In writing this short reflection on lectio divina in relationship to the coming Synod of Bishops. I was again forcefully reminded of the great watershed that the Second Vatican Council has been for Roman Catholics and for all other Christian churches. For 400 years following the Counter-Reformation, the church hesitated to make the Scriptures accessible to lay women and men out of fear that the biblical text might be misinterpreted because of a lack of proper tools or methods for approaching it.
With the creation and publication of the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” (Dei Verbum), the church changed course and once again urged the faithful to return to the Scriptures as a source of spiritual nourishment. “Let all the Christian faithful learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil 3:8) by frequent reading of the divine scriptures. ‘Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ’” (Dei Verbum No. 25). The constitution also acknowledges the importance of prayer when reading the biblical text, so that the dialogical character of this practice is apparent. There is, however, no explicit mention of the practice of lectio divina. By contrast, the working paper (instrumentum laboris) for the synod devotes a whole section (No. 38) to lectio divina. What a difference 43 years make!
What is Lectio Divina?
Lectio divina is reading a passage from the Scriptures (usually 7 to 10 verses) in a slow, reflective manner, either alone or within a group. Usually the text is read out loud so that words can be savored, phrases can receive their full value and the flow of the text can be discerned. The reading is followed by a period of silence, in which one can focus on a word or a phrase that resonates strongly. The text is read out loud again: if in a group, a different reader voices it. Again it is followed by a period of silence. I usually use this time to reflect on what grace might be in the words or phrase that struck me. Others may choose to place this in the person of Christ. The text is read a third time, followed by a period of silence and the question, “What is this text asking me to do?” This point in the process provides a rich opportunity for prayer: for oneself, for the church, for another member of the group, for the needs of people of our time. Finally and importantly, there is time to rest in silent contemplation, to imagine to oneself resting in God’s love.
Lectio divina is a Spirit-filled practice for encountering the mystery of God in the Scriptures, in part because it is utterly simple and flexible. Since there is no one right way to do it, groups and individuals will need to explore and to trust their own intuitions about what is most appropriate for them. Lectio divina is not a technique. Rather, it is an engagement between the meaning of the text and the narrative of God’s saving action in one’s own life. This engagement is sensory: reading, listening, sensing the words, breathing, being silent, dwelling, praying and being silent again. It takes time.
Certainly, the practice is powerful because it goes against the grain of contemporary culture. So much of our world is driving, hammering, shouting, screeching, clamoring for attention, ramping things up for one exaggeration after another. The engine of continuous, expanding consumption uses excess stimulation and noise for fuel. Like the plant in “Little Shop of Horrors” that needs ever more fresh human blood in order to live, so a consumption economy needs speed, noise, hype, impulsive buying and using things up in order to live.
Much in the contemporary world is truly outstanding, of course. We need to love our world as much as God does in creating it, in sending the Word to become flesh, in blessing it with the Holy Spirit. As the monastic writer Michael Casey points out, lectio divina is a low-pitched daily practice that allows for the gradual uncovering of our egocentrism and its transformation into other-centered living by the Holy Spirit. This kind of self-awareness, which does not collapse into egocentrism, is hard to come by in a world of overstimulation.
Teachers in some Catholic elementary schools have begun to use lectio divina in the classroom. One third-grade class practices it every Monday and Wednesday, as the teacher invites the students to assume a prone position on the floor during a 15-minute session. With a group of very young learners, a teacher might play meditative music in the background as they quiet down. A short passage from the Scriptures is read and the usual group process for lectio is followed. These young students find that lectio divina helps them to quiet down (“It feels as if God is right beside you the whole day after you do lectio”), and they learn something about the Scriptures (“You feel like you were there in the Bible story”).
Some elementary-grade teachers who have used lectio divina acknowledge that at first they did not think it would work; they doubted that their young charges would be able to settle down and focus on the text. Most of the time, however, they could, which is what most adults also experience with lectio. What matters is perseverance, trusting the Spirit to help one learn to listen while one attends prayerfully to the text.
A Benedictine school in Chile has prominently put a Bible on a stand in every classroom. Students practice group lectio divina at the beginning of every day, using a general ritual, but with enough freedom to foster the creativity and imagination of students. To be sure, the approach grows in sophistication as students move through the grade levels. There are no Benedictine monastics in this school. Lay women and men have worked to introduce Benedictine values and practices into the school’s entire program, and lectio is central to that effort.
Still other groups are exploring the use of a combination of lectio divina (holy reading) and visio divina (holy looking). Since most people are visual learners, visio divina taps into their visual archive of memory to provide an immediate entree into their life experience. In this example, an Episcopalian pastor created a Lenten program for groups. Each Sunday a passage from the Lenten Gospels was chosen and members of the group did individual lectio divina with it over the next three days. On Thursday, the group came together for a group lectio session; then they explored the layers of meaning by looking at an illumination of the text from the Saint John’s Bible (a new richly illustrated Bible being produced by artists in Collegeville, Minn.). This combination of intensive individual lectio, followed by group reflection and interaction with a multilayered illumination proved to be a rich, prayerful and imagination-opening experience.
Clearly, lectio divina is not just for monastics anymore.
Why Does Lectio Divina Matter?
As the synod’s instrumentum laboris notes: “lectio divina is not confined to a few, well-committed individuals among the faithful nor to a group of specialists in prayer. Instead, lectio is a necessary element of an authentic Christian life in a secularized world, which needs contemplative, attentive, critical and courageous people who, at times, must make totally new, untried choices.” This is a strong statement. Lectio divina matters because it provides a contemplative, Scripture-based foundation for a thoughtful Christian response to our world. This response comes as Scripture touches human experience with the “mysterious stirring” of the Holy Spirit. By making the Scriptures more accessible to lay men and women, the church has provided a powerful source for spiritual growth and transformation.
In particular, group lectio has a powerful, unique impact because faith-sharing is implicit in the practice. As Christians we can draw enormous encouragement, hope, insight and courage from listening to the witness of another’s lived faith experience. By praying out of our own lives for the good of another in response to the biblical word, our hearts expand—we long for holiness and for unity with each other and with Christ.
Bible Reading for Spiritual Growth, a fine, short handbook by Norvene Vest, a lay oblate of Saint Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, Calif.
Each of these is a fine resource for reading about lectio divina. They carry a danger, however, that we will read about lectio rather than picking up the Bible and actually doing it.