Lectio Divina and the English Mystics

I’ve been reading Carmen Butcher’s delightful new translation of The Cloud of Unknowing, and today I read chapter 35, which discusses the importance of lectio divina in the contemplative life:

The contemplative beginner must, however, engage in certain exercises. These are the lesson, the meditation, and the orison, better known as reading, reflecting, and praying. You can learn about these three activities in another book, where the author explains them better than I can, so I won’t go into great detail here.

In a footnote, Butcher suggests that the Cloud author here is speaking either of Guigo the Carthusian’s Ladder of Monks, which is the “classic” explication of lectio divina as a process of reading, reflection, praying, and contemplation; or else the Cloud author may be referring to another English mystic, Walter Hilton, who devotes a chapter of The Scale of Perfection to lectio:

There are three means most commonly used by people who devote themselves to contemplation: the reading of holy scripture and of holy teaching, spiritual meditation, and diligent prayer with devotion.

Meanwhile, Julia Bolton Holloway’s wonderful website on Julian of Norwich includes a page with an extensive chart of scriptural allusions in Julian’s text, suggesting, of course, that lectio was itself a major part of Julian’s spiritual practice, thus enabling her to draw on scripture so fully in her own writing. But perhaps of even more direct use to us today, Holloway suggests a contemplative reading of Julian and the Bible simultaneously, using her table of correspondence as an entry point:

It is suggested that these tables be printed out … then be compared with hard copies of the Julian of Norwich [text] … and the Bible, side by side. The experience will be that of lectio divina, especially where one savours these echoing texts, contemplating upon them, entering into eternity…

One might be tempted to see lectio as a peculiarly Benedictine/Cistercian/Carthusian practice, well-suited to the cloistered life but of little practical use beyond monastic walls. Granted, Julian and Hilton and The Cloud author all seem, likewise, to be writing from, or with intended readers in, monastic enclosures. But given the popularity that the English mystics are now enjoying among readers who are not cloistered, I think it is safe to say that anyone, monastic or not, who turns to the English mystics as spiritual guides, will find guides who commend the practice of lectio as the foundational exercise leading to contemplation.

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