Lectio Divina in Carmel and for You

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If you look at Carmel from the outside you probably would not be aware of one of its most open secrets. As an outsider, I was not aware of it. What's more, as an insider it's taken ten or eleven years for it finally to sink in.

What is that secret? Well, the title of this entry gives it away--lectio divina. My block in coming to terms with the importance of Lectio in Carmelite spirituality stems from the fact that Lectio was not "invented" by the Carmelites. Likely it has existed in some form as long as there have been scriptures. I suppose if anyone takes credit for codifying it, it may be the early monastics or St. Benedict. Whoever may have credit for it, the Carmelites do not. As a result I have never seen it as a particularly Carmelite tradition. But I have been woefully mistaken. Lectio Divina holds pride of place as the gateway for contemplation.

And that is why I'm sharing the Carmelite tradition. Not everyone is called to be a Carmelite and to approach scripture in a Carmelite way and to approach prayer with a Carmelite heart. However, I do think it is safe to say that Lectio Divina is a practice which everyone may use profitably to increase the intimacy and immediacy of their prayer life.

In Carmel, Lectio Divina or sacred reading, is seen as the root of any worthwhile mental prayer. One cannot engage in productive discursive meditation if one is ignorant of scriptures. Ignorance of scriptures truly is ignorance of Christ. While we might not come to know and understand fully everything the Church knows and teaches about Jesus simply from reading scripture, the vast majority of what there is to know is centered there and stems from that special revelation.

Lectio Divina is also a practice that has "methods" and a system. Further, it is a method that can be profitably employed by any reader (or, in fact, illiterate people who can memorize) in relatively little time. Ten or fifteen minutes a day is all that it takes to start. The danger (if you wish to think of it that way), dear reader, is that once started it tends to become like any good thing, addictive and consuming. That is, once you discover how simple it is and how utterly rewarding, the length of prayer time tends to increase on its own as you continue the pursuit of it.

Carmelites regard discursive meditation as the gateway to acquired contemplation. The previous sentence probably sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to those not familiar with the precise meanings of the words, so a restatement may be in order. Thinking about holy matters can lead to a greater intimacy with God. Hence, thinking about sacred scripture--not in an academic or distant way, but in a highly personalized way--can open the door that leads to union with God (in God's own time of course.)

How does one "do" lectio? My guess is that there are as many different ways as there are practitioners, but I suspect that all of the ways include certain essentials. After a period of quieting down (if done later in the day) and a prayer invoking the Holy Spirit one takes up scripture and reads. It is perhaps best if one does this according to a preset reading plan such as the Mass readings for the day or a plan to read through an entire book or section of a book. While one can use the time-honored principle of Bible roulette, it is perhaps not conducive to a continued adherence to the discipline of lectio. If one knows where one is going, one is more likely to continue the journey.

After this quieting and prayer one takes up scripture and reads. Generally this is not done as reading a novel or a nonfiction book. Rather, it is done slowly, as though weighing each word, or allowing each word to distill about it an image or a sense. It is better not to tax oneself with too long a reading, for a number of reasons. Reading a lot of scripture will provide too many points from which to begin, too many productive lines of meditation. It may introduce distraction as one flits from one idea to another. Nevertheless, the reader must gauge what is to be read--that will vary from one person to another. Perhaps a single pericope of scripture will suffice. Perhaps the next entry in the plan is dry and so two are entailed. But honestly, once you start to really rejoice in the Lord, there is almost nothing that is too dry. (I will remain agnostic on the question of the books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and most of Numbers--as I haven't tried them recently. But as the beginner would do well to start with the Gospels, that's not likely to be a consideration anyway.)

