The term Lectio Divina describes a way of spending time with the Word of God, by reading it slowly – very slowly. Lectio Divina is the Latin for divine reading, spiritual reading, or “holy reading,” and represents a method of prayer and scriptural reading intended to engender communion with the Triune God and to provide special spiritual insights.
It is a way of praying with Scripture that calls on me to study, ponder, listen and – finally – pray from God’s Word.
Lectio Divina is a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures that allows the Bible, the Word of God, to become a means of union with God.
This ancient practice has been kept alive in the monastic tradition.
Alongside the Liturgy and daily manual labour, time set aside in a special way for lectio divina is one of the ways to providing an individual life with a daily spiritual rhythm. Those who practice Lectio Divina say that it allows them to discover within this rhythm an increasing ability to offer more of themselves and their relationships to God, and to accept the embrace that God is continuously extending to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
The term Lectio Divina refers to a process of “spiritual reading” which can include:
a) the process of slow, meditative reading of the Word of God;
b) the time that we spend absorbing and pondering on the Word, the breath of God;
c) the silent listening for God to speak to us through this Word; and
d) listening to our response to God’s Word. Lectio Divina can be practised either alone or in groups.
So, what is Lectio Divina?
The practice we know today as Lectio Divina is a very ancient exercise in Christian spirituality. The principles of Lectio Divina were first expressed around the year 220 AD by Origen. He affirmed that to read the Bible profitably it is necessary to do so with attention, constancy and prayer. Origen also emphasised the value of reading scripture with attention to the possibility of different levels of meaning.
Later, the rules of Saint Pachomius, Saint Augustine, Saint Basil and Saint Benedict for monastic living were based on three foundations: participation in liturgical life, manual labour and the practice of divine reading. The systematisation of spiritual reading into four steps dates back to the 12th century.
Around the year 1150, Guigo II, a Carthusian monk, wrote The Monk’s Ladder (Scala Claustralium), in which he set out the theory of the four rungs: reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation.
In the early monastic tradition, contemplation was understood in two ways:
The first way was the contemplation of God in creation – God in “the many.”
The second way was the contemplation of God without images or words – God as “The One.”
From this perspective, lectio divina serves as a training-ground for the contemplation of God in creation.
The Classical Practice of Lectio Divina
The classical practice of Lectio Divina – the prayerful reading of the Bible – is being rediscovered and renewed. At the same time, a number of ways of practicing it have sprung up leading to a certain confusion regarding its relationship to the distinct practice of Centring Prayer.
A few distinctions may be helpful:
Firstly, we need to distinguish Lectio Divina from Bible study, which is very useful at another time and provides a solid conceptual background for the practice of Lectio Divina.
Secondly, Lectio Divina is not the same as reading the scriptures for the purpose of private edification, encouragement, or getting acquainted with the many-sided aspects of revelation, and especially with Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. Rather, Lectio Divina is a way or formula for furthering these objectives.
Thirdly, Lectio Divina is not the same as spiritual reading, which moves beyond the exclusive reading of sacred scripture to include other spiritual books such as the lives and writings of the saints.
Fourthly and finally, Lectio Divina is not the same as praying the scriptures in common, a contemporary development that is sometimes identified with Lectio Divina.
The classical practice of Lectio Divina was experienced in private and consisted in following the movement of the Holy Spirit in regard to the time one might devote to each step of the process, as well as passing from one step to another during the same period of prayer.
Following a particular structure, which is required in all forms of common prayer, tends to limit spontaneity to the movement of the Holy Spirit, which is the heart of the practice.
Contemplation and prayer
In contemplation, we cease from interior spiritual doing and learn simply to be, that is, to rest in the presence of our loving God. Just as we constantly move back and forth in our exterior lives between speaking and listening, between questioning and reflecting, so in our spiritual lives we must learn to enjoy the refreshment of simply being in God’s presence, an experience that should naturally alternate with our spiritual practice.
In ancient times, contemplation was not regarded as a goal to be achieved through some method of prayer, but was simply accepted with gratitude as God’s recurring gift. At intervals, the Lord invites us to cease from speaking so that we can simply rest in God’s embrace. This is the pole of our inner spiritual rhythm called contemplation.
How different this ancient understanding is from our modern approach. Instead of recognising that we all gently oscillate back and forth between spiritual activity and receptivity, between practice and contemplation, we today tend to set contemplation before ourselves as a goal – something we imagine we can achieve through some spiritual technique.
