by Rev. Patrick J. Madden, PhD
There are many different ways to read scripture. Most books of the Bible can be read from one end to the other, aloud, in two or three hours—more quickly if one reads them silently. One can also study a passage of scripture using various tools as an aid to understanding. Such tools include: concordances, Bible dictionaries and Bible commentaries. The most common way we Catholics experience scripture is when we hear it publicly proclaimed at a liturgical service. Scripture can also be read as part of our practice of non-liturgical prayer. This article is devoted to one such prayerful experience of scripture, known as lectio divina.
Lectio divina, pronounced “LECK-see-oh dee-VEE-nah,” is a Latin phrase that literally means “divine reading.” Spiritual writers often use lectio divina to refer to a particular prayerful method of reading of scripture. This practice, which developed in Benedictine monasteries, is often a communal exercise, but it can also be done by an individual. Some married couples might enjoy praying together in this way. When children are mature enough, this might be a form of family prayer. Lectio divina is a four-step process: 1) read, 2) meditate, 3) pray, 4) contemplate.
Since this is to be a prayerful exercise, before beginning one finds a quiet place where one is not likely to be disturbed for 15 minutes or half an hour. For parents of young children, this probably means after “bed time!” If the children are school-age, this might be a time when they are in school. Some people have a special place in their home where a statue, a holy picture or a candle helps them to be in a prayerful mood.
The choice of scripture can be made in many ways. Perhaps one of the readings from last Sunday has been inviting one to prayer. Or perhaps one will pray over the Gospel for the coming Sunday as part of one’s preparation for Sunday Mass. The more we put into preparing for Mass, the more we “get out” of it. Those who attend daily Mass might wish to pray over one of the daily Mass readings.
The first step in the process is to read the scripture. This is best done slowly, out loud. The passage may be read several times. If several people are praying together, they may read the passage aloud one after another. Sometimes reading from different translations of the Bible can be helpful to prayer. When I pray over the Sunday readings, sometimes I read the following translations: New American Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, Revised Standard Version. These are my personal favorites, which I offer simply as a suggestion. Others find using more than one translation to be a distraction, rather than a help to prayer. The main idea is to let the Word of God enter into one’s heart and soul by listening attentively and prayerfully.
The second step is to meditate on the passage. There are many different ways to meditate in our Catholic tradition. One way is to imagine you have received a letter from someone you love dearly. After you have read it through a couple of times, you put it down, and try to hear what that person was saying to you “between the lines.” This meditation can be a time of silent reflection. If a small group is praying together, mentioning words or phrases that struck one is appropriate. One meditating alone might wish to jot such words or phrases down in a prayer journal, or underline them or highlight them in one’s Bible. This is not a time to analyze “why” a passage has touched one’s heart; one simply notes the fact. If one is praying in a small group, it is not appropriate to comment, positively or negatively, on the remarks of others; they are simply heard with quiet respect.
Another way to meditate is to imagine oneself as a character in a Gospel story, or as an anonymous bystander witnessing the scene. During any type of meditation it is common for “distracting thoughts” to arise. At times a gentle, slow re-reading of key phrases that we noticed earlier can refocus our attempts to hear what God is saying to us.
The third step in the process is to pray. Prayer is simply “lifting our mind and heart to God.” One might wish to thank God for any insights that have come during the reading and meditation. Some people prefer to pray to God in their own words; others prefer to use a formal prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer, or a favorite prayer from a prayer book, or a favorite psalm from the Bible.
The final step in the process is to contemplate. If one can devote 30 minutes to lectio divina, perhaps the last 5 minutes will be contemplation. If one has only 15 minutes, perhaps the contemplation will be only a minute or two. There is a line in The Little Prince where he says that the reason his rose is so dear to him is because of all the time he has wasted with her. Think of contemplation as “wasting time with God.” It is a time not for doing anything other than “being with” the One we love.
Engaging in the practice of lectio divina can be a way to deepen our faith during this “Year of Faith.” Along with liturgical prayer, study and apostolic activity, lectio divina can help us to be more faithful followers of Jesus.
Photo: (CNS photo/Bob Roller)