This will be a long post! Please read it all, even if you need to read part at a time. The ancient method of Lectio Divina can help us “cross the bridge” to the place of our deepest yearning: true fellowship with God in Christ.
Lectio Divina – a way to “pray Scripture”
The ancient method and practice called “Lectio Divina” (Latin for “sacred reading”) is a way of praying Scripture. The traditional four steps of Lectio Divina are:
lectio – the reading itself;
meditatio – “meditation” upon the Word, hearing and reflecting upon its meaning;
oratio – prayer concerning the Word heard;
contemplatio – “contemplation”, or resting in the Word.
Praying Scripture is different from merely “reading” Scripture, as we might read a common book or magazine. “Praying” Scripture is different from simply “praying,” as we might pray for this or that worthy petition to the Lord. No, “praying Scripture” is an act of relationship, a person-to-Person communication. We could even say that it is a communion, or at least it is ordered toward that blessed communion with the Lord that is our true vocation.
Praying Scripture begins with listening. This is not a trivial statement! Listening is not such an easy thing to do, that we can take it for granted. Listening is a discipline to be learned by practice for many people, because many people usually do not listen. For many, in the time when they could and should be listening, they are merely waiting – waiting for the other to stop talking, so that they can resume expressing their own much more important thoughts and opinions. When we take up the Holy Scripture, when we read Scripture in the first step of “lectio,” we need to listen.
To listen is a truly human act. It is the gift to the other of one’s own presence, one’s attention, one’s regard, respect, or even reverence. When we listen, we offer to the other our debt of love. In this way, listening is truly human – listening recognizes our call to true relationship with others, and with the Other who is God. To listen requires an openness to another who is not myself, an openness to the gifts of the other. To listen requires of me an openness to experiences and knowledge that were not given directly to me – yet perhaps were intended for me but only through the interaction, the mediation, the relationship with this other.
Praying Scripture begins with listening to witnesses who were entrusted to pass on their trustworthy, authentic experience with the Holy, with God. Praying Scripture insists upon listening with a stance of profound reverence. The irreverent person, the mere scholar, the curious dilettante or dabbler, the man seeking only himself who prefers novels of fiction to eternal truth – such persons will become quickly bored with only “listening.” Such persons will not listen, will not hear, will not believe so as to find life. Their cups are too full; they already know all they need to know.
The act of offering oneself in listening to the other is an act of humility – a child-likeness that is offensive to “the strong”: the self-reliant, the independent. Yet we must “turn, and become like children,” to enter the Kingdom of God. (Mt 18:3) We must embrace our actual spiritual poverty, and cast aside the masks so many of us hide behind. We must be willing to listen and to learn that which we do not know. This is the stance of a disciple: a listener, a learner, one who hungers and thirsts for something that is not his own. We need to listen in order to hear, and to hear truly, all that eternal God would say to us! We need to hear God, whose Word is life and light and truth itself.
We listen so as to hear;
we hear so as to believe;
we believe so as to live.
We prayerfully read – we listen – so as to hear. To hear is not merely to hear words, but to hear what is actually being said. To hear is to hear meanings, actual and authentic meanings – the meanings intended in the words. When we apply Lectio Divina to Holy Scripture, so as to pray the Scripture, we want to hear what God wants to say in fact, in truth. We do not want to hear only what we want to hear! We are not looking at the Bible as a mirror of our own projections and opinions. Rather we are listening to another, to The Other, listening to hear what He intends to say to us.
This step of Lectio Divina rightfully includes an aspect of study. A Scripture author, for example John in writing John’s Gospel, wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. John wrote as a free human person, as a “true author” and not as a recording robot or mere unthinking secretary. John used his (God-created) humanity to compose and articulate his experience of God in Jesus Christ, under the guidance and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, to write the Gospel according to John. Yet the writing is also rightly said to be authored by God who inspired John, who “consigned to writing whatever He wanted written, and no more.” (both quotes from Catechism 106)
Thus the Church rightly understands Scripture as having two authors, the human author and the divine Author. Because there is a human author who wrote in a certain culture, time and place, it is helpful to use modern critical methods of study to probe his writing and seek the meaning he had in mind: what he intended to say in the words he chose and used. This scientific exegesis is essential to gaining a full understanding of Scripture, and guards us against the relativism and subjectivism that so confuse our present times. This kind of analysis keeps us real, and safe from our presumptions, biases and preferences. Thus we need to listen to faithful Bible scholars who devote their lives to such valuable analysis of Scripture.
Thank God for faithful Bible scholars! We do not need to become scholars ourselves, but we do need to listen to them, and thus gain from their labors on our behalf. God has raised up faithful men and women in this way, to help the whole Church listen, and hear, and thus believe and live.
It is crucial that we are guided by faithful scholars, as well as by true saints and holy doctors of the Church, and by the trustworthy teaching authority of the Church, the Magisterium. This rule follows the truth that besides the human author there is the divine Author, God the Holy Spirit. God inspires and leads the Church He formed and sent out to the world with the mission: “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:19-20)
Following a time of lectio (reading, of intentional listening to Scripture), and following a time of meditatio (reasoned meditation, study and reflection), we begin a time of oratio (or formal prayer). Prayer in its general meaning is relationship, it is communion. In this time of “formal” prayer, we seek to put into “form” and actual expression our developed and developing relationship with God. Our relationship with Him is to be vital, living, growing and maturing in the Truth – and in particular, it has grown now because of this time in His Holy Word.
In the light of our time in the Scripture, we want to offer Him in prayer our obedience to all we have heard from Him, to all that He would have of us and from us. We want to consecrate ourselves in His Truth, to the living of His Truth on earth and among men. We want to commit ourselves to His will, His intention, His purposes and plans. We want to be actual disciples of Jesus, actual followers who actually follow. We want to be obedient to the Word that we have heard, or have begun to hear, in the words of Holy Scripture.
It is so important to be “not hearers only, but also doers of the word”. (James 1:22) Paul wrote, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Rom 2:13) If God has entrusted us with precious insights into His eternal wisdom, through listening to Holy Scripture, how important it is to put that wisdom into practice – to enact in this world, His eternal wisdom! How important and beautiful it is to put into human expression, the divine Truth! How precious it is in the sight of God, when we participate in the Incarnation in our fully human ways.
Thus in oratio we pray for grace, for courage to live what we have heard. We make specific resolution, we fully intend in prayer to do the truth we have found in our time with the Word. Our faith is growing, and we know that faith without works is dead. We pray for perseverance, and for faithfulness in our growing and maturing faith.
Following a time of prayer and consecration, we take time in silence and interior solitude to simply rest in the Truth we have heard from the Lord. We know that truth is like a seed in the soul – it can take firm root, or it can be forgotten and lost. In this busy and noisy world, we need to give the Word of God time to take root in us, deep in the interior of our hearts and souls. Apart from Him we can do nothing! (Jn 15:5) Our life in Him requires that we remain in Him, and He in us. (Jn 15:4-7) We need to take time to allow the Word time to find place in us, and take root in us.
The Parable of the Sower offers us much to ponder, on this matter. Seeds were sown upon different kinds of hearts, in souls of differing receptivity to the Holy Truth.
Mt 13:3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow.
Mt 13:4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.
Mt 13:5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil,
Mt 13:6 but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away.
Mt 13:7 Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
Mt 13:8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
Mt 13:9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
Not in the busyness of the path, not in the hardness of rocky ground, not in the confusion of thorns – but in the good and fertile ground of an obedient heart: let your saving truth find welcome in my soul, Oh Lord!
Thus in a time of contemplatio, we wait and rest in Him.