Chapter 1: Reflection 18 – Chewing with the Mind and the Heart

When Harold Talbott, TM’s Dharamsala host, recounted the Cistercian monk’s three audiences and conversations with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he reported that “tradition” was one of the topics about which His Holiness inquired:

When [The Dalai Lama] was asking Merton about Catholicism, he wanted to know about the monastic tradition. And Merton told him all about his own Cistercian way of life, and he spoke about tradition, ‘traditio.’ Because the Dalai Lama wanted to know how doctrines and dogmas were transmitted through the centuries of the Church, because it is such an old institution … 1

When speaking about “doctrines and dogmas,” we are talking about teachings which are expressed in human language, frequently in texts and in oral commentaries on texts. The root text of the Christian tradition is, of course, Holy Scripture, and engaging that sacred book is a fundamental Christian practice. In his De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) introduces such engagement in the first sentence of the treatise’s first book: “There are two things which all treatment of the scriptures is aiming at: a way to discover what needs to be understood, and a way to put across to others what has been understood.” 2 These two practices are vital to the organic life of tradition, and they are both important themes in the present series of reflections on Julian’s writings. Let us begin to consider one approach to the first of these practices.  

Within the Christian medieval monastic tradition one of the primary ways of coming “to discover what needs to be understood” in the sacred text was reading, specifically, divine reading [lectio divina]. And the 12th century Carthusian monk, Guigo II, describes such reading in his work, The Ladder of Monks: 3

One day when I was busy working with my hands I began to think about our spiritual work, and all at once four stages in spiritual exercise came into my mind: reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. These make a ladder for monks by which they are lifted up from earth to heaven. It has few rungs, yet its length is immense and wonderful, for its lower end rests upon the earth, but its top pierces the clouds and touches heavenly secrets … 4

Reading is the careful study of the Scriptures, concentrating all one’s powers on it. Meditation is the busy application of the mind to seek with the help of one’s own reason for knowledge of hidden truth. Prayer is the heart’s devoted turning to God to drive away evil and obtain what is good. Contemplation is when the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness … 5

Reading, as it were, puts food whole into the mouth, meditation chews it and breaks it up, prayer extracts its flavor, contemplation is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshes. 6

The imagery of eating and chewing, the process of mastication, is apt. For sometimes, sacred reading can be perceived and imagined to be a passive activity, one of inert receptivity, utterly and admirably faithful though it may be. However, as a study of Julian’s writings reveals, reading bears “all the characteristics of a silent production.” 7   


