Characteristic of our times are the many uses and abuses of the Bible. What is the meaning of a biblical passage and how do we find it? This question divides Christians into a variety of camps, often creating competition and hostility. To find common ground we must go back to the wisdom of the ancient church.
In recovering the understanding of Scripture during the church’s earliest few centuries, we discover a way that can form bridges rather than walls between Christians today. To reach that ancient wisdom we travel back before the historical-critical method, which focuses on the sources behind the biblical texts; before fundamentalism, which emphasizes the plain meaning of the Bible; before rationalism, which seeks to limit the Bible to the confines of scientific thought; and before scholasticism, which centers on the Bible as a source for systematizing the Christian faith.
Before the influence of these periodic ideologies, Christians focused on the Scripture as a means of God’s self-revelation. For the ancient church, the Bible was the word of God, the graced source of divine communication. Lectio divina means reading the Bible with this understanding, as a way of listening to Scriptures as the word of God. This is what Origen meant when he wrote about lectio divina in the third century and when the patristic writers recommended lectio divina as a practice for all.
The Church’s Most Ancient Way of Reading the Bible
Of course this way of reading the Bible was not called “lectio divina” until the time of the Latin Fathers, but this must have been the way that Jesus read the Scriptures of Israel, a way that he learned from the Jewish tradition. This was the understanding of Paul when he wrote, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Rom 10:8). The early Christians read the gospels in this way too, not just as a way of learning about Jesus but as a means of forming their lives as his disciples.
The church fathers spoke of lectio divina as a way of pondering the word of God. Origen urged his readers to study and pray God’s word, asking to be illumined by God. Jerome encouraged his audience to be fed each day with lectio divina. Ambrose said, “In lectio we listen to God, in oratio we speak to God.”
As the monastic movement developed, lectio divina was practiced as the daily way to communicate with God. St. Benedict established lectio divina, along with the liturgy, at the core of his Rule. The monastic tradition encouraged this slow and thoughtful reading of Scripture and the ensuing pondering of its meaning. However, it was not until the twelfth century that Guigo II ordered the monastic practice into a four-step process using the imagery of the ladder: lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio.
Other spiritual traditions practiced lectio divina in a variety of ways. St. Albert stipulated that the Carmelites should ponder the word of God day and night. St. John of the Cross urged the practice of lectio divina in this way: “Seek in reading and you will find in meditation; knock in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation.”
In Dominican spirituality, listening to the word becomes a preparation for witnessing to the word. St. Dominic’s eighth way of prayer, sitting with Scripture, leads to his ninth way of prayer, walking with Scripture.
St. Ignatius of Loyola added dimensions of imagination, consolation and discernment to lectio divina as he developed the Spiritual Exercises. Jesuits teach that lectio divina leads to both contemplation and witness, forming people into contemplatives in action.
In recent years, lectio divina has been liberated from monasteries and religious houses to become the heart of lay spirituality. After Vatican II encouraged the church to “open wide the Scriptures for all the people of God,” Bible study has blossomed with the practice of lectio divina. In his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (152), Pope Francis recommended lectio divina as a “way of listening to what the Lord wishes to tell us in his word and of letting ourselves be transformed by the Spirit.” Lectio divina, he said, “consists of reading God’s word in a moment of prayer and allowing it to enlighten and renew us.”
Seven Keys to the Practice of Lectio Divina
1) Lectio divina teaches us to listen for the voice of God in Scripture. As we read the Bible, we listen, as St. Benedict said, with “the ear of the heart.” The Scriptures are far more than information; they are divine revelation. In the biblical word we personally encounter God. So in reading the Bible, we must listen carefully and prepare ourselves to respond.
2) Lectio divina expands our understanding of inspiration. The early Christians understood that the sacred texts of Israel are “inspired” by God (2 Tim 3:16). The church soon recognized that this quality applies to the complete Bible, that it is written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Yet, inspiration does not refer just to God’s action within the biblical writer at the time the text was written; rather, the breath of divine life has been placed in the sacred pages. Inspiration assures us that the Bible is the word of God in human words. And when we read the text as people alive in God’s Spirit within the Spirit-filled community of faith, the same Holy Spirit works in our minds and hearts, opening us to be formed into God’s people.
3) Lectio divina leads us to discover fuller meaning in the biblical texts. Because the Bible is a living text, no passage can be fully explained by a single meaning. The ongoing study of Scripture reveals increasingly rich layers of meaning. The original meaning of a text—what it meant to the author and first audience in their historical context—is the foundational meaning of any passage. This original meaning contains an essential meaning which all other meanings discovered within a text must be rooted in and built upon. The Christological sense is the fuller meaning of an ancient text when read in the light of the risen Christ. The canonical sense is the fuller meaning of the individual text in the context of the whole Bible. And the ecclesial sense is the fuller meaning in light of the church’s ongoing tradition of interpretation.