One reads a short section of scripture--savoring it, tasting it, chewing it over. In the words of Father John-Benedict Weber, sucking all of the juices out of it. (Don't worry--scripture is an extremely juicy fruit--even if you think you've gotten everything possible out of it, that is merely for the moment. Were you to return to the same scripture even the next day, you would be surprised at how deeply rewarding renewed meditation on it can be.) An important point to remember: lectio IS NOT Bible Study. This is not the time to be considering the parsing of Greek verbs or the economic relations of Syro-Phoenicians (whatever they may happen to be called at any given point) with other ancient civilizations. In lectio you may fruitfully use all that you have gained from careful study and consideration of the Bible, but this is not the time to learn all of that. For example, it may be very useful in reflecting on Philippians (surely you're not surprised to see reference to that book here!) to recall that this letter was written from confinement, imprisonment awaiting a sentence that, given the tenor of the times, could only be death. That would add depth to what you read. However, lectio is not the time to find that out. One could do lectio on Philippians with very little knowledge of Paul or Paul's life and mission at all. Lectio seeks to draw out of the passage a meaning and a purpose that is intensely personal. Personal, not in the sense of exclusivity--that is, one can share the meaning--but personal in the sense of application. The end of lectio should be not so much a new understanding of the literal meaning of the text, but a new internalization of the text--a new understanding of how the text applies to oneself. As with all productive prayer, lectio should allow the practitioner to enter into a closer relationship with God. As the pray-er begins to internalize and make personal some of the truth present in the Gospel, a new way is forged to approach God.

It would be a very serious mistake to think that lectio is the work of the one praying. As with all prayer, its efficacy stems from the invitation, the grace God provides, that allows us to continue in it effectively. We do not produce the effects of lectio, but rather the Spirit praying within us shows us what we need to see in the course of our meditation.

Now, what form should this meditation take? Again, that is a matter for each person. I found it very helpful to take the course of the Ignatian Retreat over a period of about thirty to forty weeks. What one derives from it are a number of approaches to meditation. One can form images and linger in the scene of scripture. One can hear over and over again a single phrase or word which has changes rung upon it, shifting subtly and becoming progressively richer in meaning. One can begin to see all the strands that connect the whole of revelation and how this incident in a specific place is related to another elsewhere and hence has ramifications for our lives today. The passage may plunge straight to the heart and convict one of sin, error, or fault. The key is to trust the lead of the Holy Spirit. He prays within as one reflects on Scripture. He connects one to the life of the Holy Trinity, and from within that life, one is given what is needed for the time. All stems from our trust and His Grace.

This is merely a brief, unsatisfactory introduction. The method itself is so simple that one merely need take up sacred writ and start. It is in doing that one learns what exactly to do.

I realize on finishing this that I've said remarkably little about Lectio in Carmel. But I think I've said what needs saying--it is central, critical, foundational, necessary. Without lectio a Carmelite cannot reasonably hope to approach the contemplation to which we are called. Not everyone will enter contemplation in this way; nevertheless, it would seem a fine practice for any Catholic who wishes to know God as He knows Himself. That is, after all, what revelation is about.

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Hi Steven,

I'm curious what the relationship, if any, is between lectio divina and praying the Liturgy of the Hours/Daily Office. In other words, does one approach praying the office in the same way (seeing as it largely consists of Scripture), or is the purpose of praying the office something else?



Dear Lee,

You ask an interesting and an important question. I am no expert on these matters, but I will answer as best I can from what I know.

The purpose of The Liturgy of the Hours as the name implies is the sanctification of the day. That is, we stop for a spell and sit with God in conversation. In a sense, The Liturgy of the Hours is an external discipine that seeks to order the internal environment in a way that makes possible St. Paul's admonition to "Pray at all times." If we take these "God-breaks" at regular intervals, we will encourage the habit of taking them at intervals that are not so assigned.

Thus, given the purpose, I would say that one certainly could approach them in a Lectio fashion; however, often one has only time to pray or chant the Liturgy for what it is. Even though one keeps in mind to whom one is speaking, and even though it is possible that the Lord will lead you into discursive meditation in the course of the Liturgy, given its very different purpose, it might conducted at a "lower level" than lectio.

I don't know if this helps--but as with anything, we follow the lead of the Lord. He can make a time of Lectio out of reading the newspaper if we will allow it.

Thus, is it normative/required? No. Is it possible and good? Yes to the first, and to the second a qualified yes. It is good to do so if that is how the Lord leads.



Steven, this post was excellent! Can you say any more about the Carmelite connection? I just linked to this great post...



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 16, 2005 8:39 AM.

The Simple Economy of Trust was the previous entry in this blog.

A More Reliable Authority Endorses Lectio is the next entry in this blog.

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