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Lectio Divina


Lectio Divina (pronounced "Lec-tsee-oh Di-vee-nah") means "Divine Reading" and refers specifically to a method of Scripture reading practiced by monastics since the beginning of the Church.

The early centrality of reading of Sacred Scripture, and then meditating and praying over its meaning, is evident in the
48th chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict (A.D. 480-453), a book written by the Great Saint to guide monastic life.

But it was an 11th c. Carthusian prior named Guigo 1 who formalized Lectio Divina, describing the method in a
letter written to a fellow religious. This letter, which has become known as Scala Paradisi -- the Stairway to Heaven -- describes a 4-runged ladder to Heaven, each rung being one of the four steps in his method of Bible reading. Those steps, and Guigo's brief descriptions of them, are:

  • lectio (reading): "looking on Holy Scripture with all one's will and wit"

  • meditatio (meditation): "a studious insearching with the mind to know what was before concealed through desiring proper skill"

  • oratio (prayer): "a devout desiring of the heart to get what is good and avoid what is evil"

  • contemplatio (contemplation): "the lifting up of the heart to God tasting somewhat of the heavenly sweetness and savour"

    Through the practice of Lectio Divina by monastics in group settings, three other steps are sometimes added to the four above such that the steps become:

    • statio (position)

    • lectio (reading)

    • meditatio (meditation)

    • oratio (prayer)

    • contemplatio (contemplation)

    • collatio (discussion)

    • actio (action)

    The Steps in Detail

    First, we arrange a place so it is restful, warm, and non-distracting. This may involve the lighting of candles, the burning of incense, the shutting of doors and drawing of curtains -- whatever makes one feel calm and at peace. Then we assume a bodily posture that is conducive to prayer and reading. We breathe slowly, focusing on the Holy Name of Jesus and nothing else, until we are relaxed and able to focus our attention solely on Scripture.  If our minds wander, we gently bring our attention back to the
    Holy Name of Our Lord, breathing in and out rhythmically. Note that, unlike in Eastern prayer which seeks to empty oneself to be open to some great "Nothing", we are ever mindful of the One Almighty Triune and Transcendent God, and are trying to calm ourselves so that what He might reveal to us through His Word may more easily be perceived.

    It is good if the place chosen for Lectio Divina is a comfortable area chosen just for this and other prayerful activities. The presence of relevant icons and other visual aids to meditation can be of great benefit. Now pray a prayer to the Holy Ghost, such as this one:

    A Prayer Before the Reading of Any Part of the Holy Scripture

    Come Holy Ghost, fill the hearts and minds of the faithful servants, and inflame them with the fire of Thy divine love.

    Let us pray: O God, who by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, didst instruct the hearts of thy faithful servants; grant us in the same Spirit, to discern what is right, and enjoy His comfort forever, through our Lord Jesus Christ, Who liveth and reigneth, one God, with Thee and the same Spirit, world without end. Amen.

    When we are relaxed and in a contemplative mode, we trace the
    Sign of the Cross on the book of Scripture, kiss the Cross we traced, and then open it to read. Some may want to focus on Scripture from that day's Propers. Others may want to read the Bible straight through, starting with Genesis. Others may want to focus only on the New Testament or the Psalms. We aren't trying to "accomplish a goal" of reading X amount; we read what is easily digested at that time. Whichever selection we choose, we read it with our minds, slowly, gently, coming to an understanding of the words themselves.

    Having a solid orthodox Catholic commentary (pre-Vatican II commentary with
    Imprimatur or the rare, well-chosen post-Vatican II commentary), a nice Concordance, etc., in order to get a good grasp of the meaning of the actual words -- their historical cultural context, their etymologies, the Fathers' thoughts on the relevant Scripture, etc. -- is imperative. We should always approach Scripture with the mind of the Church, in the spirit of the Ethopian eunuch who asked Philip to guide him:

    Acts 8:30-31
    And Philip running thither, heard him reading the prophet Isaias. And he said: Thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest? Who said: And how can I, unless some man shew me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.

    We should always keep in mind Peter's admonition that "no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20) and that Scripture can be difficult to understand, something "which the unlearned and unstable their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16).

    If you come to a verse you don't understand, or that you understand in a way that is contrary to Catholic teaching, seek traditional Catholic commentary on it. Any apparent contradiction between Scripture and Catholic teaching is just that: apparent, and not real. As an example, even a simple verse such as one that refers to Mary's "firstborn" will be misunderstood if one is ignorant of Jewish law, as are many Protestants who believe that reference to a "firstborn" means there must be a "secondborn," and who then go on to deny Mary's virginity. Seek a Catholic commentary which would refer you, in this case, to the Old Testament law of the "firstborn" and will teach you what that word really means (see Exodus 13:2, Exodus 13:14-15, Numbers 18:15 and research the term "pidyon ha-ben").

    At any rate, in Lectio, we are reading for the literal sense of the words, trying to understand the reality the writer of the text intended to convey.

    Now we meditate on what we have read, perhaps even reading it again, visualizing it and listening for the aspect of it that reveals the Divine Mysteries. We want the deeper, spiritual meanings of the words now, and read for its anagogocal (or "eschatalogical") sense and its typical (or "allegorical") sense -- i.e., we consider
    types and anti-types, shadows and symbolism in order to understand the deeper reality the Holy Ghost intends to convey by arranging nature and history as He did, thereby inspiring the writer of the text to write as he did.

    We ask God to for the grace to be changed by what we have read, to come more fully into being what He wants us to be, and to help us apply the tropological (or "moral") sense of the Scripture to our lives.

    We rest in gratitude for God and His Word.

    If we are engaging in Lectio Divina with others, we discuss what we've learned.

    We live what we have learned.

    Consider engaging in Lectio Divina with your family, perhaps on the Lord's Day each week (if not daily). Discuss Scripture together, encouraging even the littlest ones of your family to participate (the very small can draw pictures of the stories you are reading). Make the Bible a familar and integral part of their lives.

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