On Prayer--Lectio Divina

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A few days ago Tom posted on the practice of prayer with reference to cultivating silence and stillness. In the course of it, he suggested the practice of Lectio Divina and as it was an off-hand reference didn't go much further than to suggest that frequent reading and mulling over scripture was a good thing.

But lectio divina is an acquired process, a kind of training in meditation. Tom's point was not to spell out how to do it, but he suggested, and I think rightly, that even spending a little time with Scripture was likely to be a help in cultivating interior silence so necessary to a productive prayer life.

But I thought that perhaps his brief description might have been inadequate for people who really wanted to extend their prayer time and needed a "method." And lectio divina itself isn't really so much a method as it is a context. Sometimes it is called "praying" the Bible. I like to think of it as training in listening. In reading the Bible we take as our cue and perhaps as a preliminary prayer Samuel's words to God in the night--"Speak Lord, your servant is listening." (Not, as Fr. O'Holohan was fond of pointing out, and we all too commonly are fond of practicing, "Listen Lord, your servant is speaking.")

In Lectio Divina we train ourselves to listen to scripture interiorly. We fill that noisy, echoing interior space with the Word of God so that what echoes within us is divine and the divine helps to silence the clatter of ourselves.

How might one go about doing this? First off, Lectio Divina is NOT bible study. It does not employ the same techniques and it is not meant to achieve the same ends. Bible study can make a very satisfactory prelude to Lectio but they are two different uses employed to two different ends (which, properly conducted should lead to the same End). In Bible study we come to understand the literal meaning of the text and the text as it would have been received by the people of the time. This base-level literal meaning of the text is important in Lectio, but it isn't the end toward which Lectio tends. If we have a less-than-complete understanding of the literal meanings of text, we can still, through the power of the Holy Spirit, pray the text and come to some greater familiarity with God and His ways.

Lectio divina is a form of meditation and prayer. Properly practiced, along with all the other requirements of maintaining a life in a state of grace, it can become a form of acquired contemplation. (If one follows the older forms of "classifying" prayer, acquired contemplation is the highest form of prayer in which our active striving can help to engage us. We must remember that all prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit, strengthened by grace.)

How does one go about it? First one takes a little time to let some of the nonsense of the day pass away. Some say to light candles, to sit in darkness, to find a regular time and place. All good practices for a start. As you continue your prayer, you will be brought to the practice that best aids it. But to start choose a time and a place and make proximate preparations to the event. That is, unplug or mute the phone, sit still for a few minutes, let your mind race, but always gently bring it back to a place of calm or focus. After a few minutes of calming time, pray simply to the Holy Spirit to guide your prayer and teach you what God would have you know.

Read and interact with the text you have chosen. This is not bible speed-reading. You don't need to get through a chapter in a night. When I was doing the Ignatian retreat I often had only one verse on which to meditate for an entire hour. (An Ignatian retreat is a excellent remote preparation for this entire exercise of prayer.) Often it is suggested that you use the text for Sunday Mass or daily Mass. Moreover, you might use the same text for the entire week. Familiarity might allow you to uncover subtle nuances that you might miss upon a preliminary reading. In addition, it operates to help train you in quiet. When we encounter something that is familiar, we are more inclined to interior noisiness than when we are exploring the unfamiliar. Our minds are lazy and we kind of stroll among the words and find our minds whirling off in all directions. If we have a familiar text to focus on, when can bring ourselves back to what is present. It operates as a kind of anchor.

After you read through the passage to get context, it is good to go back and read carefully. Upon ending your first reading pause and think about what you read and consider a word of a phrase that struck you. When you return to reading, return with this metacognition--acknowledge the word and read the passage in the context of that word. Hear what is said now from this new angle. Listen carefully aslant. What is it that God has prepared for you at this time in this passage?

Spend some time with the passage. If you have chosen a reading from the Gospels, spend time with Jesus, wherever he might be. If you read the story of the woman cured of an issue of blood, where are you in the story. Are you the woman, are you a bystander, are you Jesus Himself? What do you learn from being there in that capacity? This is the use of the imagination. Jesus is present to us in many forms, He is especially present to us in meditation upon the Word. But sometimes we must work to see Him. With time and practice this work becomes easier.

After you spend an appropriate amount of time with the scripture (a minimum of 15 minutes, and in most cases longer is better) come out of the reflection with a prayer. Ask God what he intends for you to take away from this passage. Ask Him what meaning it has for you.

Now, this is where some of the more timid balk. They will say, "But that's private interpretation." No, it's not. Interpretation means that you plan to take what you heard in the passage and spread it far and wide as the definitive understanding of the passage. When you interpret something you are providing an understanding for others. What you are doing in lectio is application to your present place in life. Application amounts to listening to the word in the context of the teaching of the Catholic Church and acting upon it in some way.

When you have completed the prayer time or as you approach its end, review it. What went well? What went poorly? What might you need to change next time to enhance the experience? This is another metacognitive exercise, the purpose of which is to enhance the discipline to more clearly place yourself in the heart of the Spirit. We are always seeking with the help of the Holy Spirit to find our way into the Heart of God. Thus we are always seeking to improve our prayer life.

This is only the sketchiest of introductions. I'd like to return to this topic and discuss in a great deal more detail means by which one can "engage" scripture. One is the meditative exercise I have suggested here, but there are other ways to encounter scripture and to deal with scripture in prayer.

As you can see Lectio Divina is not so much a "method" of prayer as it is a mode of praying. The difference may seem subtle, but a mode of praying is an entire school, where as a method is a single very structured class.

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Thanks for this Steven. I am always interested in this topic and am looking forward to your discussion of how to "encounter scripture" and use it in prayer.

What a wonderful description! This will prove to be very helpful.

Great post.

One of the most disheartening things I have read in my studies of the Trappists and Benedictines is that the practice of communal reading at meal time has degenerated to the point where things like the "Chicken Soup" books, or Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or even Buddhist/Hindu works, often replace Scripture (or selections from the rich Catholic heritage of devotional literature).

A great reform of the monastic orders, the place where lectio ought to be practiced with the greatest effect, is drastically needed.

Dear Steven,

You hit the points I most needed to hear. I'm usually too restless (slothful) to stop and listen; instead I tear through books and greedily try to knock together an understanding of the text that should grow organically over the years.

And your emphasis on quiet was a drink of cool water, though some will find it puzzling or even terrifying: see The Anchoress and her report of her silent retreat.

Many thanks!


Thanks for the great post which I need to hear!

Sorry about the duplicate trackback ping. It wasn't intentional.

Dear Mike,

Think nothing of it. In fact, thank you for leaving me a trace whereby I could find your wonderful blog. There are so many now its hard to know where to look. And your's is exactly to my taste. Thank you.



This is a keeper. I'm going to print this off and re-read it frequently.
God bless,



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 27, 2005 1:39 PM.

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