Wounded Heart

Esmeralda: Cry of a Wounded Heart

By Rev. Fr. Alberto Esmeralda, OSA
(This was originally published in the Augustinian Initial Formation Congress 2021 Document. )


            When I received the letter inviting me to talk on the theme of this Congress, I was wondering what the title meant. At first, it reminded me of the pamphlet published by Martin Nolan, OSA entitled “The Cry of the Heart.” It was a small tract on Augustine’s idea of prayer. But the adjective “wounded” modifying “heart” somehow changed that. What could a “wounded heart” have to do with formation? And what would be the “cry” of such a “wounded heart?”

            During this recent Provincial Chapter, I heard one of the formators saying that our formandi are wounded, that they need attention, that they need help in order to be healed. Then again, during our retreat we were told that the dysfunctions in our society are reflected even in our houses of formation; that we have in our formation houses the products of dysfunctional families. When I consider these reports, I wonder, does this mean that the “wounded hearts” are our formandi?

            Granted that our formandi have wounded hearts, does that mean that they should be getting preferential treatment? Is the formation house now a rehabilitation center? What would be the difference of SACS from the Juvenile Hall of Muntinlupa? Are those “criminals” less wounded than those wishing they could wear the Augustinian habit?

            But then such remarks would be unfair not only to the ones now in initial formation but also to all the members of the Order. After all, not all those who present themselves for admission to the Order are escapees from the harsh realities of contemporary living or even opportunity seekers who are out “to seek the world in the Church.”

            This last phrase comes to us from a letter written by Augustine to a prominent Roman lady, one called Fabiola, who was protecting a renegade bishop, Antonianus of Fussala, a bishop coming from Augustine’s monastery and ordained by Augustine himself. This bishop, you see, turned out to be one of those self-seeking shepherds condemned by the prophet Ezekiel. In order to enlarge his palace, he appropriated the stones that were already being used for the houses of his parishioners. As a result, the parishioners raised a protest about their mangled houses and asked the Catholic bishops of North Africa to do something about it. The bishop took refuge behind his benefactress, Fabiola, out of reach of Augustine and his colleagues. “You,” wrote Augustine to this well-meaning woman, “seek God in the world; he (Antoninus) seeks the world in the Church.”

            Not all those who enter the Order turn out to be like that bishop. In fact, there are still those who enter the Order who are well-intentioned and live lives worthy of a friar’s name until death. But it is also true that there are those who lead lives that make people wonder with sadness what could have gone wrong with a process that was meant to produce men who were to serve the Church instead of using the Church for their own benefit.

            “More tortuous than anything is the human heart,” writes Jeremiah, “beyond remedy. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9).” Only God can. And so I won’t pretend to know the hearts of those in formation but instead I would share with you images of wounded hearts supplied by the liturgy and St. Augustine and hope that by these images, you yourselves would see your own wounded hearts.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

            One of the images provided by the liturgy of a wounded heart is that of the Sacred Heart. The image is based on a series of visions received by a nun of Paray-le-monial, France. In one of those visions, Jesus appeared to the nun, Mary Alacoque, showing her his wounded heart. He said to her: “This is how much I love you. Tell your brothers and sisters I love them very much.” The wounded heart of Jesus was pierced by a soldier’s lance on Good Friday. John tells us that because it was the Parasceve, and that the following day is the Sabbath, the soldiers were commanded to facilitate the death of the crucified criminals. So the soldiers broke the legs of the criminals crucified alongside Jesus. They broke the legs so that the crucified can no longer raise themselves to breathe. The crucifixion, you see, induced death by suffocation — the crucified died drowning in his own blood. But Jesus was already dead by this time. And to make sure of this, a soldier pierced his side with a lance. John, the witness, tells us that blood and water flowed. When there was no longer any blood in the heart, a watery substance also flowed out. That blood and water flowed from the wound of Jesus meant that the last drop of blood had been poured out. For John, it was an evidence that the death of Christ was real. Years after this event, he would write a letter to the community under his care saying that there were witnesses there to the love of God that was manifested on the cross: the blood, the water and the Spirit. The blood and water are a reference to the pierced side of Jesus. The Spirit refers to the last breath of Jesus. “And bowing his head, he handed over the Spirit (John 19:30).”

