Dear Dan, can you help me understand Lectio Divina and whether or not I should use it to help me improve my prayer life? I am struggling right now and feel like I need a change but I don’t know what will help.
Any Christian seeking to deepen their relationship with Christ will no doubt be blessed through this time-tested monastic prayer method. Many of you who use The Better Part to pray will discover that Lectio Divina is one of the roots of the approach to prayer that Fr. John recommends. Here’s a brief history and guide for you to explore this simple method:
Lectio Divina – A Brief History
Lectio Divina means “Divine Reading” and refers specifically to an approach to prayer and scripture reading practiced by monastics since the early Church.
The idea of praying with sacred scripture comes to the Church through ancient Jewish tradition. Christians in the early Church continued this tradition and further developed the practice of prayer and meditation using mostly the psalms as a rich source of heartfelt engagement with God. This development is evident in early Church History in the 48th chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict (A.D. 480-453).
In the 11th century, a Carthusian prior named Guigo formalized Lectio Divina, describing the practice in a letter written to a fellow religious. This letter has become known as The Ladder of Monks and describes a four-runged ladder to Heaven, each rung being one of the four steps in his method of prayerful scripture reading. These steps are provided below along with a short definition of each and brief quotes from Guigo’s letter:
Lectio (reading): An attentive, slow, repetitious recitation of a short passage of scripture.
“looking on Holy Scripture with all one’s will and wit”
Meditatio (meditation): An effort to understand the passage and apply it to my own life.
“a studious searching with the mind to know what was before concealed”
Oratio (prayer): Engaging or talking with God about the passage.
“a devout desiring of the heart to get what is good and avoid what is evil”
Contemplatio (contemplation): Allowing oneself to be absorbed in the words of God as the Holy Spirit draws us into His presence through scripture.
“the lifting up of the heart to God tasting somewhat of the heavenly sweetness”
Lectio Divina Step by Step
As with any serious attempt to progress in the spiritual life, the practice of Lectio Divina will require deliberate patience. To be deliberate we will need to commit to at least ten minutes every day. The best way to do this is to schedule our prayer times at the beginning of each week before we schedule anything else. Trying to squeeze prayer into our schedules after they are already full almost always results in our busy-ness squeezing prayer out of our schedules.
With respect to the process of Lectio Divina, it may feel mechanical until we find a natural rhythm. As well, we will naturally struggle with distractions. This is where patience comes in. It’s important to keep things as simple as is possible. There will be no Lectio Divina police looking over our shoulders to be sure that we exercise perfection in our practice. No need to worry about the details. Simply seek the Lord in the scriptures. He is waiting for you there and will be delighted to lead you into a more profound relationship with Him. With that in mind, lets talk about how to prepare for our time with Him.
First, we should arrange a place to pray that is restful and devoid of any distractions or things that might distract us (i.e. computers, TV, etc.). This may involve lighting candles, burning incense or creating whatever atmosphere fosters calm and peace. The presence of icons and other visual aids to meditation can be of great benefit here as well. It is best if the place chosen for Lectio Divina (or any kind of prayer) is a comfortable area set aside just for this activity.
Once our environment is properly prepared, we should then assume a bodily posture that is conducive to prayer and reading. As we consider our posture, we should do so with the recognition that we are entering into the presence of God. Our posture should reflect one that would be the same as if we were with Christ in the flesh or before him in Eucharistic adoration. Again, simplicity is important. We need not over-emphasize posture.
We then turn our hearts to God, begin to breathe slowly and deeply, focusing on simple attentiveness to the Lord until we are relaxed and able to focus our attention on scripture. If our minds wander, we should avoid any frustration or self-condemnation and gently bring our attention back to our Lord and the text, breathing in and out in a purposeful and relaxed manner. It is important to note that unlike in non-Christian forms of Eastern prayer which seek to empty the mind, Christian prayer seeks to fill our minds with an attentiveness to God. This gentle but purposeful effort will yield a constant aiming and re-aiming of our hearts and minds toward Him and His Word.
Once we are as calm and peaceful as is possible, we simply acknowledge that Christ is with us and we pray in this or some similar way:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Lord, I know you are with me. Thank you for allowing me to recognize your presence. Thank you for being here with me now.