  1. “Harold Talbott: Remembering Thomas Merton’s Encounters with the Dalai Lama.” The Wisdom Podcast. (Posted April 24, 2017). Retrieved from: (Minutes: (1.01.16 -1.01.51)
  2. Saint Augustine, Teaching Christianity – De Doctrina Christiana. Introduction, translation, and notes by Edmund Hill, O.P. Editor: John E. Rotelle, O.S.A. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 1996, page 106. Latin: “Duae sunt res quibus nititur omnis tractatio Scripturarum, modus inveniendi quae intellegenda sunt et modus proferendi quae intellecta sunt.” Retrieved from the website, Internet:
  3. Bernard McGinn introduces the Carthusian writer, Guigo II, in the following manner: “Guigo II (sometimes called ‘the Angelic’) was the ninth prior of La Chartreuse from 1174-80. He died probably in 1188, leaving two works – twelve Meditations, in style not unlike those of William of St. Thierry, and the Ladder of Monks [Scala claustralium] … a letter-treatise typical of monastic theology … [T]he Ladder of Monks, often ascribed to Bernard of Clairvaux or even Augustine, was among the most popular of medieval spiritual works with over a hundred manuscripts known. It was translated into several languages, including into Middle English under the title A Ladder of foure ronges by the whiche men mowe wele clyme to heven. The Ladder of Monks deserved its popularity. Picking up on the ancient theme of the ladder reaching to heaven, whose spiritual warrant was found in Jacob’s famous dream (Gen. 28.12), it deftly weaves together a rich body of traditional materials into a handbook whose usefulness does not preclude considerable originality.” (Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great through the 12th Century. The Presence of God. Volume 2. A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: Herder & Herder, 1996, page 357.) In a journal entry of December 4, 1961, TM mentions briefly: “Reading … the Scala Claustralium (for the novices) …” (Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years. The Journals of Thomas Merton: Volume Four 1960-1963. Edited by Victor A. Kramer. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997, page 184.) I am grateful to the scholarship of Patrick F. O’Connell for referencing this journal citation and for including in his edition of TM’s monastic course/conference notes, An Introduction to Christian Mysticism, an appendix containing TM’s brief commentary on Guigo’s text. (Thomas Merton, An Introduction to Christian Mysticism. Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 3. Monastic Wisdom Series: Volume Thirteen. Edited with an Introduction by Patrick F. O’Connell. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2008, pages 332-340.)
  4. This entire indented quotation is taken from, Guigo II, The Ladder of Monks: A Letter on the Contemplative Life and Twelve Meditations. Translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. Cistercian Studies 48. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1979, pages 67-69. Latin: “Cum die quadam corporali manuum labore occupatus de spiritali hominis exercitio cogitare coepissem, quatour spiritales gradus animo cogitanti se subito obtulerunt, lectio scilicet, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio. Haec est scala claustralium qua de terra in coelum sublevantur, gradibus quidem distincta paucis, immensae tamen et incredibilis magnitudinis, cujus extrema pars terrae innixa est, superior vero nubes penetrat et coelorum secreta rimatur.” (Guigo II, Lettre sur la vie contemplative. Douze Méditations, Introduction et texte critique par Edmund College, O.S.A, et James Walsh, S.J. Paris: Cerf, 1970, pages 82 and 84.) Internet Archive: Middle English: “As I was occupied on a day in bodyly traueyle and thouʒt on gostly werkys that were nedefulle to Goddis seruauntys, foure gostly werkes comme soon to my mynde, that is to sey: Lesson, Meditacion, Orison, and Contemplacion. This is a ladder of cloysterers, & of othere Goddis lovers, by the whiche they clymbe from eerth into heuyn. This is a longe laddir and a meruelous thouʒe it haue but foure stavis, for the oon ende stondith on the grounde, and the other ende thrillyth the clowdys and shewith to the clymber heavenly pryvetees.” Quoted in Phyllis Hodgson, “A Ladder of Foure Ronges by the Whiche Men mowe wele clyme to Heven.” A Study of the Prose Style of a Middle English Translation. Modern Language Review. 1949, 44(4), page 474. Through the Middle English translator’s insertion of “& of othere Goddis lovers” and other revisions, Professor Barry Windeatt affirms that the original Latin text is “artfully reshaped into a work accessible to a wider audience, which the manuscripts attest included nuns and pious laywomen …” (“A Ladder of Foure Ronges by the which Men Mowe Wele Clyme to Heven.” English Mystics of the Middle Ages. Cambridge English Prose Texts. Edited by Barry Windeatt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pages 248-252. Quotation retrieved from:  I am deeply grateful for the scholarship and the gracious kindness of Professor Jane Beal, through which I became aware of Guigo’s words and text. See Jane Beal, “Moses and Christian Contemplative Devotion.” Illuminating Moses. A History of Reception from Exodus to the Renaissance. Edited by Jane Beal. Commentaria, 4. Leiden–Boston: Brill, 2014, pages 306-307. In his initial notes on Guigo text, TM writes that it is “a first-class example of the medieval approach to lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio, and contains not only pure doctrine but clear examples of the language of medieval spirituality – largely the language of St. Bernard.” (Thomas Merton, An Introduction to Christian Mysticism. Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 3. Edited with an Induction by Patrick F. O’Connell, page 332. Given the importance of physical work in the daily life of a Trappist monk, it is not surprising that TM also notes: “at manual labor, meditating on {the} spiritual life, [Guigo] thinks of four steps … (Emphasis mine. Ibid., page 333).
