Some Christians will tell you that the heart of Christian spirituality is reading the Bible. Others will say that the key to mystical intimacy with God is not filling your mind with words, but bathing it in silence.
The ancient Benedictine practice of lectio divina is the nexus where these two very different spiritual practices come together.
Lectio divina is a Latin term that literally means “sacred reading.” It is a method of reading — a way of approaching the experience of encountering a text, that enables a person to open the reading process up to the presence of God.
The written word is a tool, and like all tools, it serves as a means to an end. We read to learn, to gather information, to be entertained, to stay in touch with our best friend from high school or with a blogger from halfway around the world whom we’ve never met in person. Indeed, the ability to read is a profound blessing — one that we typically use to make our lives better.
What this means, though, is that reading is essentially an exercise in which we maintain (or seek to expand) control over our lives. We read to attain something we may not otherwise have: more knowledge, more pleasure, more mastery, more skill, more data, more fun, more love and social contact.
Lectio divina turns all of this on its head.
Lectio divina involves reading a passage from the Bible or some other sacred text (such as a work by one of the saints or mystics) as an act of prayer. Rather than a means of gathering information, it is a practice for formation — spiritual formation, in which the reader seeks to be formed by the Spirit of God. Lectio divina does not involve study or scholarship, but rather consists of a slow, meditative, heart-felt encounter with the words of the text.
Traditionally, lectio is the first of a four-part process of spiritual practice:
- Lectio — prayerful, slow, heart-centered reading of a sacred text;
- Meditatio — deliberate pondering of the message in the text;
- Oratio — responding to God’s message with honest, sincere prayer;
- Contemplatio — allowing the prayer to dissolve into wordless, thoughtless contemplation, or simply resting in the Divine presence.
Lectio is a subversive activity, subversive because it invites us to surrender our willfulness and control to the leadings and promptings of the Holy Spirit. Thus, it runs counter to the mainstream values of our Type-A culture. In the intentional slowness of the lectio experience, we are reminded that Christian spirituality emphasizes God’s action and our response. Thus, lectio is a practice in which we learn to discern God’s presence, hidden in the sacred text and in the subtle stirrings of our hearts and minds; and in dicerning the Divine presence, we are called to recognize the deeply relational nature of Christian mysticism: it’s not so much about finding the “God within” (although we learn to recognize the presence of God within us) as about learning to celebrate the mystery of encountering the God who is both intimately one with us and wholly transcendent and other.
How to do Lectio Divina
All you need to engage in the practice of lectio divina is a text to read (ideally the Bible or a writing of one of the great mystics), enough time to read it slowly and deliberately, and, ideally, a quiet place where you feel comfortable reading and praying. To allow for not only lectio but the subsequent steps or meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio, allow at least 20 minutes (although half an hour to an hour is ideal). It’s critical not to rush — lectio can be a powerful and transformational practice even when only reading a single sentence or two! Remember, the goal behind lectio is not amassing knowledge or information (you can always supplement your lectio practice with other time set aside for more academic spiritual reading), but rather simply creating the space where God may encounter you via the medium of the sacred word.
Read a sentence, or a few — up to a paragraph or two. Then slowly re-read the passage, and perhaps even read it again a third or fourth time, as slowly as possible. Instead of analyzing the text, keep an open mind. Let the text read you. Be open to discerning a particular word or phrase that speaks to you with particular meaning or relevance. When you encounter such a word or phrase, stop reading! That is your signal to move on to the reflective, “meditatio” stage of the practice. In meditatio, ponder thoughtfully about what this particular word or phrase means to you, and how God could be using this word to communicate with you. Eventually, you may feel inspired to engage in your own verbal, prayerful response to God’s word: this is the oratio stage. Pray honestly, simply, sincerely. Remember, you pray not to make a good impression, but to simply be intimate with the One who loves you. Eventually the words will drop away; at this point allow the wordless silence to embrace you as you simply sit in God’s presence.
Congratulations — you now have tasted the riches of this venerable spiritual practice. Make time regularly to engage in this slow but rewarding form of prayer.
For Further Reading
- Enzo Bianchi, Praying the Word: An Introduction to Lectio Divina
- Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina
- Michel de Verteuil, Let All the Peoples Praise Him: Lectio Divina and the Psalms
- Mary C. Earle, Broken Body, Healing Spirit: Lectio Divina and Living with Illness
- David Foster, Reading with God: Lectio Divina
- Thelma Hall, Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina
- Stephen Hough, The Bible as Prayer: A Handbook for Lectio Divina
- Tony Jones, Divine Intervention: Encountering God Through the Ancient Practice of Lectio Divina
- Mariano Magrassi, Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina
- Mario Masini, Lectio Divina: An Ancient Prayer that is Ever New
- Silvester O’Flynn, Come and See: Lectio Divina With John’s Gospel
- M. Basil Pennington, Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures
- Eugene H. Peterson, Eat this Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading
- Ghislaine Salvail, At the Crossroads of Scripture: An Introduction to Lectio Divina
- Karl A. Schultz, How to Pray With the Bible: The Ancient Prayer Form of Lectio Divina Made Simple
- Martin L. Smith, The Word is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying with Scripture