Some of us at the monastery have been reading and discussing Fr. Michael Casey’s new book Coenobium, pronounced koe̯ˈno.bi.um or t͡ʃeˈno.bi.um. (Don’t feel bad; I mispronounce it all the time!) In biology the Latin term refers to a colony of cells that act as a single organism, such as algae. However, the older Greek origins of the term koinóbios refers to a monastic community, that is, individual monks (from monos, meaning “one”) who live a common life (bios). Unlike hermits, who live a monastic life as solitaries, cenobites live their monastic vocation together in a community.
The chapter in Casey’s book that I found most helpful is entitled “Hearers of the Word,” from a book by Karl Rahner first published in 1941. Summarizing Rahner’s thesis Casey writes: “[W]e attain our full humanity only to the extent that we are open to the Word, God’s self-revelation” (p.43). Casey’s chapter is on the Benedictine form of prayer called lectio divina, which is a slow meditative reading of Scripture. Opening to the Word of God with reverence and a willingness to hear and obey is the core of what lectio divina is all about. Our obedience is not so much to the material content as to the echo caused in the heart and conscience of the reader. The message of the text gets embedded in our heart and passes into our daily life (p.45). “A monastic culture that supports and encourages the lifelong practice of lectio divina will almost certainly build a good community—not a perfect community, but a community that so patiently tolerates inevitable weaknesses that it truly does become a family that has one heart and one mind” (p.56).
Casey believes that the unity of a monastic community is supported by through the regular practice of lectio divina. The primary purpose of this form of prayer is to actualize or reactivate our relationship with God so we can live a life according to God’s purpose. It makes us more able to make a unique contribution to the spiritual heart of our community, family, or society (p.45).
Through lectio divina we look for what is beyond or behind the written words. As we do this we become more sensitive to the intimate presence of God and cannot but respond to it. (p.46-47)
On page 53, Casey refers to St. Benedict’s recommendation that the whole of a Scriptural text—any given book of the Bible, especially the New Testament—be read from beginning to end (RB 48.15), but not all at once. The text should be read consecutively, not jumping from section to section. Some might find it helpful to form the words with our lips or to read the text aloud since a vocalized text can have the power to move us at a deeper level. (p.50) Reading slowly, so as to appreciate every word and phrase, is the nature of the process. Sometimes we might spend a week or a month on a single paragraph. We need to be aware of the tendency to skip over areas that are very familiar because with time and varied life experiences these familiar passages can take on new meaning or importance. (p.51)
Casey explains, “Lectio divina is like painting a wall with a brush. We have to apply the paint very evenly, going backwards and forwards and only advancing beyond what is already done. We stop to listen for the echoes in our hearts—the mysterious conjunction of the words we are reading and the unspoken and unexpressed movements of our soul” (p.51).
We need not feel pressured to cover a certain amount of text. We need to feel free to wander and wonder and linger as long as the moment calls for. It is in this environment of utter freedom that the whispers of God’s voice can be discerned, becoming a source of comfort or a call to conversion. (p.54)
“The fruit of lectio divina is an evangelized heart; if the hearts of all follow the Gospel as guide, then our communities will be both united spiritually purposeful” (p.55).
This is a very compact summary. Michael Casey does a great job flushing out how to use lectio divina to make a difference in our life. I hope you might be able to read this book for yourself to bring you to a greater understanding of lectio divina and other aspects of Benedictine monastic life.
By Sister Veronica Ryan, OSB
Michael Casey, OSCO, Coenobium: Reflections on Monastic Community. (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN) 2021.