Jesus. Step, by step, by step.
I would love to hear from you in the comments! Give Guigo’s “ladder” a try, and tell me what you find. Or tell me about your most life-giving approach to Scripture.