By Mark Michael
In the general run of things, Lent books are a relatively new devotional aid. When the early Christians instituted a time of preparation for the joys of Easter, they took stock of the fact that some could give alms, most could fast, and all could pray. Relatively few could read.
But for many decades now, books on a variety of catechetical, meditative, and ethical topics have been commissioned for the season, perhaps especially among Anglicans. For all their variety, the best Lent books are accessible and have a practical bent, shedding light on the ordinary struggles and delights of the Christian life. Most are also short, presenting insights directly and prompting the reader to sustained reflection and prayer.
In one sense, it’s a categorial stretch. But on these scores, one of the most famous Lent books in Christian history is the subject of a special exhibition at Baltimore’s Walters Art Gallery this spring. The St. Francis Missal is a thirteenth century volume that once belonged to the parish church of San Nicolo in Assisi, where one Giovanni “Francesco” Bernardone was wont to assist at the daily Mass.
The enthusiastic young man, who had recently left his life of youthful privilege by stripping himself of his silks in the village square, approached the parish priest in April 1208. He and two close friends asked for guidance in determining God’s call. They wanted to share a common life but weren’t sure which direction would be best. The priest, whose name is sadly lost to history, took out the missal and performed the sortes Biblicae: flipping its pages with his eyes closed, and then resting his finger on a random verse.
The practice, which has parallels with the way the ancient Greeks sought prophecies from Homer and the Romans from Virgil’s Aeneid, was common at the time. It was sometimes justified by appeal to Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord.” The sortes Biblicae had been used to choose Frankish bishops and the Byzantine emperor Heraclius credited it for strategic advice in his great victory over the Persians. John Wesley was a famous later enthusiast. Nineteenth century evangelicals sometimes used it to name their children, which gave one unfortunate frontier youngster the existentially depressing moniker Elilamasabachthani.
The most famous example of the sortes is from the life of St. Augustine, recounted in his Confessions (8.12). Pacing anxiously in his garden, struggling over whether he should turn to God or carry on in his life of bourgeois decadence, Augustine heeded a child’s playful chant in a neighboring garden, and “took up and read” from the Bible laying close at hand.
The text unveiled was Romans 13:13-14: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” The saint remembered years later: “No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended — by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart — all the gloom of doubt vanished away.”
Something remarkably similar happened to St. Francis. The priest of San Nicolo repeated his action three times, revealing three Gospel texts, from widely scattered pericopes. He translated each for the three young laymen, whose Latin was rather poor.
The texts were these: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21); “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, and do not have two tunics” (Luke 9:3); “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Matt. 16:24).
In his engaging recent biography of the saint, Augustine Thompson notes that the young man deeply internalized all three texts. One can trace their repeated influence in his writings and his addresses to his followers decades later. Thompson writes, “These texts would become the core of what Francis would call ‘his form of life.’ God had revealed them to Francis to show him what to do. Although not a single person present realized it, they had taken the first step in founding the Franciscan Order.”
I’m not exactly advocating a revival of the sortes Biblicae. Even in Francis’ time, the practice had a rather shadowed reputation, and was condemned as superstitious by several local synods in sixth century France. But as a method for sacred reading, the sortes Biblicae does have a pretty remarkable track record.
The method presumes that we approach our spiritual reading expecting to hear God speaking directly to us. Francis, Augustine, and even battle-weary Heraclius approached God with deep receptivity, having looked seriously into their own lives, noting the quandary or challenge that needed divine direction. They received the word expectantly, “as a light of security infused into my heart.” Then they committed it carefully to memory.
Next came meditation, prolonged imaginative review, and prayerful digestion. Meditation itself, as devotional writers sometimes remind us, was a barnyard term before it entered the cloister. It’s what the Latinate cow did with her cud, chewing it over four times, as it circulated through each of the stomachs of her complex digestive system. Every ounce of nutritive value was broken open to be fully incorporated, nourishing the creature’s ongoing life.
In our age of digital distraction, reading in this way is increasingly difficult. We absorb less and less of the “content” to which we expose ourselves. Despite the plethora of tools for taking better notes and setting ourselves timely reminders, we seem ever more scattered, our hearts clouded over with competing concerns. We need, as always, to know the will of God. But, perhaps, we are less certain of where to ask for it.
Francis and Augustine would tell us first that less is more, and that God’s transforming oracles lie closer to hand than we might first expect. I’ll make a pilgrimage of sorts this month with my family to see the St. Francis missal. The curators have promised to open it carefully to one of the pages revealed to Francis eight centuries ago.
But the best Lent book for me is probably the Bible in the stall where I read the Daily Office, or the tattered copy by my reading chair in the living room, and the work of this holy season will be preparing my heart to fully receive its gifts. Take up and read this Lent, by all means, trusting that God is ready to shed his light into hearts that are turned to him.
Fr. Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.