            Thomas Aquinas, reflecting on this event, said that because Jesus was both God and Man, it would have been enough to shed just a drop of blood for the salvation of a hundred worlds. Instead he chose to shed all of his blood. And why would he do that? Because of love.

The Sacraments: the Love of Christ Touching Us

            Granted that the wounded heart of Christ is proof of his love, is his love however love for me now?

            The Fathers of the Church see in the pierced side of Christ the source of the sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist. The water is the source of baptismal regeneration. Through the bath of rebirth, we are made children of God. Paul writes that with baptism the love of God was poured into our hearts in the Spirit that empowers us to call the Father “Abba.” We have been upgraded though in a manner that only God knows. Paul writes that by baptism, our lives have become hidden in Christ in the presence of God. Even now, we are seated in the presence of God though known to Him alone. There will be a time, however, when this will be revealed to all and even the whole of creation groans for that moment, the moment when the children of God are revealed. In the Eucharist, Christ empowers us to live His life. “As I live because of the Father, so anyone who eats of my flesh and drinks my blood will live because of me.” In the Eucharist, we are enabled to say with Paul, “I live no longer but Christ lives in me. The life that I now live in the flesh, I live for Christ who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:2-3).”

            “Whoever eats my flesh,” Jesus says, “will live forever.” “Flesh” in Hebrew is lev, a word which also has the meaning “heart.” Ezekiel says that under the new covenant God will replace hearts hardened by sin with a heart that will be obedient to His will. He was referring to the heart of His Son which was revealed on the Cross. It is through this heart that all men will be “taught by God.” In the Eucharist, our hearts are transformed, molded into the heart of a Son, obedient to the Father and living according to His will. The love of Christ touches us even now through the sacraments. It is a love that transforms us and makes us sons of God. It is a love that accompanies us in this journey by tangible signs. And what greater sign of love is there than the presence of the Lord Himself in the Blessed Sacrament?

            “Tell them this is how I love them,” Jesus said to Sister Margaret Mary. When confronted with such a love, how do we respond?

The Scriptures and Christ’s Wounded Heart

            A second image of Christ’s wounded heart comes from Augustine. In a letter to Honoratus (Letter 140), Augustine explains the meaning of Psalm 22 where it says, “My heart like wax melted from within me.”

Or he surely wanted us to understand a deep mystery, that is, by the name of heart, he wanted us to understand his scriptures where his plan of course lay hidden which was then disclosed when, through his suffering, he fulfilled those things which were prophesied of him. The scriptures then were melted into clarity by these events that were carried out by his coming, birth, suffering, resurrection, and glorification. For who does not understand them now in the prophets when they have been brought even to the understanding of the carnal multitude? Perhaps he referred to that multitude by the middle of his belly, since in his body, which is the Church, the carnal and lower multitude has a place like the belly. Or if the term belly belongs more to the interior parts, he showed that the understanding of the scriptures belongs rather to those who are more perfect since his heart, that is his scriptures, which contain his plan, are melted like wax in the midst of them that is, in their thought, that is, it is opened up discussed, and explained by the warmth of the Spirit (Letter 140, xiv, 36).

            The heart of Christ, opened up by the soldier’s lance, has become the source of the revelation of God’s love which is transmitted to the Church as Scriptures and within the Church, like bread, is broken and shared. What Augustine gives us here is the reading of the Scriptures done in the liturgy. At a time when the ordinary faithful can only approach the Scriptures as read within the Mass, it was the bishop’s duty to explain the inspired word and make sure that his hearers remember the readings so that when they are away from the Church and engaged in their daily lives, they can recall what was read and ruminate on them.

            “Rumination” is a technical word among monks. They don’t tell us however that originally it was a practice recommended by bishops to their faithful. In one of his sermons, Augustine tells his parishioners,

Be like ruminants. This means that everyone should put in his heart whatever he hears (from Scriptures) so that afterwards he would not be lazy in thinking about them. When he listens, let him be like one who chews. When he recalls what has been heard and by meditation remembers their sweetness, he becomes like a ruminant (In Ps. 46, 1).

