The purpose of this article is to introduce you to Lectio Divina — Latin for Divine Reading — is an ancient method of reading scripture that will help you develop a deeper understanding of the message God has for you in the Scriptures. We will accomplish this by defining Lectio Divina, exploring its history, and demonstrating how to use it.
God promises “I will put My spirit within you and I will make you live according to my statutes and will make you observe my laws and put them into practice.”(1) Jesus reaffirms this promise in the His interaction with the woman at the well.(2)
Lay Catholic Must Study Scripture
Unfortunately for many U.S. Catholics, the idea of studying Scripture sounds as exciting and daunting as studying the U.S. tax code. There is a myth that has continued generation after generation that Catholics are prohibited from reading Scripture.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
There are several excellent resources dispelling the myth that laity were discouraged from studying Scripture at the website DefendTheBride.com
The Vatican II Council Fathers addressed this the importance of Scripture study in the Vatican II document Dogmatic Constitution On Divine Revelation, more commonly know as Dei Verbum.
For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.(3)
While we reject the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura(4), as lights to the nation, we must be comfortable with and fluent in Scripture for as Saint Jerome famously told us, “For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”(5) While there are many excellent Bible studies available, one of the best that used by almost every saint and pope since the third century is known by its Latin name Lectio Divina.
Among the many gifts Saint Benedict of Nursia left the Church, perhaps his greatest is a method of reading the Scripture based on Jewish methods and those taught in the ancient Church by such people as Origen, Saint Ambrose, and Saint Augustine of Hippo.
The purpose of Lectio Divina is to shut out the distractions of the world for a few moments to focus on what the Holy Spirit wants you to understand from the Scripture.
According to Benedictine priest Father Luke Dysinger,
When we read the Scriptures we should try to imitate the prophet Elijah. We should allow ourselves to become women and men who are able to listen for the still, small voice of God (1 Kings 19:12); the “faint murmuring sound” which is God’s word for us, God’s voice touching our hearts.(6)
Completing Lectio Divina
One of the first questions of the modern Christian is how long will this take? While a better question to ask is how long do I get to spend in Lectio Divina today, the quick answer is 10-15 minutes.
If this is something you enjoy and once you get the routine down, expand out the number of verses and the amount of time. Perhaps 1 hour a day would be a good goal to work toward.
- Go to a quiet, comfortable place and calm yourself with your journal close by.
- Develop the skill of stopping the thoughts about the concerns of your life — not easy to do but possible. Try deep breaths of inhaling through the nose and out through the mouth as a methoding of calming yourself.
- Psalm 46:11 while moving into relaxation: “Be still” while inhaling and “know that I am God” while exhaling.
- Some people are repulsed at the idea of mediation because they fear that is new age or eastern religion seeking in to Christianity. As with all aspects of Christianity, we can be easily deceived, in particular if we separate ourselves from the Church. Here is an article I wrote on why Christians need mediation. The most important point about mediation is the focus: in Christianity, we ALWAYS focus on Jesus.
- End your preparation with the prayer before reading Scripture. Below are some suggestions of prayers that have been used over the centuries:
- Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. (1 Samuel 3:10)
- Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in me the fire of Your love.
- Lord, inspire me to read your Scriptures and to meditate upon them day and night. I beg you to give me real understanding of what I need, that I in turn may put its precepts into practice. Yet, I know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So I ask that the words of Scripture may also be not just signs on a page, but channels of grace into my heart. Amen. (Origen)
- Read the passage you are focusing first to understand the context. I would suggest not starting the Lectio Divina habit with anything from Saint Paul, rather, start with today’s Gospel. For the remainder of this section, I am going to use Matthew 16:13-20 as an example.
- Read through once as you would hear it at Mass.
- Now, check for footnotes and cross referenced passages. In the The New American Bible, Revised Edition version available from the USCCB website, there are general footnote providing insight to the passage and several cross references.
- Read the passage a second time slowly and deliberately. You are listening for an almost imperceptible voice who wants to be heard but will not force His voice on us.
- As you read through the passage a second time, what verse, phrase or word stuck out to you? If nothing did, ask the Holy Spirit again for insight and read the passage over. Even in the shortest verse in the Bible(7) has tremendous depth that you could spend years studying. For our example, we will focus on the last clause of verse 18 “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it”.
- On the section the Holy Spirit choose for us, let’s check again for footnotes and cross references to other passages. From the end of the footnote on this verse, we learn that Jesus was using a metaphor describing the home of the dead to tell Peter the Church will not be overcome by the power of death.
- Ensure you are clear on the meaning of all the words before moving on. For example, when Jesus talks of death, He is speaking about death of the souls, which are the souls who have rejected Him. The place of the dead is Hell.
- With all the head knowledge about the passage in mind, it’s time to close your eyes and let the Holy Spirit give you understanding of this passage.
- Ask questions of the text. For example, is Jesus promising that no matter how bad things are, evil will never defeat the Church? If Jesus is not talking about death in the physical sense, then why am I afraid of death? And if that is true, then is Jesus saying my soul is of more importance to Him than what I look like? And if that is true, then why do I care that what hair I have left if graying?
- Be like Mary and “reflecting on them in her heart.”(8) A journal is excellent for capturing some of these ponderings.
- Some ancient spiritual teachers would tell their student to consider the Scriptures the way an animal chews its cud. Slow and deliberate to allowing the Holy Spirit to unpack the Truth of the passage for us.
- It might seem that praying about the passage should come before meditating but consider how Jesus responds to the scholar of the law when he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”(9) As the greatest teacher of all, Jesus shows us there is great fruit in having the student answer their own question.
- Through mediation, we are more open to allow the Holy Spirit to use the knowledge we have to develop understanding of the Scripture. In pray, we can bring the fruit of what we obtained in our meditation to Jesus to seek His wisdom. As He answered the scholar, He will answer and direct us.
- Ask what the Holy Spirit want you to learn from this passage? Listen for the insight.
- Here comes the most difficult step of Lectio Divina.
- The Latin roots of contemplation means to be in a place where you can study and to make observations. Our modern usage is to thinking deeply about or looking carefully at something.
- We end Lectio Divina with contemplation by turning our focus on Jesus and be quiet in His presence.
- I look at or bring to mind a crucifix or the Divine Mercy image. Part of my Protestant comes out when I often bring the hymn “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” to mind as well.
- This is where the greatest fruit Lectio Divina comes from when the wisdom you have received is implanted in your soul.
How This Helps In Becoming A Light To The Nations
Lectio Divina is an ancient method of slowing down to enjoy being in the presence of Jesus. Much like one candle is lit from another, we can only gain what Jesus has for us by being in close contact with Him.
Vatican II Council Father tell us that we “should gladly put [ourselves] in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids which, in our time, with approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church, are commendably spread everywhere.”(10)
Seem appropriate to end this article with the final sentence of Dei Verbum:
Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similar we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God, which “lasts forever”.(11)
2] John 4:4-42
3] Dei Verbum 21
4] Sola Scriptura is Latin for “by Scripture alone” which is a Protestant teaching that Scripture alone — and nothing else — is the only authority Christians need to follow. If that were true, no Christian preachers would never be needed since everything we need is in the Bible. Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid has excellent resources on this topic.
5] Saint Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah.
7] The shortest verse in Scripture is “Jesus wept.” John 11:35
8] Luke 2:19
10] Dei Verbum §25 ¶01
11] Dei Verbum §26