When I first stumbled across the term lectio divina (literally, "sacred reading"), I imagined elderly monks sequestered in a quiet room, silently poring over medieval manuscripts, as sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows and illuminated the pages they were turning. It seemed something that would remain far from my experience.
But after I entered the Jesuit novitiate, I was introduced to the ancient practice of lectio divina in a way that made it both accessible and understandable. Members of monastic communities still use this method of prayer, of course, but it is equally available to even the busiest and the least monastic among us.
A Simple Approach. Lectio divina is a way of encountering God through Scripture—normally, by taking a specific passage from the Bible as the basis for this prayer. There are many possible approaches to lectio, but the easiest I’ve found was suggested by my New Testament professor, Fr. Daniel J. Harrington, SJ. He suggested breaking it down into four steps. As an illustration, let’s use the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, as told in the Gospel of Luke (4:16-30).
1. Reading: What does the text say? First, you read the text. At the most basic level, you ask: What is going on in this Bible passage? Sometimes a Bible commentary is helpful to enable you to better understand the context.
With our passage from Luke, you might remember that Jesus is in the temple at Nazareth, reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. Here, at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus reveals to the people in his hometown both his identity and his mission. How shocking it must have been for them to hear a “local boy” comment on a reading from the prophet Isaiah by saying, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, I am the fulfillment of Scripture!
After initially finding Jesus pleasant to listen to, the townspeople turn on him and almost kill him. Somehow, he slips through their midst. No wonder this passage is sometimes called “the rejection at Nazareth.”
2. Meditation: What is God saying to me through the text? At this point, you ask whether there is something that God might want to reveal to you through this passage. Often, it might connect with something in your life.
For example, are there situations or places where you feel called to be prophetic, even in the face of rejection? In the gospel story, Jesus probably knew that his message would be controversial, and yet he proclaimed it anyway. Is there something in your life that calls for such a courageous stance? Perhaps this is what God wants to communicate to you.
3. Prayer: What do I want to say to God about the text? After meditating on this passage, you might find yourself fearful of what you feel called to do. If it means standing up for someone who has been mistreated, or even standing up for yourself, this might frighten you. You might worry about being rejected as Jesus was. You might even fear being rejected by those close to you, as Jesus was in his hometown.
On the other hand, you might feel emboldened by the confident example of Jesus. You might think about how all the prophets probably felt a measure of fear when called to prophetic action. Yet, like Jesus, they acted in the face of this fear, always trusting in God. Use this part of your prayer to tell God about your feelings. Be honest—and don’t worry: God can handle any emotions that you have!
4. Action: What do I want to do, based on my prayer? Finally, you act. Prayer should move us to action, even if it simply makes us want to be more compassionate and faithful.
Now that you’ve read the story of Jesus in the temple, have asked yourself what God is saying, and have spoken to God about your reaction, it’s time to do something. Perhaps you resolve to be more courageous in standing up for the oppressed. Or you decide to forgive someone who has wronged you. Or perhaps you feel that you still want to pray more about what to do. Whatever it may be, now is the time to let your prayer move you to action.
Savoring and Listening. Another, slightly different, way of praying lectio divina is to let yourself dwell on a single word or phrase in the scripture passage you have chosen. This allows you to “savor” the text, as Saint Ignatius Loyola put it. This works especially well with the psalms.
Say, for example, you are reading Psalm 23, which begins with the phrase “The Lord is my shepherd.” When you arrive at the stanza, “He makes me lie down in green pastures,” you might find yourself drawn to meditating on what it would feel like to experience rest in that green pasture. If you’re a busy person, you might take the opportunity to simply relax with God. Or you might think about the places in your life that are green pastures for you, and thank God for them. Your lectio could be as simple as a prayer of rest, or wordless gratitude.
God has many ways of working in our lives and communicating with us. Lectio divina is just one of them. God can also speak to us through the Mass and the sacraments, through our experiences and our relationships, and through nature, music, and art. In all these moments, the voice of God is coming to us. So when you are praying and feel God is speaking to you—listen! n
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and author of “Becoming Who You Are” (Paulist) and “My Life with the Saints” (Loyola).