Lectio divina, translated into English as divine reading, is a method of digesting the Holy Scriptures through reading, meditation, and prayer. Its first historical developments in Christianity appear with Origen in the 3rd-century. The Desert Fathers, Sts. Ambrose and Augustine as well as the Benedictine monastic tradition helped bring it to greater maturity. Guigo II, monk and prior of the Grande Chartreuse in the 12th-century, perfected the form as it is practiced today. The four steps he describes are comparable to food digestion – consuming the Word (lectio); chewing on it (meditatio); savoring its essence (oratio); and lastly, digesting and becoming one with it (contemplatio). This article considers the dispositions required to find success in its practice.
1) Be Committed. No one acquires a second language, achieves good physical condition, or learns a musical instrument, without embracing a regimen. However, one will not find the necessary determination unless he or she sees the goal as desirable. Full dedication comes only after realizing the benefits of lectio.
2) Be Patient. Our Lord speaks of the seed on good soil as those hear the Word and bring forth fruit with patience. (Luke 8:15) The basic law of nature is slow growth, unperceived by the naked eye. The King of creation says that divine fruit comes only through patience. There may be some days that even the most inspired passages have zero effect on my soul. When I feel listless, therefore, endurance is necessary. The exercise of patience also applies to how much I read – less is more. Hence, stay away from 90-day Bible reading plans.
3) Be Regular. When feasible, have the same time each day for Scripture reading. Otherwise, you may put it off to the evening when the mind is tired and ready for sleep. I find that reading Scripture in the early morning works best because the mind is fresh and the soul is hungry. The chief thing is to be as regular as the sunrise.
4) Be Quiet. Sacred reading is not a monologue. As St. Augustine says, “When we pray, we speak to God, when we read, God speaks to us.” To hear the voice of God, one must be quiet. First, try to minimize all external noise – and more importantly, reduce inward noise. Interior silence means I’m alone with God and my cares and concerns are outside the door.
5) Be Prayerful. As a monastic novice, I learned of the need for the “proximate preparation” for prayer. This refers to the interior dispositions immediately preceding prayer time. If I try to gather my soul together and unload the worries of life, then prayer will go better. The same concept applies to reading.
If my mind is swimming in the morning news, for example, lectio will involve hard digging. On the other hand, if I’ve spent time in nature and quietness with God, then the sacred word will sleep in good soil. With the Holy Spirit’s help, the landscape of Scripture takes on new colors – hence, call upon Him and beg for His help.
6) Be Retentive. St. Paul tells the Thessalonians, hold on to what is good (1 Thess. 5:21) Many persons, Catholic and Protestant alike, find it useful to keep a lectio journal. By jotting down a passage or word that speaks to the soul, Scripture becomes more personal. The Word is likewise retained and therefore more effective in one’s daily life.
7) Be Solitary. Choose a location that is quiet, peaceful, and away from undue visual stimuli. If possible, create a sacred space in your home that has no other purpose than prayer or divine reading. There may otherwise be a conflict of association, which inevitably leads to distraction. If necessary, go to the library and find a quiet corner.
8) Be Inquisitive. Many parts of Scripture are mysterious, including the words of Jesus. When a certain passage leaves you perplexed, start investigating. That is, look through biblical commentaries to see what others may have elucidated from the text. The Church Fathers are especially recommended as the Spirit gifted them to see deeper meanings. A good choice in this regard is the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas. You can find it here under commentaries.
9) Be Attentive. The human mind is quite capable of running on parallel tracks – I may be speaking or listening to someone and my thoughts are seventy leagues away. When reading the Scriptures, I must make an effort to be wholly present. As the old Latin saying goes, age quod agis, literally, “Do what you are doing,” and may otherwise be phrased as, “focus on the task at hand.”
10) Be Unshackled. If you’re angry with someone, let it go; if anxious, give it to the Lord; if you’re pressed in by any other emotional feeling, try to drop it. The goal is to make space for God. It’s often best to work upsetness out of the system by first doing some handy work, walking in nature, or taking a shower. Admittedly, Scripture contains comforting words when upset, but it’s oftentimes helpful to physically work it out.
Worth the Effort
Though lectio divina requires work, we have the Divine Gardener’s assurance of good things if we persevere at it. We can’t expect thirtyfold or sixtyfold in a few days or weeks, though. With discipline, commitment, and God’s grace, the time spent in lectio will bring forth the fruits of Paradise.