Defining Lectio Divina
The popularity of Lectio Divina popularity seems strange in a goal centred, systems based society - or, perhaps, this is the reason for its popularity, that it has no specific goal; it is the very antithesis of a market model mentality. So when people ask, "What's the method" or seek initiation into the system there is no answer, because there is basically no method or system.
What, then, is it? It is simply taking the Scriptures, or another suitable text, and opening oneself to the word free from any system, letting the word speak to me. It is a reflective savouring with no other special goal; its value is in what it makes me become(1).
It fits better with quantum theory than with a classical approach: open to the unexpected rather than deterministic, flowing with experience rather than scientific experiment.
It can be expressed in terms of tending or caring for the Word, entering a moment of God's revelation through the Word, entering a dialectic between God and the individual through the Word.
Uniting us with the Redeemer in the return to the Creator it has a redemptive aspect, directed to the gathering of all things into God.
Allowing the Word to Speak
The process involves a reversal of the way the Scriptures were formed. Scripture was written according to experience, reflection, articulation. So, for the gospels, we start with the ministry of Jesus.
This is assimilated, reflected upon and articulated by oral tradition. The author then commits this tradition to writing
In lectio we begin with the end product, the written word, and seek to work back by reflecting upon it to the original experience(2).
This does not depend on exegesis, authorship, setting (all of which have their essential place in the study of Scripture), but rather aims at removing all the distractions which rational thought can raise and allowing the word to speak.
A Way of Wisdom
What we are dealing with here is a way of wisdom as distinct from a way of knowledge. The 12th century Carthusian Prior, Guigo II wrote "The Ladder of Monks" in which he describes four steps in the interior ascent ot God: reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation (lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio)(3).
Lectio is the reflective reading seeking to penetrate the exterior of things; meditatio is perceiving, repeating within, pondering the fruit of reading in the heart; oratio is the response called forth from this pondering; contemplatio is the gift of self-surrender in savouring, resting in the ultimate reality of God.
Thus we see a difference between the medieval scholatic lectio which gave rise to question and disputation (quaestio and disputatio) - the way of knowledge; and the monastic lectio which gave rise to meditatio and oratio - the way of wisdom.
Lectio Divina as Unceasing Prayer
For the ancient and early medieval reader reading was also listening, for the words were mouthed. Before the introduction of modern punctuation this was even necessary for the understanding of a manuscript.
. It was thus a longer and very different process to our modern skimming a page or speed reading. In this context the expression "vacare Deo" - to be free for, to devote one's time to God takes on a greater meaning. Making quality time is a necessary prerequisite for lectio. It was thus a longer and very different process to our modern skimming a page or speed reading. In this context the expression "vacare Deo" - to be free for, to devote one's time to God takes on a greater meaning. Making quality time is a necessary prerequisite for lectio.
All this is part of the aim of unceasing prayer. Repeatedly we find in the early monastic sources the emphasis on repeating a word of scripture. Thus the monks of Pachomius (290-346), founder of communal monastic life in Egypt, are encouraged to meditate on Scripture going to and from the church, while working and while carrying out their tasks in the community(4).
Gregory the Great developed the imagery of rumination - one takes in a text and, like a cow chewing the cud, brings back the particular verse to chew over it.
The Senses of Scripture
Helpful to our understanding of the wealth of meaning found in Scripture is an appreciation of the different "senses" of Scripture. From early times there were developed four such senses: literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical, the last three being seen as "spiritual senses".
Allegorical refers to deeper meanings seen in the text. Augustine pushed this to the limits, as in his interpretation of the man at the Pool of Bethsaida lacking charity because the number of years he had waited - thirty-eight - was two short of the perfect number forty; the two signified charity - love of God and love of neighbour.
Tropological refers to a moral interpretation - what is the text calling us to. Thus the Song of Songs not only describes a love relationship but calls us to a loving relationship with our God.
Anagogical refers to a unitive or future sense - relationship perfected at the eternal banquet.
Practicing Lectio Divina
Although there is no elaborate method, a simple approach to lectio might be described as follows:
1. Take the Scriptures reverently and call upon the Holy Spirit. One should choose a place free of distraction and a posture that is comfortable but conducive to prayer.
2. Set aside a definite period of time and listen to the Lord speaking through the text; if a word or phrase strikes, be prepared to stay with it. It is better to take a set passage, e.g., a reading from the lectionary, or a portion of a given book of the Bible, to avoid reading on because there appears to be no "result".
3. At the end of the time, choose a word from the text to take away and conclude with thanksgiving.
The Biblical Text as a Work of Art
The text, then, is read like a work of art. As we might savour and surrender ourselves to the sublimeness of a painting - to the colour, light, texture or form - so we savour and surrender ourselves to the sublime Word.
Lectio involves surrender to God speaking and granting change of heart under the action of the two-edged sword of Scripture, continually challenging us to conversion.
The experience is perhaps well captured by T. S. Eliot:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.(5)
1. Louis Bouyer, The Meaning of the Monastic Life (New York: P.J.Kennedy & Sons, 1950), pp. 168-178.
2. David Stanley, "Suggested Approach to Lectio Divina" in American Benedictine Review 23(1972)439-455.
3. Guigo II, The Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1981).
4. Pachomius, Praecepta 3,28,60,36,37, trans. Armand Veilleux, Pachomian Koinonia, Vol.2 (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1981), pp. 145-156.
5. T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton" in Four Quartets (London: Faber, 1972), pp. 15-16.
Lectio Bibliography Books:
Bianchi, E. Praying the Word: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1998.
Bouyer, Louis The Meaning of the Monastic Life, New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1950, 168-178
Byrne, R. Living the Contemplative Dimension of Everyday Life, Duquesne, 1973, 265-276; 326-331
Casey, Michael The Art of Sacred Reading, Melbourne: Dove, 1995
De Roma, G. Show Me Your Face, O Lord, Homebush: St Paul Publications, 1992
Guigo II The Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1981
Leclercq, Jean The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, New York: Mentor Omega, 1962, 22-26; 77-9
Masini, Mario Lectio Divina, New York: Alba, 1998 Pennington, B. Lectio Divina, New York: Crossroad, 1998
Weil, Simone Waiting on God, London: Fontana Books, 1959, 66-76
Articles: Casey, Michael "Seven Principles of Lectio Divina" in Tjurunga 12(1976)69-74 "Lectio Divina et Lecture Spirituelle" in Dictionnaire de Spiritualite 9, 470-510
Louf, Andre "The Word Beyond the Liturgy" in Cistercian Studies 6(1971)353-368; 7(1972)63-76
Rooney, Marcel "Lectio Divina and Liturgy" in A.I.M. Monastic Bulletin 64(1998)8-16
Stanley, David "A Suggested Approach to Lectio Divina" in American Benedictine Review 23(1972)439-55
Wathen, A. "Monastic Lectio: Some Clues From Terminology" in Monastic Studies 12(1976)207-215
Copyright Michael Kelly, OSB, www.benedictine.org.au