With a few other PhD students I have been reading through Jean Leclercq’s The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. The book provides a helpful exposure to the monastic approach to God and Holy Scripture. The broad thesis in part is that to understand medieval theology and Christianity we must examine not only the scholastic tradition but also the meditative monastic traditions. The latter, with its focus on the journey to heaven and love for God, has a theology motivating it just as much as the more obvious scholastic theology.
I just finished Chapter 5 on “Sacred Learning.” It provides the best short introduction I’ve yet read on the basic approach of medieval exegesis, especially within the monastic tradition. Highlights include the discussion of why the Canticle of Canticles was the most commented upon book throughout the Middle Ages, the use of imagination, how the Old Testament was read as Christian Scripture, and the use of natural histories and medieval science books.
But most fascinating and revealing is his discussion of the monastic habit of meditative, prayerful, memory-driven exegesis (pp. 72-77). In short, Leclercq points out that the custom of recited, prayerful meditation on Holy Scripture (a spiritual mastication) resulted in the memorization of Scripture and the constant seeing of connections between words and phrases throughout the canon of Scripture. As a result, the reading of one verse leads by way of link-words to another passage and then to another, etc. in a rich tapestry of intra-canonical reading.
This observation does much to explain how and why medieval exegesis and commentary appears from our modern perspective to be haphazard and jumping all over the place. It is because of the very close attention to and meditation on the text, combined with a great reverence for God’s Words that medieval exegesis is so richly polyvalent but not apparently logical in its argumentation (especially monastic even more than medieval scholastic). This habitus or mode of meditative reading is a kind of “Exegesis by Concordance,” the concordance being stored in the mind and heart of the meditative, Scripture-memorizing reader.
This connects with and confirms the importance of imaginative memory and memory storage techniques of the medieval readers that I have discussed in a previous post.
I am also reminded of Eugene Peterson’s excellent volume Eat this Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, which uses this idea of rumination as foundational. I’m fairly certain Peterson has read Leclercq because I’ve seen several striking similarities!
I am also struck by this thought — If this is true of medieval readers of Scripture, is it not remarkably similar to the Jewish custom and practice of memorizing, masticating, reciting, and meditating on Scripture, the very habit which we find occurring within Scripture itself? That is, does not this meditative, link-word habit do much to explain how the Old Testament authors refer to early parts of the Jewish Scriptures and how the New Testament authors employ the Old? I think it obviously does.
Tolle lege Leclercq!