Lectio Divina for Today


At the age of nineteen a young Australian describes being taken prisoner by the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942.  His officer told them, each man should find room for a book.   He stuffed into his pack a Lin Yutang’s  The Importance of Living and began a reading habit  that was to keep him sane for the next three and a half years. “Previously , if I had been really interested in a book, I would race from page to page, eager to know what came next.  Now I decided  I had to become a miser with words and stretch every sentence like a poor man  spending his last dollar.”  He goes on to describe how he spent most of a day on the cover, three whole sessions on the preface, two whole evenings on the contents page, before eventually reaching page one.  “I had started with the practical object of making my book last. But by the end of the second week, still only on page ten, I began to realise how much I was getting out of this super-slow reading.  Sometimes just a particular phrase caught my attention, sometimes a sentence.  I would read it slowly, analyse it, read it again–perhaps changing down into an even slower gear–then sit for 20 minutes, thinking about it before moving on.  I was like a pianist studying a piece of music, phrase by phrase, rehearsing it, trying to discover and recreate exactly what the composer was trying to convey .  It is difficult to do justice to the intensity of the relationship. . .I read myself in so thoroughly that it became not a mass of words but a living experience.”  The pleasure and perspective of  super-slow reading, the savouring that he describes was something discovered by monks centuries ago.

The Rule of St Benedict encouraged monks and nuns in their use of books.  A monastery needed books as part of its essential furniture.  It is not necessary to ask  whether the ancient monks used all the books, though some monks almost certainly did, any more than we need to explain liturgy, prayer, architecture in exclusively utilitarian terms.  A monastery was not properly equipped  without a library.  A Carthusian once observed that “a monastery without books is like a state without resources, a camp without troops, a kitchen without crockery, a table without food, a garden without flowers, a field without grass, a tree without leaves.”  Until the 13th c. most of the books made in Europe were made in monasteries, and it is a striking phenomenon that more manuscripts survive than any other artefact from the Middle Ages. But the association of monks and old manuscripts was about something more  than craftsmanship, the unhurried book production of the cloister, the making of vellum, ruling, calligraphy, mixing paints and applying gold.  What is less well known perhaps is that monks and nuns had a special way of reading the books they produced, a way of reading which was the foundation for all the activity of prayer.

This special way of reading is called Lectio divina, or sacred reading.  It is called divina because  its object was sacred Scripture. But for the ancient Church  Scripture was never separated from interpretation given to it by tradition.  So Lectio embraced not only the Bible but also commentaries written on it by the Fathers of the Church.  This was the content of Lectio.  But Lectio also denotes above all a method of reading, a slow, contemplative  reading which allows the Word of God to become a means of union with God.  This ancient practice has been kept alive  in the Christian monastic tradition and is one of our most precious treasures.  As Père Bouyer has written, “There is certainly no monastic practice  on which the St Benedict insisted so much as reading.  It might be said that such reading is the monastic practice.  It should be for the monk what the exercises are for the Jesuit, and methodical prayer for the Sulpicians, contemplative prayer for the Carmelites.”

St Benedict expected his monks to spend up to three hours a day in this sacred reading. The amount of time he allots to reading embodies an aspiration that he had in common with all his monastic predecessors: that monks should be incessant in their attention to God’s Word. He knew too that monks would find it difficult. During the middle ages, Lectio was typically done in common so that “seeing one another, they would encourage one another.” But Lectio was more than a weapon against idleness. The monks are to “vacare Lectionibus” – leave themselves free for reading. The purpose of reading is to “vacare Deo”, to be free for God. Lectio is an opportunity, a space, for encountering God. A 13th c. English customary urges monks to “love this holy leisure during which they undertake the business of their souls.” Lectio is strictly non-utilitarian time, time spent with the Word of God, time spent wholly with God and for God. It’s something practiced for its own sake. Lectio can never simply be a training ground for the mind; it must involve a transformation of the heart.

The early monks saw a profound connection between the word and the desert; the desert, for them, was the place to hear the word, to encounter the word.  Many of the early Fathers describe their conversion whether to Christianity or to monastic life in terms of a turning away from secular life to embrace Scriptures.  This concern with the word of God will demand leisure, freedom from worldly affairs; the flight from the world becomes a way of realizing Lectio.  In the Vita Antonii of St Athanasius, the monastic vocation is presented as a response to the Scriptures.  The monk thus took his place in the economy of salvation by responding to God’s word as did the great men of the Old Testament.  In the Vita, Antony is shown to have modelled his entire life on Scriptures.  To a brother who asks what he must do to please God, Antony replies: “Wherever you go always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, have before you the testimony of Scripture.”  Antony suggests that having Scripture constantly in mind is equivalent to always being in the presence of God.  The Bible filled the day-to-day existence of the desert monk: the word of God was considered to lead to the final objective of the monastic life which according to Cassian is purity of heart.

