Lectio divina, “divine reading,” is a reflective and contemplative discipline in which we listen as we read the Bible. Christians seeking to read with God have practiced it for centuries. Lectio is not a highly rational method of study. It is not focused on hermeneutics and exegesis. Lectio is a slow, reflective reading. Instead of approaching the Bible as a book to know and understand, it seeks to engage scripture in relationship.
The Bible is the inspired word of God. It is a personal message from God to his creation, therefore it is intended it to be read in the context of relationship. When we practice lectio, we listen as much as we read. We read and ask God what he wants to say to us through this particular passage in this moment of our lives. Lectio divina is a way of reading the Bible with God.
Lectio divina is a reflection of Jeremiah 15:16, “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my delight, for I bear your name.” When we mull over a passage in lectio, it is like chewing on scripture, savoring it until it becomes a part of us. This divine reading transforms us, not because of our interpretation but because we are dependent only on our relationship with God as we read with him.
History of lectio divina
The history of lectio divina begins with the teaching of the third century theologian Origen. He taught that scripture is more than writing about God; God is actually present in scripture. He taught that prayer and relationship with God was more important to understanding scripture than study. God will speak and reveal himself if we read with an understanding that God is really present.
Saint Benedict built upon Origen’s teaching and encouraged a slow, thoughtful, reflective reading of scripture. He taught that God will speak if we give him space and listen. Benedict was the first to use the term lectio divina. Listening to God as we read is “divine reading.”
Benedict taught his students to read the passages four times, each with a different focus.First, they would listen for the general meaning of the passage. They would ask what word, phrase, or image stood out. In the second reading, they would pay attention to how they respond to the word or image. Specifically, how did their heart respond? The third reading focused on a response. How would they respond to the way God was moving their hearts? In the final reading, they would simply rest in God, letting the words wash over them in the presence of God.
This practice of lectio was so important to Benedict it became a central element in his rule of life. And his four-step structure has been the foundation for the discipline of lectio divina ever since.
In the twelfth century Guigo II, a Carthusian monk, built on Benedict’s foundation and introduced the formal steps we now associate with lectio divina in his book, Scala Claustralium (The Ladder of Monks). Like Benedict he taught to think about what we read in scripture, which leads to prayer, response, and resting in the presence of God. Guigo named the four stages of lectio divina Lectio (reading), Meditatio (meditation), Oratio (prayer), and Contemplatio (contemplation).
Over time the practice of lectio divina was formalized in the practice of the Benedictines and Carthusians, and it was adopted by a number of other groups. The Dominican and Carmelite monks embraced the practice, and a large number of Protestant Christians including the Puritans and John Calvin encouraged lectio divina.
What is lectio divina?
Many of us today have an incomplete picture of the Bible. Some of us see scripture as a divine rulebook, a collection of commandments we must obey to please God. Others read the Bible like a book of advice. We look for principles that, if applied properly, lead to a successful life. Others of us see it as a book about God and study it in order to uphold orthodox theology. We use what we learn to build an argument for some theological question.
Scripture is all of these things. It does contain commandments and valuable principles to apply in our lives. It is also a deeply theological book. It teaches us who God is, and how he relates to his creation. But the Bible is much more.
The Bible is the inspired word of God. It is not a book about God. It is a book from God, written to his people in order to reveal himself to them. God is present in the Bible, so a disciple will read with God’s presence in mind.
Lectio divina is not a method of studying scripture. It is not focused directly on exegesis or theology. The heart of lectio divina is a desire to read the Bible in communion with Jesus. The Order of the Carmelites describe lectio as “a way of reading the Scriptures whereby we gradually let go of our own agenda and open ourselves to what God wants to say to us.”
When we practice lectio, we listen to the Word of God. We listen to both the words of the Bible, and we listen to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. We read with an ear toward what he is saying to us in the passage and what that means in our lives. In this sense, lectio divina is as much a practice of prayer as it is scripture.
Lectio divina is a discipline practiced in four parts: Lectio (reading), Meditatio (meditation), Oratio (prayer), and Contemplatio (contemplation).
How to practice lectio divina
Our lives are incredibly busy. Quiet moments are rare, and the noise that is so common can inhibit our ability to hear from Jesus. For this reason, we should begin our practice of lectio divina by taking a moment to quiet ourselves.
You will want to find a quiet time and place for lectio. Then take a minute to rest and remember you are in God’s presence. What are some simple things that help you slow down and recognize God’s presence? Is it taking a deep breath? Is it closing your eyes or picturing yourself sitting at the feet of Jesus? Quiet your heart in the presence of God.
The first movement is called “lectio,” which is Latin for “read.” In this stage we read the passage. Be intentional about the pace of your reading. Don’t rush through it. Read the text slowly and reflectively.
In this first reading, let the words pour over you. Soak them in. Pay attention to what stands out. Is there a part of the passage on which God is shining a spotlight? It may be a word or phrase. It could be a person or a concept. Don’t rush to a meaning or an interpretation. At this point, just note that God has something to say to you in this passage through the word, phrase, person or concept.
The next movement in lectio divina is “meditatio,” the Latin word for “meditate.” This is not an Eastern or New Age form of meditation. It is not about emptying our minds. In the second stage of lectio, we mull over what stood out in the passage. Some have referred to this stage as time to chew on the text. We are not looking for theological interpretation. We are reflecting on the passage with God. This stage is one of receiving.
Read the passage again, keeping in mind what stood out in your earlier reading. Once again be intentional about the pace of your reading. Wade into the passage and let the words surround you as you read. Listen to the Holy Spirit. What is God saying to you in the passage? If a word or phrase stuck out in the first movement, ask God what he wants to tell you in it. Did you connect with a person? Why? How does God respond to this person, and how is he responding to you? Is God inviting you to some action?
“Oratio,” which is Latin for “pray,” is the third movement in lectio divina. The first two movements are ones of receiving. We read and listen to the Spirit. Oratio is our opportunity to respond. Based on your time in the first two movements, what do you want to say to God?
Is God calling you to do something? How are you feeling about what God is speaking to you? Do you need to confess and repent? Are you grateful for his words? Are you fearful about what God is calling you to do? Talk to him about it.
The final movement of lectio is “contemplatio,” the Latin word for contemplation. After reading, meditating, and praying, we rest. Read the passage one final time, and rest in the presence of God.
The state of this final movement of lectio is one of surrender. We can let go of our agendas, our fears, and all the things that pull our attention away from God’s loving presence. Here we rest in the knowledge that we are loved for who we are. Be at peace and soak in the presence of the one who created you and loves you.
Other lectio divina resources
Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer by David Benner
Discovering Lectio Divina: Bringing Scripture into Ordinary Life by James Wilhoit and Evan Howard
Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson
Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures by M. Basil Pennington