Practical Spirituality – Lectio Divina, The Divine Reading


This is part 1 of a four part course in practical spiritual exercises. These are tools you can use yourself in your daily life. These spiritual exercises are designed to help you deepen your prayer life and improve your life. These are very old practices, all of which are used in the Christian tradition. Several are also used in other spiritual traditions.

Our emphasis is on "practical". This is not about theology or ideas about God. It is about using tools, or exercises, thoughtful humans have developed over the centuries to improve their lives. They will be helpful to you.

This course flows from the teaching of Fr. William A. Meninger, a Trappist monk who lives in community at St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. I thought it would make sense to broaden the experience of Fr. Meninger's teaching by putting together this little course in practical spirituality.

There are four sections to this course.

Each section teaches a different spiritual practice. Each practice is designed to deal with spiritual health and wholeness by focusing on whatever your own self needs most. Usually, people are most in need of forgiveness. So in a sense, you can think of this as learning four spiritual tools which will help you forgive others as well as experiencing forgiveness yourself.
We'll come back to why forgiveness is so important for our freedom, our health, our ability to move on and experience the joy of life. But now let me outline the four practical spiritual tools available to you.

The four spiritual practices are:

(1) Scripture Meditation
(2) Compassion Meditation
(3) Centering Prayer
(4) Focusing, or The Welcoming Prayer

These four practices will develop your spiritual muscles the way consistent workouts in the gym develop your physical body.

The first, Scripture Meditation develops your spiritual mind
The second, Compassion Meditation develops your spiritual heart
The third, Centering Prayer develops your spiritual self
The fourth, Focusing, or the Welcoming Prayer develops your spiritual body.
So, the promise is spiritual health of Mind, Heart, Self and Body.

How do these work together?
The first exercise, Scripture Meditation, prepares your mind, or brain if you look at it that way, to stop trying to impose your own narrative, or story on things. Scriptural Meditation teaches us you let Wisdom filter into our mind rather than just search for more information or analysis. Think of it as "softening" our mental senses and opening up our inner ears to hear what God has for each of us.

The second Exercise, Compassion Meditation, gives us practical experience in how to forgive our enemies. We are told to "love our enemies", but all of us find that very difficult at first. This exercise teaches our mind to quiet down, and opens our inner hearts to the experience of extending love and compassion - especially to those who have done us harm.

The third exercise, Centering Prayer, gives us practical experience of sitting quietly, stilling our mind, and quieting the racket that continually goes on between our ears. Once we have learned to still the noise we generate, our spirits, or souls if you prefer, are now able to take in the food and drink they are hungry for. And, the Spirit is able to work on our unconscious mental processes to release us from what holds us back from complete freedom.

The fourth exercise, Welcoming Prayer, is focused on our physical as well as spiritual bodies. Our body tissues hold on to memories of hurts we have suffered and grievances we have against ourselves as well as against others. This exercise helps us release many physical pains by releasing us from the causes of those pains. And, in the process, we practice giving and receiving forgiveness.
These four exercises are very exciting, and very practical. And available free to everyone willing to try.

Practice 1. Scripture Meditation

We'll begin with Scripture Meditation. The first, Scripture Meditation develops your spiritual mind. The ancient name for Scripture Meditation is Lectio Divina, or Divine Reading. This practice can be done alone or in a group. The practice has four steps to it. Very briefly, the four steps are:


The first step in Divine Reading is Reading. Let’s think for a moment about what’s really going on in our minds when we read. Reading is a mental activity.

There are four levels of mental activity:
Information, a gathering of facts
Knowledge, which is classifying and organizing those facts
Understanding, which is an experience of what the facts represent
Wisdom, a relating of that information, knowledge and understanding to our deepest, highest and ultimate goal - which is God.
Lectio Divina is oriented towards wisdom.

What do we read? The first question is what do we read, what text do use for this exercise? The Bible is the best book. But, any book that is scripturally oriented is in essence a commentary on the Bible. Although the reading doesn't have to be from the Bible, the Bible is without peer as the best lectio book. So we open our Bible - it can be anywhere, randomly to any passage, or as the Spirit leads you. Or you can read the readings of the day and listen for a phrase or word that especially speaks to you. However you choose the text, this is the first step. Your intention is to listen.

Here are the four steps:

1. Reading or listening to the word. This is key. We do not listen just to hear what is being said aloud or read what is on the page. We listen deeply to the word in order to let it penetrate our mind. In a sense, we are listening to what God has to say to us. Typically a brief passage is read slowly and clearly three times, with a brief pause between reading. This step is called Lectio by the ancients. We'll try this in a few moments.