            The bishop’s homily too was a line-by-line commentary on the liturgical reading so that the faithful can relate a passage to the life of the Church and their life. The commentary was not so much a literary and historical exegesis of a particular passage, but an explanation that brings out the typological, moral or anagogical sense of the text. This was because there is nothing contained in Scriptures other than Christ and His Church. This “spiritual” exegesis involves an understanding of the text that is deeply Christological. It involves the Total Christ, the Head and Body. But it is also at the same time anchored on the literal sense of the text.

            It is said that with the arrival of the mendicant Orders, a reading of the Scriptures that was more geared towards academic disputes began to emerge. Alongside the lectio of the monks, there came out an atomized reading of the text of Scriptures that characterized the reading of the friars. It is true that the mendicant friars read Scriptures line-by-line and phrase-by-phrase so that it would be easier for them to memorize them. But this was not to reduce the Scriptures into a series of proof texts for scholastic debates. St. Francis of Assisi memorized passages that became his guidelines for daily living. The monastic lectio was not set aside for disputatio. Rather, the mendicants developed a reading of the Scriptures that fit their mobile lifestyle. They took notes of passages often with their contexts in mind and used them not only for prayer but also in preaching. Just go through the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas or one of the treatises of Giles of Rome to see that these friars quoted Scriptures after studying the passage in its context.

            The friars ruminated the passages of Scriptures they memorized. They inherited this from the monks. When the Order was first formed in 1244, there were monks who were included in its number. The addition of more established monasteries in 1256 ensured that a monastic reading of the Scriptures always existed in the Order. An evidence of this is found in the Liber Vitas Fratrum. The groups that Martin Luther’s “revolution” spawned still carries this devotion to the Scriptures — a devotion that is one of the characteristics of the Order of St. Augustine.

Percussisti Cor Meum

The third image of the wounded heart is that of Augustine. The basic image is that of Cupid striking someone with his love dart and making that person hopelessly in love. Augustine took that pagan image and transformed it into something Christian using the biblical image of God shooting his arrows. The word “Torah” which in the Bible designates the Scriptures comes from the root yrh which means “to shoot with an arrow.” So here, Augustine’s image of the heart is one that has been struck by the Word of God and so is now madly in love.

            You know how one in love behaves. He is restless until he can be with the Beloved. And so a second image of the heart superimposes itself on the first one: that of the restless heart that cannot find rest until it rests in God. This second image recalls that of a leaf that while it falls, sways as the wind blows it, but it finally rests on the ground where its gravity carries it. Love is that gravity, that homing device which carries one to his destination.

            It is unfortunate that when we use Augustine’s restless heart in our vocation posters, it is associated with Augustine before his conversion. But even after his conversion, Augustine was restless. His restlessness was caused by the tension between his desire for holy leisure on one hand and the requirements of charity — the necessitas caritatis — on the other. He knew however that while he was a pilgrim on this earth, the tension will always remain. That Great Sabbath he yearns for is something that for the moment he can only sigh for.

We will return to each of these images in the two talks following. The first image will be recalled in the topic “Religious Life as a Response to Christ Crucified.” The second and third images will be discussed in “Prayer and the Lectio Divina.

Religious Life: A Loving Response to Christ Crucified

            It must have been in the summer of 1987 when I found myself at Sta. Ana, the parish church of the Augustinians in the Vatican. I just wanted to visit the community there. When I got inside, a team of reporters from Radio Vaticana was in the course of interviewing the parish priest. He was an old friar of the Roman Province. The interviewer was asking him: “What is the specific difference between the life of an ordinary Christian and a religious?” His answer was: “The cross. By our vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the religious conforms himself to Christ crucified.”

            By then, I had already read the Vatican II Document “Perfectae Caritatis” so I was wondering, where did this old man get his definition? You see, I have read that what constitutes the religious life was the sequela Christi, the following of Christ (Cf. Perfectae Caritatis, no. 2a). And the present Constitutions of the Order takes up this idea (Const., 56).

            However that old friar was correct in saying that religious life is about conformity with Christ crucified. It was another way of saying that by his consecration, the religious intends to be like the Suffering Servant. If by baptism, we become conformed to Christ, the Son of God thereby becoming other Christs, so the religious by his consecration is conformed to the Son who was obedient even unto death, death on the Cross.