  5. Guigo II. The Ladder of Monks: A Letter on the Contemplative Life and Twelve Meditations. Translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, page 68. Latin: “Est autem lectio sedula scripturarum cum animi intentione inspectio. Meditatio est studiosa mentis actio, occultae veritatis notitiam ductu propriae rationis investigans. Oratio est devota cordis in Deum intentio pro malis removendis /vel bonis adipiscendis. Contemplatio est mentis in Deum suspensae quaedam supra se elevatio, eternae dulcedinis gaudia degustans.”  (Guigo II, Lettre sur la vie contemplative. Douze Méditations, Introduction et texte critique par Edmund College, O.S.A, et James Walsh, S.J., page 84.) James (Jim) Finley was one of TM’s novice students when he was in the monastery, and later became a contemplative teacher, a writer, and a clinical psychologist. In a podcast interview, Dr. Finley was asked: “When did you first come across Guigo?” In his response, he speaks about Guigo and his Ladder of Monks: “It was in the monastery, because I would go to Merton … I saw Merton as a living mystic. I saw him as a lineage holder in these traditions … I would go to him and say, I want to read John of the Cross, I want to read … I’d go often. I would come back, and I had my copy with me … [Guigo] was one of the people that I first heard [of] in the monastery, and I appreciated what he was doing, the simplicity of it, so pastoral in a way, for the contemplative seeker, so practical. Like it’s not a theory or anything … It’s something that you can actually do, which, if you do it with all your heart, brings about transformative awakenings, of deepening your awareness of God’s oneness with you in all things, and he offers that.” (“Turning to the Mystics with James Finley.” Monday, October 25, 2021. Center for Action and Contemplation. Minutes 30.10-31.39. Web address: 
  6. Guigo II. The Ladder of Monks: A Letter on the Contemplative Life and Twelve Meditations. Translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, page 69. Latin: “Lectio quasi solidum cibum ori apponit, meditatio masticat et frangit, oratio saporem acquirit, contemplatio est ipsa dulcedo quae jocundat et reficit.” (Guigo II, Lettre sur la vie contemplative. Douze Méditations, Introduction et texte critique par Edmund College, O.S.A, et James Walsh, S.J., page 84 and 86.) Similar language can be found in Bernard of Clairvaux’s writings. In his 7th Sermon on the Song of Songs, the Cistercian writes, “As food is sweet to the palate, so does a psalm delight the heart. But the soul that is sincere and wise will not fail to chew the psalm with the teeth as it were of the mind, because if he swallows it in a lump, without proper mastication, the palate will be cheated of the delicious flavor, sweeter even than honey that drips from the comb.” (Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs I. The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux. Volume Two. Translated by Kilian Walsh, O.C.S.O. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1981, Pages 41 and 42.) Latin: “Cibus in ore, psalmus in corde sapit. Tantum illum terere non negligat fidelis et prudens anima quibusdam dentibus intelligentiae suae, ne si forte integrum glutiat et non mansum, frustretur palatum sapore desiderabili, et dulciori super mel et favum.” The entire original Latin text of Bernard’s eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs is available on the website of The Matheson Trust: For the Study of Comparative Religion: See page 10 for the present reference.
  7. The quoted words are those of the Jesuit scholar, Michel de Certeau (1925-1986). Father de Certeau’s insights seem to speak in a particular way to a reader and a writer such as Julian, who will describe herself as “unlettered” at the beginning of Chapter 2 of her Long Text. While the perspectives of Michel de Certeau will be revisited over the course of these reflections, some excepted quotations from his reflections on reading might offer some flavor of his insights on that activity. Identifying reading as a form of “consumption,” the Jesuit writes: “Reading (an image or a text), moveover, seems to constitute the maximal development of the passivity assumed to characterize the consumer …. In reality, the activity of reading has on the contrary all the characteristics of a silent production …. Reading thus introduces an ‘art’ which is anything but passive. It resembles rather that art whose theory was developed by medieval poets and romancers: an innovation infiltrated into the text and even into the terms of a tradition.” (Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, pages xxi-xxii.)

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