Reading like Monks
“The scholastic way of reading was not originally the dominant one in the Christian world. We could say that scholastic reading was a novelty, an innovation, and the way of reading called monastic reading was more fundamental. The traditions of monastic reading dating from Christian Late Antiquity were “forgotten” during the Age of Scholasticism.
These traditions were hibernating in the monasteries and were revived by the mystics of the High Middle Ages. Jacqueline Hamesse provides a good characterisation of monastic reading, but the most extensive description and explanation can be found in the books by Jean Leclercq. He traces the ideals of monastic reading to the mystical views of St. Augustine and St. Gregory. St. Gregory seems to play an important role in the vocabulary that was later used to describe monastic reading. While scholastic “lectio” (reading) was typically oriented towards “quaestio” (inquiry) and “disputatio” (discussion), or knowledge and science, monastic reading aspired to “meditation” and “oratio” (prayer), or wisdom and appreciation. The relation of the monastic reader to the text was not detached and analytic, but close and rather physical, even muscular. It is often described with the word rumination: “It meant assimilating the content of a text by means of kind of mastication which releases its full ﬂavour”.
The reader is supposed to love what he is reading, taking the text into his heart and understanding its full meaning internally. It means, as St. Augustine, St. Gregory, John of Fécamp, and others say in an untranslatable expression, to taste it with the “palatum cordis” or in “ore cordis”. The literal translation of “palatum cordis” might be something like the palate or taste of the heart, and “ore cordis”, the ear of the heart. The monks’ reading (“lectio divina”) was divided into two categories: “lectio super mensam” and “lectio private”. Reading should never cease. That is why, when the monks gathered for a common meal, one of them stood at a pulpit and read aloud to the others. This is “lectio super mensam”.
But the more typical, time-consuming reading (“lectio privat”), took place in the monks’ cells. It was a continuous activity. It was done silently, but more often in a low voice, by muttering or murmuring the text. It was reading with passion, feeling the text affectively, because, after all, one was reading the Bible or another important text. There was an emotional relationship with the text. It was not extensive reading, but rather slow, repetitive, and contemplative reading.”
Ilkka Mäkinen “Reading like Monks: The death or survival of the love of reading?” in “Reading in Changing Society” Edited by Marju Lauristin and Peeter Vihalemm. University of Tartu Press, 2014: 18-19
Text available on-line at: https://tampub.uta.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/95953/reading_like_monks_2014.pdf?sequence=1