On the feast of Saint Bernard, August 20, I am unlikely to celebrate his preaching of the Second Crusade! Although he was ardent in fighting schisms and heresies in the church, they were schisms and heresies so long now out of date that they do not much interest us today.. But he is also remembered for his re-invigoration of Lectio Divina --praying the scriptures--for the renewal of the church and his order of Cistertians. Traditionally, Lectio Divina involved four separate steps: read, meditate, pray and contemplate. It remains for us a useful and very fruitful form of scriptural prayer. First, a passage of scripture is read ( a paragraph or a brief section) slowly. This is followed by a reflection on its meaning. Then follows prayer and a contemplation on the Word of God. ( cf. Basil Pennington, Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures Crossroad Publishing, 1998).
Lectio Divina , as a distinct form of Christian prayer, dates from Origin in the third century who spoke of " scripture as a sacrament". Origin thought the Logos, the Word, Christ was incarnate in the scripturees and, thus, could immediately touch and teach readers and hearers. For Origin, Christ is " the interpretive key" which unlocks the message in scriptural texts. This form of scriptural prayer is less interested in an exegesis of the text from a viewpoint of the historical critical method and more focused on coming in contact with Christ in and through the scriptures and praying to him. Origin's practice of Lectio Divina was taken up by Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine and Saint Benedict who inaugurated this variant of private scriptural prayer for his monks. One read and then attended. Early fathers appealed to Romans 10:8-10 where Saint Paul refers to the presence of God's word in the believer's mouth and heart. The movement went from reading to probing one's heart's response to Christ in the scriptures. Bernard of Clairvaux re-emphasized the importance of Lectio Divina and contemplation of a scriptural passage guided by the Holy Spirit as a key to nourishing Christian spirituality.
John of the Cross also supported Lectio Divina as a form of prayer when he insisted:" Seek in reading and you will find in meditation;knock in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation." Lectio Divina involves a kind of feasting on the Word of God. The four parts are, first, taking a bite ( Lectio, the reading); then chewing on it (meditation). Next, one savors the essence of it, lingers over a word, phrase or feeling ( prayer) and the word is digested and made part of the person ( even their bodies): contemplation.
(1) Read: One begins with a slow reading of a scriptural passage, maybe re-reading it a number of times; (2) Meditate: This second movement involves pondering on the scriptural passage. In so doing, one is trying to listen to the inner message of the scripture ( for me, for us) delivered through the Holy Spirit. For example, we might take the passage from John 14:27 " Peace I leave you, my peace I give unto you". An analytical or scholarly approach might focus on why Jesus said that, where it was first said; its relation to the Last Supper. But in Lectio Divina the focus is not on exegesis but on Christ. The passage can lead the one who prays to ' enter peace' and/or ' share the peace of Christ'. The focus in this form of prayer is less on a biblical analysis of the passage than achieving peace and gaining a closer communion with God and Christ. (3) Pray: when he talked about Lectio Divina Ambrose said: " Let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together, for we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying." (4) Contemplate: fall into a silent prayer which expresses our love for God.
Bernard of Clairvaux compared the Holy Spirit, present to us in the scriptural prayer of Lectio Divina, to a kiss we receive from God the Father which allows the one who is contemplating to experiencee a real union with God. As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican Council II, we might remember that one of the principal documents of that Council, Dei Verbum or The Constitution on Divine Revelation, emphasized and urged on the church a renewal of this practice and use of Lectio Divina. On the fortieth anniversary of Dei Verbum in 2005, Benedict XVI affirmed, once again, the importance of this form of prayer: " I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio Divina. The diligent reading of Sacred Scripture, accompanied by prayer, brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying responds to him with trusting openness of heart ( cf. Dei Verbum n.25). If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the church--I am convinced of it--a new spiritual springtime."
People are ofen asking for advice or a practicum about how to pray. Lectio Divina is less a practice of just reading scripture and more one of listening to the inner.message of Scripture given us by the Holy Spirit--how it speaks to me and brings me in union with Christ. It does not seek information but communion with God. Lectio Divina does not treat scripture as a ' text' to be studied and de-ciphered but as " the Living Word of God.". When I study and pray to preach a Sunday homily, I do engage also in study, what was the context in Jesus' time of his actions or words? But I equally try to do Lectio Divina--to ask how the scripture passage can unite me with Jesus here and now. As Benedict XVI recently put it: " One condition for Lectio Divina is that the mind and heart be illumined by the Holy Spirit, that is, by the same Spirit who inspired the scriptures and that they be approached with an attitude of reverential hearing."
To be sure, there are other forms of Christian prayer: a silent prayer of centering with little in the way of words or images, beyond, perhaps, a one word mantra to start it off; the Ignatian form of imagination and use of the senses around a scripture passage ( but that Ignatian format, generally, ends up with the last two steps of Lectio Divina--prayer and contemplation). For a useful introduction to centering prayer cf. Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer ( Crossroad Publishing, 2009). A good guide to Ignatian imaginative use of the the senses in contemplation of gospel scenes can be found in David Fleming S.J., What is Ignatian Spirituality ( Loyola Press, 2008). One thing Lectio Divina has in its favor as a form of Christian prayer is its ancient lineage dating almost to the fathers of the desert and its continuous fruitful usage in the church down to our own time.