            The idea is inspired by the Scriptures and echoes certain passages like Gal. 2:20 and Jn. 12:26.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

            That is from Gal. 2:20. Paul is protesting the idea that Jews who have been redeemed by Christ should still hold onto the Law of Moses when they know that it is by faith in Christ that one is made righteous (Cf. vv. 15-16). Gal. 2:20 will be developed further in the letter to the Romans; but here, we have Paul using a language he would later on develop around the theme of Christian baptism that refers to the new life brought about by Christ on the Cross. It is a life that is no longer his, but Christ’s and specifically that of Christ, the obedient Son who emptied himself of the privileges of divinity to become a man, and then to become a slave so as to obey the Father’s will (Cf. Phil. 2:6-11). And for Paul, the Son of God did this “out of love for me.” His response to this love is to live for Christ, and no longer according to the Law of Moses.

Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be (Jn 12:26).

            In context, the words are pronounced by Jesus when he becomes aware of the nearness of his Hour. This is signaled by the coming of the Greeks who ask Philip and Andrew to see Jesus. The shadow of the cross now darkens around Jesus and so he says:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves his life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be (Jn 12:20-26).”

            Here, discipleship is described in terms of participating in the Hour of Jesus. The Hour of Jesus is the moment when he is “lifted up,” that is, all the events that immediately lead up to his suffering, death and resurrection. The last saying in the series of three sayings on life refers to the servant of Jesus who will sit where he sits in the glory of the Father, but will have to pass first through the itinerary of the Cross of Good Friday.

            These two passages – Gal. 2:20 and John 12:26 – are applicable to the life of baptism. But understood from the point of view of a religious who has been consecrated for a “closer” following of Christ, both passages allow an understanding of the religious life that emphasizes the goal – not so much the itinerary – of a journey through life.

            That old friar was no longer giving text-book definitions of “religious life.” He was describing the life he was living. And he described it in the light of his experiences within a tradition of the religious life that produced the likes of St. Nicolas of Tolentino and St. Rita of Cascia. These Augustinians, you see, were products of a strain of Augustinian mysticism that was linked to a devotion of the cross.

            I mentioned this old friar’s description of religious life because of its relevance to the present theme. Religious life is a response to the love of Christ experienced, valued and nourished. Where does one get this idea? From the lives of the saints. If we need to understand how Augustinians respond to the love of Christ, we look at our saints and blesseds. Those who live among us, no matter how good or saintly, are not yet “perfect.” One is “perfect” when nothing can be added to or subtracted from one’s self-definition in freedom. That can happen only when one has passed from this life, when all further definitions are stopped by death. At that point you are perfectly you, nothing more to add, nothing more to subtract. So the perfect examples are the Lord and his saints.

St. Nicolas of Tolentino

            He is the first canonized saint of the Order and sets the standard. He is known as a miracle-worker and a warrior of the spiritual combat. But take away his miracles and the accounts of his battles with the devil, and what do we have? A simple friar known for his compassion and his friendliness. But there is more to Nicola than meets the eye.

Fr. Trape points out that Nicola used to be sent outside the monastery to preach publicly according to the practice of the mendicant friars. This meant that Nicola had to undergo and pass an examination before a tribunal made up of professors of theology and pass. In other words, if Nicola preached publicly, it was because he was cultured and very well trained in theology.

            It is also said that Nicola was friendly. He had in fact friends from among the townsfolk of Tolentino. These were also the ones who were interviewed for the canonical process of the saint’s beatification. He was friendly but he was also the friar who was often caught by his confreres doing overnight vigils. So one can be sure that being friends with Nicola meant having a friend in Christ.

            How about his life with the other friars? Nicola is known for his power in interceding for the poor souls in purgatory and for the miraculous bread that was named after him. The first events involving these two features of the saint involved his co-friars. The first soul that benefitted from his intercession was a friar. So was the one who was healed by the miraculous bread. These facts show us how Nicola was towards his brothers.

St. Thomas of Villanova

            Another son of St. Augustine that we cannot miss is Thomas of Villanova. He could have taken part in the Council of Trent but was impeded from it by pressing matters in his diocese. At a time when so many dioceses had absentee bishops, his commitment to his own diocese was remarkable. Though he could not take part in the Council, one of its fruits can be traced back to his influence: the seminary for the training of the clergy. Even before the Council, Thomas had instituted some form of seminary training for his own clergy. He was one of those who pioneered in this area.

