Sister Maria Gertrude Ihionu, OCSO
The Foundation of Family and Monastic Life
in the light of Luke 8:19-21
19His mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not get to him because of the crowd. 20He was told, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ 21But he said in answer to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’
The word of God is alive and active… it pierces the inmost places of the human heart (cf. Heb. 4:12). It is the source of all Christian spirituality that gives rise to a personal relationship with the living God and with His saving and sanctifying will. Listening to the word of God has been held in the highest esteem in the monastic life from the time of St Benedict till today. Lectio Divina paves the way to the schools of contemplation, meditation and prayer for monastics. Reading the word of God daily renews and strengthens their minds in order to know God’s will, what is good, perfect and pleasing to God.
Reading and listening to God’s word daily in family life brings unity and deeper understanding between parents and children. According to Pope John Paul the Great, ‘the family that prays together stays together,’ equally the family that forms the habit of reading and listening to God’s word live in harmony with one another. The nature of ‘Family’ as a social reality circles within the human sciences, cultural and ecclesiastical disciplines. The role of family in human society particularly as the centre for life and love; the first school and first church cannot be overemphasised. The institution of human family by God is the most basic and important of the gifts God has given us. It is believed to be of primary importance, a centre of living that radiant faith. However, when a family ceases to generate life and faith, it becomes an alienated agglomeration of disconnected individuals. The liberating factor is as Jesus said to the crowd, ‘My mother, and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and keep it (Luke 8.21)’. Thus, the consciousness of belonging to the family of God stands out in lectio divina as a daily food for the inward journey that nourishes every Christian person. In the Cistercian constitution, one of the first monastic observances introduced to the novices is how to practice lectio divina; there they learn to read the sacred scripture and commune with God.
Lectio Divina is the foundation of Monastic Spirituality
In line with this, the theme ‘Family and Monastic Life in the Light of Luke 8:19-21’, intends to portray the effectiveness of listening to the word of God. The aim is to demonstrate that ‘hearing’ is just the first three major steps in the journey of faith. Reading the word of God daily is irreplaceable for a family person and more so for a monastic. The point of departure is that lectio divina is where monastics speak heart to heart with God. It is a school, where they learn to melt in God’s word and allow God to use them. Lectio is a slow reading of the sacred text that is distinctive from theological study. The true Christian relationship with God is centered on hearing the word of God, and there he says everything to us. Sacred scripture contains everything we need to know and learn about God, ourselves, our relationships with others and spirituality par excellence. Lectio divina has a three-fold purpose: to meet God, to discern God’s will and to reach the surpassing knowledge of God.
The Theological Synthesis of the Text of Luke 8:19-21
The text in Luke 8:19-21 is situated between the parable of a lamp under a jar (Luke 8:16-18) and Jesus calming a storm (Luke 8:22-25). The verses prior to and after the text under study are pointers to the significance of listening to the word of God. Verse 16 shows how the disciples should manifest to others the light of God’s word, v. 17 focuses on the knowledge of the mysteries of God’s kingdom not only for a sect of people, while v. 18 is on hearing the word without understanding. Thus inability to communicate it to others equally leads to total loss of hearing. V. 19 deals with the family and the obstacles experienced in reaching him. In v. 20 the crowd informs Jesus of the presence of his mother, brothers and sisters. Verse 21 demonstrates the connectedness of hearing the word of God which is linked with the preceeding. Notwithstanding, Mary is the model of true disciple who ruminates on God’s word and acts on it. Obviously, Christian disciples become God’s family through hearing and acting on the word of God, not by birth or observance. Thus, the subsequent verses portray the disciples’ fear of the storm or chaos of life (v .22-23), Jesus’ power over nature (v. 24) and Jesus questioning his disciples’ faith (v. 25).
The three images employed in the text (Jesus’ family, Jesus and the crowd) are associated with the practice of lectio divina. The family represent some of the bodily distractions we experience in lectio divina. Jesus is the word of God we hear and read in the sacred scriptures, the crowd has two parts: the Disciples and the Spectators. The disciples are readers of God’s word (monastics), while spectators (obstacles) are those who inform Jesus of the presence of his family. Spectators include inadequate preparations, postures, unsuitable chairs and tables, insufficient light, sickness etc; all these are obstacles that give information to Jesus of his family (bodily distractions). The difficulty experienced in the practice of lectio divina which this text emphasises are the distractions and obstacles that crowd round the reader or monastics to prevent the hearing of God speaking to him/her at lectio. When a monastic engages in lectio divina and there is not sufficient light or preparation, this will remind the body that its kith and kin are round and if the reader pays attention to its demand the person will no longer hear God speaking to him/her. Jesus said, ‘my mother, brothers and sisters are those who hear the word of God and keep it’. St Benedict in his Rule also says, ‘Prefer nothing to the love of God’. St Paul bore witness, ‘Who can separate us from the love of God, will affliction or distress or hunger or persecution?’ Buttressing this further, the first commandment testifies, ‘You shall have no God beside me,’ to show that distractions are a cancer-worm that attacks the soul. This text is commendable for the rightful dispositions required for lectio divina; Jesus said, I am the bread of life’, (Jn 6. 35). He also asked the disciples if they want to go away, but Peter answered ‘Lord, to whom can we go, you have the message of eternal life’ (6:68). Here Jesus is not condemning family ties but stressing that they should not be an obstacle to hearing God’s word. Jesus clearly affirmed this in Mt 5.30, when he says ‘If your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better to lose one of your members than for your whole body go into hell.’ He also said, ‘Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things; only one thing is needed… that of listening to God’s word, and Mary has chosen the better part’ (Lk.10:41).
The Relevance of Luke 8.19-21 to lectio divina
The text of Luke 8.19-21, recalls the importance of listening to the word God as a criterion that initiates monastics to God’s family. It reveals that lectio divina is the light to Christian living, to which the knowledge acquired from the mystery of God’s word is not meant for the reader alone but needs to be extended to the family of God. The text shows the eminence of lectio divina which surpasses family ties. In others words those who listen to the word of God and live accordingly enter into real relationship with Him; they belong to God’s family. The working text brings about the jewels of lectio divina: those who hear the word of God and keep it are pronounced as being blessed (Luke 11.28), have chosen the better part (Luke 10.42); and doing what one hears gives life. This manifests that listening to God’s word takes precedence over physical descent. Family and monastic life have a place in the life of Jesus Christ in so far as the one practising lectio values listening to his word more than any physical relationship. Here Jesus’ teaching of the right attitude rests upon the practice of lectio divina. It attests that lectio is a place of encounter with Christ, and of communion with him.
Lectio divina is a tool for interior work which enables monastics to have a listening heart that moves them towards greater intimacy with their truest and most authentic self. It expands prayerfulness and consciousness of God and shapes minds and heart. The text reminds us of the injunctions of the first commandment, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and only him shall you serve’. Luke 8.19-21 is a panacea for unhealthy human relationships that distract the reader from listening to and reading the word of God. This text, embedded in the rediscovery of the ecclesial dimension of the word of God, receives it (faith), meditates on it (hope), and lives it together (charity). Family and monastic life are inseparable in generating life and in radiating faith through daily listening to and reading the word of God.