We must be willing to sacrifice our “goal-oriented” approach if we are to practice lectio divina, because lectio divina has no other goal than spending time with God through the medium of the Word.
The amount of time we spend in any aspect of lectio divina, depends on God’s Spirit, not on us. Lectio divina teaches us to savour and delight in all the different flavours of God’s presence, whether they are active or receptive modes of experiencing the Word.
The whole of our spiritual lives were viewed in this way, as a gentle oscillation between spiritual activity and receptivity by means of which God unites us ever closer to God-self. In just the same way, the steps or stages of lectio divina represent an oscillation back and forth between these spiritual poles.
In lectio divina, we recognise our underlying spiritual rhythm and discover many different ways of experiencing God’s presence – many different ways of praying.
Lectio Divina as reading and listening
The art of lectio divina begins with cultivating the ability to listen deeply. When we read the Scriptures we should try to imitate the prophet Elijah. We should allow ourselves to become women and men who are able to listen for the still, small voice of God (I Kings 19: 12); the “faint murmuring sound” which is God’s word for us, God’s voice touching our hearts.
This gentle listening is an “attunement” to or tuning in to the presence of God in that special part of God’s creation which is the Scriptures. The cry of the prophets to ancient Israel was the joy-filled command to “Listen!” “Sh'ma Israel: Hear, O Israel!” In lectio divina, we too heed that command and turn to the Scriptures, knowing that we must “hear” – listen – to the voice of God, which often speaks very softly.
In order to hear someone speaking softly we must learn to be silent. We must learn to love silence. If we are constantly speaking or if we are surrounded with noise, we cannot hear gentle sounds. The practice of lectio divina, therefore, requires that we first quiet down in order to hear God’s word to us.
This is the first step of lectio divina, appropriately called lectio – reading.
1, Method: Lectio Divinia is typically practiced daily for one continuous hour. A selection from Scripture is chosen ahead of time, often as a daily progression through a particular book of the Bible.
2, Time: Selecting a time for lectio divina is important. Typical methods are to pray for one hour in the morning, or to divide it into two half-hour periods, one in the morning and one in the evening. The key is to pre-select the time that will be devoted to the prayer and to keep it. Using the same time every day leads to a daily habit of prayer that becomes highly effective.
3, Place: The place for prayer is to be free from distractions. This means it should be isolated from other people, telephones, visual distractions, etc. Some find an icon to be helpful. The same place should be used for lectio if possible, especially as one first begins to practice it. Familiarity with a location reduces the possibility of distraction away from the prayer.
4, Preparation: Prior to reading, it is important to engage in a transitional activity that takes one from the normal state of mind to a more contemplative and prayerful state. A few moments of deep, regular breathing and a short prayer inviting the Holy Spirit to guide the prayer time help to set the tone and improve the effectiveness of the lectio. Some practitioners conduct other devotions as a preparation for Lectio Divina.
The Four Moments or Steps:
Once the stage is set it is time to begin the prayer. There are four phases of the prayer, which do not necessarily progress in an ordered fashion: Reading (Lectio), Meditation (Meditatio), Prayer (Oratio) and Contemplation (Contemplatio). One may move between different phases of the prayer very freely as the Spirit guides.
Step 1: Reading (Lectio):
Read the passage slowly several times. The first step in lectio divina is the process of reading or listening. But this reading is very different from the speed reading we use to newspapers, books and sometimes even for the Bible. Lectio is reverential listening; listening both in a spirit of silence and of awe. We are listening for the still, small voice of God that will speak to us personally – not loudly, but intimately. In lectio we read slowly, attentively, gently listening to hear a word or phrase that is God's word for us this day.
Step 2: Meditation (Meditatio):
The second step or stage in lectio divina is meditation. Reflect on the text of the passage, thinking about how to apply to your own life. Gravitate to any particular phrase or word that seems to be of particular importance to you. This should not be confused with exegesis, but is a very personal reading of the Scripture and application to my own life.
Once we have found a word or a passage in the Scriptures that speaks to us in a personal way, we must take it in and “ruminate” on it. The image of the ruminant animal quietly chewing its cud was used in antiquity as a symbol of the Christian pondering the Word of God. There is a scriptural invitation to lectio divina in the example of Mary “pondering in her heart” what she saw and heard of Christ (Luke 2: 19).
