Desert Tradition

In the desert tradition a learner would ask a ‘senior’ for a ‘Word’ (Da mihi verbum). The Abba would give him a short phrase or text like ‘Lord have mercy’ or the Lord’s Prayer. He would go off to his cell, keep repeating the ‘Word’ and meditating on it until he had exhausted its meaning and would then return for another.

We have an example of that from nearer home when Blessed Columba Marmion asked Saint Pius X for a word. The Pope opened his Bible and his eye fell on the text ‘Dominus est’ (It is the Lord – Jn 21:7). And Blessed Columba treasured that for life as lectio divina. Somehow the phrases in Latin seem to work better than in the vernacular. From this early practice grew the custom of reading and meditating on the Bible. It is obvious that Christ himself used the Old Testament for lectio in his dialogue with Satan in the desert (Lk 4:1-13) and his use of the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah (Lk 4:16-20). And just as Luke shows us that Jesus likely did lectio, so the Magnificat points in the same direction for Our Blessed Lady as in the line ‘As he spoke to our fathers to Abraham and his seed for ever.’ (Lk 1:54-55)

Luke used the term sunballousa (sunballousa) which Jerome translates conferens to describe our Lady ‘pondering’ (Lk 2:19). The best representation of this is the Mater admirabilis (Mother Most Admirable) image, which the Sacred Heart Congregation uses. She is sitting at a spinning wheel and her body language shows that she is admirans (wondering) in prayer. The constant repetition of a mantra (word or short phrase) is closely connected with lectio divina and joins it with perpetual prayer. Saint Bernard called the Infant Jesus a Verbum abbreviatum. And the Lord himself gave us his initials ‘I am A and W’ (the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet – Rev 1:8).