On the Contemplative Role of the Ear… and the Tongue (Lectio Divina Diligens for Palm Sunday)

On the Contemplative Role of the Ear… and the Tongue (Lectio Divina Diligens for Palm Sunday) March 23, 2018

Here is the final installment of my Lenten series on Lectio Divina I’m calling  Lectio Divina Diligens. Click on the link to read about this idea, if you’re not familiar with it.

March 25 brings Lent to a close with Palm Sunday, marking the beginning of Holy Week. This week let’s reflect on the first reading, found in Isaiah 50:4-7.

Lectio — reading

The Lord God has given me
a well-trained tongue,
That I might know how to answer the weary
a word that will waken them.
Morning after morning
he wakens my ear to hear as disciples do;
The Lord God opened my ear;
I did not refuse,
did not turn away.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who tore out my beard;
My face I did not hide
from insults and spitting.
The Lord God is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
Therefore I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

Investigatio — research


Anyone with any sense of Christian liturgy will recognize this passage from Isaiah as one of the prophetic texts in the Old Testament that Christians have interpreted as referring to Christ. Thus, for Christians, it is Christ who has been given a well-trained tongue, an opened ear, whose back was given to those who beat him, and so forth.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that Jews will read this text differently. But since we are reading this in the context of Christian liturgy and prayer, we’ll go with the classic Christian understanding. But right away, we hit a surprise.

What immediately leaps out to me is that the Collegeville Bible Commentary says, “The ‘well-trained tongue’ of verse 4 is literally ‘a disciple’s tongue.’ The notion of disciple may be picked up from Isaiah 8:16, where the prophet’s message is entrusted to his disciples.”

Using Verbum‘s “Exegetical Study Guide,” I see indeed that the Hebrew word לִמֻּד (limmud) does mean not only “well-trained” but “discipled” or even “well-bred.” So it’s a bit ambiguous, but I can see where this can be read as not only the prophet (or, for Christians, Christ) speaking, but also implying that it is a disciple of Christ (or the prophet) whose voice is being recorded here.

So, should we read this as Christ speaking — or, following the idea of it being a “disciple’s” voice — is the disciple of the prophet a symbol of disciples of Christ?

Reading the text devotionally rather than strictly academically, I think the answer to my question is simply “Yes.” In other words, I think some of the power in this passage (and indeed, in all the “servant” passages of Isaiah) is that it invites us into the heart of mind of Christ, but with a recognition that, as Christians, we are called to be one with Christ — so, when Christ says “God gives me a well-trained tongue, and listening ears, and a willingness to suffer” he is simultaneously  calling us to be open to the same circumstances in our lives.

To follow Christ means accepting that God wants to give us “a well-trained” tongue, and “ears to hear” — and even a willingness to suffer, when it serves a good or holy purpose.

But I want to zero in on the paradox here of holding a well-trained tongue with an awakened ear. Because it seems to me that the ear represents contemplation, while the tongue represents the power of language and communication.

Meditatio — reflection

People who embrace contemplative prayer — and, for that matter, a meditative devotion like lectio divina — often are very comfortable with silence. We seek silence, we enjoy silence, we find rest and refuge in silence (even when our interior lives, our minds and hearts, seem full of noise). Furthermore, many of us are introverts — which means we’re happier being silent than talking.

But a disciple’s tongue is one that knows both the power of silence and speech. An awakened ear listens for silence, but also for the word that forms the heart of communication. I think perhaps we contemplatives spend so much time chasing after silence that sometimes we forget that language, that “the Word” can be just as essential to the contemplative life as the wordlessness of silent prayer.

Let me repeat that: the Word matters just as much as silence — both are essential to the contemplative path. But this may seem counterintuitive, when we feel so drawn to silent prayer. “I don’t want so many words in my prayer!” seems to be a common complaint, especially for those who are feeling the first tug toward contemplation.

So this passage in Isaiah seems to be saying to us, “you need the awakened ear to listen for God’s still small voice: the voice of silence. But you also need that capacity to listen to God’s Word — and to speak, as necessary, when the Word impels you to do so.”

And sometimes, frankly, this tension between fidelity to language and fidelity to silence will lead to suffering. Maybe not of the “tearing out the beard” variety, but certainly an inner stress as we try to balance the call to silence with the call to communication: both listening and speaking.

Oratio — response

God, you call us to union with you, in Christ. Give us tongues that are disciplined and capable of speaking your word, words of love and mercy and forgiveness, to a world so thirsty for love. And also give us awakened ears, ears that can hear your still small voice — in the silence of our hearts and our prayers, but also in the many ways that you speak your words of life to us as well, not only in silence but also in all things.

Contemplatio — rest

Please join with me at a time that is appropriate for you, to simply rest in the silent presence of God, knowing that God loves you and me and all creation — whether we can feel it or not.

This is the final installment of my series of Lenten devotional posts, written in a spirit of Lectio Divina Diligens — lectio divina (sacred, meditative reading) combined with a contemplative, “diligent” approach to scriptural interpretation. Research into the interpretation of scripture is performed using Verbum.

Were these Lenten posts helpful for you? What did you like about them? What would you have differently? If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment below. Thank you.

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