The curious way in which Saint Ambrose read books
And how that led to what we now call lectio divina.
The first books we learned to love were probably stories read aloud by a parent, teacher, or older sibling. Maybe you went to a story hour at the library and sat down with the other kids and listened. If you had siblings, maybe mom got you together to listen to a bedtime story (with the toddler interrupting every few seconds, naturally).
Reading begins as a collective experience. It’s share. My four youngest children are currently used to listening to audiobooks in their playrooms. They sit there, all together, and listen quietly for hours.
Once we learn to read, most of our reading becomes an individual experience, something you do quietly on your own. Maybe we sometimes read aloud for a class or for our own kids like our parents did for us, but adults really don’t just sit and listen to audiobooks together.
The theory is, however, thatIn the past, adults were much more sociable when it came to reading. In ancient culture, perhaps because literacy rates were lower and physical copies of books much rarer, reading aloud was much more common. It was not uncommon for a group of people to gather in a public square to collectively listen to a read book.
Saint Augustine, in his Confession, comments on how the way people read began to change over the course of her life. As a young man, he met Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan and well-known intellectual. Augustine sought out Ambrose as a mentor and regularly visited the bishop’s office for advice.
Rather early, Augustine noticed something interesting about the older man, who often read a book when his young protégé entered the room. He writes: “When he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart searched for meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still… for he never read aloud.
Augustine mentions this because it was unusual. It was a new development that a person could put words directly into their mind without any outside sound or movement. Her lips didn’t even move to utter the words, but “Her eyes scanned the page and her heart searched for meaning.”
As reading moved away from groups and became an individual activity, some historians believe that reading the change helped develop a robust inner life. In A story of reading, writes Alberto Manguel: “The words… could exist in the interior space, hastened or barely begun, entirely deciphered or barely spoken, while the reader’s mind inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions, allowing comparisons memory or other books left open for simultaneous reading.
This ability to ponder the words carefully and at an individual pace was an important spiritual development as it enabled a new type of Bible study. Ambrose was known to have taken Scripture to his heart and meditating on it deeply. He had a new method, which was already starting to gain popularity in the East, which he helped introduce to the Western world. It is called lectio divina.
Lectio divina is an attitude of prayerful listening. It involves quietly dwelling on a few interesting words and pondering them, allowing God to speak through them in new ways. As Ambrose practiced, he clearly bore great fruit in the wisdom and power of his preaching.
If we were to practice daily lectio divina, what would we hear? It seems to me that prayerful listening can be practiced in any area of our life, not just reading a text, and that we could all flourish with much more. With each Advent we are encouraged to slow down and listen more, not only with silent reading, but also with quiet time, prayer, attention to beauty, and time with family. It’s an opportunity I’m grateful for, this reminder to keep the noise out of my ears to listen and to focus on what is really important.