The contemplative tradition of Christian faith and practice was birthed in the monastery but quickly moved into the wider practice of the church. One of the most important practices that grew out of the ancient monastic tradition is called Lectio Divina (pronounced "Lect-see-oh Div-ee-na).
Lectio Divina (which literally means divine or holy reading) has long been a principal practice of the Benedictine tradition of spirituality. The monastic life seeks to directly cultivate a holy listening to God's Word — for God's self-communication — which is made manifest in Christ, in the scriptures, in the human heart and in the heart of the cosmos.
Lectio Divina is actually a method of approaching scripture. It approaches the Word with a deep desire to listen to the depths, seeking to encounter Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, as he is hidden in the words of the biblical text. The goal of Lectio is to move beyond a strict analysis of words and thoughts to a disciplined developing of our human capacity to be aware of God in all of life. Thus Lectio leads to a form of listening that leads us to a new way of seeing. In this sense the faithful practice of Lectio Divina gives a proper foundation to our entire life of prayer, daily work, and communion with others. The Scripture is full of this idea. The Psalter most plainly reveals it, and is most agreeable to it, but the Gospels are of primary value for the Christian. By Lectio Divina we learn to enter into the life of Jesus in the Spirit.
The traditional method for Lectio Divina is fourfold, following Latin names:
This involves the repeated reading of the biblical text until certain words and phrases call for your direct attention. Sometimes footnotes, commentaries and cross references help. This stage has often been compared to taking in food. Most of us who have been well trained in evangelical discipleship learned to do this as a daily routine. We called it our “daily devotions.” If we studied the Bible formally we were then given tools by which we could improve on this work. The problem is that many of us turned this into a method of analysis and simplistic unfulfilling routine. We finished our reading and stopped. The result, for many of us, has been paralysis by continual analysis.
As we take in our daily food we do so with more and more care. By this we then learn to "chew" or ruminate on key words and phrases that we encounter through the Spirit’s work in our minds and hearts. Following Lectio Divina the reader will remain in a text as long as they are attracted to a particular word or phrase. At this stage the heart (marrow) of the text should begin to emerge in the reader’s thinking process.
The key words and phrases of the text, now observed and pondered more deeply, will eventually lead the person to prayer, a form of prayer inspired by the text and by a growing awareness of God's presence in Christ by the Spirit. This is the deep tasting of the text.
Eventually this method will lead to a discovery of particular words that speak to the reader beyond the bare words on a page. This will, in turn, bring the reader into a silent awareness of God's presence. This is an abiding or communing with God. This has rightly been called the savoring of the sweetness of the Lord.
Lectio is enhanced by scripture study and enriched profoundly by good commentaries and insightful meditations on the text. In this way the subtle nuances of a text will become more obvious. But it is never satisfied by learning and making notes from learning. It longs to meet Christ and hear him, “as a deer pants for a waterbrook.”
Lectio Divina will transform your reading of the Bible from simply reading long portions of text to become more familiar with the content of the whole Scripture, which is a great discipline to develop, to a careful and attentive listening to the Spirit speak to you from the Word. This will very often come from one word, one phrase, a part of a verse or simply one single verse. Lectio is not about finishing an assignment but rather about “hearing” God speak to your heart.
Lectio Divina has profoundly shaped my life over the last 10-15 years. I feel like a novice but the deeper I go into this method of sacred reading the more I hear God speak to me personally. This much I know. If you practice it you will very likely be transformed in your spiritual life.