2. Thinking, or meditating on the word. The second step is a "chewing over" of what the word means to us, what message is being given to us. Think of it as ruminating, like a cow chewing its cud, slowly and carefully. This step is called Meditatio.

3. Responding to the word. After we have attentively listened to the word and thoughtfully mulled it's meaning to us over in our mind, we are ready for the third step, praying or speaking to God aloud - or silently - in response to what the word has done to us or evoked in us. This step, verbalizing prayer, is called Oratio.

4. Resting in the word. The final step in this exercise is a resting in the word. We've listened attentively - Lectio. We've meditated thoughtfully on what the word means to us and what thoughts, feelings and concerns it evokes in us - Meditatio. We've responded to God either silently or aloud as we feel led to respond - Oratio. Now we stop working and give it over to God. We close our eyes, sit silently in the presence of God and do nothing at all. This final step, resting in the word, is called Contemplatio.

There you have the four simple steps of Lectio Divina:
Reading, Thinking, Responding and Resting.
Or as the ancients described it;
Lectio Reading, Meditatio Thinking, Oratio Responding, Contemplatio Resting

Let's talk a little about what is really happening during Lectio Divina. This is not the everyday kind of reading we do. This is different from reading a novel or the newspaper or even a textbook. We are not reading to get to the end. We are not reading for gathering facts. We are not reading for knowledge. We are not even reading for understanding. We are reading for wisdom.

This is why we say Scriptural Meditation is designed to bring about health of mind. Lectio, Scriptural Meditation, opens our minds to the experiences of others, to their wisdom, and we begin to apply their wisdom to our own lives.

During the reading or listening, you listen for the "still, small voice of God" speaking to you, personally. Remember how Elijah heard the voice of God not in the great events, the whirlwind, the earthquake, the fire - but he sat alone and finally listened to the still, small voice of God speaking to him, inside him - not outside. Similarly, in Mark's gospel Jesus called the disciples away to a secluded place to rest awhile. This is about hearing, or listening to the voice of God speaking to you through the Holy Spirit. He is always narrow-casting to each of us. We often don't know how, or don't make the time and space to tune in to Him. This is what Lectio Divina is about.

How do we do Lectio Divina? I'll explain one way for when you are doing Lectio alone at home, and then we'll look at another way for when we are in a group setting. Most of your Lectio Divina will be done at home, alone. There are some simple steps to have a successful prayer practice at home. That's what each of these exercises really is, a form of prayer.

Step 1. Build yourself a "church" within your home. This can be as simple as going into your den or picking a certain chair in your bedroom. But, do something different to mark this is a separate experience from your routine life. Light a candle, or move the chair to face in a certain direction. Or just sit in a chair you normally don't sit in. The idea is to prepare yourself for an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Some people kneel in private for a moment, whisper a brief prayer that you will be attentive to the Word of God, then prepare for his presence.

Step 2. Be aware that God has already spoken. The fact that you are sitting down preparing yourself for this prayer is a sign you have already been summoned by God's Grace. Scripture teaches us that no one comes to the Lord unless he is called. You have been summoned to this spot and time by God's Grace and the Holy Spirit. You are already in prayer by being here. You've done your part by showing up in a private place to answer God's call to you. You've taken your Bible and started your prayer. Now it's God's turn to speak to you.

Step 3. Let God speak to you through his scriptures. Take your Bible. Open it to the Psalms, or to the Gospels. Read. Read slowly for a verse or two and listen to what God is saying to you through the verse. Read again and listen. Read until you wish to stop. You will know when to stop. When you stop, respond. God is speaking to you.

Step 4. Prayer is two-way. Prayer is a conversation with God. When God speaks, it’s polite to answer. As you respond, listen to what God is saying to you, either speaking to you through the verse, or speaking in your heart. Or both. Respond again. You are in a conversation with your maker. Respond as you would in any conversation.

Step 5. Decide how long you want to pray. Decide before you start. Nothing iron-clad, but maybe ten or fifteen minutes is enough. When the time is up, thank God for being present with you and for giving you his wisdom. However, be prepared to continue the conversation beyond the time you originally allotted, if it seems right. Don't cut off the boss.

When you are finished, rest in the Lord. Just sit quietly for a few moments. Give the Word time and a chance to work in your spirit. Quiet your mind. And rest. This is Contemplatio, contemplation.

You will find God's words to you are very personal. Prayer is a conversation, a dialogue. It isn't just a petition or praise. God speaks, you respond. Just as in any conversation. It really is that simple. The difference between this and ordinary conversation is that what God has to say to you is very, very important. It is extremely important for us to give him a chance to speak with us. We also need to give ourselves the opportunity to respond. God created conversation and it pleases him to speak with us personally, as a father with his beloved children. But, we have to listen, and we have to respond.

