The Word Among Us

July/August 2014 Issue

Opening the “Book of Christ”

The Ancient Practice of Lectio Divina.

Opening the “Book of Christ”: The Ancient Practice of Lectio Divina.

When they look back on our era decades from now, historians will no doubt call this the “Information Age.” From the dawn of the Internet to the ready availability of smart phones and tablets to the proliferation of twenty-four-hour news channels and endless blogs and chat rooms, we are being bombarded with all sorts of facts and falsities, along with anyone and everyone’s insights and opinions. The world is virtually bursting with more knowledge, new programs, and innovative methods for getting things done. Much of this has a good side, of course. But it can also make us focus only on the “functional” and the efficient.

If we let ourselves get caught in this information-age trap, we run the risk of approaching everything, even the Bible, as a “thing” to be analyzed, a set of texts that we can tackle with our minds alone. This approach could lead us to think of how a Scripture passage might help us solve a personal problem or teach us how to make our lives a little easier. It could also move us to treat the Bible only as a guide for doctrinal certainty or as a rule book for proper morality. Once we have extracted the information we need, we assume that the passage at hand has achieved its purpose, and we move on.

In contrast to this functional approach to Scripture stands the ancient practice of lectio divina, or “sacred reading.” This is the way the Christians of the early Church read Scripture. Rather than looking at a biblical text as something to analyze and master, lectio divina can help us encounter the text and, in the process, encounter the Lord himself. It teaches us that the Bible is a living, divine word that can form our lives, not just a book of useful information. Through lectio divina, we learn to read the Bible not just for information, but primarily for transformation.

This month, we want to explore lectio divina. We want to join the saints from every age who have read the Bible in this way and have learned to listen to God’s word as it addressed them personally. So as you ponder Scripture this month, try to let the sacred text reveal layers and layers of meaning to you. Let the divine word open your heart and probe your thoughts, fears, hopes, and dreams. Let the word of God gradually change you and form you more and more into the image of Christ.

God Speaks to Us in Scripture. This way of lectio divina recognizes that the Bible is God’s own self-revelation. Through these sacred pages, God communicates with us in a personal way, not an informational way. The Fathers of Vatican II put it this way: “In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets his children with great love and talks with them” (On Divine Revelation, 21). Because God is revealing himself to us, everything that is in the Bible has a deeply personal dimension.

So the practice of lectio divina teaches us to be personally involved in this communication. Every word we read in Scripture, everything we see in our imagination as the stories unfold, involves us. It makes us participants, not just observers.

As you learn lectio divina, you will find yourself reading reflectively, lingering over every page, letting the words reach deeply into your heart. And you do this by listening “with the ear of the heart” (The Rule of St. Benedict).

The “Book of Christ.”#8221; This kind of deep listening can help us discover the key to lectio divina—that Jesus is the heart and focus of all Scripture. He is the key that unlocks the meaning of all the books of the Bible. Jesus himself taught his disciples how all of Israel’s history pointed to his coming.

Do you remember how he appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter morning? Throughout their journey together, he “interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27).

This is exactly what Jesus wants to do for us as we practice lectio divina. He wants to show us how his death and resurrection can shed new light on the Hebrew Scriptures and give them new meaning. Only together do the Old and New Testaments express God’s full revelation. As St. Augustine once said, “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” It’s in prayerful reading that we begin to see how these two parts of the Bible, taken together, give us a fuller and more moving picture of Jesus.

To those who refused to accept him, Jesus said, “If you had believed Moses, you would have believed me, because he wrote about me” (John 5:46). Eventually, those who came to believe in Jesus would recognize his presence throughout the Scriptures. Because we are believers and because the Holy Spirit works in us, we can see Christ whenever we read a page of the Bible. As Hugh of St. Victor wrote so beautifully in the twelfth century, “All sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ, because all sacred Scripture speaks of Christ and all sacred Scripture is fulfilled in Christ.”

Lectio divina is much less about interpreting a book and much more about seeking a Person. It is much less an intellectual exercise and much more a passionate search for Jesus. At its heart, lectio divina is about encountering Jesus.

An Approach, Not a Method. When it comes to the actual practice, lectio divina is more about how we approach Scripture than about following one particular method. It’s simply about drawing near to the Bible believing that God wants to reveal himself through his word.

So here are a few brief points that I believe sum up the way of lectio divina and express the tradition behind this sacred practice. Read them over, and see if you are following them already. If you are, you are practicing lectio divina!

Lectio divina is a personal encounter with God through Scripture. By first listening to God through the biblical text and then responding to him in heartfelt prayer, we are brought into a deepening relationship with our heavenly Father. Because lectio divina engages our whole heart, we discover that our own desire for God can lead us to his presence.

Lectio divina leads to the understanding that Jesus Christ is the heart of the Scriptures. In Scripture, we seek Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life. We discover that every word of the Bible bears witness to the living Word who is Christ. And through lectio divina, we enter into a heartfelt conversation with him.

Lectio divina allows Scripture not only to inform us but also to transform us. As we let God lead us beyond seeking information and advice from the Bible, we discover that God is working deeply in our hearts to bring about inner change, to lead us to personal growth in Christ and fuller discipleship.

Learning to read Scripture with these three notions in mind will help us listen to the voice of the Spirit in the same way that God’s people have heard these words for thousands of years. In effect, we join ourselves with the way of the ancient Church, with the fathers and mothers of the desert and monasteries, and with all the saints and spiritual masters through the ages. That’s because this ancient way of reading the Bible is meant for everyone, not just the “experts.”

Ever Ancient, Ever New. In one sense, there is nothing new about lectio divina at all. People have been practicing it for thousands of years. But as old as it is, lectio divina also offers something that is “renewed each morning” (Lamentations 3:23). Every time we practice lectio divina, we have the opportunity to receive new insights from the Lord. We can experience God’s love in new, fresh ways. We can find ourselves becoming more and more like the new creation God wants us to be. There is no end to the new things God can create in us as we approach his word in this way.

In the end, lectio divina is a matter of disposition. We practice lectio divina when we come to the word of God with hearts open to the One who longs to speak to us through these inspired texts. If we can come to the Scriptures with a sense of expectation, a desire to listen deeply, and an eagerness to encounter the Lord, we will not be disappointed!