LAY CISTERCIAN PRACTICES: The transforming power of Sacred Scripture.

I am not the person I once was, not just because my cells regenerated, but because my spirit reconstituted itself due to the power of Sacred Scripture. I read and then tried to penetrate the Word’s purpose with the Holy Spirit’s aid. (John 20: 30-31)

Last Sunday, our Lay Cistercian Gathering Day met (I was on the Zoom meeting because I was not feeling well) and talked about the Eucharist. One of my Lay Cistercian colleagues commented on a homily by Father Francis Michael ( where he remarked that when we eat the real flesh and drink the real blood, it does not become us, but because it is Divine, we become more like it. I must confess that I learned about that observation in 1962 during a retreat by a Franciscan friar at St. Meinrad School of Theology (, where I attended. I never forgot that statement. I was pleasantly surprised when someone brought up this concept again, and all those wonderful memories came flooding back. In my imperceptible growth (capacitas dei) from where I was as a Lay Cistercian to where I am now, I thought of how this transformation happens with the Eucharist, Lectio Divina, Liturgy of the Hours, Rosary, Eucharist, but most significantly with Sacred Scripture. I like to use the term “Sacred Scripture” rather than “Bible” because the word bible means a book, but when I read “Sacred Scripture,” like Eucharist, it means I become what I read, given my humility and conversio morae (transformation) to be more like Christ and less like me. You have heard the saying: “You are what you eat; the same is true with reading Sacred Scriptures. You are what you read when Christ is the Word made flesh.”

I share with you a Lectio Divina I had on this topic. I take my inspiration from the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures. Before I explain the six steps of reading Sacred Scripture, here are some preliminary thoughts I have begun practicing.

Sacred Scriptures are sacred. What sounds like a truism is actually a paradigm for the Trinity. There is One God but three distinct persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Another way I put it (I hope I am not heretical) is to say: God is pure energy (100% of God’s nature) that is composed of pure knowledge (The Father), pure love(The Son), and pure service (The Holy Spirit). If you remember, there was a schism in 1090 or so where the Western Church (centered in Rome) split with the Eastern Church (centered in Constantinople) over what is called “The Filioque Controversy.” We in the West think of The Father AND the Son as generating the Holy Spirit, whereas in the East, The Father begets the Son and the Holy Spirit. The East rejected the authority of the primacy of St. Peter, thus setting up a theological hiccup that exists until this day. Service, which is the Holy Spirit is the same one that overshadowed Mary in Luke and the Apostles in the upper room. This “Service” is the person of the Holy Spirit, one that proceeds from the Father and the Son, and the energy between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. I have failed to consider the power of this statement when I am in prayer. It is not my power that transforms anything. That Christ stressed “service” to others as one of his commandments should be no surprise. This “service” produces in us the fruits of our sacrifice and abandonment of self to Christ. Matthew 25 is a famous passage that seems out of place in today’s stress on domination and self-importance. It is no accident that the Holy Spirit came down upon the Apostles with energy outside of their own humanity. This Second Advocate is service. Just as the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and allowed her humanity to become what it would be at the end of our intelligent progression, Omega, in the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin, so that same Holy Spirit with the same power of the Resurrection inhabits my wracked and weakened body, to take up residence in my Ark of the Covenant. Realizing this in my daily seeking God in whatever I do means I always carry the Holy Spirit with me unless I lose my equilibrium and fall on my face for lack of humility.

There are tons of writings from people about Christ in the first two centuries after His death. Not all writings are what Christ taught. Did you know there are 25 Gospels and Acts about Christ (Gospel of Thomas, etc…)? What is impressive is that the Early Church quickly relegated the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) to Canonical Gospels, or those when you read them, you become what you read. Other readings from the Church Fathers are just spiritual reading, good to know, but not the same. The Church safeguards us from false teachings, even our own. The Church does not, of itself with all of its sinful members, have the strength to cull out those subtle writings that are heretical and therefore based on false assumptions. It is the Holy Spirit alone. The living body of Christ protects us from evil interpretations of well-intentioned individuals throughout the ages, including the present penchant for fitting the Gospel message to fit the individual rather than take up the cross of ordinary living with Christ.

Judaistic and heretical gospels

Gospel according to the Hebrews

Clement of AlexandriaOrigenEusebius, and St. Epiphanius speak of a “Gospel according to the Hebrews” which was the sole one in use among the Palestinian Judeo-Christians, otherwise known as the Nazarenes. Jerome translated it from the Aramaic into Greek. It was evidently very ancient, and several of the above mentioned writers associate it with St. Matthew’s Gospel, which it seems to have replaced in the JewishChristian community at an early date. The relation between the Gospel according to the Hebrews and our canonical Matthew Gospel is a matter of controversy. The surviving fragments prove that there were close literal resemblances. Harnack asserts that the Hebrew Gospel was entirely independent, the tradition it contained being parallel to that of Matthew. Zahn, while excluding any dependence on our Greek canonical Matthew, maintains one on the primitive Matthew, according to which its general contents were derived from the latter. This Gospel seems to have been read as canonical in some non-Palestinian churches; the Fathers who are acquainted with it refer to it with a certain amount of respect. Twenty-four fragments have been preserved by ecclesiastical writers. These indicate that it had a number of sections in common with the Synoptics, but also various narratives and sayings of Jesus, not found in the canonical Gospels. The surviving specimens lack the simplicity and dignity of the inspired writings; some even savour of the grotesque. We are warranted in saying that while this extra-canonical material probably has as its starting-point primitive tradition, it has been disfigured in the interests of a Judaizing Church. (See AGRAPHA.)