Using scripture as our text is a very good and important way to listen to God and hear what God is saying to us, personally. He knows what we need to hear - and act on. As Father Meninger says, this is what we do in Lectio Divina when we enter into a dialogue with the Lord. All we have to do is select a scripture passage. It actually can be any one at all. You will find The Lord will help you select and listen to just what you need. You will also see this is a part of the Forgiveness Process, teaching us to forgive ourselves and forgive others.

Now we'll demonstrate a little Lectio Divina in a group setting. Lectio Divina in a small group setting is very similar to the private lectio we’ve just discussed. First let me emphasize that doing Lectio in a group is not a substitute for private Lectio. Group Lectio is a useful way to be introduced to the practice and get prepared for your personal and private encounter with the living God.

Here's how it works in a group: Ideally the group is four to eight people, but it will work here as a learning introduction. I'll read a brief selection from Scripture. I'll read it twice, slowly. Listen for a word or phrase that particularly touches your heart. We'll have a brief period of silence after the reading, during which you can silently recite the word or phrase that touched your heart and ruminate on it a bit.

The second reading is for the purpose of hearing Christ, the Word, in the text. Like Mary, we "ponder" the word or phrase and see where it might have touched you recently. Think on how God has touched your life. After a period of silence, you can share what you have heard - or seen.

The third and last reading in a group is to hear what God is calling us to do or be. Rather than quiet contemplation as in private prayer, in a group practice we focus on how God is calling us to change today or this week. After this last silence, people share for the final time as they are moved, and may pray in support of something spoken by someone in the group, and the session concludes with a brief prayer. Relax. I’m not going to ask you to share. This is a teaching session, not an experience, and our time is short.

Let's try it now. I'll read a very short selection from Psalm 116. Think of this as The Lord speaking to you in human words. Listen carefully for a word or phrase that particularly speaks to you.... From Psalm 116.
Precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of his faithful servants.

Let me read it again. This time, focus on the word or phrase that you initially responded to. See what it means to you. I'll read again slowly...
Precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of his faithful servants.

Begin to let the word or phrase really speak with you. When I finish reading, we pause. Then see if you feel ready to respond...
Precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of his faithful servants.

Now let's pause a while. As you meditate, or let the word work in you, feel or see whatever the word calls to mind. ...wait on the you have a thought or a feeling bubbling up...? This is spoken either aloud or silently spoken in your mind as a prayer to the Lord. For today, let it be silent.

When I was first learning Lectio, I was taught by a monk who is now a priest as well, Micah. Father Micah is a bearded, wiry, grizzled guy with a baritone voice and a twinkling alert eye. Micah is from the plains of North Dakota. A land of severe winters. Now of course, he lives in the relative south - the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Micah READ us this phrase from Psalms, and we did as we have today. We did silent MEDITATIO. Then it came his turn to ORATIO, and he spoke to us of how this passage evoked for him a meditation on death - the difference between the intense green of the leaves in this mountain valley in full summer, and the death of the leaves in fall. Micah reflected on how he first thought of the death of the leaves with sadness, then reflected a deeper understanding.

In the summer, the leaves are bursting with chlorophyll. They are resilient, full of moisture and green. They are all green. They look alike - and seem alike. But, in the fall, the leaves approach death. And as they approach death, they dry, they grow more frail, brittle, but – they suddenly burst alive with color. Brilliant colors, different colors. The chlorophyll green of youth passes away and the true colors of the leaf emerge as death nears. As he spoke those words aloud, I personally also meditated on aging and approaching death, and viewed growing older and death differently than before. Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants. My aging friends in fact all were now showing the beauty of their colorful individual selves as the sap of youth gave way to the reflection and wisdom of age.

As always, it is good to close any session of prayer with a closing prayer. Lord, thank you for your presence and for awakening us to the exciting possibilities in listening to you more carefully and having conversation with you. Amen


Q&A Addendum of Martin Luther's Lectio Experience: All scripture is inspired. The most important thing about Lectio Divina is it opens us to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. People have debated for centuries what inspired means. Does it mean God dictated the words of the Bible to the authors and used them like a computer? No. Martin Luther said it well for the church when he described inspiration as the presence of the Holy Spirit in the word of God inspiring listeners to believe, understand and apply the wisdom of God expressed in the Bible to their minds, hearts and lives. The Holy Spirit is present in the reading and listening to the words of scripture. This presence is as real as the presence in any sacrament of any branch or denomination of Christianity.