During these unusual times when we are unable to come together to worship as a congregation it is more than ever important to open our hearts to be touched by God through the inspired words of scripture. Lectio Divina is a well established and important way of doing so.
Praying with Scripture
By Douglas J. Leonhardt, SJ
Lectio Divina and Gospel Contemplation are two ways to pray with Scripture. Fr. Leonhardt explains these two forms of prayer for those new to the practices.
My Seventh Day Adventist paternal grandmother was very faithful to reading the Bible every day until cataracts dimmed her eyes so she could no longer read. My Catholic maternal grandparents faithfully prayed the rosary every evening. Up until Vatican II these prayer forms were often the practices which designated people as Protestants or Catholics. But the Council urged all Catholics to return to Scripture as a way of “learning the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 3:8)
Over the past forty years some Catholics have hesitated to read Scripture privately because they did not feel they knew enough about the Bible. But this reason for avoiding the reading of Scripture is a temptation because it puts the focus on the individual and not on Christ. The truth is that we have a teacher in the Holy Spirit whom Christ promised and we received at Baptism. “I have said these things to you while still with you; but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.” (John 14:25-26)
There are two easy ways to pray with Scripture. One is called in Latin, Lectio Divina, (Holy Reading) and the other is Gospel Contemplation.
This method of prayer goes back to the early monastic tradition. There were not bibles for everyone and not everyone knew how to read. So the monks gathered in chapel to hear a member of the community reading from the scripture. In this exercise they were taught and encouraged to listen with their hearts because it was the Word of God that they were hearing.
When a person wants to use Lectio Divina as a prayer form today, the method is very simple. When one is a beginner, it is better to choose a passage from one of the Gospels or epistles, usually ten or fifteen verses. Some people who regularly engage in this method of prayer choose the epistle or the Gospel for the Mass of the day as suggested by the Catholic Church.
First one goes to a quiet place and recalls that one is about to listen to the Word of God. Then one reads the scripture passage aloud to let oneself hear with his or her own ears the words. When one finishes reading, pause and recall if some word or phrase stood out or something touched one’s heart. If so, pause and savor the insight, feeling, or understanding. Then go back and read the passage again because it will have a fuller meaning. Pause again and note what happened. If one wants to dialogue with God or Jesus in response to the word, one should follow the prompting of one’s heart. This kind of reflective listening allows the Holy Spirit to deepen awareness of God’s taking the initiative to speak with us.
Lectio Divina can also be an effective form for group prayer. After a passage is read, there can be some extended silence for each person to savor what he or she has heard, particularly noting whether any word or phrase became a special focus of attention. Sometimes groups invite members, if they so desire, to share out loud the word or phrase that struck them. This is done without discussion. Then a different person from the group would read the passage again with a pause for silence. Different emphases might be suggested after each reading: What gift does this passage lead me to ask from the Lord? What does this passage call me to do? The prayer can be concluded with an Our Father.
Whether one prays individually or in a group, Lectio Divina is a flexible and easy way to pray. One first listens, notes what is given and responds in a way one is directed by the Holy Spirit.
The early Christians did not waste a lot of energy looking back and wishing they had been born a hundred years earlier so they could have walked with Jesus. Instead they focused on coming to know Christ in three powerful ways: through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist; the stories and emerging writings about Jesus; and his powerful presence when they gathered in his name.
Saint Ignatius Loyola invited a person when an individual made a retreat in the pattern of his Spiritual Exercises to pray to come to know Christ so that one may love him in a more real way and following from this knowledge and love become a more faithful disciple.
In order to grow in this faith knowledge, Ignatius invited the retreatant to engage in a prayer method called contemplation. This is not some kind of mystical prayer but a prayer form in which one uses his or her senses in an imaginative way to reflect on a Gospel passage. One uses the senses, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling to make the Gospel scene real and alive.
Here is a way of engaging in this prayer form which is relaxing and rather easy.
Select a passage from one of the Gospels in which Jesus is interacting with others.
Recall what one is doing in engaging with the Word of God and what one desires from this encounter. God is present and because God is present one relies on God.
Read the Gospel passage twice so that the story and the details of the story become familiar.
Close one’s eyes and reconstruct the scene in one’s imagination. See what is going on and watch the men and women in the scene. What does Jesus look like? How do the others react to him? What are the people saying to one another? What emotions fill their words? Is Jesus touching someone? As one enters into the scene, sometimes there is the desire to be there. So a person can place oneself in the scene, perhaps as an observer, as one lining up for healing, or as one helping others to Jesus.
Some people’s imaginations are very active so they construct a movie-like scenario with a Gospel passage. Others will enter the scene with verbal imagination, reflecting on the scene and mulling over the actions. Vividness is not a criteria for the effectiveness of this kind of prayer. Engagement is and the result is a more interior knowledge of Jesus.
As one finishes this time of prayer, one should take a moment to speak person to person with Christ saying what comes from the heart.
From Finding God in All Things: A Marquette Prayer Book © 2009 Marquette University Press. Used with permission.