            Thomas of Villanova was known as the bishop of the poor, and despite the trappings of a prince of the Church, he was poor himself. He was an Augustinian of course, one of the Mendicant Orders. Two qualities stand out in Thomas of Villanova that reflects this religious background: his poverty that made him lead a life of solidarity with the poor, and preaching. The Obras Completas of Thomas of Villanova was first published in Manila. He is praised especially for his Mariology. The Order wanted to promote him as a Doctor of the Church. Sadly, only a few are studying him. Fortunately, we now have an English translation of his works that would encourage the study of his works.

            He lived in solidarity with the poor. His first endowment as a bishop he donated to a hospital. He died on a mat borrowed from a fellow friar because he had given his bed previously to a man whom he thought had more need of it than he did.

            There is more about Thomas of Villanova, but his fidelity to his life as a friar in spite of the lure of ecclesiastical power and wealth characteristic of his times speaks tons about him.

Two Brothers: Gratia of Kotor and Frederick of Ratisbon

            Religious brothers are nowadays misunderstood. And it would appear that they have become redundant. Our convents now employ lay people as janitors, cooks, drivers, carpenters — jobs that in the past were expressions of the ministry of the religious brothers. In the Philippines, we know the Dominican Martin de Porres who is featured in the lives of the saints for children.

            Our religious brothers are saintly. I met some of them here and in Rome. Fray Emeterio Lazo was for a long time a paedagogue in Guadalupe. And then when I was in Rome, I met brothers who have been serving the friars of the Colegio S. Monica and the Curia with humility, joy and a lot of love. They all had one thing in common: they were industrious and prayerful, cultivating in one way or another a devotion to the saints, Mother Mary, or the Eucharist. How we have come to the point of dangling the priesthood for our candidates to the brotherhood and enticing them with the promise of careers and financial compensation, I do not know. But the fact is that it is the religious brother who reminds the priests how to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes. While the religious priest is somehow compensated in his consecration with the privilege of celebrating mass, the religious brother receives none. It is he, in fact, who can honestly say the words in the psalm: “You alone Lord are my portion and cup.”

            Blessed Gratia of Kotor is from a place near Romania, across the Adriatic from Bari, Italy. He, like his father before him, was a sailor. While in Venice, he came into contact with the Augustinians and decided to stay with them. He picked the name Gratia, “Grace” because of the many graces he received from God.

            We do not know much about his life, but we know that he was employed as a gardener. An icon shows him kneeling in a garden with hoe in hand while at a distance a priest was consecrating the host.

            Blessed Frederick of Ratisbon is a friar who reminds me of a Canadian brother — Vincent — employed by the Colegio S. Monica when it was being renovated in 1986. Vincent was already old then, arthritic, but always smiling. It was very easy to get along with him; he laughs at all my jokes. Like Vincent, Blessed Frederick was a carpenter. But he was also known for his devotion to the Eucharist. You know, brothers often assist the priests in what we call “private masses.” And sometimes, they can also be assigned as sacristans. Frederick, while he was not doing carpentry work, also excelled in the service of the altar. His devotion to the Eucharist is one of the qualities that numbered him among the blessed of the Order.

Response to the Love of Christ

            The friars I mention above illustrate how religious life is a response to the love of Christ recognized, experienced — in the sacraments and in prayer — valued and nourished. It is because of this recognition of Christ’s love that they lived their consecration with generosity and fidelity.

            Before I end this talk, I would like to share with you a thought from Mother Teresa of Calcutta. At the height of her popularity, while being interviewed for a documentary, she was asked this question: “Do you think that after all these, you have been successful in your work?” Mother Teresa answered, “Successful? I was called to be faithful.” Fidelity, that is one of the characteristics of these saints. Like John the Baptist, patron of hermits, we are called to be faithful friends of the Groom – Christ, the Lamb of God. Like the saints and blessed mentioned above, we are not meant to be “successful;” we are meant to follow him faithfully so that where He is, there we might also be.

