In chapter 48 of the Rule, St. Benedict instructs us that “idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the community ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in divine reading.”
Lectio Divina is latin for Divine Reading. It is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation, and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God’s Word. Lectio Divina does not treat Scripture as text to be studied, but as the Living Word.
Lectio differs from the ordinary act of reading and even from spiritual reading. Lectio goes beyond the words on the page. The four basic steps given by Guigo II, the 9th prior of Grande Chartreuse monastery from 1174-80, are Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, Contemplatio: Read, Meditate, Pray, Contemplate.
The first step is the reading of Scripture. In order to achieve a calm and tranquil state of mind, preparation before Lectio Divina is recommended. An example would be sitting quietly and in silence and reciting a prayer inviting the Holy Spirit to guide the reading of the Scripture that is to follow.
Following the preparation is the slow and gradual reading of the Scriptural passage, perhaps several times. The attentive reading begins the process through which a higher level of understanding can be achieved. In the traditional Benedictine approach the passage is slowly read four times, each time with a slightly different focus. When the passage is read, it is generally advised not to try to assign a meaning to it at first, but to wait for the action of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the mind, as the passage is pondered upon.
Don’t invest time looking for passage that is pleasing. Either choose the reading beforehand, perhaps the day’s liturgical readings, follow some theme, choose a consecutive reading of the whole Bible, or simply flip to a page and start.
The second step in Lectio Divina thus involves meditating upon and pondering on the Scriptural passage. To meditate on the passage that has been read, it is held lightly and gently considered from various angles. The emphasis is not on analysis of the passage but to keep the mind open and allow the Holy Spirit to inspire a meaning for it.
Benedictine meditation is different from the style of meditations performed in many Eastern religions or in the new age movement. While other types of meditation may suggest approaches to disengage the mind, our focus is to fill the mind with thoughts related to Scriptural passages. Benedictine meditation aims to heighten our personal relationship based on the love of God, to stimulate thought, and deepen our understanding.
In the Benedictine tradition prayer is understood as dialogue with God. It is a loving conversation with God who has invited us into an embrace. The constitution Dei Verbum which endorsed Lectio Divina for the general public, as well as in monastic settings, quoted Saint Ambrose on the importance of prayer in conjunction with Scripture reading and stated, “And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying.”
Prayer during Lectio Divina can take many forms. It can be compunction, formulaic, praise, petition, thanksgiving – silence can also be a response.
Contemplation takes place in terms of silent prayer that expresses love for God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines contemplative prayer as, “silence, the ‘symbol of the world to come’ or ‘silent love.’ Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love. In this silence, unbearable to the “outer” man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus.”
As Bernard Olivera, OCSO writes, “To contemplate is to take silent delight in the Temple which is the Risen Christ.”
Gervase Holdaway in The Oblate Life, has likened Lectio Divina to feasting on the Word. First, the taking of a bite (read); then chewing on it (meditate); savoring its essence (pray) and, finally, “digesting” it and making it a part of the body (contemplate).
The roots of Scriptural reflection and interpretation go back to Origen in the 3rd century, after whom St. Ambrose taught them to St. Augustine. The monastic practice was first established in the 6th century by Saint Benedict and was then formalized as a four-step process by the Carthusian monk Guigo II during the 12th century.
In the 20th century, the constitution Dei verbum of the Second Vatican Council recommended Lectio Divina to the general public and its importance was affirmed by Pope Benedict XVI, “As a strong point of biblical ministry, Lectio divina should therefore be increasingly encouraged, also through the use of new methods, carefully thought through and in step with the times. It should never be forgotten that the Word of God is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (cf. Ps 119: 105).”