I’ve always been a collector. As a child, I collected anything from leaves (that was for a Cubs badge) and sugar packets (to alleviate boredom on long Summer road trips) to baseball cards and pennants. As an adult, this tendency manifests itself less in physical objects (though I do surround myself with my favorite books and with photographs from my favorite places), and more in ideas. I’ve long been a note-taker, and often set apart my favorite quotes or insights in a place of their own for easy reference. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this tendency connects to an ancient and esteemed practice known as florilegium, collecting and anthologizing (indeed, florilegium and anthology share the same etymology in Latin and Greek respectively — adorably, both mean ‘flower picking’) excerpts from trusted texts.
Florilegia have their roots in the ancient practice of compiling excerpts from important writings. In ancient times, anthologizing made sense, not just from the perspective of learning and wanting to have access the wisdom of those who have gone before, but primarily because of the exorbitant expenses involved in copying down entire works before the advent of the printing press. And it’s a good thing these anthologies were created, as several important patristic texts only exist today in fragments contained in florilegia.
In the ancient and early medieval periods, anthologies had several uses: to demonstrate the patristic pedigree of an idea, to assist in determining the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of a theologian, to gather trusted advice on spiritual or ascetic practices, or to assist with theological education or preparation. The most relevant of these for our purposes today are the ascetical florilegia, in which monks collected helpful pieces of wisdom from the Scriptures and Church Fathers on spiritual themes such as virtues and vices, the rules of their monastic order, and general Christian living, faith and discipline.
What is it?
As a contemporary spiritual practice, to create a florilegium is to record the insights, images, words, or phrases that stand out to you and stay with you. The scope of your sources for this is up to you. Some might only record insights from their Scripture reading and study (I know of one man who jotted down lines from his daily reading of the Psalms for twenty-five years), while others might focus on the books they are reading, while still others might include everything that sticks out to them as special, from anything from a sacred text to the smell of their mother’s spaghetti sauce.
A further step that one might choose to take is to read over what one has collected to see what themes emerge in a given season of life and to pray over what God might be trying to teach you through them. In this way, florilegium can be a useful tool in spiritual discernment.
In a way, this week reminded me most of my week spend looking at rest as a sacred practice: it’s something I do normally, but approaching it as a sacred practice allowed me to see it in a different way. I noticed strong thematic currents in what I collected this week: themes of cycles and seasons, of patience, of freshness, and of humour. And while I can’t quite articulate it, these themes feel connected somehow, as though they are all one theme I just lack the word to name.
What I appreciated most about this practice was how it intentionally connected my reading, listening, and note-taking with spiritual discernment. I feel like I’ve tacitly understood this connection in the past, but bringing it to the surface this week was actually pretty helpful. I believe we are all bombarded with data in and about our lives — data from other people, from what we read or hear, from what’s on our mind, and from the world around us. It’s easy to drown in it all, be misled by it, or even just tune it all out. A big part of the spiritual life is to discern the signal from the noise within that mess of data and to hear and follow the leading of God within that. A practice like this that draws our attention and intention to patterns in what we are experiencing can most definitely be helpful within that process.
Of course, discernment is about far more than just paying attention to what is sticking out to us. We’re pretty good as a species at filtering out important messages we’d rather not have to deal with. And so, florilegium is probably not the best choice as one’s only or even primary tool for discernment. But, as one tool among many, I think it’s an important and useful addition to the toolkit.