Is it a while since you picked up a Bible? Do you find yourself skimming scripture rather than diving into its depths?
Can your prayer life sometimes feel a little flat?
In this article Brother Jonathan, a Benedictine monk at Mucknell Abbey, reveals how the ancient monastic practice of Lectio Divina can release a fresh sense of life and joy in your Bible reading and prayer times.
Lectio Divina means ‘divine reading’ in Latin. It is a prayerful reading of scripture through which you can experience deep encounter and communion with God.
Although it has been called the ‘monastic spiritual exercise par excellence’, it is certainly no longer confined to the cloister. Growing numbers of individuals, churches and communities have started using the practice to enrich their personal and corporate life of prayer.
So as we explore Lectio Divina now, let’s look at:
- What is Lectio Divina?
- A brief example from my own life at Mucknell Abbey
- Four core elements of Lectio Divina
- Seven practical tips for making Lectio Divina work for you
1. What is Lectio Divina?
‘Today, if you hear his voice…’ – Psalm 95:7
The very first word in the Rule of St Benedict – and some say the most important – is ‘listen’.
In Lectio Divina we are seeking to listen to God as he speaks to us through scripture. In St Benedict’s day this would have been true in a very literal way. Reading at that time was not the silent exercise it is now. Monks would read aloud, searching out what they called the ‘voices of the pages’.
What makes Lectio Divina different from other ways of reading is the way in which we listen.
St Benedict asks us to ‘incline the ear of [our] heart’ to what is being said. You will know from your own experience whether others have truly listened to you when you’ve opened your heart. That kind of intent, focused listening we long for is exactly the way we are called to respond to scripture. Lectio Divina invites you to respond right from the centre of your being, where your encounter with God must take place.
This is not an intellectual exercise.
You are not looking for more information about Jesus.
You are searching for Jesus himself.
In a memorable phrase from the mystical tradition, we are ‘to know God with the knowledge of love’. Love, by its very nature, can never remain detached. It involves a willingness to put yourself under the Word, to ‘incline’ your ear towards it in intimacy, rather than scrutinising it from above.
In his Rule, St Benedict addresses the listener as ‘my child’: ‘Listen, my child, to the master’s teaching’. In the same way, when you practise Lectio Divina you are trusting that God wants to speak directly to you as his much-loved child, and into the unique circumstances of your life.
‘Taste and see…’ – Psalm 34:8
Lectio Divina does not require you to master a new technique or method of prayer. But it does invite you to practise a way of reading that might be unfamiliar.
A favourite image for this among monastic writers is that of a cow chewing the cud. Just as a cow regurgitates food to process it a second time, so the monk is to ruminate on (from the Latin to ‘chew over’) a word or passage from the Bible.
This is probably quite different from the way you may have learned to read. Most of us skim words, our eye moving quickly down a page in order to follow a story or grasp an idea. In our fast-moving twenty-first century culture an ever-increasing number of words compete for our ever-shrinking attention spans.
There are only a very few occasions when we may find ourselves slowing down and re-reading something.
Perhaps we might with a poem or when someone we love deeply sends us a letter or message. Then we pore over it, mining it for all its meaning and treasuring every word!
It seems to me that’s the best way to understand what Lectio Divina is.
While our reading is almost always linear, moving quickly from A to B, Lectio Divina leads us into a circular journey of reading and re-reading. Its aim is to ‘inwardly digest’ the Bible’s life-filled words, just as a cow chews the cud in order to extract as much nutritional value as possible from its food.
In the same way, by slowing down and giving what you are reading your undivided time and attention, the words you read in Lectio Divina will start to enter into your very being and nourish you.
2. A brief example from my own life at Mucknell Abbey
Each day, I am fortunate enough to have two hours set aside for personal prayer in my monastic timetable. St Benedict’s monks did their reading in the morning, when their minds were fresh and alert.
But I find the late afternoon – ‘when the busy world is hushed’ – a better time to concentrate.
