Guigo’s Ladder of Monks

Jacob's Ladder Meditation

How wonderful it is to penetrate the depths of God’s Word. O to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) and his words of life are “sweeter than honey”!  (Psalm 19:10, 119:103). What love, joy, peace, and fruitful living is ours when we learn to “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” (Colossians 3:16).

Inspiring Ancient Words on Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is an ancient way of meditating on Scripture to listen to the Holy Spirit speak from the Bible to our hearts. Some years ago Alan Fadling shared with me an inspiring explanation of Lectio Divina from an ancient spiritual writer named Guigo II. Guigo was a Carthusian monk in the 12th Century (1140-1193) who elaborated on St. Benedict’s practice of Lectio Divina from the 6th Century. The Carthusians were a contemplative, ascetic religious order of monks founded in the early 12th century.

Guigo knew the sweetness of meditating on Bible passages and he wrote about this almost 900 years ago in his book, The Ladder of Monks. You don’t have to be a monk to climb the ladder of monks that stretch up into the heavens! His words set the table with the manna from heaven that we all hunger for!

An Excerpt from The Ladder of Monks by Guigo

Reading seeks for the sweetness of a blessed life, meditation perceives it, prayer asks for it, contemplation tastes it. Reading, as it were, puts food whole into the mouth, mediation chews it and breaks it up, prayer extracts its flavor, contemplation is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshes. Reading works on the outside, meditation on the pith [soft inner part of a feather or a hair; the essential part, core, heart]: prayer asks for what we long for, contemplation gives us delight in the sweetness which we have found.

CONCERNING the FOUR RUNGS [of the Ladder]

ONE DAY while I was occupied with manual labor
I began to reflect on man’s spiritual work,
and suddenly four steps for the soul came into my reflection:

reading,
meditation,
prayer,
[and] contemplation

THIS is a ladder for monks (lit.“the cloistered”) by means of which they are raised up from earth to heaven.  It has [only a] few separate rungs, yet its length is immense and incredible:

for its lower part stands on the earth,
while its higher [part] pierces the clouds and touches the secrets of heaven.

JUST as its rungs have various names and numbers, so also so they differ in order and merit; and if one diligently searches out their properties and functions what each [rung] does in relation to us, how they differ from one another and how they are ranked- he will regard whatever labor and study he expends as brief and simple compared with the great usefulness and sweetness [he gains].

Reading is careful study of [Sacred]  Scripture, with the soul’s [whole] attention:

Meditation is the studious action of the mind to investigate hidden truth, led by one’s own reason.

Prayer is the heart’s devoted attending to God, so that evil may be removed and good may be obtained.

Contemplation is the mind suspended – somehow elevated above itself – in God so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness.

HAVING assigned descriptions to each of the four rungs, we must see what their functions are in relation to us.

THE FUNCTIONS of THESE AFOREMENTIONED RUNGS

FOR the sweetness of a blessed life:

Reading seeks;
meditation finds;
prayer asks;
contemplation tastes.

Reading, so to speak, puts food solid in the mouth,
meditation chews and breaks it,
prayer attains its savor,
contemplation is itself the sweetness that rejoices and refreshes.

Reading concerns the surface,
meditation concerns the depth
prayer concerns request for what is desired,
contemplation concerns delight in discovered sweetness.

O MY soul, too long have we prolonged this speech.  Yet it was good for us to be here, and with Peter and John to contemplate the glory of the spouse; and to abide for a time with Him, had He wished us to make here not two, not three tabernacles, but one in which we might dwell together, and together be filled with joy.

BUT now the spouse says, “Let me go, for dawn is now arising,” now you have received the light of grace and the visitation which you desired.

HE thus gives his blessing, He withers the nerve of the thigh, He changes the name of Jacob to Israel; and then for a brief time He withdraws, this spouse so long desired, so quickly gone.

HE removes himself, thus ending, too, [our] visitation, and the sweetness of contemplation; but yet His presence abides [with us]:

thus guiding [us];
thus giving [us] grace;
thus uniting [us to Himself].

RECAPITULATION

IN order to focus more clearly what we have already said at length, we will gather it into a summary. In what was said above it has been shown through examples how these three rungs interrelate with each other, and how they precede one another in both the orders of time and causality.

Reading, like a foundation, comes first: and by giving us the matter for meditation, it sends us on to meditation.

Meditation diligently investigates what is to be sought; it digs, so to speak, for treasure which it [then] finds and exposes: but since it is of itself powerless to obtain it, it sends us on to prayer.

Prayer, lifting itself with its whole strength to God, pleads for the desired treasure – the sweetness of contemplation.

[Contemplation’s] advent rewards the labors of the other three; it inebriates the thirsty soul with the sweetness of heavenly dew.

Reading accords with exercise of the outward [senses];
meditation accords with interior understanding;
prayer accords with desire;
contemplation is above all senses.

The first degree pertains to beginners,
The second to the proficient,
the third to devotees,
the fourth to the blessed.

(Guigo II. The Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations. Trans. Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1978, p. 68-69. [Cisterician Studies #48)

As part of the ministry of Soul Shepherding we teach the practice of Lectio Divina for personal and group meditation on Scripture. Also, many people have asked us for suggestions on Scripture passages that work well for Lectio Divina.