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The curious way St. Ambrose read books


Olena Yakobchuk | Shutterstock

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 12/05/21

And how it lead to what we now call lectio divina.

The first books we came to love were probably stories read aloud to us by a parent, a teacher, or an older sibling. Maybe you went to a story hour at the library and sat with the other children and listened. If you had brothers and sisters, maybe mom gathered you together to listen to a bedtime story (the toddler interrupting every few seconds, naturally).

Reading begins as a collective experience. It’s shared. My own youngest four children are currently in the habit of listening to audiobooks in their playroom. They sit there, all together, and quietly listen for hours.

Once we learn to read, for the most part all our reading becomes an individual experience, something you quietly do by yourself. Maybe we occasionally read aloud for a class or for our own children the way our parents did for us, but adults really don’t sit around listening to audiobooks together.

The theory is, though, thatin the past adults used to be far more social when it came to reading. In ancient culture, perhaps because literacy rates were lower and physical copies of books much more rare, reading aloud was far more common. It wasn’t unusual for a group of people to gather around in a public square to collectively listen to a book being read.

St. Augustine, in his Confessions, comments on how the way people read was beginning to change during his lifetime. As a young man, he met St. Ambrose, who was Bishop of Milan and a well-known intellectual. Augustine sought out Ambrose as a mentor, and would regularly go to the bishop’s study to ask him for advice.

Soon enough, Augustine noticed something interesting about the older man, who would often be reading a book when his young protege entered the room. He writes, “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the 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 his mind without any outward sound or motion. His lips didn’t even move to sound out the words, but “His eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning.”

As reading shifted away from groups and became an individual activity, some historians think the change helped develop a robust interior life. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel writes, “The words … could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal.”

This ability to meditate carefully on words and at an individual pace was an important spiritual development because it allowed for a new type of Bible study. Ambrose was known for taking Scripture into his heart and meditating on it profoundly. He had a new method, already beginning to become popular in the east, that he helped to introduce to the western world. It’s called lectio divina.

Lectio divina is an attitude of prayerful listening. It involves quietly lingering over a few words of interest and pondering them, allowing God to speak through them in new ways. As Ambrose practiced it, it clearly bore great fruit in the wisdom and power of his preaching.

If we were to practice a lectio divina of daily life, what would we hear? It seems to me that prayerful listening can be practiced in all areas of our lives, not only reading a text, and that we could all thrive with a great deal more of it. Each Advent, we’re encouraged to slow down and listen more, not only with silent reading, but also with quiet time, prayer, attentiveness 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 focus on what’s truly important.

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