Lectio Divina

Lectio divina (literally 'Holy Reading') is sometimes referred to as the 'Benedictine method of prayer'. It was actually practised by praying Christians long before Saint Benedict (c.480-c.550) came on the scene. However, by the Middle Ages, lectio divina was 'sorted' into a tidy scheme, a scheme which is practised to this day. The scheme was devised by a famous Cistercian monk named Guigo II, Prior of the Grande Chartreuse, France, around 1180, in his classic work, The Ladder of Monks. Guigo wrote that the pattern of lectio had four stages: lectio (reading) – meditatio (meditation) – oratio (prayer) – contemplatio (contemplation).

However, for our purpose, it is important to know that this method of prayer can be practised by all Christians, not just by monks and nuns in contemplative religious orders.

Lectio(Reading): You choose a passage from the Bible, maybe a Psalm or a passage from the Gospels. Now, remember that speed-reading is the absolute enemy of lectio. Say, you take a short passage from the Gospels where Jesus is present. You read the passage slowly a number of times. The main thing in your reading is to learn to listen. Slow, repetitive reading will turn into your listening. Maybe you can listen to Jesus reading the Gospel passage to you or to Jesus addressing you personally in this short passage. How does Jesus address you? You try to find the tone in which Jesus speaks to you at this present moment.

Meditatio (Meditation): Maybe your attention has been grasped by a word, a phrase or a sentence in the Gospel passage. You stay with that word, phrase or sentence. You listen and ponder what might Jesus be trying to say to you personally today. This pondering the word is often compared to the unlikely image of cows chewing their fodder. By quietly repeating the word(s), ruminating on it, you turn it over in your mind so that its meaning enters more deeply into your inner self – into your heart – a place known only to you and to God. All genuine prayer involves this journey from the head to the heart, a journey inwards. The heart is where God dwells.

Oratio (Prayer): Your chosen word or phrase becomes a gateway for your conversation with Jesus. Maybe you can tell Jesus about the feelings that have been aroused in you – joy, peace, gratitude or maybe fear, sorrow or some tension. Ask Jesus to reveal to you what's behind these possible feelings. Lectio divina, practised faithfully, can give you the grace of self-knowledge, helping you to a greater, loving freedom in your living with others. Speak to Jesus as one friend to another and remember, don't do all the talking! Listen to what Jesus desires to say to you.

Contemplatio (Contemplation): Here you enter into a deeper silence and just stay in the presence of the Lord. There is no need for further words. What is it like to stay with Jesus

in silence, yet conscious of his loving presence to you and your presence to him? Think of the example of the old, loving married couple who are quite content to be together in silence – where nothing being said, all is said. Stay in that quiet place for a time and then come slowly from the prayer to face the daily tasks ahead.

If you have prayed early in the morning, using the lectio divina method, then try at intervals to recall what came to you during your prayer in the course of the day. Don't have the experience and miss the meaning!

The well-known American Jesuit, James Martin, recalls four questions by which the late scripture scholar, Daniel Harrington SJ, summed up the stages of lectio divina. The four questions are these:

  1. What does the scripture text actually say?
  2. What does the scripture text say to me?
  3. What do I want to say to Jesus about the scripture text?
  4. What difference will the scripture text make in my life?

Selected links:

Some books:

  • Casey, Michael, Sacred Reading – The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, Liguori/Triumph, Missouri, 1996.
  • Foster, David, Reading with God – Lectio Divina, Continuum, London, 2005.
  • Hall, Thelma, Too Deep for Words – Rediscovering Lectio Divina, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, 1988.
  • Pennington, Basil, Lectio Divina, Crossroad, New York, 1998.

Brendan Comerford SJ​