Sunday, October 7, 2007

Lectio Divina: Brief Overview


The Rule of St. Benedict allots a significant place in the daily monastic horarium to the practice of lectio divina, or divine reading. This style of prayer was in fact common practice among Christians of the first centuries and has returned to popularity today. You don't have to belong to a monastery to do lectio.

It's a very simple approach, really, readily available to anyone interested in praying with the bible. Commentaries written to describe common experience generally identify four "steps" or aspects of the prayer, but these are descriptions, not rules. If you choose to do lectio, you should follow the promptings of the Spirit in deciding how long to devote to each aspect. In fact, quite often it isn't possible to tell which aspect you're engaged in, as they flow fairly freely into one another as you pray. And you can move back and forth among them as you feel drawn to do so.

In general, before beginning to pray, it is helpful to decide on a time, place and environment conducive to quiet concentration and to follow a regular routine, especially when prayer grows dry and uninteresting.

FIRST STEP: LECTIO
The first step is lectio, which means reading. You can take any section of the bible, or even some other piece of religious reading. Some people prefer to use the readings provided in the daily lectionary for Mass. Others prefer to follow a particular book of the bible from beginning to end. Others prefer to move among related passages. Whatever choose, forget everything you've ever learned about speed reading. Lectio requires that you read it very slowly to allow it to sink below the surface of your mind. You can mouth the words, or even read them aloud, to help you to slow down and focus. You can read a whole passage to get an overview and then go back and repeat parts of it, or you can read very slowly from the beginning. What matters is that you read attentively, prepared to pause for meditatio and oratio when something strikes you.

SECOND STEP: MEDITATIO
The second step is meditatio, which means meditation. Meditatio can take one of two traditional forms. Perhaps the oldest is the simple repetition of the text without a lot of analysis, allowing the words to sink deeper and deeper into the heart as you memorize them. It's amazing how much work they can do to rebuild our inner ways of looking at the world without a whole lot of conscious effort (or control!) on our part. The other form of meditatio involves thinking about the text actively -- questioning the text in light of your experience and allowing your experience to be questioned by the text. Either or both forms of meditatio can be useful.

THIRD STEP: ORATIO
The third step is oratio, which means prayer. This is the point at which reading and thinking turn into explicit conversation with God, either in words or simply in wordless directing of thoughts and feelings to God.
FOURTH STEP: CONTEMPLATIO
The fourth step is contemplatio, meaning contemplation. The word can mean many things, and it can sound frightening, but contemplation isn't a matter of esoteric knowledge, mind-breaking labor, or exotic experience. During lectio, it's the point at which words give way to silent presence, either briefly or for longer periods of time, depending on the individual and the gift of God. It is the part of prayer in which God is more active than we are. It can't be commanded, only accepted. When it ends, it's time to go back to reading again.
LECTIO AND DAILY LIFE
Lectio divina is really a way of surrendering the imagination to God. We all know that our minds are busy all day long, sometimes with worthwhile thoughts, sometimes with destructive ones. The habit of regular lectio divina provides food for thought to which we can return throughout the day, repeating a phrase or a line or two of what we've read or reconsidering reflections, whenever the mind falls idle or starts down the path toward unkind thoughts, criticisms, worries, and all the other unhealthy inner habits that stand between us and the gift of dwelling in God's presence in peace.

This posting is a revision of an article on lectio divina from our monastery’s website at: http://www.walburga.org/Lectio.html.

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