The word is taken in and pondered, it is memorised. And while gently repeating it to ourselves, we allow it to interact with our thoughts, our hopes, our memories, our desires. Through meditation, we allow God’s word to become his word for us, a word that touches us and affects us at our deepest levels.
Step 3: Prayer (Oratio)
The third step in lectio divina is prayer (oratio). But in this case, prayer is understood as dialogue with God. It is a loving conversation with the One who has invited us into an embrace; it is an offering to God of those parts of myself that I have not previously believed God wants.
In this step, we respond to the passage by opening our hearts to God. This is not an intellectual exercise, but an intuitive conversation or dialogue with God.
In this prayer, I allow the word that I have taken in and on which I am pondering to touch and change my deepest self. I hold up my most difficult and pain-filled experiences, and then gently recite over them the healing word or phrase God has given in my lectio and meditation. In this prayer, I allow my real self to be touched and changed by the Word of God.
Step 4: Contemplation (Contemplatio)
Finally, we simply rest in the presence of the One who has used the Scripture word as a means of inviting us to accept a transforming embrace. Listen to God. This is a freeing oneself from my own thoughts, both mundane and holy. It is about hearing God talk to me. We open our minds, our hearts and our souls to the influence of God. Any conversation must allow for both sides to communicate, and this most unfamiliar act is allowing yourself to be open to hearing God speak.
No one who has ever been in love needs to be reminded that there are moments in loving relationships when words are unnecessary. It is the same in our relationship with God. Wordless, quiet rest in the presence of the one I love and who loves me.
In contemplation, once again I practice silence, letting go of my own words, this time simply enjoying the experience of being in the presence of God.
The underlying rhythm of Lectio Divina
To practice lectio divina effectively means travelling back in time to an understanding that today is in danger of being almost completely lost. In the past, the words action and contemplation did not describe different kinds of Christians engaging – or not engaging – in different forms of prayer. Practice and contemplation were understood as the two poles of our underlying, continuing spiritual rhythm: a gentle oscillation back and forth between spiritual “activity” with regard to God and “receptivity.”
Practice – spiritual “activity” – referred in ancient times to our active co-operation with God’s grace in rooting out vices and allowing the virtues to flourish. The direction of spiritual activity was not outward in the sense of outreach, but inward – down into the depths of the soul where the Spirit of God is constantly transforming us, refashioning us in God’s image. The active life is thus coming to see who we truly are and allowing ourselves to be remade into what God intends us to become.
The Practice of Lectio Divina
Private Lectio Divina
1, Choose a text of the Scriptures that you wish to pray. Many people in their daily lectio divina use one of the lectionary readings for the day; others prefer to slowly work through a particular book of the Bible. It makes no difference which text is chosen, as long as one has no set goal of “covering” a certain amount of text: the amount of text “covered” is in God’s hands, not yours or mine.
2, Place yourself in a comfortable position and allow yourself to become silent. Some people focus for a few moments on their breathing. Others may have a well-loved “prayer word” or “prayer phrase” that they gently recite in order to become interiorly silent. For some, the practice known as “centring prayer” makes a good, brief introduction to lectio divina. But use whatever method is best for you and allow yourself to enjoy silence for a few moments.
3, Then turn to the text and read it slowly, gently. Savour each portion of the reading, constantly listening for the “still, small voice” of a word or phrase that somehow says, “I am for you today.” Do not expect lightening or ecstasies. In lectio divina, God is teaching us to listen, to seek in silence. God does not reach out and grab us. Instead, it is more like a soft, gentle invitation, inviting us ever more deeply into the Divine presence.
4, Next, take the word or phrase into yourself. Memorise it and slowly repeat it to yourself, allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, memories and ideas. Do not be afraid of “distractions.” Memories or thoughts are simply parts of yourself which, and when they rise up during lectio divina they are asking to be given to God along with the rest of your inner self. Allow this inner pondering, this rumination, to invite you into dialogue with God.
5, Then speak to God. Whether you use words, or ideas, or images, or all three, is not important. Interact with God as you would with one who you know loves and accepts you. And give to God what you have discovered in yourself during your experience of meditation. Experience yourself as the ordinand, the deacon the priest that you are. Experience God using the word or phrase that God has given to you as a means of blessing, of transforming the ideas and memories, which your pondering on the Word has awakened. Give to God what you have found within your heart.
