Lectio Divina and the Monster Book of Monsters: Harry Potter, Eugene Peterson, and the Art of Spiritual Reading
Note: Last week I discussed Hugh of Saint Victor’s two things “by which every man advances in knowledge”: reading and meditation. This week I want to explore in some more detail the topic of meditation as it is specifically applied to the Bible.
In Harry’s third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he begins a class called Care of Magical Creatures. Hagrid, in his first year teaching this course, assigns the students a book called The Monster Book of Monsters. As the book’s title suggests, it is a book about monsters that is itself bewitched to act like a monster, and it scoots around the room seeking to take a bite out of unsuspecting students. Only after the students arrive at Hagrid’s first class with their books belted or clamped shut do they learn that the book lays flat to be read after tickling the spine.
Thankfully, I have never encountered a book I tried to read that desired to eat me. But I have encountered a book that encouraged me to eat it: the Bible. In Revelation 10:9-10, John receives instructions from an angel: “So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, ‘Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.’ And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter” (ESV). Perhaps the scroll here is not a direct metaphor for the whole Bible, but other biblical passages teach us to meditate on God’s Word in terms like eating.
In his work Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson tells the story of his discovery that the Hebrew word for meditate, used in passages like Psalm 1, is the same word used in Isaiah 31:4 to speak of a lion growling over its prey. He then adds an illustration of his dog chewing upon a bone found in the forested foothills of Montana. Meditating on Scripture, then, is in a sense eating—gnawing, tasting, chewing, savoring, and swallowing it into us. We don’t just read the words of Scripture, we partake of them, ingest them, and digest them—in short, we eat the book.
But this is not how we typically read as Peterson powerfully points out:
“Eating the book is in contrast with how most of us are trained to read books—develop a cool objectivity that attempts to preserve scientific or theological truth by eliminating as far as possible any personal participation that might contaminate the meaning. But none of us starts out by reading that way. I have a granddaughter right now who eats books. When I am reading a story to her brother, she picks another off of a stack and chews on it. She is trying to get the book inside her the quickest way she knows, not through her ears, but through her mouth. She doesn’t make fine distinctions between ear and mouth—any opening will do to get it inside her. But soon she’ll go to school and be taught that that’s not the way to go about it. She’ll be taught to get answers out of her book. She’ll learn to read books in order to pass examinations, and having passed the exams, put the book on the shelf and buy another.”
In a way, much of modern education has tamed our books and ourselves. And this problem has extended to the Church. We have learned to tickle the spine and we have tamed God’s Word. We have sheathed the Sword and put it on the shelf to collect dust. We have taken what was sharp and made it dull. We have left the Word of the Bread of Life and the Living Water on the shelf and let them spoil. We fail to “take and eat” and thereby reject the Eucharistic blessing. We are hungry for purpose, but we do not eat of that which will satisfy.
We must once again learn to eat the Bible. As Peterson reminds us, “Eating a book takes it all in, assimilating it into the tissues of our lives. Readers become what they read.” He continues: “Come to the Table and eat this book, for every word in the book is intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness to our souls and body.” Take and eat.
The first step in meditating upon Scripture is to eat it. We must make it a part of ourselves. In coming weeks I will continue to explore this notion of meditation and how we can eat both Scripture and the Great Books.
Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 1-2.