Introduction to Lectio Divina
A New Spiritual Springtime
or many years Cardinal Martini taught young people in Milan to read the Scriptures for themselves and to meditate and pray with them. Here is an example. He read with them the story of the raising to life of the son of the widow of Nain. Then he asked them to reflect on the story. He drew their attention to one sentence: ‘Young man, I tell you: get up.’ He pointed out that Jesus says three things in that one sentence, and that each one deserves our full attention.
‘Young man:’ Jesus addresses him first as one among the young people of his time – he belongs to a particular family in a particular cultural and religious community. Young people are conscious of belonging among their peers.
‘I tell you:’ Jesus speaks to him as a unique person. What Jesus has to say now is directly for him and for him alone, and he knows that Jesus recognises and values him for who he is. He is not one of a crowd but a person with his own identity.
‘Get up:’ Jesus tells him to get on his feet, to live his life to its fullest potential. Martini helps the young people to hear Jesus now addressing these words directly to each of themselves, to ponder them, to find encouragement and inspiration in them, and to respond to Jesus in prayer.
This is lectio divina: reading the Scriptures, pondering them until they become like a mirror in which we see ourselves, our lives and our world reflected, and then responding to God in prayer.
Old and New
The two Latin words mean ‘sacred reading’ and they remind us that this is an ancient method that goes back to the first thousand years of Christianity; during that time it was the principal way of reading the Bible. The method went into decline but continued in monasteries. St. Dominic used it. In a thirteenth century document, which describes his Nine Ways of Prayer, lectio divina, was the eighth way. He would sit down by himself, recollect himself in the presence of God and read and pray, letting the words touch his mind as if he heard God actually speaking to him. “It was as if he was discussing something with a friend; …at times he would listen quietly and discuss and argue, and then laugh and weep all at once, and fix his gaze and bow his head, speaking quietly again and beating his breast.’ He passed quickly ‘from reading to prayer, from prayer to meditation, from meditation to contemplation.”
Lectio divina has been rediscovered in our own time as people are learning to use it by themselves and in groups. There are two reasons for practising it. The first is to meet God in a personal way. The Vatican Council document on Revelation says that when we read the Scriptures, the Heavenly Father comes lovingly to meet his children and to converse with them. The second reason is to grow in wisdom: to come to understand God better, to understand ourselves and other people and the world in which we live. Carlos Mesters has spent his life helping very poor communities in Brazil to read the Bible; he says that their concern is not to interpret the Bible, but to interpret their lives in the light of the Bible. In the Word of God they find the strength to keep going and not to give up the struggle.
The Bible is a Book of Stories, not a Book of Information
When God decided to give a book to humanity, he could have given us a book of information. Such a book would have been very useful. When we were puzzled about any of the big questions that arise in our lives we could look up the index and get the information we needed - about God, prayer, right and wrong, suffering, living in peace with others, life and death and the hereafter, and so on. To read such a book, we would use our minds to grasp the information. But God gave us a different kind of book: the Bible is for the most part a book of stories or narratives. A story engages our imagination. Then our feelings are touched – we become excited or sad or angry or anxious. Another faculty that comes into play is our memory; a story reminds us of something in our own experience – something that has happened to ourselves or to people we know about.
Every story has characters, at least one; and it has movement, a plot. We identify with one or other of the characters. Some part of the plot may remind us of something in our own lives or in the lives of people we know about. Many who read the Bible read it as if it was a book of information; it may take time and practice to learn to read the Bible in a way that allows it to stir our imagination, touch our feelings and evoke our memories.
Lectio divina is done in three stages.
We choose a small portion of scripture and we read it over and over. Very often people choose to read the Gospel of the coming Sunday; they read it from the previous Monday all through the week. We read slowly and reverently. We give our whole attention to the words in front of us. We allow ourselves to enjoy the story, to grow to love the story and the words in which it is told. If something in the story puzzles us or seems to make no sense, we may need help from a commentary or from some one who knows more about the Scriptures than we do. It takes discipline to stay with one portion of Scripture, especially if it seems to say nothing to us for a long time.
Reading flows naturally into meditation. We may do our meditation with the Bible in our hands. Likewise we may do it as we go about the activities of our day. At this stage our interest will focus on the present time and we ask: Where is this text happening in my life or in the world around me right now? In a natural and spontaneous way the answer will appear, either when something in the text reminds me of something that has happened in my experience, or something that has happened reminds me of the text. Suppose I am meditating on the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: ‘No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.’ I ask myself: what does this remind me of? Where have I seen this happening? In moments like this I am not waiting for the text to give me a message for my life, or to tell me what I should do. I am waiting for the text to evoke a concrete memory. I may remember a neighbour who has been looking after a sick relative with great generosity for a long time. I recognise that this person has been doing what Jesus spoke of... Or I read something in the papers that reminds me of the words of Jesus; in February, Francis Delaney risked his life to rescue two small children from a fire in their home. As I continue to meditate I may recall times I laid down my life for others in smaller ways. I see a pattern in the concrete memories that come to me: good people are willing to lay down their lives for others. I am touched by this and feel convinced that it is a wise way to live, and I am drawn to live in this generous way.
Prayer occurs spontaneously. In our meditation, when we are reminded of something in our experience, we are moved to pray. The prayer will be of three kinds:
- thanksgiving: when the text reminds us of goodness we have seen, we pray in praise and thanksgiving;
- repentance (or humility): when it makes us aware of the wrong we have done or the good we have failed to do, we ask for forgiveness.
- petition: when the text reminds us of our own needs or of the needs of others, we pray in petition.
If we stay long enough with our reading and meditating we may be led to a deeper moment of prayer in which we are no longer thanking or repenting or asking, but are leaving ourselves trustingly in God’s hands. This is called contemplative prayer.
Pope Benedict spoke about lectio divina on 16 September 2006: "I would like to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio Divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart. If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church – I am convinced of it – a new spiritual springtime.”