Abba John said, ‘We went to Syria one day to see Abba Poemen and we wanted to ask him about purity of heart.’ . . The old man said, ‘The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone.  So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.‘ (Poemen 183)

The characteristic spirituality of the desert was a Biblical one; their contemporaries called them “bearers of the word”; Athanasius gave the early desert monks the title philologoi, lovers of the word of God.

This preoccupation with the Word occupied such an important place in the hierarchy of monastic values that Lectio could be considered to be the integrating activity which gives unity and point to all other monastic observances and becomes the rationale for all other ascetic practices.  Manual labour was intended to prolong the word; fasting was a means of self-purification for understanding Scripture; enclosure and silence provided the conditions to enable them to concentrate while reading; the chant, too, preserved a form of Lectio that has already become prayer.  The texts of the chant were prayed and savoured before being enshrined in melody.  The Office is Lectio-in-action.   “The unifying element of the monastic community,” wrote Dom Guéranger, “lies in the Word.  The monastery is a school, and the spirit which animates all within its walls proceeds from the Word of God in all its forms.”  However one might distinguish between reading, meditation, liturgy, prayer, the one interpenetrates with the others so powerfully that in actual practice it is more a matter of varying degrees of intensity of contact with the word than a matter of four or five distinct though related spiritual realities.  Lectio, in its widest sense, the uninterrupted rumination on the word of God and listening to God, becomes coextensive with the entire life of the monk.  For St Jerome, Lectio is part of a great dialogue: “If you pray you are speaking to the Bridegroom; if you read He is speaking to you.”   For the early monks, like Israel in the desert, it was the word that made the desert a place of special intimacy with God, a time of betrothal.  The desert prepares for and provokes an encounter with the word.  “So I will allure her, I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:16).

The art of Lectio begins with cultivating the ability to listen with the ear of the heart, as St Benedict says in the prologue. The cry of the prophets was: “Hear O Israel…  The Word of the Lord came to Isaiah”.  Israel’s God is a God who speaks. So much so that the silence of God was considered a dreadful punishment: “Yes, the days are coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine upon the lands not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water but for hearing the word of God” (Amos 8:1 1). “ In the Bible, the fundamental experience, the one that characterizes more than any other the relationship  of God and man is this, that God speaks and man listens. As the first condition of salvation God asks that we listen, that we hearken to Him and to His Word, be attentive to it. God in Lectio is speaking to us, grants us an audience, as it were.  He deigns to say something to us.  So often You hear about the incomprehensibility of God, the unknowability of God, but there is an even greater reason for speaking of knowing God.  With the Bible we are in possession of what God has said to mankind since the beginning of the world.  The Word of God was incarnated in Scripture before it was made flesh.  For this reason “the Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body.. She never ceased to nourish the faithful on the bread of life, taken from the two tables, the table of God’s Word and the table of Christ’s Body, the Eucharist” (New Catechism, 103).

All this is at the foundation of Lectio Divina, that a slow, meditative reading, a “chewing over” the text in search of a personal contact with God. Lectio is a reading of God who for us is Christ.  It is a reading of Christ, in Christ, with Christ and for Christ. The early monks believed that in reading Scripture they were meeting Christ having a real encounter with Christ, analogous to sacramental communion with Him.  “We eat His flesh and blood in the divine Eucharist, but also in the reading of Scripture” said St Jerome.

The Catechism reminds us that Christianity, is not “a religion of the book”, it is a religion of the Word of God, not a written and mute word, but a word incarnate and living.  In order that Scripture does not remain a dead letter, it is necessary that Christ, Eternal Word of the living Father, open our minds as He did for His disciples after His resurrection.  Indeed the reason why we do Lectio is because of the resurrection: the Word of God is alive, risen and active. As Book and Reader, Christ gives us, gives the Church, the gift of reading.

