Michel de Verteuil CSSp explains in a practical way the prayer method of Lectio Divina, a manner of contemplating scripture and integrating it with all the goings-on of one’s life.
I am glad of this opportunity to share some ideas on Lectio Divina with the readers of Spirituality. It is a method of bible reading that I have been teaching for the past fifteen years in different countries and to groups of very varied backgrounds and I feel convinced that it has the potential to enrich not merely individuals but Church communities and the Church as a whole.
The editor has asked me to write a series of articles, which is good because you cannot learn Lectio Divina immediately. You have to grow gradually into it. In this article I will lay down some basic principles.
Lectio Divina is the oldest method of bible reading in our Catholic Church. Literally it means “divine reading” but in old Church Latin “divina” meant simply what puts us in touch with God. So a more accurate translation would be “sacred reading”. In practice it is simpler to keep the Latin name.
Lectio Divina was systematized around the fifth century, although it was being practiced long before that; and indeed it is used in the Bible itself, as I shall show. It has had a subordinate place in the Church for many centuries, probably since around the turn of the first millennium, but in recent years it has come to the forefront again. There are several reasons for this re-emergence of Lectio Divina. The two that I would consider most important are, first, that it is specially helpful for those who live an unstructured life, as most people do, especially the laity, and secondly, that it fosters a harmonious blend of prayer and activity, something that many find difficult today, particularly lay people.
I start by laying down six basic principles of Lectio Divina:
1. Lectio Divina is a dialogue between the written biblical word and life experience. In the dialogue our experience throws light on the bible word, bringing it to life for us so that we feel at home with it. The bible word in turn throws light on our experience which is thus transformed from merely being an event into being a word of God spoken to us.
2. Lectio Divina presupposes that every Bible text speaks to the imagination. It invites us to enter through our imagination into the movement of a bible passage, discovering that this is the movement of our own lives too.
3. In Lectio Divina we discover a double story of sin and grace, first in the Bible and then in our individual lives, in the history of every community and of humanity itself.
4. Lectio Divina is different from most Bible reading methods in that it is an exercise both of theology and of prayer. Of prayer in that we respond to the experience of sin and grace in our lives. Of theology in that we gain a new insight into the workings of sin and grace in our lives and in the lives of others. Through Lectio Divina we grow in awareness and we pray, awareness leading to prayer and prayer leading to awareness.
5. Another thing that makes Lectio Divina different from other Bible reading methods is that it can be done by all, irrespective of educational background. Even illiterate people can do it. Whatever our educational background, we must humble ourselves before the bible text so that we can really listen to it. We can all, by reflecting on experience, make this text come alive.
6. Lectio Divina requires both personal freedom and the sense of community. Our encounter with the text must be personal. No one can dictate how or why it touches us; to do good Lectio we must trust our own feelings. On the other hand we must not read the Bible in isolation, but allow our personal response to resonate with others, a community, if possible, and if not, at least one other person. So, too, we must regularly enter into the insights of others. In this respect Lectio Divina is quite different from what used to be called “private interpretation” .
We will need a teacher at first, to clarify the meaning of the text if necessary, but more important to guide us in the method. As quickly as possible, however, we must learn to trust ourselves – and our community.
We turn now to practice. Lectio Divina is done in three stages: reading, meditation and prayer. In Latin: lectio, meditatio and oratio.
The first thing when you are doing Lectio Divina is to read the passage slowly, reverently, aloud, and several times. That might seem unnecessary, but when you do it you soon see how you tend to skip over words and phrases, especially if the passage is a well known one.
At this reading stage, allow the words to become familiar to you, to resonate within you, so that you feel love for them.
You may, if you feel like it, ask some questions of the text. For example, what kind of passage is it – a parable, a proverb or a narrative? Are there any difficult words? You might want to look at the context: where in the life of Jesus does it occur?
I say “if you feel like it” because it is entirely up to you to ask these questions or not. A good general principle is to seek help only in order to get your imagination going.
We are all different, but in general the tendency today, especially for those who have done some bible study, is to spend too much time on background information. So be careful about that and move to meditation as quickly as you can.
It is important at this teaching stage to divide the passage into manageable sections. You cannot do Lectio on too much of the Bible at anyone time, so by dividing up a passage you open yourself to choosing which part of it you are going to focus on. And remember that, as mentioned above, no one can tell you which one it will be.
Indeed you are not sure, when you start your lectio, which section you will end up with. That is why you must remain open and attentive as you read the entire passage very slowly.
This second stage is the central one; on it depends whether you do a good Lectio or not.
Meditation in Lectio Divina is not, as in other forms of prayer, a time of interior silence. Rather, you enter into the passage through your imagination, identifying with the characters and with the movement. You recognize them either from your own experience or the experience of others who have touched your life. You discover for yourself the truth of the passage. You find yourself saying, “Yes, this really happens, this is true to life”.