Then, we might offer a prayer to the Holy Spirit like the following:
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of Your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.
O God, by the light of the Holy Spirit you have taught the hearts of your faithful. In the same Spirit, help us to know what is it truly right and always to rejoice in your consolation. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Lectio – An attentive slow repetitious recitation of a short passage of scripture
It is always advisable to meditate on the scripture from the mass of the day, particularly the Gospel passage. However, any text of scripture will do. The key is not to rush. The goal is not to finish any particular portion of scripture but to purposefully delve into the depths of any passage that will lift our hearts to God. Just before we begin reading, we trace the sign of the cross on the scriptures, kiss the cross we traced, and then begin to read very slowly, vocally, and gently, coming to an understanding of the words themselves along with the related ideas and images that surface. When a particular passage or word strikes us we pause to consider it more fully. At the first pause, we will then naturally move into meditatio. If you don’t seem to progress in this way, simply stay at each phase until you do. Don’t worry if you don’t progress. The goal is not to fulfill the method, but to honor and seek God.
Meditatio – An effort to understand the passage and apply it to my own life
Now we meditate on what we have read, visualizing it and listening for His prompting or His guiding. We seek the deeper spiritual meanings of the words as we place ourselves in a gospel scene as one of the participants or simply hear God speaking directly to us as we read the words. We don’t strain or exert extreme effort here, we simply allow the words to penetrate our hearts and minds and follow where God leads us through the text. Sometimes it is helpful to slowly repeat the passage or word over and over again until the captivation and conversation with God on the passage subsides. It can also be helpful to read each word and to briefly pause before we read the next. As we do this, we allow for silence and careful listening. We break the normal frantic pace and cycle of life to be attentive to the Beloved. As we begin to respond or converse with God about our encounter with Him, we then move into oratio.
Oratio – Engaging or talking with God about the passage
As we are drawn into the passage we begin to converse with God about what we are reading. Oratio is simply the response of the heart to God. It is important here to remember that God has revealed Himself as a person. When we talk with Him, it is sometimes helpful call this to mind. Our conversation should be as natural as with someone whom we deeply love and desire to know. In whatever manner we are led, we ask for forgiveness, we thank Him, we praise Him, we ask Him to for the grace to be changed by what we have read. We ask Him to help us more fully realize what He wants us to be and to help us apply His moral, spiritual, or practical guidance to our lives. As we engage with Him, He may choose to call us deeper, to become lost in this heavenly dialogue with Him. For those who tend to be very talkative in life and prayer, it might be important here to slow down our own words and to be attentive to Him rather than to what we desire to say. We will eventually find ourselves moving into contemplatio.
Contemplatio – Allowing oneself to become absorbed in the words of God and the presence of God as he calls us into deeper prayer
Here God satisfies our ultimate thirst and needs as the Holy Spirit prays with us, in us, and through us. Sometimes we recognize this work in our hearts; sometimes it is merely a matter of faith that He is with us and imparting His life-changing grace to us. Always we can know that He is changing us because he has promised that the “word of God never returns void” and that as St. Paul says, “faith comes from hearing the word of God.” It is important here to note that this phase of prayer is not always sensual. In fact, for those who are more advanced in the interior life, it may be a time of dryness and a dark silence. Regardless, we know by faith that he is true to His word. If we seek Him, we will find Him, even if He is found in ways that are difficult, or very different than we had anticipated.
To sum up Guigo’s thoughts on the four elements; reading seeks, meditation finds, prayer asks, and contemplation tastes.
PS: A short but more in-depth read on Lectio Divina as it relates to the prayer of Teresa of Avila is entitled Lectio Divina and the Practice of Teresian Prayer.
PPS: If you are worried about properly understanding the scriptures, the best Catholic Study Bible available is the new Ignatius Catholic Study Bible.
Art: Detail of Saint Dominic from Cristo Deriso (Mocking of Christ), Sangelico (Fra Angelico), from circa 1440 and circa 1441, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons. Feature image art: Modified detail of Saint Dominic from Cristo Deriso (Mocking of Christ), Sangelico (Fra Angelico), from circa 1440 and circa 1441, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.