lectio divina: a dialogue between God and man
What exactly is lectio divina? In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, when God creates the heavens and the earth, he does so by speaking. God speaks the world into being, and accordingly, all Creation is God’s message to us. What’s lacking from the beginning, however, is our ability to adequately reply to such a statement. How can we as creatures respond to our Creator? What can we say to equal the majesty of Creation?
The Gospel According to John 1:1 opens: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We believe that Jesus Christ is the perfect summary and expression of his Father. What God began speaking with Creation, he finished with his Son. What is more, however, Jesus Christ also is humanity’s perfect response to God. By becoming man, Jesus is able to answer for all of us. In Christ, then, dialogue between God and his Creation becomes possible.
This dialogue between creature and Creator takes many forms in the Church today, culminating in the source and summit of Christian life, the Holy Eucharist, in which we recall, restate, and participate in Christ’s response on our behalf.
walking and talking with Jesus
The Gospel According to Luke 24:13–31records the story of the two disciples leaving Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion. They’re despondent and confused when a stranger begins to accompany them on their way. To explain to them what’s happened, he uses the writings of what is now our Old Testament, going through story after story to demonstrate how these writings predict and describe what’s taken place in Jerusalem. Finally, after a long journey, the disciples impose on the stranger to join them for a meal. At last, in the breaking of the bread, they recognize that stranger as Jesus Christ.
Sharing in the offering of the Mass makes Christ present to us and to the world, but the words of Scripture allow us to come to know who he is and what he wants of us. By walking and talking with Jesus through the books of Sacred Scripture, we can understand who Jesus is, what he did for us, and what he’s asking of each of us. The name the Church has given this journey is lectio divina, a Latin term that means “divine gathering” or “divine reading.”
Lectio divina is a careful reading of biblical texts that is designed to generate dialogue between the divine author of Scripture and the reader. It has four distinct parts that work together to lead the reader into conversation with God. This model of lectio divina serves as the inspiration and the foundation for Turning to God’s Word.
In carefully reading the Scriptures we directly encounter God’s Word. As the Latin root of lectio divina suggests, the aim of lectio is to pluck out those portions of the text in which God is speaking to us at a given time in order to more deeply reflect and meditate on them. Lectio divina isn’t a scholarly reading aimed at understanding every nuance of the biblical text. Lectio divina is a spiritual reading, an opening of oneself to the living Word of God.
The way we approach communicating with God frames the type of conversations we’re likely to have with God as a result. Though the Bible is a book, it’s important to the process of lectio divina that we not read Scripture the same way that we would read a novel. Rather, the Bible should be read as a sacred letter from our beloved in which he is attempting to reveal to us the deepest workings of his heart. As we learn to approach God’s Word in this way, our hearts and minds will open to the deeper mysteries it contains, and intimate conversation with our Creator can begin.
One time-honored method of approaching lectio divina is to read the biblical text out loud. This helps to slow our pace so that we can focus our attention on the meaning of the words. The effect almost can seem as though God is speaking to us through our own voice. Whether we read aloud or silently, it’s necessary to read slowly and carefully. This allows each word to resonate and to convey its full force and meaning. We want to let God speak to us as we open our hearts to listen.
Though most people in our society know how to read, the main reason so many of us suffer scriptural illiteracy is that we don’t know how to read God’s Word in a way that makes it come alive for us. Through the frequent practice of lectio divina, we can learn to understand God’s Word as God meant it to be understood. When this happens, our Catholic faith is opened wide to new and beautiful encounters with God.
It’s good practice to begin all readings of the Bible with a prayer to the Holy Spirit, asking for guidance and instruction from the ultimate author of Sacred Scripture.
The second element of lectio divina is meditatio, meaning a “chewing over” or “dwelling upon.” The purpose of meditatio is to reflect upon a portion or portions of the text that stand out to us in our reading. It’s during this step that we begin to engage God in his Word in a way that allows him to speak to us directly. We encounter God’s word, and we let it encounter and interact with us.