The prayer stage follows spontaneously from meditation. If not (and in my experience it doesn’t for many) it means that you really have not meditated.
Your prayer will spontaneously take three forms: thanksgiving, humility, and petition. If any of these forms does not occur, then you have not finished your meditation.
At first you will pray in your own words but you must go beyond this and pray in the words of the passage. Many find this discipline hard at first but after a time you will grow into it. It is essential for Lectio Divina.
By praying in this way you have returned to the reading stage, and so you start the three stages again. This time, however, your meditation will go deeper, deeper memories will come, and these will reinforce the conclusion: “Yes, this is how life is”.
You then move to deeper prayer. Once more use the actual words of the passage, and start the stages again. Lectio Divina is thus an ongoing process by which we enter more and more deeply into a passage and at the same time more and more deeply into ourselves.
Of course there comes a time when we know we have finished this particular meditation, although there is always the sense that there is more to be got our of the passage.
One sign that your Lectio is coming to an end is that you find your prayer becoming simpler. You no longer differentiate between thanks giving, humility and petition but do all three in one prayerful reading. You will also find that you read less and less of the passage, until one line sums up all you have got from the passage. When this happens you have entered the contemplative stage of Lectio Divina.
Eventually, through ever deeper meditation and prayer, you come to a moment of insight, when you understand some aspect of grace or sin for the first time or at least more clearly than ever before. Lectio Divina has led you to wisdom and is now an act of theological reflection.
At this point it can be said that you have finished your Lectio. I have stressed several times the importance of taking your time at each stage, so you will wonder how long a lectio takes. The first answer is that there is no rule. A lot will depend on how recollected you are, how much in touch with your inner state, how free you are to let your imagination run.
Two things I would say however: first, take it for granted that good Lectio will take a few days, and secondly, the meditation must be integrated into routine, day-to-day activities, so that there can be a real dialogue between experience and text. Right through you must ensure that it is a dialogue, that you are being faithful both to the text and to experience; this requires constant discipline and you will need to refer back to the passage from time to time, for example, in the evenings or early morning before you start your work for the day.
Gospel Meditation: Luke 18, 9 – 14
This gospel reading is one of the great parables of Jesus, one that has affected the consciousness of people in every age. It is a teaching not merely about prayer but about general attitude towards God.
The story is told imaginatively so you must take time to let the concrete details stir up memories for you. Ironically, it is easy to fall into the trap of reading the parable self-righteously; avoid this by making sure you recognize yourself in the Pharisee.
There is no evidence that he was a hypocrite as many Pharisees were. According to the text he was a good, religious person. His two sins (they are always linked) were that he did not humble himself (sin of omission) and he looked down on others (commission). Remember a time when it dawned on you that very subtly you, your community, or your family were taking pride in your high moral standards. Jesus has many ways of speaking parables – for example, allowing us to experience some humiliation.
You might like to celebrate someone who touched your life because she or he was humble like the tax-collector.
The saying in verse 14 occurs twice in St Luke’s gospel and you might like to meditate on it by itself. If you do, then enter into the movement: God (or godly people) seeking out the lowly and lifting them up.
“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” (Solzhenitsyn)
Lord, we thank you for those who, like Jesus, remind us that we can never pride ourselves on being virtuous nor can we afford to despise anyone else.
Lord, we remember a time when something happened which made us see ourselves in a new way:
– one of our children fell foul of the law
– we found we could not forgive some hurt
– there was civil unrest in the country
– John XXIII began a new style of being pope
You saw us priding ourselves on being virtuous and despising everyone else, so you spoke a parable to us. Now we no longer dared to raise our eyes to you. We could only beat our breasts and say, God be merciful to us sinners. Thank you, Lord.
“The only real prayer is the one in which we are no longer aware that we are praying” (St. Anthony)
Lord, once we start making a fuss about our prayers we find we start talking about good deeds and pointing fingers at people.
Teach us to keep our prayer simple:
– standing at a distance so that we don’t draw attention to ourselves,
– beating our breasts because we don’t want to look down on anyone.
“Those who know their own weakness are greater than those who have seen the angels” (Isaac of Nineveh, Syrian monk of the 7th century)
Lord, many people feel burdened by guilt, imagining you are angry that they have no good deeds they can stand in the temple and thank you for. Send them Jesus to remind them that if they stay right where they are and ask for your mercy they will go home at rights with you.
Lord, there are many things which divide people today, race, culture, class, language, education, work. How sad it is that our worship of you too should divide us whereas going to the temple should be the moment when we don’t dare raise our eyes to look down on anyone, but just beat our breasts and say, God be merciful to us sinners.
“What worries me in this country (Britain) is the growing invisibility of the poor” (Timothy Radcliffe, Master of the Dominican Order)
Lord, our modern world glorifies those who have made it in life, their faces always on television, their names make the headlines, and as a Church we often follow the trend. Help us to focus rather on exalting the humble.
This article first appeared in Spirituality (July-August 1995), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.