It’s important to grasp that the Bible is not a riddle to be solved, but a communication from God.  God takes the first step in creation which is a word of God. The created universe reveals God to man.  Later God’s Word expresses itself as law as He begins to shape His people; it continues in the word of the prophets.  Finally, the place of God’s Word is Christ Himself Who speaks as the Word of God in Whom God’s plan is at once revealed and fulfilled.  All this is to say that God wished to become “readable” to us.  Christ Himself is God’s Book. It is in Him that we read what God has desired to do from all eternity. The eternal Word has come in Christ to give us His “reading” of God. As the prologue of St John’s Gospel tell us: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”  The word translated her as make known means “to expound, to explain, to reveal.”  It is the verb from which the noun exegesis is derived. So what St John is saying here is that the Son became man to reveal his Father, to be his exegete.   Christ is both Book and Reader according to the Fathers. Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk ll-.28) for God has manifested Himself to the world by means of His Word.

St Gregory the Great in the preface of his Moralia speaks of Scripture as a letter written by the Creator to his creature, dictated by the Holy Spirit to the prophets, evangelists and apostles.  The letters were written to us personally for the writer had us (and still has us) in mind. And in a letter he writes, “The Emperor of heaven has written you letters concerning your life, but still you neglect to read them ardently.  Study them, I beg you, and mediate daily on the words of your creator “(Ep 51). The ancients saw the Bible as a letter from God to man, revealing something of God’s own secrets.  When a monk embarked on Lectio Divina, he believed he was engaging in a conversation with God.  In this way, reading and prayer were but two stages of one and the same process.

Living in the Presence of God

Lectio, then, is somewhat different from “spiritual reading”[1] as the phrase is generally understood.  It is distinctive not so much in its object as in its approach.  One could try to explain this by saying there are two ways of reading a book: normally we read either for information, or for entertainment, or for distraction.  We read quickly, in a spirit of conquest, with a kind of aggressiveness, out to master and organise the subject matter for our own purposes.  We read in a spirit of criticism setting ourselves on a kind of judgement scat from where we look down upon the book we are appraising.  But the requirements of Lectio Divina run counter to this kind of reading habit.  In Lectio the reader reads in a spirit of humility; he considers the text as superior to him and tries to bring his understanding, his reason, to submit to the text, to “sous-mettre”, to place himself under the text, as it were.  In this second way of reading, we take the author on his own terms, not on ours.  This deferential attitude proper to Lectio, this attitude of receptivity and openness – so contrary to the critical analyses our whole education has trained us for (though this has its place, of course) finds its justification in the fact that Lectio is divina, that this act of reading is a direct encounter with God Who addresses us in the text.  This prayerful approach arises from a consciousness of God’s presence: we have to take, off our shoes, as it were, for this is hallowed ground!  And God is present because in Lectio the principal is the Scriptures, but also all other books that serve it. all books which seek to put us into contact with the realities of that world which the Bible opens out to us.

In this kind of reading, one is trying not just to understand, to master what one is reading, but to linger over it, to savour it, to allow oneself to be mastered by it. What was sought in Lectio, then, was neither knowledge nor the love of books for their own sake, nor curiosity, but nourishment for faith in order to grow in Christian living.  Scripture was considered a means not an end; St Benedict in both chapters 4 and 73 of his Rule describes reading as a “tool”, and considers a single page, even a single word of Scripture to be rich enough to serve as a norm for one’s life.

For the early monks, Lectio was an all-absorbing activity, to be practised for its own sake, in the sense that they read not simply for the sake of information, but because of what the act of reading made them become.

For as a vessel which often receives water remains clean- although the water poured in be presently poured out again. So likewise if spiritual doctrine often runs through a well-willing mind, although it abide not there, nevertheless it makes and keeps the mind clean and pleasing to God. (Blosius,  Mirror of Monks).

We approach our reading wanting to know what we can do with it. The ancients were more interested in what it could do with them.  That is why the early monks loved to describe this kind of reading in the language of spiritual nutrition, in vocabulary borrowed from eating.  To read in this way means to assimilate the contents of a text by “chewing over it” slowly in order to release its full flavour.  It means to “taste” the text with the “palatum cordis“, the palate of the heart. Like Ezekiel we are commanded to eat this book.  St Gregory the Great says that the more difficult passages have to  be chewed before they can be swallowed; the easier ones can be imbibed directly as liquid!  The digestion of Scripture, the full absorption and retention by the understanding, takes place in the action of  daily life, putting divine precepts into practice. Many readers, he says, remain famished because they fail to put into practice true conversion.  Guigues the Carthusian says the text of Scripture is offered to us like a bunch of grapes, from which meditation allows us to extract  more juice.  Scripture is filled with a host of meanings  because it accord with the  taste, hunger and thirst of each one.

