What should I do?” The question came during the hour of lectio divina—prayerful reading of the Bible—that I have led for many years in the parish of San Martino, in Rome, where I live. The questioner was intense; she wanted an answer from us. She wanted an answer from God.
Our lectio that evening, from the Acts of the Apostles, had focused on the story of the traveling Ethiopian eunuch who is reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah and is struggling to understand its meaning. When Philip joins him in his chariot to explain how Isaiah’s words point to Jesus, the Ethiopian takes immediate action. “Look, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” he asks, ordering the chariot to halt. And so Philip baptizes him (Acts 8:26-39).
“That Ethiopian knew how to respond to the passage he had read, and he knew right away,” said the questioning parishioner. “But I am already baptized, and I don’t know how to respond. What should I do?” The experience of lectio divina had brought this woman to a place of deep openness to God’s word, just as it had done for the Ethiopian centuries ago. Only the final step of lectio—determining a specific practical response—still eluded her.
Inexhaustibly Fresh. This time honored way of reading Scripture has so much potential that it’s no wonder Pope Benedict XVI is an enthusiastic advocate. In Verbum Domini, his recent apostolic exhortation on the word of God, he urges us to practice lectio divina so that we might “be struck by the inexhaustible freshness of God’s word, which never grows old.”
Indeed, because it involves pondering a Bible passage four times (see “The Four Levels of Lectio” on page 18), lectio divina effectively breaks through our defenses and spiritual deafness so that our response to God’s word can be as life-changing as it was for that Ethiopian traveler.
In our lectio divina sessions at San Martino, in parishioners like the intense questioner, I see this happen again and again.
Calm Down. San Martino is an urban parish on an ancient site. The church sits on a heavily trafficked street between Rome’s main train station, known as “Termini,” and the Coliseum. Our patron is St. Martin of Tours, who, as a Roman soldier, gave half of his cloak to a beggar; his example still inspires a distinctive parish outreach that provides well over a hundred people a week, mostly foreigners, with a shower, clean clothes, and various other kinds of practical help.
Many of the folks attending our parish lectio divina sessions arrive after a frenetic day. There is the father who had a long fight with his son about going to school that morning, the catechist exhausted by questioning adolescents, the shop owner who rushes in after closing up early. Some arrive in the spirit of Martha, who was “worried about many things” (Luke 10:41).
We all need to calm our busy minds and slow down to experience “the freshness of God’s word,” and so I try to create a prayerful environment in the church—dimmed lighting, quiet music, and a single light shining on an open Bible. This helps everyone focus on the word of God as soon as they step inside. So do the images from Renaissance art and other religious masterpieces that are projected onto a large screen; these depict the Scripture text for the evening— Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew for our lectio divina on Matthew 9:9-13, for example.
Upon arriving , participants receive a handout that highlights key words and the structure of the Bible passage. They can read it before we start and then take the page home, where the reflection begun during lectio often continues in the conversation over dinner.
“I Heard Jesus!” Once we have calmed down and turned our hearts to God, the Scripture passage is read aloud slowly and deliberately—usually by more than one reader—to bring out its meaning and structure. In group lectio divina, the praise of God begins with a well-prepared proclamation of the word, and so our readers take a few minutes beforehand to practice the passage together.
Along these lines, Verbum Domini points out the need for “adequate training” for all readers at liturgical celebrations. Pope Benedict specifies that this training should be “biblical” (the readers understand the passage), “liturgical” (they are proclaiming the word of God, not the newspaper), and also “technical” (they know how to use a microphone). In my experience, just a bit of preparation makes an enormous difference.
“I never heard that passage like I did this evening!” is a common refrain during our lectio divina sessions. Reactions like “I heard Jesus speaking directly to me” and “I felt punched in the stomach as I listened” (someone really said that!) tell me that the passage has been read very well.
Challenged and Built Up. The most widespread reaction I hear is that lectio participants feel challenged by the word of God as never before. After reading a passage attentively and prayerfully, over and over again, they are unable to dismiss it with “I’ve heard this already.”
During Advent a few years back, we were reading about the crowds asking John the Baptist how they should prepare for the coming of the Messiah (Luke 3:10-14). We had reached the third level of lectio divina—oratio, or prayer—and I was pointing out how John’s responses were both challenging and specific. No evasive language from him!
To soldiers he says: “Be content with your salary”—a very explicit directive, for soldiers in the ancient world could extort a higher wage from local populations. Tax collectors are told: “Don’t take more than what is prescribed”—another specific injunction that would impact bank accounts. But to his general audience, John says: “Let the one who has two coats give one to the person who has none.” Hearing this, a longtime lectio participant came to an immediate realization: “I’m not living a Christian life according to the Gospel of Luke. I have more than two coats in my closet—in fact, I have many more than two.”
That remark provoked a good deal of serious reflection among us. I don’t think any of us can look into our clothes closet anymore without hearing John’s words and asking ourselves: “Am I a Christian according to the Gospel of Luke?”
Inevitably, lectio divina brings me face-to-face with the gospel message. I am the one to whom Jesus speaks. I am the rich young man who abandoned Jesus. I am the Pharisee wondering why Jesus eats with sinners. I am the hypocrite who sees the speck in my neighbor’s eye while failing to see the log in my own.
But lectio divina is not an individualistic practice. While God’s word is “addressed to each of us personally,” writes Pope Benedict, “it is also a word which builds community, which builds the church.” As one participant in our group remarked: “Lectio divina provides a time and place where I can share my faith journey with others as we examine our lives together in light of the gospel.”
Our parish experience of lectio divina has produced several unexpected results. More people are prayerfully reading Scripture for themselves. Some have complemented the parish lectio by creating smaller home groups, where everyone has a chance to share responses to the reading. Some have been propelled into service. And so the church is built up.
What Should I Do? Whatever the setting, lectio divina leads to contemplatio. This is the moment, writes Pope Benedict, when we consider “what conversion of mind, heart, and life is the Lord asking of us?”—and then act on it.
When the Ethiopian eunuch gave lectio a try, he discovered that the Lord was inviting him into the Christian community through baptism. And what about that parishioner whose heart was pierced by the Ethiopian’s story?
Her “What should I do?” eventually found an answer. She began by working in San Martino’s shower and clothing outreach, but the question still burned within her, so she kept searching. Today she has found her niche as a volunteer teaching immigrants the Italian language, a necessary skill for finding work in Italy.
After all these years leading lectio divina, I can say with confidence that if you take God’s word seriously, through prayerful reading and reflection, you will encounter Christ, the living Word of God. You will hear his call to conversion and to action. And as you seek to discover how to respond, an answer will come. The practice of lectio divina guarantees it.
Craig Morrison, a Carmelite priest, is a biblical scholar, writer, and lecturer working at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. He has taught lectio divina and led it for groups large and small for more than twenty years. Quotations from Verbum Domini are from sections 46, 58, and 87.