In the tradition of the Church, there is an excellent and reliable method for us to read these sacred books called lectio divina. An ancient form of praying in Scripture, lectio divina literally means “sacred reading”. The second Vatican Council emphasized that devotion to sacred scripture is not limited to just reading and study, but ratherany bible study should be done with prayer. “Let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together” (DV 25).
In order to make scripture reading become a prayer of meditation, we need that preparation – it is customary to pray for inspiration before reading, asking God to speak to me through the sacred scriptures. You may recall from your youth the traditional prayer to the Holy Spirit, which all members of the Church should memorize.
Lectio divina normally involves four simple stages of prayer, each summarized by a Latin word. After the preparation, one usually chooses a passage of the gospels such as that day’s reading for Mass.
- Lectio, the actual “reading” of the text. It is the opposite of speed-reading! Do not be is a hurry. Do not skip any words. This may seem obvious, but too often it is easy to skim through passages, saying ‘I’ve read it before’ or ‘I know the story’. This approach is dangerous, because when we approach Scripture, we can never force our own meanings on the text, ‘what I think it says’. Some will even want to read the passage out loud. A practical help for reading the scriptures is to read as if for the first time, with a certain newness and curiosity, savoring the words. This practice will allow us new insights and a deeper appreciation of the true meaning of the text.
We read the passage slowly, pondering what God is saying to us through the words, and how they apply to our life. We must not rush the lectio.
- Meditatio, meditation on the passage. For example, if I read a whole chapter of a Gospel, I will pick out a main passage or thought that struck me – this is part of our listening. Pick only one main section, perhaps no more than ten verses, and reread them very slowly. Sometimes after that I will even pick out just one key line, verse or words. Repeat them. Think and reflect on them. Recall that some may find it helpful to involve their imagination and emotions. Imagine the scene, notice the details and feelings, listen to the dialogue, hear the questions and answers, make connections to one’s life.
Thus, we pause on a particular point and “ruminate” on it as long as it nourishes our soul, turning it into a prayer or dialogue with God that is filled with gratitude or adoration. This leads us into the next stage of Lectio Divina.
- Oratio. Prayer, our conversation with God in response. Connect the words of Scripture to Christ who is present. Open to Christ speaking to you in this passage. Sometimes, we need to be silent, listen, and let God’s word speak to us; then we will be open to the true meaning of the text, and come to a deeper understanding of God’s Word. Is there a challenge, a call, an invitation in this passage? How do I need to respond? How am I to live my life?
- Contemplatio, contemplation is the point of the experience of union with God, the point to which all the saints aspire. Here one moves beyond words and images to God himself. Recall that the sacred words are meant to lead us to him. Jesus Christ is the mystery at the heart of the words of Scripture. They point the way to him and inviting all to join him in the communion of faith and love. Contemplation is not relaxation, but rather expectation, being alert to God’s presence, made ready for His approach by the previous three steps.
To repeat, in English, the four steps of lectio divina are 1) reading, 2) meditating, 3) praying, 4) contemplation.
We can read in full Pope Benedict’s summary of the process of lectio divina in his 2010 apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini:
It opens with the reading (lectio) of a text, which leads to a desire to understand its true content: what does the biblical text say in itself? Without this, there is always a risk that the text will become a pretext for never moving beyond our own ideas. Next comes meditation (meditatio), which asks: what does the biblical text say to us? Here, each person, individually but also as a member of the community, must let himself or herself be moved and challenged. Following this comes prayer (oratio), which asks the question: what do we say to the Lord in response to his word? Prayer, as petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise, is the primary way by which the word transforms us. Finally, lectio divina concludes with contemplation (contemplatio), during which we take up, as a gift from God, his own way of seeing and judging reality, and ask ourselves what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us? In the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul tells us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Contemplation aims at creating within us a truly wise and discerning vision of reality, as God sees it, and at forming within us “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). … We do well also to remember that the process of lectio divina is not concluded until it arrives at action (actio), which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity.
Thus, some authors will add a fifth step: action (actio), which means that growing in love for God will have concrete results in our lives. It will lead us to stronger resolution to turn from sin, it will lead us to practice virtue and especially live that same love God has shown to us, a life that is selfless, giving, and generous. God loves us too much to leave us where we’re add, therefore our meditation also needs to be applied to ourselves and lived in our lives.
I also want to note that despite calling these steps, one’s prayer does not always need be so structured, as lectio divina should flow naturally between each of the different steps. This does not mean, however, that any of the steps should be intentionally skipped or shortened – one needs to allot time for contemplation to occur.
Do not think, before beginning, that one needs to be an “expert” in lectio divina. Be patient with yourself, but do not delay in practicing it. Even if one doesn’t feel they have reached contemplation, the practice of lectio divina will illuminate both the scriptures and our prayer. After having exhausted one point, we move on to the next or continue reading. And through prayerful reading of the Scriptures, Christ heals and frees, he leads people to conform their lives to his, so they may know him and arrive at the fullness of union with him.
Again, it will be advisable near the end of one’s time in prayer to review all our considerations, to thank God for the graces and insights we have received, and to form resolutions, asking God to help us put them into action.
Application: Prayer Exercise
Making the time and place for prayer, choose in advance a Gospel passage. Possible ideas (besides the Gospel of the day) include:
- Call of Peter: Put Out into the Deep Luke 5:1-11
- The Woman at the Well John 4:1-42
- The Woman Caught in Adultery John 8:1-11
- The Rich Young Man Luke 18:18-30
Use some preparatory steps to enter prayer: 1. Raise your mind and put yourself in God’s presence. 2. Ask for his grace to open your heart and stay focused. 3. Offer God this time and yourself. 4. Picture the scene of the Gospel story. 5. Tell God of the desires of your heart.
For your lectio divina, read the scripture passage three times, slowly.
- With eyes to see: what word or phrase jumps out at you, speaks to you, strikes you? Take a little time to sit with that word or phrase. What is God highlighting in this passage?
- With ears to hear: building on the first step, in this second reading what is God telling you? Talk to him about it. Have a small conversation about what he is saying, go further / deeper and hear more. Be silent and allow the Lord to speak.
- With change to make: prayerful read a third time, asking God to show you what to change in your life. Let the encounter with his Word shape you. Is God inviting you to take a step closer to him, especially with what you saw and heard in the first two steps? Have a conversation, ask him about it: what will this change mean for you? Respond by ask for the grace and giving God your “yes” to his word and his will.
(Three steps summarized from a guide to lectio divina by Focus, a Catholic campus ministry.)
To conclude: Say a memorized prayer. Take some notes. Express thanks to God for any way he touched your heart or spoke to you. Examine what helped me to pray vs. what caused distractions. Write down your new resolution and some practical steps to make it happen.