Latin for “divine reading”, lectio divina is a sacred practice that’s been around since at least the time of St. Benedict in the 5th century. The easiest explanation is to say that it’s prayerful reading. However, that skims over the most important elements of this spiritual exercise. In today’s article, we’re going to discuss not only why you should practice lectio but also how.
History of the Practice
Though St. Benedict mentions meditating and praying over Sacred Scripture in the Rule for his monks, it wasn’t until the 11th century that a formula appeared. A Carthusian monk named Guigo wrote a letter describing a “Stairway to Heaven” consisting of four rungs. These four rungs are the four steps of what we today called lectio divina. The letter Guigo wrote is now known as the Ladder of Monks.
The practice is one found in many spiritualities ranging from Benedictine to Carmelite. In fact, Saint Teresa of Avila often prayed with a book in order to deal with distractions. Oftentimes, the mere presence of reading material was enough to encourage her.
The Four Rungs
The four rungs as described by Guigo are lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. These four simple steps are how someone can go about lectio divina in a private setting. In a group setting, three other steps can be included so that the process looks like this: statio (position), lectio, meditation, oratio, contemplatio, collatio (discussion), and actio (action).
We’re only going to look at the four rungs one will climb when doing lectio in private.
Before even beginning, know that this is a sacred time between you and the Lord. Be sure that this is ten to fifteen minutes (at the least) of uninterrupted silent time. Turn off the cell phone. Step away from the computer. If it can be a distraction, it shouldn’t be there. Sit comfortably but not so much so that you’re liable to fall asleep.
Next, place yourself in the presence of God. This can be done using a short prayer like the Our Father or the Hail Mary. Or, a short prayer to the Holy Spirit. Or, a simple acknowledgment that God is always with you. Whatever works. One of the beautiful things about lectio divina is how adaptable it is within the formula.
The first step is “lectio” or “reading”. Take up your reading material, which can be the Bible or a spiritual work, and read slowly. St. Teresa of Avila suggested that you read as much as you feel prompted. However, if you’re new to the practice, try to keep the selection small. You don’t want to lose yourself in what you’re reading.
It’s also important not to read anything too complicated. If most theological texts go above your head and require an intense study on your part, then they shouldn’t be used for lectio. All you’re doing as you read is taking in the literal sense of the words. This is not a time to study.
Meditatio, or meditation, is searching the text for deeper meaning. In medieval imagery, it was not uncommon for the image of a cow chewing its cud to be used to describe someone ruminating over Scripture or spiritual writings.
Turn the words over in your mind. If applicable, imagine yourself in the scene. For example, if Christ is talking about the parable of the sower, then picture the various types of soil and watching the farmer cast his seed. Ask yourself how this Scripture applies to you. Ask yourself what it means on a deeper level. This is where lectio divina takes on a Marian aspect as you, like the Virgin Mary, “ponder these things” in your heart.
At this point, you have to be careful not to come up with any interpretations that go against Catholic teaching. This is why it’s so important to know the Faith so that you can interpret Scripture and other writings in the light of Catholic doctrine.
What you have meditated on should now prompt you to pray to God. St. Teresa of Avila described mental prayer as “nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends”. What you’ve come to see or realize during the meditation, you now take to God.
For some people, talking to God can prove to be difficult. Other methods include simply saying a short prayer slowly. Or, selecting a word or phrase from what was just read and repeating it, slowly, over and over. For how long? For as long as you like, though if you’re timing yourself, perhaps not too long.
There’s contemplation and then there’s Contemplation. Contemplation in the deeper sense of the word is a gift from God.St. Bernard described this contemplation as being “snatched up” to God in a deep intimacy, where the likeness of God is restored to the soul.
However, in the sense of lectio, contemplation is when you rest in God and listen. Don’t expect to hear a voice or anything. However, now that you’ve read, meditated, and spoken, it’s time to simply “be” in the Lord.
I once asked a Secular Carmelite how one deals with distractions, especially during this portion of lectio. He recommended just setting aside the thought. Don’t try to fight it because you’ll only think it more. Rather, just acknowledge that it’s there and set it aside. Or, you could use it as a launching point to talk more to God.
The goal is not to empty your mind of all thoughts. Neither is it to reach a state of “nirvana”. Rather, the goal is to be in the presence of God. If it becomes too difficult to remain here, then return to oratio, meditatio, or even lectio. The beautiful thing about this practice is how flexible it is. Just because you’re on one rung of the ladder doesn’t mean you can’t ascend or descend to another as the need dictates.
A Life of Prayer
The point of lectio divina is to walk away with a deeper appreciation of God, a renewed resolve to live a holy life, and, hopefully, a new insight into Scripture or the spiritual life. St. Teresa of Avila advises that practitioners make a new resolution based on the fruits of their prayer time.
Lectio divina is not confined to the monastery or to priests. Anyone can practice it. It’s all right if you aren’t particularly good at it at first but seek to improve with each session. By keeping to it, you can deepen your life of prayer and your overall sense of God’s presence in your life.