Prayer and Lectio Divina

            “You have struck my heart with your Word O God, and I fell in love with you.” These words appear in Book X, 8 of the Confessions, in that part where Augustine prepares to answer the question, “What do I love when I love my God?” We have said that the image employed here extends the one in the introductory prayer in Book I, “You have created our hearts for Yourself, O God, and they are restless until they rest in You.” From an image of the heart applicable to all men, Augustine switches here to an image of the heart — his own — that describes his present condition. The rest of Book X shows Augustine, restlessly seeking God, first through the creatures outside him, and then through his powers, the memory, all the while continuing his prayerful colloquium. For a brief while, the reader of the Confessions is here given a dramatization of what scholars have come to call Augustine’s “Interiority.” The search for God may begin outside of oneself, but it continues through what is within. The journey however does not stop at the end of Book X, but continues through Books XI-XIII as Augustine searches the first chapters of Genesis to take a peek at the “thoughts” of God. Thus, the image of the heart struck by the Word of God falls restlessly in love and, seeking that which is loved, finds consolation in the promise of rest. Here, we have Augustine praying, seeking and finding for the brief moment allowed to him by his present condition that rest that his heart yearns for.

            We dedicate this third talk to the theme of prayer. “He — Augustine — was a man of prayer,” John Paul II writes in Augustinum Hipponensem. “Indeed we can even say, a man made of prayer.” And the Pope continues,

he repeated to all, with incredible persistence, the necessity of prayer: “God has willed that our struggle should be with prayers rather than with our own strength,” he describes the nature of prayer, which is so simple and yet so complex, the interiority which permits him to identify prayer with desire: “Your desire is itself your prayer; and if your desire is continuous, then your prayer too is continuous (AH II, 5).”

            “Your prayer is your desire.” One of the problems in the understanding of Augustine is Augustine himself. Because his words are easy to memorize, a lot of people think that they are already familiar with him even before they actually read his works. And the trouble precisely is when people make a judgment of Augustine with those words and phrases quoted out of context. So if “your prayer is your desire,” does it mean that we should now do away with the time of prayer and simply express the love that we have for God in our daily work since it would be the same as praying?

            It is easy to distort Augustine. One can just pick up another quote, e.g., “Love and do what you will” and one would realize how easy it is to distort an idea of Augustine and use it as a justification for one’s proclivities. So what about prayer?

            At the outset, I would state a premise: Augustine felt the tension between otium sanctum and the necessitas caritas, a tension he knew can never be resolved in this life. And yet both these opposing poles in Augustine’s life are related to the one thing that Augustine really desired, the happy life which can only be attained in God. Otium sanctum, holy leisure, is a foretaste of that happy life experienced in the study of Scriptures, in the conversation with the brothers, in the contemplation of the divine mysteries (remember Ostia and St. Monica). The “necessitas caritatis” is the burden of his office, the duties that he has to work on as a servant of the servants in the household of God. He wanted to be judged a faithful servant so that he can enter finally into that Sabbath that never sets. And so caught between these two opposing forces that pull him in different directions, he can only sigh for that rest that only God can give. It is this “sigh,” this “yearning,” this expression of his longing for God that his doctrine on prayer as the cry of the heart is built.

Your desire is your prayer; if your desire is continuous, so too is your prayer. For the Apostle did not speak in vain when he said: “Pray without interruption.” Is it that we should always be genuflecting, always prostrating, always raising up our hands to fulfill the command to pray without interruption? If this is what we understand praying to be, I do not believe that we can pray without interruption. There is however another prayer, an interior prayer that knows no interruption, and that prayer is your desire.  Whatever you are doing, if you desire that Sabbath, you never cease to pray. If you do not wish ever to interrupt your prayer, never cease to desire. Your continuous desire will be your continuous voice. It will grow silent if you cease to love (In Ps. 37, 14).

            “Your prayer is your desire.” “Desire” of course is rightly ordered love, that love which Augustine describes as something similar to a homing device built into the human heart so that it can find that for which it was created. “You have created us for yourself O God and our hearts remain restless until they rest in You.”

