Lectio Divina: Prayerful Reading of Scripture
Part 9 – Basic Catechism on the Bible
Years ago, before I had rediscovered the Catholic faith of my baptism, I was away from the Church. Through a series of providential events I began to search for answers to life’s most important questions. I needed to know there was a God, and I needed to know who He was. Like most nominal Catholics, I had never really read the Bible. But, one evening I was compelled to open to the first page in the Holy Scriptures. In truth, I googled the Bible to read it online, and opened the first link I found. What happened in those few minutes reading the first chapter of Genesis changed me. I did not have a context for what had happened, but it was as if the Scriptures spoke to me, and it seemed like the words leapt off the page (screen in my case). Through all my misunderstanding of religious things, I knew one thing from that moment: the Bible was true.
The reading of Holy Scripture can be a time of great prayerful reflection and contemplation. In order to dive into the well of Holy Writ, tradition has given us the method of Scripture reading called Lectio Divina. It means “divine reading,” and is an ancient practice stemming from the earliest monastic traditions. St. Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, tells us that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Thus, we can also conclude the opposite, in that knowledge of Scripture is knowledge of Christ.
My initial experience reading Scripture all those years ago was not an instance of strict Lectio Divina, as powerful as it was. And, fortunately, this prayerful method of praying with the Bible is formulaic and can be implemented in everyone’s spiritual life.
In essence, Lectio Divina is a prayerful meditation on Scripture, and something like it can be found in the 48th Chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict. The practice was formalized sometime in the 11th century by a Carthusian prior in a letter to a companion in the religious life. This letter is known as the Scala Paradisi, which means “stairway to Heaven.” He describes in the letter four main components, like four rungs on a ladder, that constitute the official practice of Lectio Divina.
Step 1: Lectio
Select a passage or portion of the Bible to read for the sake of the spiritual exercise. Truthfully, every word of the Holy Bible is inspired by God, but there are passages and verses that lend themselves more aptly to the practice of Lectio Divina. It is not necessary to read a large amount. In fact, some of the shortest verses of Scripture are the most striking. Think for a moment on the profundity of the statement “And Jesus wept” (John 11:35). I shudder at the thought of God Himself weeping at the tomb of a dead man. Some recommend reading the passage three times, and often in a communal Lectio exercise this is the format. However, you may read the passage as many times as is necessary.
Step 2: Meditatio
After we read the selection, we search inward to unveil what was previously concealed. What does it mean for us to read of Jesus weeping? What has brought us to this point in our spiritual life wherein we must meditate on this event? In this instance of reading of the tears of Our Lord, perhaps this meditation can inspire us to examine our conscience. What areas of our soul remain dead in sin like Lazarus? If Christ were to come visit our tomb, would He rejoice, or cry? It is incredible how rich even three words of the Bible can be!
We can also picture the scene depicted in the passage as vividly as possible. Consider sights, sounds and even smells. Place yourself in the passage. Would you be a bystander or a disciple? Would you have thought it useless that Christ arrived too late? Would you befriend Mary Magdalene or echo the words of Martha? How would you be reacting to the words and deeds of Our Lord and Redeemer? How would you feel and what would you think to see the Savior of the world weep?
It can be easy to become distracted during meditation, so if at any moment you find yourself wandering away from the task at hand, look back to the passage. It might also be time to move on to the next step.
Step 3: Oratio
After we have read and meditated on the words of the Bible, we devoutly pray to God from our hearts. The traditional prayers of the Church are invaluable, but here is a moment where we can speak to God spontaneously and ask that He illuminate the darkness in our understanding. Hopefully, we have been moved by the words and by our meditation, and now is the time for us to ask the Holy Ghost to transform our comprehension. Furthermore, anything brought forth from our conscience during the Meditatio may be prayed about. Our Lord desires us to be perfect as the Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), thus we may even use this prayer method as a preparation for Confession.
Step 4: Contemplatio
The final step is that of contemplation, during which we lift our hearts to enter into the sweetness of heavenly things. We do not have to be mystics to contemplate the sacred mysteries. The three preceding steps prepare us for this entering into contemplation. In a practical sense, we might say that we are using our imagination to see God more clearly. In a similar way that our senses are elevated by sacred art and music, our souls are lifted by sacred contemplation. We tend to associate the word “imagination” with fantasy or fiction, but this is a limited understanding. In the word “imagination” is the word “image.” God speaks to us in images, internal and external, and contemplating on the Sacred Scriptures primes us for an inundation of mystical imagery.
To help in all of these steps, it is advisable that you enter into this time of Lectio Divina in an environment designated for prayer. Perhaps you have a designated prayer space in your home decorated with holy images and religious statues. Even if you do not have this type of environment, you can create a sacred environment in most cases. With a crucifix in hand, an icon, a blessed candle, it is amazing how even a kitchen table can be transformed. You can also use holy water to make the Sign of the Cross as you begin your time of prayer.
Lectio Divina is truly a gift and can be accessed by Catholics from all states in life. I recommend you start with parables of Christ. Hopefully you will incorporate this sacred tradition in the routine of your daily spiritual life.