Lectio Divina: What It Is and How It’s Done

 

                               bible

Traditionally, the Catholic laity imbibed the Bible mainly through the medium of the Mass. And little wonder: the most important act of worship in the Catholic faith provides a veritable feast of scripture.  The Mass in its modern form has three scripture readings—an Old Testament reading, an epistle, and a gospel; and the words of the Bible—from the Psalms to Revelation—are sprinkled throughout the rest of the Mass.  Yet the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent popes have reclaimed the necessity for all faithful Catholics to engage deeply and personally with the Bible in their everyday lives.  It shouldn’t be enough simply to get our weekly dose of scripture at Sunday Mass; we should actively seek out the Word of God during the week, too.

Happily, there is a way in which one can strengthen one’s acquaintanceship with Holy Scripture and draw closer to God in prayer at the same time. It is called lectio divina—Latin for “divine reading.”  Lectio divina is praying with the Bible.  Its object is to grow closer to God by reading and meditating on His word. In this it is different from ordinary reading, which is aimed primarily at acquiring information. The person practicing lectio divina is not trying to “get through” the text so as to study or analyze it; rather, he or she is striving, through God’s word, to foster communion with Him. The “knowledge” gained here is not so much an intellectual knowledge as a personal one. Accordingly, one reads slowly and reflectively, enjoying the words and extracting their full “juice”; there is an almost aesthetic or gustatory dimension to lectio divina.

Although much used in monastic communities from the earliest centuries of the Church, lectio divina can be done by anyone, clergy or lay. There is a basic structure to it that has been followed by believers for centuries. Here are the classic steps:

First one finds a quiet, calm space to pray. Although the Church Fathers omitted to mention it, all computers, cell phones, etc., should be turned off. This preliminary stage is sometimes called Statio (literally, positioning oneself).

Lectio (reading): This is the simple reading of a passage, slowly and reverently. You can read any passage of the Bible at all, but it is best to choose a shorter rather than a longer one. It might be no more than “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). As you practice lectio divina over time you will discover which parts of the Bible speak to you the most, such as the Psalms or the gospels.

Meditatio (meditation): Here you meditate on the passage you have just read, seeking to understand what God is trying to say to you and applying the passage to your own life. Using my example above, I might think about the Fatherhood of God and how I experience it in my life; or I might ruminate over Jesus’ many encounters with lowly and suffering people and the comfort He brought them.

Oratio (prayer): Now one engages God directly in prayer, using the biblical passage as a springboard. The classic modes of prayer—adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, petition—come into play. I might make petition to Jesus, imploring Him to comfort me in my troubles; thank him for His kindness in my life; express sorrow for my sins against Him and ask for His grace; and so forth.

Contemplatio (contemplation): Here reading and meditating stop and one simply sits quietly in God’s presence, listening to what His “still, small voice” might be telling you; “resting in the arms of the Lord” is another way of putting it.  One can only discover what this means by doing it. We are apt to find this step mystifying at first, ensconced as we are in a utilitarian culture of busyness; nevertheless it is the very heart of prayer.

This whole process is actually simpler in practice than it may appear on the page. In a nutshell, one prepares for reading (statio), reads (lectio), prays about it (oratio), and finally rests in God’s love (contemplatio).

Since I took up lectio divina a few years ago it has become my favorite form of prayer. I find it beneficial and satisfying on many levels. It allows one to listen to the Word of God and respond to it. It is disciplined; it engages the intellect, the senses and the emotions. It has both length and depth. Reading the Bible passage, meditating and praying on it allow you to fill much time: before you know it, you will have spent a solid twenty minutes or more in prayer. And it imbues your prayer with the deepest theological content. Lectio divina is school and chapel rolled into one; through it, you will grow in knowledge of God and His will and at the same time foster your relationship with Him.  And you will always end by resting in His loving embrace.

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