Tiptoeing Into Ancient Spiritual Formation
A Review of
Transformed by God’s Word—Discovering the Power of Lectio and Visio Divina
Reviewed by C.S. Boyll
Catholic Bible scholar and speaker Stephen J. Binz, in Transformed by God’s Word—Discovering the Power of Lectio and Visio Divina, persuaded me to do something in Bible meditation that I’ve never done before. But, before I confess to what I did, let’s discuss Binz’s transformative possibilities for lay readers, both Catholic and Protestant.
I hope the Latin words Lectio Divina and Visio Divina don’t put off readers because of unfamiliarity. Lectio Divina or “sacred reading” is simply meditating on a Bible passage with attentiveness to what the Holy Spirit desires to form in one’s heart and mind. Binz writes, “Rather than keeping scripture at a safe analytical distance, this formational reading leads us to personally encounter God through the sacred text. It opens us to personal engagement with God’s word. We involve ourselves intimately, openly, and receptively through what we read. Our goal is not just to use the text to acquire more knowledge, get advice, or form an opinion about the passage. Rather, the inspired text becomes the subject of our reading relationship, and we become the object that is acted upon and shaped by scripture. Reading with expectation, we patiently allow the text to address us, to probe us, and to form us into the image of Jesus Christ.”
In introductory essays, Binz explains Lectio and Visio basics for individual quiet time or group Bible study. The book’s 20 Bible passages—from Annunciation to Pentecost—are paired with full-color icons. The iconographers are Latvians Ruta and Kaspars Poikans, who live in France and create sacred art in their Saint Luke Workshop at Notre Dame des Dombes Abbey. Each of Binz’s chapters offers the reader six steps: reading, seeing, meditating, praying, contemplating, and acting (lectio, visio, meditativio, oratio, contemplatio, and operatio). There are questions, commentary, suggestions, and prayers to assist the reader.
Binz, who has written over 40 books on biblical theology and spirituality, came to appreciate the place of icons (visio divina) in devotional life while leading tours to the Holy Land. I, as a Protestant who has swam in seven denominations, have never really appreciated icons with their Byzantine long faces, wide eyes, folksy bodies, drawn in–what seemed to me–simplistic color and light. But Binz educates: icons are to be read, not just viewed. “Icons communicate Christian truth in a visible form. They stand in opposition to theories of modern art in which those who look at a picture are encouraged to make up their own minds about what it means. The truth expressed through an icon is objective and precise. It depicts visually what the Church teaches verbally. It expresses truth that has been passed down through the ages by means of the Church’s tradition….Icons have been described as theology in line and color.”
Iconographic lighting, seemingly too subdued in my initial observation, is actually intentional: “Unlike western art in which the light within a scene comes from a particular source and direction, creating angled light and shadow, the light of an icon has no single source. The images within the icon are completely surrounded and infused with light. This suggests that the luminance of an icon comes from ‘uncreated light,’ the light of God’s kingdom.”
Binz also makes me aware of inverse perspective. Unlike other paintings, icons do not create the illusion of three-dimensional space. Instead, the lines are reversed to converge in front of the image, that is the spectator.
In my first quiet time with Binz’s book I prayerfully settled in, only to discover Binz suggest I ring a bell, light candle or incense, or kiss the holy text before beginning. “Oh, bother,” I thought. “What is the least disruptive action at this point?” Of course, it was to kiss the scripture. I immediately chuckled, remembering my Catholic priest-friend’s jokes about kissing the Cardinal’s big rings. Getting serious, I kissed the scripture. And why not? The precious, holy words are a banquet of nourishment if I only come and dine with Jesus? After that, I kissed the scripture for each session and discovered it helped in spiritual preparation.
I enjoyed “reading” the icons. Could I find all the biblical clues, before reading the commentary? I missed seeing swirling fish below the boat of Jesus and his disciples after he calmed the storm. The fish were the iconographer’s lesson that these frightened men would fish for people. Suddenly, my take away was that because of these disciples’ faithfulness in presenting the Good News, I was symbolically represented as one of the fish in those historic waters. Perhaps I succeeded in understanding a little more fully what the iconographer wanted to teach. Binz writes: “The challenge of meditation is to continue reflecting on the biblical narrative and the icon until they become a mirror in which we see our own reflection.”
I have two quibbles with the book. The icons are beautiful, crisp reproductions, but some of the details, like studying fingernail-size facial expressions, are a struggle to “read.” How much better to travel to the Unity Chapel at the Mary of Nazareth International Center in Israel and view the originals? But since that is not possible for most of us, the reproductions will have to do. Also, a book published by Ave Maria Press exults Mary as Queen of Heaven. The final two chapters are the Dormition (death) and Coronation of Mary. This is not how “Protestant” me would finish this wonderful study. Perhaps I protest too much.
Usually after reading a book I give it away, but Transformed by God’s Word will stay on the spiritual formation shelf to be revisited. It will join other enriching spiritual art books including: Sister Wendy’s Book of Meditations by Sister Wendy Beckett; Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen; and In a Word: The Image and Language of Faith and The Psalms: An Artist’s Impression by Anneke Kaai and Eugene H. Peterson.
C.S. Boyll has been a journalist for many years and a Stephen Minister at First Presbyterian Church, Colorado Springs, for six years. She is finishing a historical novel and writes “There’s a Blog in My Eye” at csboyll.com.