            Desire is non-verbal. Does this mean that Augustine eschews verbal prayer? The answer is “No.” In fact, even the heart’s desire must be trained. First, it must be trained in ordered loving: to love God above all, to love human beings in God, and all other things for the sake the love of God and neighbour. This itself already requires a whole programme of formation. Second, even the heart’s desire has to be trained in a language. In his letter to Proba, Augustine writes

But at certain hours and moments we also pray to God in words so that by these signs of things we may admonish ourselves, realize how much we have advanced in this desire, and arouse ourselves more intensely to increase it. For a more worthy result ensues when a more fervent love has preceded (Letter 130).

            The phrase “at certain hours and moments” recall the Rule’s “be assiduous in prayer at the hours and times appointed.” Augustine is here indicating the prayer of the psalms which back in the days of the Fathers was something that the bishop did with his congregation. He recommends it especially when there is the need to reawaken the heart’s desire that daily preoccupations cool down. He continues

But at certain hours we call the mind back to the task of praying from other cares and concerns which in a sense cool down this desire; otherwise, our desire that had begun to cool might become completely cold and be entirely extinguished if it were not set afire more frequently. (Ibid.)

            The prayer of the psalms then help clarify our desire. They give us a language which we can use to arouse our desire when it is cooling down, a tool for clarifying the content of our desire, and something by which to measure the adequateness of our desire, since not all desires can be considered a “prayer.” What is true for the Psalm is true also for the Our Father. In fact, in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, we have all the categories under which all possible petitions can be formulated. Augustine writes, still in the letter to Proba, “We are free when we pray to express the same petitions, now with these and now with those words, but we should not be free to make other petitions.” And Augustine follows with a list of petitions drawn from Scriptures illustrating how each echoes one of the petitions of the “Our Father.” In other words, the language of the Scriptures trains the heart on how and what to pray for. This is precisely where “Lectio Divina” becomes relevant.

            I have written an article on the Augustinian Lectio entitled “The Reading of the Sacred Scriptures in the Life of the Order” in Augustinian Legacy, vol. I, April 1999, pp. 20-37. Although outdated in its quotations of the Constitutions, it is still serviceable, especially in the references I make to the “Ratio,” to the Ratisbon Constitutions and to the Liber Vitas Fratrum. The second part of the article begins with a quotation from the late Agostino Trapé, who was until his death, one of the more prominent scholars of St. Augustine. About the “lectio” he writes,

            (I)t is not only a reading which would be called a superficial activity, it is not only that study which is only an intellectual activity, not only that meditation which can be reduced to simple internal introspection . . . but also and above all, it is a combination of listening and dialogue. It involves listening in faith and docile obedience to Him who is present in man and speaks to him, and reveals his love to him and invites him to respond in love . . . In this listening-dialogue which is the most beautiful and fruitful form of meditation, prayer takes on, equally spontaneously, the highest forms of contemplation which are … wonder, admiration, gratitude, adoration, praise, expectation that faith will be replaced by vision and that divine Word of Scriptures which sounds in time will give way to that Word which sounds in eternity, which sounds not through the mediation of signs or creatures, but by itself, immediately (p. 29).

            The essential characteristic of this reading, according to Fr. Trapé is that “listening-dialogue” between the one who reads and the one who speaks in him and through the inspired text. Now, recently, Pope Benedict XVI recommended the “lectio” done in community. In Verbum Domini he writes,

Remember that God’s word is given to us precisely to build communion, to unite us in Truth along our path to God. While it is a word addressed to each of us personally, it is also a word which builds community, which builds the Church. In effect, “a communal reading of Scripture is extremely important, because the living subject in the Sacred Scriptures is the People of God, it is the Church…” (VD, 86)

The idea of a communal “lectio divina” is not foreign to us. In the article I cite above, I make the following list of references

(The Ratio insists) that community life requires not only the sharing of goods but also the sharing of faith. In n. 54 it is stated that while each friar has to cultivate the interior life, he must also be willing to share with others in the community his search for God. The statement is then followed up in n. 55 with suggestions as to how faith-sharing can be carried out. First on the list of suggested activities is the reading “of a section of the Bible.”

            I would now like to propose a method of a community-based lectio divina which I have been conducting these past seven years among the BECs of the Mother of Good Counsel Parish, Laguna. Our BECs there are urban-based and so are made up of cells of parishioners from the squatters and from the middle-class. Recently, because of my transfer to Biñan, I have been conducting the same community-based lectio among professionals (I have a PhD and some MA degree holders). The readings are characterized by the “listening-dialogue” that Fr. Trapé mentions, a listening to God who speaks in the Scriptures, in me and in the people I lead, and a dialogue among ourselves as each one speaks with God.