What is Lectio Divina?
Lectio Divina, pronounced LEK-tsea-ho di-VEEN-ah, is a latin term meaning “divine reading” and is a Catholic meditative form of prayer. The process is a slow, reflective praying of the Scriptures which enables the Word of God, to unify us with God…to be a fruitful source for growing our relationship with Him. The person praying the Lectio Divina is more communicating or sharing Scripture with God instead of the typical studying of passages that is usually found when just reading the Bible. The method allows you to let go and open yourself up to what God wants to say to us.
History and Development
The Lectio Divina has its origins with the early church fathers in the 3rd century. One in particular, Origen, was likely the first to articulate the idea of reading Scripture to discover a meaning beyond the literal sense of biblical text. He described the purpose of Scriptural reading as finding the hidden message from God, which is central to Lectio Divina.
The monastic movement carried on the informal Lectio Divina method. The Benedictine monks made reading the Bible the center of their lives. The monks were born and organized around listening to the Word of God and praying with it. Life in a Benedictine monastery consisted of liturgical prayer, manual labor and a prayerful reading of the Bible. Their slow and thoughtful reading and pondering of Scripture was a form of meditation for them. St. Benedict believed it is not only a matter of reading the Bible but of becoming the Word of God to others. That was the goal of the Lectio Divina to them. Saint Cassianus said that the more you progress in understanding the text the more you identify yourself with it, until you reach the same spiritual experience of the biblical writer. It was a monk named Guigo II in the 12th century that organized the Lectio Divina into four spiritual steps in his book called, “The Ladder of the Monks”.
The Four Steps of the Lectio Divina
Guigo described the Lectio as being like a ladder to heaven. The ladder had four steps; Lectio (reading/listening), Meditatio (meditation), Oratio (prayer) and Contemplatio (contemplation).
Lectio – The first step is reverential listening; listening both in a spirit of silence and of awe. You are listening for the voice of God speaking to you intimately. In lectio, read slowly and attentively, listening for a word or phrase that is God’s Word for you.
Meditatio – Once you have heard your word or phrase that is speaking to you in a personal way, take it in and ponder it. Memorize it – and while gently repeating it to yourself, allow it to interact with your thoughts, your memories, your hopes, your desires. This is the second step or stage. In this step, allow God’s Word to become His Word for you, a word that touches you and affects you at your deepest levels.
Oratio – The third step is the prayer step…prayer understood both as dialogue with God and as consecration, or prayer as an offering to God of parts of ourselves that we have not previously believed God wants. Allow the word that we have taken in and on which we are meditating to touch and change your deepest self. Just as a priest consecrates the bread and wine at the Eucharist, God invites us to hold up our most difficult and pain-filled experiences to Him, and to gently recite over them the healing word or phrase He has given us in our lectio and meditatio. Finally, allow yourself to be touched and changed by the Word of God.
Contemplatio – In the final step, simply rest in the presence of God and accept His transforming embrace. No one who has ever been in love needs to be reminded that there are moments in loving relationships when words are not even necessary. It is the same in our relationship with God. Contemplation during the Lectio Divina is a wordless, quiet rest in the presence of God. In silence, let go of your own words and simply enjoy the experience of being in the presence of God.
The Lectio Divina can be done as an individual prayer as described above or as a group exercise. The group version is popular in Catholic churches of the third world where books are rare. The group form of the Lectio Divina is unique in form and process but that will be for another post.
Lectio Divina: Reading Scripture
How do we allow the Scripture, in all its awesome power, to draw us closer to God?
One important spiritual discipline that can help us in this regard is called lectio divina, which is Latin for “sacred reading.” It’s one of the oldest forms of Christian prayer, and the bishops at the synod repeatedly recommended that Catholics discover its power to make the Bible come alive.
From the very beginning, the early Christians imitated the Jewish model of using Scripture (the Old Testament) as a gateway into prayer. Once the New Testament books were written, Christians approached these sacred texts in the same way.
They understood that God was the author of Scripture, and that He was personally present in the words of Scripture. They read the words in a way that connected them to God. They learned how to read the Word of God with their hearts as well as their minds.
The Fathers of the Church read Scripture this way. St. Jerome, who translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, was an early advocate of “sacred reading.” Sts. Augustine, Basil and Benedict all made ample use of it.
Eventually, the practice became a common form of prayer in monastic communities in Europe. Lectio divina is still closely associated with monasteries, but in recent decades many Christians who lead active lives in the world have learned to pray this way as well.
The essence of lectio divina is reading the words of Scripture with one’s “heart,” guided by the Holy Spirit. It’s a flexible method and cannot be reduced to a technique. But those who are most skilled in it agree that lectio divina usually involves four stages.
Nearly a thousand years ago, a monk named Guigo de Castro described them in a letter to a fellow monk. Guigo’s outline is still the standard description of this prayer practice.
The scriptural text for lectio divina is usually chosen in advance. Typically, it is a short text, often a single verse containing the words of Jesus or a brief description of his actions.
