Question: "What is Lectio Divina?"
Answer: Lectio divina is Latin for “divine reading,” “spiritual reading,” or “holy reading.” Lectio divina, according to author and spiritual director Becky Eldredge, is “a slow, rhythmic reading and praying of a Scripture passage” (from Busy Lives & Restless Souls, Loyola Press, 2017). The intention of this traditional monastic practice is to promote communion with God and provide special spiritual insight. The principles of lectio divina were first expressed around the year 220 and later practiced by Catholic monks, especially the monastic rules of Saints Pachomius, Augustine, Basil, and Benedict. The practice of lectio divina was revived in 1965 with the publication of Dei Verbum by the Vatican II Council.
A related practice is visio divina, which is praying while contemplating on icons, illustrations, or other visual images. In addition, various Catholic teachers promote musica or audio divina (using music as a means of opening the “ears of the heart”) and walking divina (participating in a Corpus Christi procession or a rosary procession, visiting the Stations of the Cross, or walking the Camino).
The practice of lectio divina is popular among Catholics and is gaining acceptance in the evangelical church, especially those involved in the spiritual formation movement. Pope Benedict XVI promoted lectio divina, and in a 2005 speech, he mentioned its purpose: “I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of lectio divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart. If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church—I am convinced of it—a new spiritual springtime” (“Address to the Participants in the International Congress Organized to Commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum,” 9/16/05).
Lectio divina is easily adaptable to the reading of other sacred texts of other faiths. And, as psychologist John Uebersax points out, the steps of lectio divina “correspond fairly well to the four primary cognitive functions posited by psychologist Carl Jung: sensing, thinking, feeling, and intuiting” (“A Method for Lectio Divina Based on Jungian Psychology,” www.john-uebersax.com/plato/lectio.htm, accessed 3/2/23).
The practice of lectio divina begins with a time of relaxation, making oneself comfortable and clearing the mind of mundane thoughts and cares. Some practitioners find it helpful to concentrate by beginning with deep, cleansing breaths and repeating a chosen phrase or word several times to help free the mind. Then they follow four steps:
Lectio – Reading the Bible passage slowly several times. The passage itself is not as important as savoring each portion of the reading, constantly listening for the “still, small voice” of a word or phrase that speaks to the practitioner.
Meditatio – Reflecting on the passage and thinking about how it applies to one’s life. The practitioner pays special attention to feelings that arise and ways that God is speaking.
Oratio – Responding to the passage by praying and opening the heart to God. This is seen as the beginning of a conversation with God. Some practitioners of lectio divina keep a journal to record their prayers to God and God’s messages to them.
Contemplatio – Contemplating on all that was learned. This step involves sitting in silence, resting in God’s presence, and experiencing union with Christ.
Some versions of the instructions for lectio divina also include a fifth step: Actio, or action. Having received God’s love, the practitioner is to go about serving others in love.
Of course, devotional Bible reading, unhurried prayer, and meditating on and responding to the written Word are good. Insofar as lectio divina promotes those activities, believers can participate. Focusing on the Bible to commune with God is laudable. But there are some cautions concerning lectio divina:
1) The origin of lectio divina is problematic. Anything that originated with monks, practiced by mystics, recommended by popes, and taught by Catholic teachers is suspect. Believers should be wary of any exercise identified as a traditional monastic practice.
2) The subjective, personal focus of lectio divina downplays objective, methodical Bible study. Proponents of lectio divina freely admit that the practice “does not treat scripture as texts to be studied. . . . In Lectio Divina we let go of more intellectual, studious, or effortful ways of reading the scripture. . . . Although Lectio Divina involves reading, it is less a practice of reading than one of listening to the inner message of the Scripture delivered through the Holy Spirit. Lectio Divina does not seek information or motivation” (Archdiocese of St. Louis, www.archstl.org/Portals/0/Documents/Worship/Divina%20Resources/Lectio%20Divina.pdf, accessed 3/2/23). A devotional reading of Scripture should not replace “intellectual, studious” Bible study but supplement it. A serious study of the Bible should naturally lead to communion with and worship of God.
Believers have a responsibility to correctly handle the word of truth and be workers who do not need to be ashamed before God (2 Timothy 2:15). We approach the Bible from a position of sound knowledge and faith; the personal experience of peace and contentment comes as a byproduct of knowing and communing with God rightly.