Meditatio involves asking ourselves why certain elements of the text stand out. What is it in ourselves that resonates with the biblical text, and what is that text saying to us? Meditation at this stage should create a connection between the reader and the text, allowing the text to become a part of the reader. It’s in this way that God’s Word comes alive in each of us.
Rather than reading an entire passage at once and then pondering its meaning, it’s helpful to practice lectio until some particular word, phrase, or concept stands out. At that point, to preserve the moment of inspiration, we stop reading and ask ourselves what it was that stood out and why. This approach creates a sort of rhythm of reading a bit, then thinking, then reading a bit more, followed by more reflection. It’s especially conducive to dialogue, since we are engaging God at every opportunity rather than having two separate but related monologues. Meditatio forms the heart of Bible study.
Oratio is named for the Latin word meaning “asking” or “prayer.” In oratio we respond to what God has spoken to us through our reading and reflection upon his Word.
These prayers can fall into a broad range of categories from giving thanks, to asking for further insight into a particular point, to asking God for a particular gift or grace depending on what in the biblical text moved us and how. The important thing to keep in mind is that these prayers should be expressions of our response to God based on what we’ve read.
It’s crucial that all of our prayers be deeply rooted in Jesus Christ. We’re trying to speak to God, and since Jesus is the only adequate response to God’s Word, we must endeavor to unite ourselves with him in thought, word, and deed as we respond to God’s Word. In this way, our dialogue with God becomes a sharing in the mystery of the Blessed Trinity—and, as such, a participation in the living God.
The fourth element of lectio divina, contemplatio, is the highest and ultimate goal of our dialogue with God. The word contemplatio comes from a Latin word meaning “to look at hard” or “to gaze at deeply.” In contemplatio, we’re caught up in a communion with the divine. Dialogue has run its course, and we find ourselves in the presence of God.
Contemplatio can happen at any time while we’re engaged in lectio divina. This is the goal of our study of Scripture—a closer relationship with God. When our study lead us to this basking in the divine presence, it no longer is necessary at that time to continue reading and studying. Rather, we should in those moments surrender ourselves to God and gaze fondly at our Creator. As reading a love letter no longer is timely when we’re caught up in our lover’s embrace, so continuing with the other stages of lectio divina when we encounter contemplatio is missing the point.
While conemplatio is a very real element of personal Bible study, it seldom enters into group Bible study. It’s a gift from God that no amount of method or guidance can guarantee. Although contemplatio is available to all who prayerfully read and study Scripture, it’s not within the purview of group study. Contemplatio isn’t something that can be brought about on demand through human orchestration, but it should be recognized as the ultimate aim of all Scripture study.
These four elements of lectio divina provide the framework for developing dialogue with God in the reading of the Sacred Scriptures. The first two elements, lectio and meditatio, outline a centuries-old method of opening ourselves to hear what God is saying to us in his Word. In this way, God is able to speak to us clearly and profoundly in the context of our own lives. These two elements combined form one direction of our dialogue with God. Oratio forms our response to God’s Word. It’s in oratio, through Jesus Christ, that we can speak back to God. Finally, contemplatio is a drawing closer in union with God to whom we have been speaking. It’s a deeper drawing in than oratio. Through the rhythm and interchanges of these four elements, intimate relationship with God becomes a reality.
a reliable gateway
Lectio divina isn’t as simple as following steps one, two, three, and four, and no specific Bible-study materials or catechists can promise that participants in their program will experience contemplatio at any set time. God alone determines how and when to enter into more intimate relationship with individual men and women. Nevertheless, regular and careful reading, thinking, and praying about God’s Word is a Catholic approach to Scripture study that for centuries has served as a reliable gateway to lectio divina, pointing thousands of Christians toward richer and more satisfying relationships with God.
The Living Word of God is a video in which Turning to God’s Word author Matthew Phelps uses down-to-earth language to discuss the relationship between lectio divina and Bible study. You can watch another video as well in which Benedictine monks of Conception Abbey discuss their regular daily practice of lectio divina.