The Oratory of the Heart, Part Two: Lectio Divina
In the first part of this series, I wrote about how the common practice of prayer as viewed through the lens of The Rule of St. Benedict can provide a bridge between Christians of different communions. Here, in part two, I consider another great treasure held in common by all Christians, and surely the most significant of them all: Holy Scripture.
The Rule is filled with Biblical references. It is impossible to read more than a sentence or two without coming across a quote from scripture. Benedict required his monks to pray the words of the Psalter daily and to read the Bible continuously, book by book, throughout the Liturgical year. The monks would commit psalms and canticles to memory and these sacred words would run through their minds continuously as they lived each day. They had learned to “pray without ceasing1.” Holy Scripture was the air they breathed.
We live in a different time. We are assaulted by information and it is a struggle to take in the constant stream of words. In this torrent of text, it is better than ever to be able to disconnect, slow down, and read the way Benedict wanted his monks to read: slowly and prayerfully. That’s where the practice of Lectio Divina comes in.
Lectio Divina is the prayerful reading of, and meditation upon, the words of Holy Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. It is a different way of reading than what we are used to. We read either to gather information or to entertain ourselves. We read silently and quickly. How many times have you found yourself rushing through an exciting novel to find out what happens next or plowing through an academic text hoping the writer will just get to the point? That is not Lectio Divina.
The practice of Lectio Divina requires a few changes to our usual reading habits. First we must read out loud. The closest parallel for most will be the public proclamation of Holy Scripture in church. I would recommend as a first step to never—I can’t stress this enough—never read the Bible unless you’re reading it aloud. This isn’t a novel you’re reading for fun, though some of the stories in it are on a par with the greatest literary fiction. This isn’t an self-help book you’re reading to solve problems, though it can offer profound insight. It the the promise of God to Israel, the witness to the Word Made Flesh, and the first and most important way in which the Holy Spirit speaks to the Church. It is way too important to skim over in silence.
Second, we must never read Holy Scripture outside of the context of prayer. By that, I don’t mean only the read the Bible in the context of the Liturgy of the Hours or in the public gathering of community worship. I mean simply to never pick up a Bible without praying first in some way or other.
Third, we must read slowly and deliberately, and never rush ahead. More than that, though, we must be willing to stop and pray if we are moved to do so, and pause if a word, phrase, or sentence strikes us. Only if we are open to the Holy Spirit, will we hear what he (or she if you prefer) has to say.
And fourth, we must give ourselves a few moments of silence after we are finished to let the words settle in to us before we move on to the next task of the day. We need a little bit of quiet.
Those are the four steps of the classic formulation of Lectio Divina: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. It is a conversation with the Holy Spirit—speaking and listening—and as in any conversation it is far more important to listen than to speak.
Here’s how I do it, and I’ve just started so I’ve got a lot to learn myself. As I wrote in part one, I pray morning and evening, and in the context of each office I read the Psalms (in order over the course of a month) and other scripture readings as appointed by the Daily Office Lectionary in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. I read slowly, keeping my heart open to whatever phrase might speak to me at that moment and if one does I commit it to memory and then repeat it as the antiphon to the Gospel Canticle (either the Benedictus or the Magnificat depending on whether I am praying the morning or the evening office.) Then I meditate upon it for a few minutes before I say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.
This approach won’t work for everyone, but I recommend adding the above rhythm—reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation—to whatever your routine of reading scripture might be as a way of deepening your experience. I also recommend keeping a Lectio journal to write down whatever thoughts might come to you. A combination of Lectio Divina and free writing is an excellent way to open up possibilities for written meditations, devotions, and possibly even complete sermons.
Keep in mind, though, that this practice is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself; a way in which you can “listen . . . with the ear of your heart2” and “hear what the Spirit is saying3.”
“Speak Lord for your servant is listening4.” The words that Samuel said in the Temple and that we can say to God every day. For “you hold the words of eternal life5.”
1) 1 Thess. 5:17
2) St. Benedict of Nursia. Rule for Monasteries, Prologue
3) Rev. 2:29
4) 1 Sam. 3:10b
5) John 6:68b
Casey, Michael, O.C.S.O. Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina. Ligouri Mo: Ligouri Publications, 1997.
Derkse, Will. The Rule of St. Benedict for Beginners: Spirituality for Daily Life. Translated by Martin Kessler. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2003.
Hall, Thelma, R.C. Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina. Mawwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1988.
Marrett-Crosby, Anthony, O.S.B., ed. The Benedictine Handbook. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2003.
Pennington, M. Basil, O.C.S.O. Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practices of Praying the Scriptures. New York: Crossroad, 1988.
Tomaine, Jane. St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Life. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2005.
Previously in this series.
- Part One: Prayer