Gospel According to the Egyptians

It is by this title that Clement of AlexandriaOrigenHippolytus, and Epiphanius describe an uncanonical work, which evidently was circulated in Egypt. All agree that it was employed by heretical sects — for the most part Gnostics. The scanty citations which have been preserved in the Fathers indicate a tendency towards the Encratite condemnation of marriage, and a pantheistic Gnosticism. The Gospel according to the Egyptians did not replace the canonical records in the Alexandrian Church, as Harnack would have us believe, but it seems to have enjoyed a certain popularity in the country districts among the Coptic natives. It could scarcely have been composed later than the middle of the second century and it is not at all impossible that it retouched some primitive material not represented in the canonical Gospels.

Gospel of St. Peter

The existence of an apocryphal composition bearing this name in Christian antiquity had long been known by references to it in certain early patristic writers who intimate that it originated or was current among Christians of Docetic views. Much additional light has been thrown on this document by the discovery of a long fragment of it at Akhmîn in Upper Egypt, in the winter of 1886-87, by the French Archæological Mission. It is in Greek and written on a parchment codex at a date somewhere between the sixth and ninth century. The fragment narrates part of the Passion, the Burial, and Resurrection. It betrays a dependence, in some instances literal, on the four inspired Gospels, and is therefore a valuable additional testimony to their early acceptance. While the apocryphon has many points of contact with the genuine Gospels, it diverges curiously from them in details, and bears evidence of having treated them with much freedom. No marked heretical notes are found in the recovered fragment, but there are passages which are easily susceptible of a heterodox meaning. One of the few extra-canonical passages which may contain an authentic tradition is that which describes Christ as placed in mockery upon a throne by His tormentors. Pseudo-Peter is intermediate in character between the genuine Evangels and the purely legendary apocrypha. Its composition must be assigned to the first quarter or the middle of the second century of the Christian era. C. Schmidt thinks he has found traces of what is perhaps a second Gospel of Peter in some ancient papyri (Schmidt, Sitzungsberichte der königlichen preuss. Akademie zu Berlin, 1895; cf. Bardenhewer, Geschichte, I, 397, 399).

Gospel of St. Philip

Only one or two quotations remain of the Gospel of St. Philip mentioned by Epiphanius and Leontius of Byzantium; but these are enough to prove its Gnostic colouring.

Gospel of St. Thomas

There are two Greek and two Latin redactions of it, differing much from one another. A Syriac translation is also found. A Gospel of Thomas was known to many Fathers. The earliest to mention it is St. Hippolytus (155-235), who informs us that it was in use among the Naasenes, a sect of Syrian Gnostics, and cites a sentence which does not appear in our extant text. Origen relegates it to the heretical writings. St. Cyril of Jerusalem says it was employed by the ManichæansEusebius rejects it as heretical and spurious. It is clear that the original Pseudo-Thomas was of heterodox origin, and that it dates from the second century; the citations of Hippolytus establish that it was palpably Gnostic in tenor. But in the extant Thomas Gospel there is no formal or manifest Gnosticism. The prototype was evidently expurgated by a Catholic hand, who, however, did not succeed in eradicating all traces of its original taint. The apocryphon in all its present forms extravagantly magnifies the Divine aspect of the boy Jesus. In bold contrast to the Infancy narrative of St. Luke, where the Divinity is almost effaced, the author makes the Child a miracle-worker and intellectual prodigy, and in harmony with Docetism, leaves scarcely more than the appearance of humanity in Him. This pseudo-Gospel is unique among the apocrypha, inasmuch as it describes a part of the hidden life of Our Lord between the ages of five and twelve. But there is much that is fantastic and offensive in the pictures of the exploits of the boy Jesus. His youthful miracles are worked at times out of mere childish fancy, as when He formed clay pigeons, and at a clap of His hands they flew away as living birds; sometimes, from beneficence; but again from a kind of harsh retribution.

Gospel of St. Bartholomew

The so-called Decretum of Gelasius classes the Gospel of St. Bartholomew among the apocrypha. The earliest allusion to it is in St. Jerome’s works. Recently scholars have brought to light fragments of it in old Coptic manuscripts. One of these Orientalists, Baumstark, would place its composition in the first part of the fourth century. A Gospel of Matthias is mentioned by Origen and Eusebius among the heretical literature along with the Peter and Thomas Gospels. Hippolytus states that the Basilidean Gnostics appealed to a “secret discourse” communicated to them by the Apostle Matthias who had received instruction privately from the Lord. Clement of Alexandria, who was credulous concerning apocryphal literature, quotes with respect several times the “Tradition of Matthias”.