            How does this go in practice? We come together, we pray to the Holy Spirit, and we read the Scriptures three times. The Gospel selection is always from the Mass of the coming Sunday. In our BECs, we understand that the Catholic reading of the Scriptures is always either a preparation for or an extension of the Liturgy of the Word and that it can only be completed in our participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

            After each reading of the Scriptures, we ask questions. After the first reading, the cell leader asks his group, “What questions do you have about the text? What things do you find difficult to understand?” It is at this point that the biblical culture of the cell leader comes into play. I tell my trainees, however, some of whom are just ordinary housewives, not to be intimidated by questions coming from converts from fundamentalist groups or people who are just trying to test them. With constant study, they will gain a biblical culture that will be sufficient for their group. Besides, there are only three kinds of questions that are normally asked in this part of the “lectio”: (a) a question that comes from the translations used, (b) a question about Catholic practice, (c) a question about biblical background (philology, history and culture). For questions of the last variety, I tell them to admit their present ignorance; for the second type, I tell them to point out the context of the text and show that perhaps the answer to the question will come from a different text, not the present one. For the first type of question, the technique is to ask the other members in the group to read the translations they have of the difficult verse.

            After the second reading of the text, the cell leader now begins to ask questions about the passage just read. The questions are like the ones used by teachers for grade school pupils to help them understand a reading lesson. Questions like “who, what, where, when, why, how” are asked to help the members of the group appreciate better the words read.

            The third reading is made for the sake of memory. After the cell leader has asked questions and the members have answered, a moment of silence is imposed. This is the time when they imagine the text, Jesuitic style, and dialogue with the characters in the story. After the moment of silence, they will be asked two things: (a) What is the message of the Gospel for you? and (b) How do you propose to live that message during the week?

            After the sharing, we end up with a “prayer of the faithful” where each of the members contributes his or her petitions spontaneously. One would know the maturity of the group by the spontaneity and the content of their petitions, which usually would be based on the passages just read. This is true of the group I led for seven years. Beginning groups, however, will have to be helped by the cell leader in formulating prayer petitions.

            In the end, what fruits are we to expect from these community “lectio divina?” Not a deeper biblical culture! That is only a by-product. What we will need to look for is the building-up of a community of faith, hope and love. And that is what a community based Scripture reading does.

But that is just one aspect of this BEC bible reading. The other aspect is that of the cell leader who has to prepare for these meetings. It is in fact in and through his preparation of the Gospel selection to be read that he also experiences what it is to read the Scriptures, “in the same Spirit in which it was written.”

Some More Reading Materials

The BEC and Scriptures: The Questions We Ask, (http://mystical.agustinongpinoy.net/archives/14)
The Spiritual Senses of Scriptures and the BEC (http://mystical.agustinongpinoy.net/archives/55)


Primary Sources:

Augustine. Expositions of the Psalm, 33-50 Vol. 2 Works of Saint Augustine.Translated by Maria Boulding. New York: New City Press, 2000.
_________. Letters 100-155 The Works of St. Augustine for the 21st Century vol. 2.Edited by Boniface Ramsay. Pennsylvania: Augustinian Heritage Institute, 2003.
_________. The Confessions, Revised Edition. Translated by Maria Boulding. New York: New City Press, 2001.

Vatican II Documents:

Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini: Post-Synodal Exhortation. Libreria Editrice Vaticana: Vatican City 2010.
Flannery, Austin (ed), Documents of Vatican II: Conciliar and Post-conciliar Documents, vol. I and II. W. Eerdmans: Michican 1984.
John Paul II, Augustinum Hipponensem. Apostolic Letter, August 28, 1986 (web: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jpii_pl_26081986_augustinum-hipponensem_en.html).

Documents of the Order:

Order of St. Augustine. Rule and Constitutions. Rome: Augustinian General Curia, 2008.

Journal Articles:

Esmeralda, Alberto. “The Reading of the Scriptures in the Life of the Order.”Augustinian Legacy vol. 1 April (1999). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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