The Word of God is food for the mind and heart. We need it. Without this food, we can quickly fall under the influence of that other vision that pervades our world, a vision of power and reputation, pleasure and individual autonomy, a vision in which weakness is decried and fragile and vulnerable people are seen as useless. The Word of God calls us back to belief in the communion of love, it calls us back to presence, to the beatitudes announced by Jesus. It gives us strength to accept pain and offer ourselves in sacrifice to the Father.  

Another metaphor for the meditation of Scriptures found in monastic/patristic texts is that of the sower who went out to sow, to plant the word of God in the field of the heart, and in time the fruits of the Spirit sprang up a harvest of charity, joy, patience, peace, goodness and truth.  Again, the word of God is like a root placed in the depths of our heart which sprouts, bringing forth out of the heart not only words of holiness and truth but also actions and deeds.  All these images suggest, too, how the word becomes incarnate in the reader how the written word acts interiorly in the life of a Christian.

The ancients had a keen sense of the dynamism, the active power of words, and they believed that reading the Bible was itself transforming. The reader reads Scripture, and he is read by it.  “The more someone progresses in Scripture, the more the same Scripture progresses in him” (Gregory, Homilies on Ez 1.7,8) (See his commentary on the wheels in Ezekiel’s vision).   “The word of God will come into your souls” wrote Origen on Psalm 36, “and clinging to your hearts will form your minds according to the image of the word itself, that is, that you should desire and do what the word of God wills, and thereby Christ himself shall be formed in You”.  Waiting upon the word of God, listening, surrendering to it enables us to “conceive” the Word in our heart, to have Christ formed in us,  to shape our wills and our actions according to the mind of Christ.  The word of God  conceived in the heart of the reader matures to the fullness of Christ,  teaching us what it means to love, to hope, to be poor in spirit, to suffer, to be saved; giving us a consciousness of the immersion of our personal lives in the mystery of God’s activity as revealed in sacred history.  The contemplation of Scriptures is seeing God saving His people in times past and saving His people now. Lectio is part of our discovery of ourselves and of our inheritance, of our salvation history; it is, as St Gregory the Great puts it, “a mirror in which we obtain self-knowledge”.

Lectio is also an important tool for community life. On the one hand, Lectio can be the best defence against self-destructive thoughts about self and others. Strange or difficult thoughts will not hold us captive if we counterbalance them with God’s Word. And on the other hand, by giving this word a home, we are enabled to give birth to a good word and build one another up.

How can we bring any help to a brother in distress or in trial if it is not with the word of God? We quickly exhaust our own words. But he who is like a good householder draws out of his treasure things both new and old (Mt 13:52); he who can speak by dipping into the treasury and consolation of the Scriptures, such a man can drive out demons by the power of God’s Word and bring real help to his brothers.

  1. Bonhoeffer, Life Together

We can only give what we have received; we live from the inside out, as it were; what we say is a reflection of what is on our heart. Lectio is thus at the service of the unification of the person, both in himself, with others and God.

[1] Broadly speaking, spiritual reading is more individualist than relational; it is more about God than addressed by and to God; it tends to focus more on one’s spiritual state, one’s spiritual temperature, than on a dialogue consisting in uniting ourselves to God through the word we have read., an encounter with God who has chosen to reveal himself in his word.

Lectio and Our Lady

Mary is to be our model in all this. Twice Luke mentions in his Gospel that “Mary kept all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Both “keeping” and “pondering” are significant. The “keeping” makes Mary’s heart a storehouse of words; the pondering suggests something more dynamic. First the keeping: Mary has space to store up all the words of God. The words of God that she stores up are one with the Word which God brought into the world, the Word of God that became flesh in her womb. As St Augustine said, Mary conceived the Word in her mind and heart before conceiving Him in the flesh. Then pondering: this word really means “to collect, confront, encounter, compare”, from the Latin con-ferre, to bring together, draw together for comparison, bring into relationship. A text of Scripture is related to another word, and out of this bringing together, a third word, as it were, proceeds from the union of the two. If Christ calls himself the light, and in another place the way, the thought comes that we need his light to walk the way that he is. And so a prayer is formed in us. That is what the Fathers were doing all the time, and the liturgy too. The fathers recognised the Scriptures as a totality, and no single word can be expounded without comparison with others.