For those who are familiar with the concept of Lectio Divina, you will likely know that it is a process of reading scripture in a slow, deliberate way, so as to gain new spiritual insights from the words of God. For those of you not familiar with Lectio, why the heck not? It’s a pretty ancient practice, so you’d think you would have come across it by now! (This should be read in a sarcastic voice and not taken literally–I am a Grump, after all.) More than just “Bible Study,” or “Quiet Time” with the Bible, the process of Lectio involves the imagination, the senses, and meditation on scripture that takes one deeper into the word and gets at the heart of what God is trying to say to us through scripture.
I was first introduced to the concept of Lectio in seminary, and since that time I’ve made it kind of my personal mission to share it with as many people as I possibly can. So, here goes. Lectio Divina comes from the monastic tradition of the church, and stems from a time when reading scripture was done primarily by monks in drafty monastic libraries. Books, and especially books of the Bible, were hard to come by, cumbersome, and very expensive, since they were written by hand. (Gutenberg came along and democratized books with his printing press, but it would be maaaaaany years before regular jerks like you and me could afford something like that.) As monks read the scriptures–a daily requirement in the Rule of St. Benedict–and as they copied out the books of the Bible into new books–they would ponder on the words they were reading, and enter into a meditative state, surrounded by the beauty of the language of God. (Which, of course, happened to be Latin, or at least during the middle ages it was.)
Over time, the process of this “holy reading” became more and more formalized, until it was solidified in the late 12th century by a Carthusian monk named Guigo II. (He had a roman numeral after his name to distinguish him from the first Guigo, who was such a great guy that lots of people named themselves after him when they took their monastic vows. I mean, there may have been another Guigo before him even, but this Guigo was the one who got the naming rights to all the Guigos that came after him.) Guigo Two: The Guigoning wrote a book called The Ladder of Monks, and laid down the process of Lectio in four stages:
- Lectio (Reading)
The first stage is exactly what it says on the tin–reading. Reading what? Scripture. What scripture? Whatever is assigned to you, or the readings of the day in the lectionary, or whatever you choose. Why do I have to have all the answers? I don’t. Just pick something from the Bible and read it. (Not Leviticus, though, and probably not Revelation. Or the latter part of Daniel. Or any of the other weird bits, for that matter–probably best to avoid the Song of Solomon unless you’re ready for some strange erotic fan fiction about God.
2. Meditatio (Meditation)
Somewhere along the way, while you are nonchalantly reading scripture, something will stand out. A word, a phrase, a concept or an image–something. I can’t tell you what it will be–that would be cheating. And also, I honestly wouldn’t know anyway, because it’s different for each person and each passage of scripture. But something will catch your eye–or your heart–and that’s when the reading stops and the meditation begins. Just stop right there. Don’t go on. Don’t grab your Bible dictionary or a commentary. Don’t go looking in a concordance for other places where that word is used. And BY GOD, DO NOT START THINKING ABOUT WHAT THIS WORD MIGHT MEAN OR HOW IT MIGHT APPLY TO YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE! You are not writing a sermon or an essay. This is about getting the words from the page, through the eyes and the mind, and into the heart and soul. Some people like to form an image of the word or phrase that sticks out to them. Others may repeat it over and over again, like a mantra. (It’s not necessary to chant, but you can if you really want to.) Meditation on the words of God can lead us closer to the heart of God, and into a conversation with God that leads to change in our lives.
3. Oratio (Prayer)
Prayer is something that every Christian knows we ought to do, but we spend very little time talking about how to do it. (That idea’s not unique to me–Georgia Harkness wrote about prayer in this way in the 1940s.) The prayer stage of Lectio Divina involves opening yourself up to God and being available to hear what God might be saying to you in this passage of scripture that sticks out in your reading of it. Unlike intercessory prayer, or prayers of thanksgiving or confession, this prayer doesn’t consist of us throwing a bunch of words at God and seeing what sticks. Instead, oratio naturally flows out of meditatio, as one begins to ask, “God, what is it you’re trying to say to me here?” When the early desert monks wanted to get some advice from their elders, they would often approach a senior monk and say “Abba (Father, or Amma, Mother), speak a word.” This stage might best be described in the same way–as one approaching God and saying, “Abba/Amma, speak a word.” And then waiting for that word to come. And when the word does come, you might have some words (questions, most likely), and then after you say those, you stop and listen some more. It’s like an actual, honest-to-God (literally!) conversation! And eventually, you reach a point where words don’t cut it anymore, and that’s when the final stage occurs.
4. Contemplatio (Contemplation)
Contemplation seems like a daunting task, and I’m not going to lie, it is. It should be. We shouldn’t take being in the presence of the living Creator God lightly. But, we also shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously as to think that we can’t overcome the awkwardness of ourselves in order to sit with God’s presence for a little while each day. Contemplation positions our concerns (valid as they are) in juxtaposition with the eternal perspective of God, and causes us to get a little perspective. That perspective might be as jarring as “Quit whining, your problems are nothing compared to the issues of the whole universe,” or it might be more comforting, like, “God hears you, and sees you, and knows your pain, and everything will be o.k., even if it doesn’t look like it right now.” Contemplation draws us out of our limited perspective and allows us–if only for a moment and on rare occasions–to see ourselves as God sees us. And that’s an amazing thing. But it doesn’t happen all the time, and sometimes contemplation is just us being quiet and building up the stamina that it takes to wait for those moments, ready to respond when they do happen.
Now, all of this sounds great, and if we were all cloistered monastics we could do this every day with no problem, right? Well, even monks struggle with this, so don’t think it’s going to be a breeze for us schlubs who live out in the world. So how does a busy person do this kind of thing?
- Choose a scripture to read (see advice above; I recommend choosing something that’s not terribly familiar to you, like the 23rd psalm, but also not so obscure that you have to have a degree in Hebrew or Greek to understand it.) Remember the KISS rule: Keep It Short, Stupid!
- Read that scripture first thing in the morning–maybe tape it to your bathroom mirror, or put it above the tea kettle or the coffee pot–somewhere that you’re not going to miss it.
- Put a couple reminders around you to read the same scripture throughout the day–set an alarm on your phone, put a post-it note on your computer, tape it up around in places where you’ll trip over it throughout the day.
- At the end of the day, take five minutes to write down any thoughts you’ve had as you’ve read the scripture, any questions that arose within you (especially if they were surprising or disturbing), and anything you’d like to say to God about what you’re hearing in the passage.
- Go to sleep.
- Start the process over again tomorrow. Not with a new scripture–with the same one. Do this every day for a week (or for as long as you can–you’re gonna mess up and forget one or two days, so don’t beat yourself up over it.)
- When you’ve thoroughly read, meditated, prayed, and contemplated that verse, go on to the next one. Repeat as necessary.
And that’s it. Just take it one verse at a time, one day at a time. No need to rush through it. You’ve got the whole rest of your life to do this. If that happens to be a long time, then you get to read a lot of scripture. If it’s less time, then you don’t get to read as much scripture, but the stuff you’ve read will have been good, and you won’t care because you’ll be in a better place anyway.
Take it easy on yourself, and don’t forget that it’s still o.k. to be grumpy sometimes.