What Is Lectio Divina?
Lectio divina means “divine reading” in Latin. It is a way of praying with Scripture that has been used by faithful Catholics for centuries. In the Middle Ages, monks practiced lectio divina to commune with God through his word. Now the practice is used by religious communities and laypeople. The method of prayer can be broken into four parts: reading, meditation, prayer and listening.
First, you read a passage in Scripture. It can be a chapter, a paragraph, or even just a few lines. What matters most is that you read something in the Word of God that moves your heart, for that is where God speaks. He speaks with Scripture directly to our hearts. You can choose any part of Scripture, even one of those boring genealogy chapters if you’d like. For God works in mysterious ways, and can speak through any part of his word. However, the best passages to use are probably found in the book of Psalms or the Gospels. For the psalms are the prayers of God’s people, so in a way the conversation with him is already started and lectio divina is all about conversing with God. The Gospels are filled with the very words of the Word Incarnate, and Jesus has a way of getting right to the point. So these are two parts of the Bible that are conducive to the practice of lectio divina.
Many people use the Church’s liturgical calendar to help them choose a passage to read for lectio divina. If the passage you choose doesn’t seem to speak to you at first, don’t choose another one. Read it again and again until something sticks out. This is how God teaches us. Oftentimes, he wants to tell us something we don’t care to hear. All of Scripture is God’s word, and sometimes we can hear him speaking in the least likely parts of it.
After reading the passage, choose a sentence, phrase, or even just a word that really resonates with you. What you’re doing here is you’re trying to reflect upon what God may be saying to you through this Scripture passage. Whatever comes to mind through meditation may be a jumbled-up combination of your own thoughts and God’s truth. The meditation process is the part of lectio divina where you work on distinguishing between own thoughts and God’s voice. God tends to back up what he says with other Scripture verses and with your own life experiences. This is how he reveals truth to you, so pay close attention to any other Scripture verses that come to mind as you meditate on the sentence, phrase, or word you chose to meditate on. Also, pay attention to any memories that come to mind. God speaks to us through life itself, for he is life itself.
Whatever Scripture passage you are using in your lectio divina, remember that there is no need to pick out just one sentence, phrase, or word that sticks out. If you hear God’s voice intimately in more than one place in the passage, pay attention to that part just as much as the first. God may be aiming to teach you multiple lessons through that one passage, or he may be looking to teach you a theme that runs throughout the whole thing.
Take a step back from the passage and speak to God in your own words. Thank him for his providence and truth. Ask him any questions you may have about the him, what you just read, or what’s going on in your life. Talk to him about any perceived connections between your life and the words from the Bible that you just read. Ask him for any assistance you may need in believing in him, for even our faith comes from him. If you are struggling to understand the Scripture passage in some way, tell him what troubles you and why; and ask him to reveal to you the deeper truth you are missing. Meditation is the time to distinguish our thoughts from God’s. Prayer is the time to converse directly with him.
Traditionally, this step is also called “contemplation”. Many people confuse contemplation with meditation, but they are not the same thing. When we meditate, we spill out everything on our mind while trying to find what God is saying to us. Contemplation is when we shut ourselves down and just listen for God in the silence. He has spoken to us in his word. We have prayed and asked God to reveal himself. Now it’s time to wait for him to answer. Many times when we pray we forget about this step. Prayer is a conversation with God. We will get nothing out of it if we don’t let God speak to us.
The goal of contemplation is to receive a call to action from God. We are called to be disciples. At the end of Mass, the priest commissions us to go forth and spread the gospel by living it. When we do lectio divina correctly, God gives us a similar commission that we can apply to our lives.
Some details worthy of mention
Lectio divina can be done alone or in a group. When done in a group, sometimes people take turns reading. For example, if it’s a chapter with three paragraphs, a group of three may decide that each person should read a paragraph. Each group member may then share their thoughts during the meditation step, but sharing during the contemplation step is not recommended. The most important aspect of contemplation is silence.
It is common to begin lectio divina with a prayer to invoke the Holy Spirit. In fact, this is a good idea whenever we read Scripture. However, some people prefer to begin lectio divina with God’s words rather than their own. The most important thing to remember when doing lectio divina is that God is the author of the process. He is inviting us to converse with him, not the other way around. Letting him begin the conversation with his words, and letting him end by listening for his voice through silent contemplation, is a good way to remind us that God is leading the conversation. By the time we are done praying, we want to reach a point where he has taken over our thoughts, so we see Scripture and life the way he does. This will bring great peace to our lives, and will also spring us into action.
David Kilby is a freelance writer from New Jersey and managing editor of Catholic World Report.