6, Finally, simply rest in the embrace of God. And when God invites you to return to your pondering of the Word or to your inner dialogue with God, do so. Learn to use words when words are helpful, and to let go of words when they are no longer necessary. Rejoice in the knowledge that God is with you in both words and silence, in spiritual activity and in inner receptivity.
Some times in lectio divina, you will return several times to the printed text, either to savour the literary context of the word or phrase that God has given, or to seek a new word or phrase to ponder. At other times, only a single word or phrase will fill the whole time set aside for lectio divina. It is not necessary to anxiously assess the quality of your lectio divina as if you were “performing” or seeking some goal. Lectio divina has no goal other than that of being in the presence of God by praying the Scriptures.
Lectio divina is an ancient spiritual art that is being rediscovered in our day. It is a way of allowing the Scriptures to become again what God intended that they should be – a means of uniting us to God. In lectio divina, we discover our own underlying spiritual rhythm. We experience God in a gentle oscillation back and forth between spiritual activity and receptivity, in the movement from practice into contemplation and back again into spiritual practice.
Lectio divina teaches us about the God who truly loves us. In lectio divina, we dare to believe that our loving God continues to embrace us today. In the word we experience ourselves as personally loved by God; as the recipients of a Word which God gives uniquely to each of us whenever we turn to the Scriptures.
Finally, lectio divina teaches us about ourselves. In lectio divina, we discover that there is no place in our hearts, no interior corner or closet, that cannot be opened and offered to God. God teaches us in lectio divina what it means to be a royal priesthood – a people called to consecrate all of our memories, our hopes and our dreams to Christ.
Appendix: Two Approaches to Group Lectio Divina
1, Lectio Divina shared in community:
1, Listening for the Gentle Touch of Christ the Word (The Literal Sense).
One person reads aloud (twice) the scripture passage, as others are attentive to some segment that is especially meaningful to them.
Silence for 1-2 minutes. Each hears and silently repeats a word or phrase that attracts.
2, Sharing aloud: A word or phrase that has attracted each person. A simple statement of one or a few words. No elaboration. Simply how Christ the Word speaks to me (the allegorical sense)
3, A second reading of the same passage by another person.
Silence for 2-3 minutes. Reflect on “Where does the content of this reading touch my life today?”
4, Sharing aloud: Briefly: “I hear, I see...” What Christ the Word invites me to do (the Moral Sense)
Third reading by still another person.
5, Silence for 2-3 minutes. Reflect on “I believe that God wants me to … today/this week.”
6, Sharing aloud: at somewhat greater length the results of each one’s reflection. Be especially aware of what is shared by the person to your right.
7, After full sharing, pray for the person to your right.
Note: Anyone may “pass” at any time. If instead of sharing with the group you prefer to pray silently, simply state this aloud and conclude your silent prayer with: Amen.
2, Lectio on life:
Applying Lectio Divina to my personal Salvation History (the Literal Sense).
Purpose: to apply a method of prayerful reflection to a life/work incident, instead of to a scripture passage.
1, Listening for the gentle touch of Christ the Word (the Literal Sense).
Each person quiets the body and mind: relax, sit comfortably but alert, close eyes, attune to breathing ...
Each person gently reviews events, situations, sights, encounters that have happened since the beginning of the retreat/or during the last month at work.
2, Gently ruminating, reflecting (Meditation).
Each person allows the self to focus on one such offering.
Recollect the setting, sensory details, sequence of events, etc.
You should notice where the greatest energy seemed to be evoked. Was there a turning point or shift?
In what ways did God seem to be present? To what extent was I aware then? Now?
3, Prayerful Consecration, Blessing (Prayer).
Use a word or phrase from the Scriptures to inwardly consecrate – to offer up to God in prayer – the incident and interior reflections. Allow God to accept and bless them as your gift.
4, Accepting Christ’s Embrace; Silent Presence to the Lord (contemplation).
Remain in silence for some period.
5, Sharing our Lectio experience with each other (action; works)
The leader calls the group back into “community.”
All then share briefly, or remain in continuing silence.
Thelma Hall, Too Deep for Words (New York: Paulist Press,1988).
Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1994).
Next week: Practical and critical examinations of selected spiritual practices: (2) The Jesus Prayer.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Instiutute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar in Year II course, Spirituality for Ministry, on Wednesday 19 November 2008.