4) Lectio divina teaches that reading Scripture is less about finding information and more about being formed and transformed. Rather than keeping Scripture at a safe analytical distance, formational reading leads to our encounter with God’s word, opening us to personal engagement with God through the text. We involve ourselves intimately, openly and receptively through what we read. Our goal is not to use the text to acquire more knowledge or to get advice or to form an opinion about the passage. Rather, the inspired text becomes the subject of our reading relationship and we become the object that is acted upon and shaped by Scripture. Reading with expectation, we open ourselves so that the divine word can address us, probe us and form us into the image of Christ.
5) Lectio divina establishes a prayerful dialogue between the reader of Scripture and God. If we truly listen for the voice of God in Scripture, experiencing God’s word in ways that are increasingly more personal, then we will naturally want to respond to the voice we have heard. Our response to God’s word is prayer, and it is the natural result of a deepening relationship with God. For this reason, our prayer flows directly from reading and reflecting on the Scriptures. Depending on what we have heard God say to us in our reflective reading, our prayer may be one of praise, thanksgiving, lament or repentance. And our prayer is increasingly enriched because it is continually nourished by the vocabulary, images and sentiments of the sacred texts.
6) Lectio Divina is feasting on the word of God. Christian worship brings together word and sacrament, sharing the bread of life focused on both the table of the word and the table of the Eucharist. Lectio divina is similar to eucharistic communion in which Christ enters under our roof, infuses our body and soul with his divine presence and forms us into his own body. In a vision of Ezekiel, God invites the prophet to open his mouth and eat the scroll so that he may then speak God’s word to the people (Ezek 3:1-4). Medieval writers often compared lectio divina with this process of eating: taking a bite (lectio), chewing on it (meditatio), delighting in its flavor (oratio) and then digesting it to become part of the body (contemplatio). I would add, finally, metabolizing the word (operatio) so that it may be put to use in forms of witness and service.
7) Lectio divina leads us to become contemplatives in action. The monastic traditions of lectio divina aim at the goal of contemplation, which is a prayerful silence and resting in God’s presence. More active traditions aim at the goal of witness and service. But the Ignatian tradition demonstrates how contemplation and the active life are both necessary for one another. Our activity leads us to stop and rest with God in contemplative silence. We can then return to our life of action with greater zeal and purpose. Being a contemplative in action means that our active life feeds our contemplative life and our contemplative life informs our active life. In this way our lives do not become mindless action but rather our way of giving glory to God.
Bible Study in the Churches Today
In the past 50 years, the church has encouraged the study of the Bible on the part of all God’s people. Because the church had a lot of catching up to do in the later decades of the 20th century, Bible study at the pastoral level was offered primarily for information or apologetics. We wanted to increase our knowledge and understanding of Scripture, or we wanted to learn how to defend our faith and learn how the Bible was the foundation of the church’s doctrines.
Since the primary way of studying Scripture in the 20th century was the historical-critical method, this approach was reflected also in popular studies. This method of studying the Bible is concerned with the history of the text, its sources and literary forms, its cultural background and the meaning intended by its original author. This way of Bible study helped people avoid an overly subjective interpretation and moved the church from a devotional approach to Scripture to a more objective study.
As we discern what the church needs in the 21st century, we must be careful not to lose the ongoing discoveries provided by historical studies of Scripture. We must continue to learn the contexts and literary forms of biblical texts and how to seek the objective meaning intended by the author. But we must add other dimensions to Bible study at the pastoral level by retrieving ancient methods of formation in Scripture, especially the wisdom of lectio divina.
Although some today try to create a clear distinction between studying the Bible and prayerful reflection on Scripture, the Christian patristic writers and the Jewish rabbinical writers show us that we cannot create this kind of division with the word of God. In recent years, Pope Benedict affirmed the importance of study in the practice of lectio divina. On the 40th anniversary of “Dei Verbum,” he described lectio divina as “the assiduous study of holy Scripture, accompanied by prayer, (which) initiates that intimate exchange” between listening to God and responding in prayer.
Whether we are studying or praying, we must be always clearing a path toward our heart for Jesus to come. So the best form of Scripture study in the churches today includes commentaries that offer the best in scholarship but also teach people how to reflect individually and with the church on the biblical texts. Bible study today must teach people how to listen personally to the voice of God in the inspired texts and how to seek a prayerful, contemplative, formative understanding and love for Scripture.
We need to recover the practice of lectio divina from our ancient tradition, but not by disregarding subsequent history. Rather, we ought to bring lectio divina into the 21st century and integrate it with all the methods of interpretation developed through the centuries. We can then allow this ancient tradition to guide us in the ongoing challenge of seeking meaning in the Bible today.