This Latin phrase means “holy reading.” It refers, in the first instance, to the prayerful reading of the Bible, in which we believe God speaks personally to each one of us. St Benedict wanted monks to devote several hours a day to this work. In order to hear this word, it is not enough to read it off the page. God speaks through the human authors of the Bible, as well as through the people and events recorded there.
So monks devoted a lot of time to the study of the Bible as well as of other fields of knowledge in order to listen to God’s word as carefully as possible. The time for lectio divina therefore came to include study in a more general sense. Still, the intention was to teach monks to listen more attentively to God in their lives. The world of the Bible teaches us to see our own world, our work and relationships, as the place where God continues to call us and all things to find their fulfillment in him. This kind of wisdom is more important than knowledge, and it is learned by deepening our understanding of God’s love and realizing that He is the light which illuminates our search for Him in all things.
The Bible is the word of life for a monk. We listen to it in the Divine Office, and we use it as the source of our own prayer and praise of God. Contrary to what many non-Catholics think of our Church, we are very much a people of the Word and use that Word to guide our lives within the embrace of the Church. When a monk does lectio divina on his own, usually it involves reading a passage slowly, always listening out for the way it “echoes” in his own heart. That is where meditation turns into prayer. It may be prayer for himself, or for others, a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God. The word may draw him more deeply into himself in the worship of God and the search for His will.
Traditionally this pattern of prayerful reading came to be considered as having four elements: lectio – meditatio – oratio – contemplatio. These could be translated as reading (or listening), taking (or receiving) the word in our hearts, praying with the word and wondering (or contemplating) at it.
The intention and the method are different from other ways of reading. Here, we are not trying to obtain information, or to find an intellectual understanding of the text, or to define a point of view in a debate. Instead, we are allowing the Word of God to work on us through faith so that it illuminates and guides us not just in our mind, but in our heart and soul also.
The Holy Spirit that inspired the Word, is also alive and active in the Christian through his or her baptism and personal faith. The Spirit, then, can bring together God’s truth and our thirst for it in a marvelous way.
And this has happened in the lives of the Saints so many times. For instance, the text, “Sell what you have and give the money to the poor” rang through the heart of Saint Anthony of Egypt and began his wholehearted turning to God in the desert. When St Augustine heard a child in a garden chanting: “Pick up! Read!”, he opened the New Testament and the words of St Paul ended all his doubts and hesitations.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a Saint to do lectio divina! It is so simple, it is not even, strictly speaking, a method of prayer. It requires an openness, a simple faith, a belief that the Lord uses the Scriptures to teach and touch the lives of men and women who open themselves to it. I read not in order to learn something, or to find something to say about the text, or to see if I agree with it. I read in order to hear what the “still, small voice” of God is saying to me through these words today.
It is a patient, slow reading. The words can be chewed over not just at that moment, but throughout the day, until they begin to yield a message we understand. Sometimes it is consolation, at other times a rebuke. We may find it is encouragement, or a challenge. It is, by its nature, personal and intimate, not a matter of generalities or principles. And always it leaves us humble and at peace.
For those who fear that prayer is a one way conversation with God, Lectio Divina is how God breaks His silence and replies to us.
Here are some ‘lectio’ starters to help you begin…
What does the Lord your God require of you? Only this: to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah)
Jesus cried out: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who lives in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (John)
The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians)
If you would like to learn more about Lectio Divina, there are two really good books you might check out by Fr. Michael Casey: