In thinking about monastic practices that help form us in a contemporary culture, I want to turn to the idea of lectio divina. Lectio Divina is Latin for divine reading, spiritual reading, or “holy reading,” and represents a traditional Catholic practice of prayer and scriptural reading intended to promote communion with God and to increase in the knowledge of God’s Word. It is a way of praying with Scripture that calls one to study, ponder, listen and, finally, pray and even sing and rejoice from God’s Word, within the soul.
According to Jean Leclercq, OSB, the founders of the medieval tradition of Lectio Divina were Saint Benedict and Pope Gregory I. However, the methods that they employed had precedents in the biblical period both in Hebrew and Greek. A text that combines these traditions is Romans 10:8 where Apostle Paul refers to the presence of God’s word in the believer’s “mouth or heart”. It was the recitation of the biblical text that provided the rationale for Lectio Divina.
Daily life in a Benedictine monastery consisted of three elements: liturgical prayer, manual labor and Lectio Divina, a quiet prayerful reading of the Bible. This slow and thoughtful reading of Scripture, and the ensuing pondering of its meaning, was their meditation. This spiritual practice is what is now called “divine reading” or “sacred reading”, or lectio divina.
My first introduction to this practice came from reading Eugene Peterson’s book, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. I reconnected with it again in the book Sacred Rhythms: Spiritual Practices that Nourish Your Soul and Transform Your Life by Ruth Haley Barton.
The traditional lectio process can take up to an hour and begins by choosing a passage of Scripture between 6-15 verses. Begin with a time of preparation (silencio) where you become quiet in God’s presence. Then the passage is read four times, each time asking a different question that invites us into the dynamic of that move. A period of silence follows each reading.
Lectio Divina has been likened to “Feasting on the Word.” The four parts are first taking a bite (Lectio), then chewing on it (Meditatio). Next is the opportunity to savor the essence of it (Oratio). Finally, the Word is digested and made a part of the body (Contemplatio).
This first moment consists in reading the scriptural passage slowly, attentively several times. This word or phrase will stand out from the rest and cause a visceral reaction. Every time I have engaged in this process, when the word or phrase stands out, my heart has been triggered. It has been a very real experience.
Re-reading the text, focus on the word or phrase and reflect on the way your life is touched by it. Doing this allows the Holy Spirit to touch some aspect of your life and bring this word or phrase to bear on it. It is not a special revelation from God, but the inward working of the Holy Spirit, which enables you to grasp the revelation contained in the Scripture. For instance, you might ask during this time, “What is it in my life that needed to hear this word today? Then pause for a time of silence to dwell in the Word and word.
This is a time of response. God, through the word and Spirit issues an invitation. This is where we make known our response. It is usually a prayer, one that comes most naturally in response to what we have heard God say to us, and we allow it to flow freely in the moments of silence that follow. We make confession. We determine how we will act differently.
This moment is characterized by a simple, loving focus on God. In other words, it is a beautiful, wordless contemplation of God, a joyful rest in His presence.
The first time I tried this was at a silent retreat. Our spiritual director read a passage to us and asked us to pick out how God was speaking to us. I began recently to practice the lectio engaging in it every other day. Each time is different. Some days the word or phrase is apparent immediately. On other days, I’ve had to read the passage four or five times to recognize the word or phrase to contemplate and meditate upon.
I recommend you take some time out and try this. There is nothing magical about the process except that you are not reading for quantity but for relationship. You are letting the Spirit teach you and draw you closer relationally to the Word through the word. The fact that you spend time contemplating and meditating on a small amount of Scriptures is, I think, the key. You are not reading for information, but relationship.
Take a journal and try it. I would love to know your experience with this spiritual formation act.