Lectio Divina is an ancient contemplative way to read short passages of sacred text and prayerfully let God speak through them into our lives. Its origins lie in the 5th century Benedictine and Cistercian monastic movements.
It is very different to biblical study or praying with bible verses where the surface meaning of the text is to the fore. Literally meaning 'sacred reading', lectio divina is an active meditative kind of reading where we let God start the conversation. The passage chosen is read over once and then again slowly, pausing every now and again to savour or ‘suck like a boiled sweet’ those phrases or words which capture our attention or imagination. This is not an analytical or studious process but more akin to reading over a love-letter. We let the heart relish the words and feelings which arise and, as our heart responds, talk and listen to God as in a conversation. To listen like this we have to open ourselves - our hearts and souls - to listen from the deepest place of our being, letting God set the tone and the agenda. It is a way of growing in paying attention to God.
Some people think that lectio divina simply means to read a passage of scripture slowly and then ponder on that scripture. However, it is much more about listening for the inspiration and movements of God in the specific words that seem to leap out and speak to us in the here and now of our lives. In lectio divina we seek to attend with 'the ear of our heart' rather than analyse through our rational faculties. It is different from the sort of reading we do to obtain information and intellectual knowledge. It is a means of descending to the level of the heart and finding God. Here, our concerns, our relationships, our hopes and fears naturally intertwine with our meditations on the scriptures as we attend with the ear of our heart, listening for the 'still, small voice' that says 'I am for you today'. We then take this word that reaches out to us, back into us through our inner pondering. St Benedict saw this type of reading as a very source of spiritual energy that puts us into contact with grace.
In our high-paced lives today it can be difficult to realise that enlightenment comes not by increasing the level of excitement and stimulation, but by moving deeply into calm and stillness. It comes through opening ourselves, to listening to the movements of the Spirit and allowing God to speak to the deepest part of ourselves. Lectio divina is a practice that slows us down and helps us pay attention to these movements of God in our lives.
The stages of Lectio Divina
The traditional pattern has 4 stages:
(1) Reading (lectio) : The passage is read slowly and gently. Savour each word listening for the 'still, small voice' of a word or phrase that somehow takes your attention.
(2) Reflection (meditatio) : Take the word or phrase into yourself, perhaps repeating it, allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, memories and ideas. Allow this inner pondering, this rumination, to invite you into a dialogue with God.
Read the text through again slowly and gently, listening...
(3) Response (oratio) : Respond in your heart or aloud with a prayerful response to the word or phrase that has been with you.
Read through the text again slowly and gently, listening...
(4) Rest (contemplatio) : Rest in God's embrace of love for you. If you feel invited to return to your contemplation of the scripture or your inner dialogue, do so. Otherwise rest in silence. Learn to use words when words are helpful and to let go of words when they are no longer necessary. Know that God is with you in both words and silence.
A Simple Quick Guide to the Individual Practice of Lectio Divina
Choose a short text of scripture that you wish to pray. It makes little difference which text is chosen as long as you have no set goal to cover a fixed amount. The amount of text covered is in God's hands. So choose a short passage but be flexible and open to the lead of the Spirit.
Place yourself into a comfortable position and allow yourself to become still and silent.
With the first reading, listen with your heart's ear for a phrase or word that stands out for you.
During the second reading, reflect on what touches you, perhaps speaking that response aloud or writing in a journal.
After reading the passage a third time, respond with a prayer or expression of what you have experienced and what it calls you to.
Finally, rest in silence after a fourth reading.
Lectio divina can also be done in groups as a collatio. There are many ways this can be conducted, an example of which you can find here.
For more contemplative ways of prayer please see my prayer life series.