I’m also fortunate to have a cell to retreat to, where I know I won’t be disturbed. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a ‘cell’, simply means somewhere you can go to be alone with God. (This was, in fact, the original idea behind the prison cell, in the hope that by spending time alone with God’s Word, inmates would be reformed.)
But monastic life can be as full and distracting as any other. So before beginning Lectio Divina I like to take a moment to calm down and still my mind.
Next I say a very short prayer, asking God to speak to me through the day’s reading. Then I look at a passage, one paragraph or chunk of text at a time.
3. Four core elements of Lectio Divina
In the twelfth century, a monk named Guido set out four different elements to the experience of Lectio Divina, which have since become very influential.
But please remember that this is no recipe or checklist, and certainly not a ‘ladder of ascent’. As you practise Lectio Divina you do not need to progress mechanically from one stage to the next, nor should you expect to experience each stage separately – or indeed at all.
All the same, I do find them useful, and so share them with you here:
Begin by slowly and deliberately reading through your text several times. You may find it helpful to speak the words to yourself, either quietly in your head or clearly out loud.
Be sensitive to those moments when your attention is caught by a particular word or phrase, then stop reading the passage in order to narrow and deepen your focus.
By this phrase I do not mean meditation as it is commonly understood today. A better word might be ponder. Repeat the word or phrase to yourself, holding and turning it over in your mind as you would if you were exploring a fascinating object in your hands.
As you do this, seek to fully engage your reason, memory, body, imagination and emotions.
Let’s take the phrase ‘…the least among you is the greatest’ (Luke 9:38) as an example. Meditation is quite different from theological analysis. Instead, you are being invited to explore the full depth and rich significance of the phrase, from a range of different, illuminating angles.
This immersive experience allows you to ‘enter into’ the humility of Jesus himself.
It is also important to make space for the Holy Spirit, who is eager to form ‘the mind of Christ’ in you (Philippians 2:5-8). All you need bring is patience and an open mind. It can be tempting but unhelpful to over-think or shut down the meaning that emerges, and to apply your own or someone else’s ready-made concepts.
‘Lord, who can grasp all the wealth of just one of your words? What we understand is much less than what we leave behind, like thirsty people who drink from a fountain.’
– St Ephrem the Syrian
Let yourself return to the phrase throughout the day, or in the days that follow. Something you hear or read may bring it back to mind, casting it in a different light and lending it another dimension.
You may find as you practise this exercise that a dialogue opens up as you respond to what you are reading and reflecting on in prayer. Perhaps you feel that the word or phrase is speaking directly to you and your own circumstances.
Returning to the Luke 9:38 example above, you might find yourself confronted with a new awareness of your own ambition or arrogance, until now hidden. You may suddenly see it for what it is, as if for the first time. In a situation like this, a prayer of repentance would be quite natural.
At other times you may find yourself moved to profound praise, thanksgiving or wordless adoration. Don’t worry about going ‘off-piste’ in this way.
Remember always that the encounter is in the diversions.
Basil Pennington helpfully described contemplation as ‘the joy of being with the object of our love’. In moments like these thoughts or words are not necessary. Our communion is silent.
When a time of meditation, prayer or contemplation seems to have reached a natural end – when you start planning what to make for supper, for instance – it’s a good idea to return again to a slow re-reading of the whole passage.
‘Why, O Lord, do you stand so far off?’ – Psalm 10:1
You may now feel conflicting or unexpected emotions. Sometimes, if for example you’re feeling anxious or angry, it may be hard to settle down. At other times, even when conditions seem perfect, you may come away thinking it was a dull and fruitless exercise.
But don’t give up.
Remember that – like any other kind of prayer – your motivation is not to force something out of it, to achieve a result or have a verifiable experience. One of the treasures of monastic discipline that everyone can adopt is the practice of attending to prayer whether you feel like it or not.
Simply choose to be with the object of your love.