Gospel of the Twelve Apostles

A Gospel of the Twelve Apostles was known to Origen (third century). Other patristic notices give rise to some uncertainty whether the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles of antiquity was really distinct from that of the Hebrews. The greater probabilities oppose their identity. Recently the claim has been made by M. Reveillout, a Coptic scholar, that the lost Gospel has been in a considerable measure recovered in several Coptic fragments, all of which, he asserts, belong to the same document. But this position has been successfully combated by Dr. Baumstark in the in the “Revue Biblique” (April, 1906, 245 sqq.), who will allow at most a probability that certain brief sections appertain to a Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, written originally in Greek and current among Gnostic Ebionites as early as the second century. There exists a late and entirely orthodox Syriac “Gospel of the Twelve Apostles”, published by J. Rendel Harris (Cambridge, 1900).

Other Gospels

It is enough to note the existence of other pseudo-Gospels, of which very little is known beside the names. There was a Gospel of St. Andrew, probably identical with the Gnostic “Acts of Andrew” (q.v., inf.); a Gospel of Barnabas, a Gospel of Thaddeus, a Gospel of Eve, and even one of Judas Iscariot, the last in use among the Gnostic sect of Cainites, and which glorified the traitor.


I read lots of writings from and about Lay Cistercian practices, those from the Early Church Fathers to more current writers, such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and even more contemporary authors like Pope Francis, Thomas Merton, Dom Andre Louf, O.S.C.O., and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen plus Dr. Scott Hahn on the YouTube.

Not all of what I read is Sacred Scripture. Here is my hierarchy of the Sacred.

  • New and Old Scriptures are accepted by the Church as canonical (authentic). This is the Word of God. What I read, I become through the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Writings of Early Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils. This is a spiritual reading about Christ and how each age carries its cross to follow Christ. This includes all documents from the Magisterium, or teaching authority of the Church.
  • Writings of the Saints. This is spiritual reading, but by those whose lives we try to emulate.
  • Writings of St. Benedict and St. Bernard of Clairvaux and other authors on how to be more like Christ and less like our fallen nature (conversio morae).
  • Current writers and YouTubers, Bloggers, and commentators on Lay Cistercian spirituality.

I base the following (loosely, I must admit) on the Lectio Divina steps of the Carthusian Prior, Guido II (lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio). Contemplation is the goal, but not easily attained.


SACRA SCRIPTURA PREPARATIO: This is a newly discovered step for me, practiced by Lay Cistercians before their Gathering Day, once a month at the Monastery. It is a detoxification of my day, a refocus on the seriousness of God being present and my approaching the Sacred with a sinful past needing redemption. This is a time I carve out in the day for my silence and solitude, one which I have slowly begun to anticipate with the love that comes from wanting to be present to Christ in that upper room of my heart (Matthew 6:5), where there is just Jesus and me (and the Holy Spirit as Second Advocate).

I try to focus on Chapter 7 of the Rule of St. Benedict, where he advises monks to begin humility with “fear of the Lord.” I usually sit in stillness for five to ten minutes saying the ancient mantra, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner,” over and over.

SACRA SCRIPTURA LECTIO: I select a short passage from the Eucharist readings that day or my favorite one, Philippians 2:5-12, and read it slowly. This dimension is READING THE WORD. I close my eyes (custos oculi) and be still for five to ten minutes (the length is not as important as growing deeper in Christ {capacitas dei}). My unspoken hope is to be with Christ and move deeper to the next step.

SACRA SCRIPTURA ORATIO: Using the same holy text, I reread it, very slowly, but this time as a prayer that Christ and I say together to the Father. Again, I take five to ten minutes to reflect in silence and solitude, conscious that Christ is there next to me, his heart beating next to mine. I am open to what Christ tells me.

SACRA SCRIPTURA COMMUNICATIO: Again, read the same text, and when you have finished, you communicate with the only other person(s) in your upper room, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. First, tell them one item on which you wish to focus. Ask them what they think? Wait for the answer. Listen with the “ear of the heart.” Sit in silence for five to ten minutes (whatever time it takes).

SACRA SCRIPTURA TRANSFORMATIO: The whole idea of reading Sacred Scriptures is to be in the presence of Christ and listen. This step is about reading the text one more time, praying, communicating, and asking Jesus to become what you read. Reflect on this in silence for five to ten minutes.

SACRA SCRIPTURA ACTIO: Pope Benedict XVI suggested that we add an Actio to our Lectio Divina. I like that idea for my scriptural steps. Actio means you commit to taking what you say your transformation is and doing it. This is the service part of prayer, like that which exists between the Father and Son and is the product of love. My product of love is to serve others. Sacred Scriptures are the chief means for me to actually read the words and become what I read so that I can share that with others.

Like any habit of prayerfulness, what might start out as very legalistic (going through each step) becomes more and more about the content than the process as I gain mastery over this technique.


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