The demise of the lectio divina

The following is an excerpt from Ivan Illich’s book In the Vineyard of the Text. To give you some context: Hugh of St. Victor is the hero of the book. In this excerpt, Illich is describing the change in reading practice from a fully embodied, transformative experience (the lectio divina up until the 13th C.) and studium, a newer approach that teaches reading for the sake of acquiring theoretical knowledge. Illich’s broader point is that this new style of reading makes possible the birth of the modern university. To my mind, the passage reads like a horror story.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, even the term lectio divina becomes less frequent and disappears entirely from some contexts. For the friars, Franciscans and Dominicans, pious reading which nourishes by contemplation is only one of the basic ways of using the book. The term lectio spiritualis is used to distinguish this from academic pursuits, which now monopolize the word studium.

When Hugh refers to reading that is done for any ulterior purpose, distinct from personal progress toward wisdom, he refers to it with harsh warnings. One of his contemporaries, William of St. Thierry, who died six years after Hugh, already holds a different opinion on this point. He discriminates between one kind of reading, which is done with affection (affectus), in which the reader assimilates his experience to that of the author, and another which has the purpose of increasing factual knowledge. The new way of reading the newly laid-out page calls for a new writing within the city: colleges that engender the university, with its academic rather than monastic rituals. The studium legendi ceases to be a way of life for the great majority of disciplined readers, and is viewed as one particular ascetical practice now called “spiritual reading.” On the other hand, “study” increasingly refers to the acquisition of knowledge. Lectio divides into prayer and study. (64-65)