4. Seven practical tips for making Lectio Divina work for you
1. Choose your text
A number of spiritual writers recommend working through a complete book of the Bible, the practice recommended by St Benedict to his monks. If you do this you might want to choose carefully. Jumping in with Deuteronomy might be too ambitious! A good place to start can be the daily readings found in a prayer book or lectionary.
The benefit of both of these approaches is that you will be challenged by new and unfamiliar material, rather than resorting to old favourites.
2. Decide how much time to commit
If you can, carve out time for some Lectio Divina each day. But don’t make resolutions you won’t be able to keep. It is much better to set and stick to a short 10-minute daily commitment than to try a target of 45 minutes and give up, discouraged, after a few days.
3. Find a quiet space
If possible, find a place where you will not be disturbed – for example your bedroom, a park bench or your car. If none of these seem realistic, try putting headphones on and listening to some gentle, wordless music to block out otherwise distracting noise.
4. Use Discovering Prayer’s Absorbing God’s Word series
St Benedict’s sixth-century monks listened to the Word spoken aloud as they practised Lectio Divina. Fifteen centuries later, you can do the same through your phone or tablet by listening to Discovering Prayer’s special Absorbing God’s Word series. That way you can do it on the go, outside, or at home, any time of day or night.
5. Don’t give up
The reality is that you will get bored and restless. You may even nod off. This is only to be expected.
But be patient and persevere. If you find yourself feeling this way most of the time then don’t be afraid to experiment. Our brains are all wired differently. I now know that I need quite a lot of mental stimulation to stay focused, so I find it beneficial to listen to music even when it is otherwise silent around me.
6. Read around the subject
A good commentary on the text you are using can be very rewarding. But to avoid it dominating or directing your thoughts, it’s a good idea to consult it afterwards rather than beforehand.
7. Let Lectio Divina help you filter all the other words you hear today
Lectio Divina is not something which is done in isolation from the rest of your life.
While resolving to spend more time listening to God’s Word in this way, try to be more keenly discerning of all the other words you are hearing and absorbing throughout the day.
Diarist Victor Klemperer wrote that, ‘words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time, the toxic reaction sets in after all’. As you spend time listening to the words of life in Lectio Divina, let them lighten and lift the atmosphere in which you live the rest of your day.
Points to take away
It is not only our bodies, but our souls too that need feeding.
In this article we’ve looked at one time-honoured way of ensuring that we get the full range of nutrition we need. The philosopher Simone Weil said that, ‘attention is one of the rarest and purest forms of generosity’. In this Age of Distraction such loving and generous attention is becoming increasingly difficult. So well done on getting this far!
But as we have seen, attention is what Lectio Divina is all about.
It is an invitation to listen carefully to the Spirit as he seeks to speak to us in our everyday lives. For most of us this will require a change in the way we read scripture. It involves:
- Slowing down
- Narrowing our focus
- Engaging our body, memory, emotions and imagination, and not just our intellect
- Keeping a patient and open mind
- A willingness to be challenged
This might at first put you off. But don’t be daunted. As you start out, it will be helpful to remember that:
- Lectio Divina is not really a method of prayer or meditation. It does not require you to practise particular techniques or enter a rare state of consciousness.
- The more accessible the text the better. Spend time choosing a book of the Bible that interests and attracts you.
- Regularity is more important than time or length. There is more chance of long-term success if you start small. Don’t bite off more than you can chew!
- You can practise it on your sofa or in your car. You don’t need a candlelit room to yourself. If you can’t be alone and find yourself distracted, try using sound-cancelling headphones or listen to relaxing, wordless music.
- Lectio Divina requires discipline, but avoid making it into a chore. Be flexible and inventive.
My own practice of Lectio Divina has led me to a place in my own, personal prayer times where I now find myself more often than not resting silently in God’s presence, seeking the joy of simply being with the one I love.
Would you like to say ‘yes’ to this invitation to use an ancient practice to refresh your prayer life?
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