Contemplating the Word
Lectio Divina (Sacred Reading)
“…I would like in particular 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 (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 25). If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church – I am convinced of it – a new spiritual springtime. As a strong point of biblical ministry, Lectio divina should therefore be increasingly encouraged…” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address on the 40th Anniversary of Dei Verbum)
Lectio divina is an ancient practice of praying with Sacred Scripture. It has been especially preserved and practiced by monks throughout the ages, but in recent decades has been promoted for the whole Church by Pope St John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. It is not difficult to practice, it does not require large amounts of time nor special knowledge or education. It is simply a way of allowing God to speak to us personally through His Holy Word, as written in the Bible.
That brings us to the first important point: God really wants to speak to us, each one of us, and no one is excluded. It does not matter what we have done. Furthermore, God wants to reveal His love for us, each one of us, and no one is excluded. It does not matter what we have done. Before we even existed, God loved us. He created us out of love, He redeemed us out of love and by His love, He continues to call us back to Himself. Like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), no matter how far we have wandered, there is a celebration and warm welcome awaiting us in the Father’s house, our true home. That is the “tone of voice” we can expect from God when we pray with Sacred Scripture through lectio divina. We can always ask the question, “How is God revealing His love to me through this passage of Scripture?”
Step 1: Reading
When practicing lectio divina, we start by opening our Bible to a page of Scripture and reading (the first step of lectio divina). There are many ways to choose what Scripture we begin with. I generally recommend the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, because it is easiest to encounter God through the Gospels. For those who are aware of the daily cycle of Gospel readings selected for Mass, I find that to be an easy starting place. We do not need to read a large amount of Scripture. The purpose of lectio is different than a bible study. With lectio, we are not trying to become Scripture scholars, we are simply trying to draw close to God and hear His voice speaking to us personally. So, a paragraph of Scripture from the Gospels is more than enough to start with.
After we have selected a passage of Scripture, we begin to read slowly. Let me emphasize: slowly. For prayer, it is very important to slow ourselves down, to quiet our minds and hearts, and to become more gentle in our approach to God. We know that God is almighty, but when He speaks, He does not try to dominate us or overwhelm us. This is because He really respects and reverences our freedom. He wants to be sure that we really really want to hear what He has to say. By becoming very quiet and very gentle inside ourselves, we show Him that we are really interested in listening to Him. It is as if He were a shy child and He clams up if we are loud and rough. One of the ways we can transition from the noisy harshness of the world to the gentle quiet needed for listening to God is by taking a phrase of Scripture and gently repeating it. As we read through the passage, we look for a phrase of Scripture that seems to stand out to us, that catches our attention. It is not magical and really any phrase will do, but if there is one that seems particularly attractive, we should take that one and begin to repeat it gently inside ourselves.
Step 2: Meditation
As we begin to repeat the phrase of Scripture, we have begun our meditation (the second step of lectio divina). At first it is just a gentle repetition. This repetition helps to slow down our interior and to make us more sensitive to God’s Presence. It is like a pebble that has been tossed into a rapidly moving river–the pebble heads down towards the riverbed, but then it gets tossed up by a current, moved about by the flow, but each time the phrase is repeated, it is like applying gravity to the pebble and it takes it closer and closer to the bottom where it can rest. That is how our interior becomes more settled and calm and open to the Presence of God. Though we might get distracted and have various unrelated thoughts, by just returning to the phrase we can refocus ourselves and become more settled and calm and open up again to the Lord’s Presence.
At the same time, as we are gently repeating the phrase, we are reflecting on its meaning. To take an example, perhaps as we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we are struck by the phrase in Luke 15:20, “So he got up and went back to his father.” As we reflect on the meaning of this phrase, we might notice the courage of the son to get up and go back. We might feel his fear of rejection. We might begin to think about our own sins and remember an experience of being rejected by our own father. We might feel despair and wonder what the point of returning is. But we repeat, “So he got up and went back to his father.” We know that the son was not rejected, that he was received with love and rejoicing. We might ask ourselves, “What is keeping me from getting up and returning to God, my Father? Am I afraid? Am I despairing?” We can reflect on the loving way that our Father receives us, on the open arms He extends to us. And again we repeat the phrase, “So he got back up and went back to his father.”
Step 3: Prayer
At this point, we enter into the third movement of lectio divina which is prayer. In our meditation we asked ourselves, “What is God saying to me in this passage?” In prayer, we respond to God. We might begin to pray with something such as, “Thank you Father for always receiving me when I get up and return to you. Please forgive me for wandering away from you. Please help me never to wander from you again. Why do I continually fall back into sin? Please help me to be faithful. Please help me always to get up and return to you when I fall. Please help all those who fall into sin to get up and return to you.” The important thing in prayer is that we speak from our hearts. God loves to listen to us and He wants to hear what is in our hearts–our feelings, our fears, our hopes, all the people we love and care for, whatever is in our hearts.
Step 4: Contemplation
Through our meditation and prayer, our hearts are slowed down, quieted and gradually separated from the world. As we become aware of the loving Presence of God we can let go and rest in the fourth movement of lectio, which is contemplation. Contemplation is a loving awareness of God’s Presence. When we feel that God is close to us, words become pointless and we do better just to rest and enjoy His Presence, speaking and listening to Him in a simple, silent way, beyond words. This may last for a few moments or for a few minutes. Gradually, we move back to the Scripture and take up our phrase again, or perhaps we move on to another phrase.
Pope Francis on Lectio Divina
Let us conclude by reflecting on Pope Francis’s teaching on this form of prayer:
“There is one particular way of listening to what the Lord wishes to tell us in his word and of letting ourselves be transformed by the Spirit. It is what we call lectio divina. It consists of reading God’s word in a moment of prayer and allowing it to enlighten and renew us. …
“In the presence of God, during a recollected reading of the text, it is good to ask, for example: ‘Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me?’ When we make an effort to listen to the Lord, temptations usually arise. One of them is simply to feel troubled or burdened, and to turn away. Another common temptation is to think about what the text means for other people, and so avoid applying it to our own life. It can also happen that we look for excuses to water down the clear meaning of the text. Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve.” (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel #153-154)