The first step is lectio — reading. We read for understanding. What is the context of the verse? What did the author mean to convey to the people he was addressing? The question to ask in lectio: “What does the text say?”
The second stage is meditatio — meditation. We ruminate on the verse. We memorize it. We say it over and over again slowly and carefully. What do the words mean to me? How do they interact with our thoughts and memories? The question to ask in meditation: “What does the text say to me?”
The third stage is oratio — prayer. Our hearts have been stirred by meditating on the verse. God has spoken to us through the words. Now, what response do we make? The question asked in oratio: “What do we say to God in response to this text?”
The final stage is contemplatio — contemplation. Our prayer moves beyond words and beyond thought. We simply rest in God. We let His love transform us. The question asked in contemplation:”What is God saying to us?”
Lectio divina does not always unfold in an ordered progression of stages. Often we will oscillate between times of acting and times of receiving. We are “busy” reading, thinking, speaking. Then we quietly listen and receive what God has for us.
Nevertheless, the natural movement of lectio divina is toward ever-greater simplicity. It begins with close scrutiny of the words of Scripture. It ends with wordless enjoyment of God.
Gradually the words of Scripture dissolve and the Word of God is revealed before the eyes of our heart. Reading the sacred words fosters a dialogue with God. It’s a dialogue that concludes with an act of consecration, whereby we offer ourselves to God.
New Habits Needed
If we are to pray lectio divina successfully, we need to learn some new habits.
First of all, we must slow down. Sacred reading takes time. Those who consistently pray this way often recommend that we set aside at least an hour in a quiet place for it. It’s not exactly an ideal way to pray on the bus during your daily commute (though this is just a guideline, not a rule).
We also need to learn to read differently. We’re accustomed to reading texts in order to understand the information they convey. It’s a cognitive process, an act of the intellect.
The goal of “sacred reading,” however, is to seek God. It’s an exercise of the heart and a process that’s led by the Holy Spirit. As one writer on lectio divina put it, “The full process of ‘reading’ could take 15 minutes or be spread over 15 years.”
Interest in lectio divina has surged in recent years. Pope Benedict XVI recommended it as a way for us to hear God and to respond to Him “with openness of heart.” If we learn to pray this way, the Pope has said, “this practice will bring to the Church — I am convinced of it — a new spiritual springtime.”
LECTIO DIVINA http://lectio-divina.org/
The phrase lectio divina, difficult to translate adequately, is the Latin for “sacred reading.” It could be translated as a reading which is sacred or better, divine. Ordinarily this practice is confined to the slow perusal of sacred Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments. It is undertaken not with the intention of gaining information but of using the texts as an aide first to contact the living God and secondly, to sustain that contact. Basic to this practice is a union with God in faith which, in turn, is sustained by further reading.
There is no special program or technique to lectio divina. Even more importantly, one must resist the modern temptation of covering a prescribed amount of material within a given time frame. This is more difficult to sustain over time than first meets the eye but certainly well worth the effort. However, the fruits gained from lingering over a single word or phrase for an indefinite period of time is well worth the effort, knowing with full confidence that it will lead to further appreciation of the text at hand. Combine that with the Church’s liturgical cycle, and you have literally a never-ending source of inspiration. Such is one of the most attractive features to lectio divina, for it is open-ended and subject to continuous growth.
One might expect that instead of the phrase lectio divina, the adjective sacra (the feminine form of sacer) or “sacred reading” would be used. The word “sacred,” whether Latin or Greek, pertains to objects related to the holy such as a church or vessels of the altar used for Mass. Instead, tradition employs the adjective divina or “divine.” Exactly when and how this came about is lost in the mists of time, but that is secondary. It intimates that such reading is divine, not sacred, or more proximate to God himself instead of being an object related to his holiness Furthermore, lectio derives from the verb lego, “to choose, pick.” In sum, lectio divina may be said to be a “divine picking” or choosing of a given sentence, phrase or word through which God himself speaks. While certainly sacred (or sacra), one quickly discovers that lectio appeals directly to the heart of God and does not beat around the bush, so to speak.
Lectio traces its origins to early monasticism and currently is enjoying wide acceptance among lay persons. In fact, many people show a spontaneous interest in lectio divina after having been initiated into some form contemplative prayer in line with Christian teaching and tradition. They realize that such prayer cannot continue without verification of their practice, and the best locus for those raised in the Judaeo-Christian heritage is found in both the Old and New Testaments. Prayer enables one to penetrate beyond the letter of text and to see how the Holy Spirit is speaking to us through these inspired words here and now. Not long ago Pope Benedict XVI recognized this and remarked that lectio divina lies at the heart of the Church’s renewal. Richard McCambly, ocso
What is Lectio Divina?
Lectio Divina is a dynamic way of reading the Scriptures that has been around since AD 300. It follows a four-step approach of:
Lectio Divina invites you to savour and mull over God’s words quietly, slowly and intently. It gives you the space to respond to what you feel God is saying and helps you build a vital bridge between your encounters with God and everyday life with its joys, humdrum and challenges.