When he was a boy, Jack assumed everyone saw the world the way he did. He thought it was natural to have to strain his eyes to see the chalkboard at the front of the classroom. But then one day when he was in fourth grade, he tried on his friend’s new glasses and was amazed: he could see clearly for the first time! He realized that he needed glasses too. What he thought was normal vision really wasn’t. He didn’t have to go through life squinting!
You could say that Jack had an aha! moment—a sudden, new realization that changed his life. We’ve all had moments like these, whether it is a medical diagnosis that explains our symptoms, a new insight into a long-standing challenge, or a fresh approach to a task we’ve been doing for years. Suddenly, everything makes sense, and we’re able to move forward, building on our new insight with confidence and hope.
This is one way to look at lectio divina. As we practice this ancient way of praying Scripture, we will find that God wants to give us aha! moments as well. He wants to show us his love in new ways. He wants to give us a new insight into one of the truths of our faith. And he wants to help us find new ways to tackle challenges that have puzzled us for years.
Receiving God’s Good Gifts. Because it is a way of praying, lectio divina grows out of that most basic source of all prayer: a longing for God to stir his grace within us and reveal himself to us. If we approach the Scriptures with a sense of expectation and trust, we will find our hearts opened to these great gifts from God—gifts that always lead to aha! moments in our lives.
There is no single method for the practice of lectio divina. It is not a step-by-step system. In fact, the spiritual masters of the early Church never trusted methods of prayer that were too rigidly defined. They always tried to make room for the freedom necessary to respond to the Spirit’s promptings. In my own writing about lectio divina, I have incorporated what I call five “movements.” Like the movements in a piece of classical music, each movement of lectio divina has its own rhythms and characteristics but allows for personal interpretation.
Lectio: Expectant Listening. The first movement invites us to read the text with a sense of expectation, trusting that God will speak to us. As God speaks, we listen. The key to this listening is reading the passage as if we were hearing it for the first time. Lectio encourages us to create a space within ourselves for the new wisdom and insight God wants to give to us.
A trusted commentary or your Bible’s footnotes can help with this first movement. The Jewish rabbis and the Church’s earliest theologians show us that there is no clear distinction between studying Scripture and reading it prayerfully. Listening to the text with the understanding of the Church and with some basic insights of biblical scholars can assure us that our insights are true to the text.
This kind of listening requires careful, attentive reading. It calls us to engage our minds, our imaginations, our emotions, and our wills. For this, it can be helpful to read the passage out loud, so that we can dwell on the words, imagine the scene, feel the sentiments, and let the text move from our heads to our hearts. In this receptive listening, we let God’s word speak to us and open us to his grace.
Meditatio: Reflecting on Meaning and Message. St. John of the Cross once said, “Seek by reading and you will find by meditating.” Even though the Bible was written ages ago, its pages still have meanings and messages for us today. Meditatio calls us to find these messages that link the ancient text to our contemporary lives.
So we reflectively ponder the text, holding it and treasuring it, until it speaks to us. As we meditate on God’s word, it saturates our minds and hearts. As a result, we begin to embody its truth, goodness, and beauty.
When the Church’s early theologians interpreted the Bible, they considered their work incomplete until they had found a meaning in the text that spoke to the situation of Christians in their own day. We can do the same thing by dwelling on a passage until it speaks to the questions, challenges, or experiences we face today. This kind of meditation is most fruitful when we experience God speaking to us on this personal level.
Oratio: The Response of Prayer. Scripture is filled with stories of people who responded wholeheartedly once they felt the presence of God. We have only to think of Moses before the burning bush or Isaiah in the Temple or Peter on the fishing boat. Each of them was struck by God’s word, and they responded prayerfully, humbly, and lovingly. Even so for us. When we listen to God’s word with our hearts, our natural response is prayer. In this way, lectio divina becomes a dialogue with God.
Personally, my daily prayers to God can become repetitious and uninspired. But when I practice lectio divina, my prayer becomes filled with new images, new words, and new insights. Because I first listen to God speak to me, my prayer takes on a heartfelt spontaneity and genuine joy.
Whether your response takes the form of praise to God, repentance for sin, petition for needs, or gratitude for God’s goodness, your prayer will begin to sound like the prayers of faith, hope, and love that you read in the Bible. You may not “sound” biblical, but you will feel the same joy and humility and trust that these heroes and heroines did.
Contemplatio: Resting Quietly. When my wife and I return home from work, we talk about our day and express our feelings to one another. But after a while, we run out of words. In fact, we find that too many words can get in the way. We just like to be together. This is one way to understand the movement of lectio divina called contemplatio. Where oratio is our word-filled response to God’s word, contemplatio is our wordless prayer in God’s presence.
This movement of contemplatio is mostly silence, an effortless resting in God. We end our prayer by accepting the embrace of the One who has led us to this moment. As we feel God helping us become more aware of his presence, we gradually abandon our intellectual activity and allow ourselves simply to enjoy God’s presence. It is similar to the way a sleeping child rests in its mother’s arms or a husband and wife hold each other in wordless silence.
This movement may seem reserved only for the most spiritual among us. Indeed, spiritual writers have described contemplatio as a grace that is beyond our own control. But at the same time, these writers assumed that this experience was open to all believers. For them, it was a natural phase of prayer available to anyone with an open heart.
Operatio: Faithful Witness. The final movement of lectio divina is one that we don’t often consider. But if we truly have heard God’s word and have responded to that word in prayer, it stands to reason that we will have been changed in some way. Scripture promises that God’s word never comes back to him empty; it always accomplishes something in the lives of the people who receive it (Isaiah 55:10-11).
In addition to drawing us inward to reflection and prayer, the word of God impels us outward to those people and situations in need of God’s love and presence. Every biblical text offers those who hear it a challenge to do something in response to the grace we have received. So after we listen, ponder, and pray, we are led, almost instinctively, to ask, “What is God asking of me?” Or as the psalmist asked, “How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me?” (Psalm 116:12).
Sometimes we read of great saints whose reading of Scripture radically changed their lives. But more often, for me and you, the change that Scripture creates in our lives is subtle and gradual. Sometimes other people notice the change in us sooner than we do!
An Effective Word. As James says, when we engage with Scripture in a personal way, we become “doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22). Listening to God’s word leads us to witnessing to God’s word. As we are touched and shaped by God’s word, we bring about his purposes in our families, our communities, our Church, and our world. Our aha! moment has borne fruit not only in our lives but in the lives of everyone around us.