Lectio Divina Part I: Reading

In my last post, I introduced Lectio Divina as an age-old Christian method of meditation and prayer. Classically, authors distinguish between four dimensions of the experience: (1) Reading, (2) Meditation, (3) Prayer, and (4) Contemplation.

I first began practicing Lectio Divina about twenty-five years ago. If you are as I was, you may be worried about “getting it right.” I can think of many moments of anxiety on retreat or in my personal prayer life. My wounds were causing me to have a distorted view of God and of prayer. I have since learned to be calmer and have confidence that God will lead me on a good path, so long as I keep surrendering. There are many “right” ways of engaging in Christian reading and meditation. To be sure, it helps to learn from the spiritual greats who have gone before us – but with flexibility and trust rather than rigidity and fear.

Perhaps a helpful analogy here is a baseball player aspiring to become a great pitcher. Consider the rich variety of pitching styles that are out there. Each player needs to learn what works for him personally. There are many possible variations of how he might execute his windup, his arm motion, his delivery, his stride, and his follow through. A good coach will identify certain bad habits to be broken, but will resist the temptation to over-analyze or micromanage. At first, there are many mechanics to be mastered. Things may feel awkward for a while. If the pitcher freezes or fixates too much on any one step, he will struggle. In time, with plenty of practice, it becomes a single fluid process; it becomes “second nature.”

Lectio Divina likewise eventually becomes “second nature,” or more accurately, “supernatural.” It is impossible without divine assistance, yet ultimately leads us to become more truly human, and more fully ourselves. If we persevere in consistent prayer, it will come to feel as fluid and natural as an athlete playing catch.

For that reason, I have deliberately avoided using the word “steps.” Yes, there are four dimensions of Lectio Divina, but they often happen simultaneously, and they happen best when we keep our focus on Jesus.

Without further ado, let’s consider dimension #1: Lectio (“Reading”).

As the very name suggests, Lectio Divina is fueled by reading. Most commonly, this includes reading a well-chosen Scripture passage. Starting with Gospel stories is probably the easiest and most effective way to begin.

Our reading is best done slowly and prayerfully, noticing the Word of God, noticing especially how it speaks to our own heart. If we find a word or passage or image or thought that deeply consoles us or deeply troubles us, it is a good time to pause and ponder and meditate. It is important to resist the temptation to rush ahead, to bury ourselves in reading, or to plow through as much text as we can. Instead of pushing ahead or pushing through, we will need to learn to be still and silent, to savor God’s presence and activity.

Alternative approaches: Not everyone finds it easy to launch into Lectio Divina. More often than not, the reason for our struggles has to do with a lack of consistency or a lack of silence (see my last post!). If we are winning those battles and still struggling, then we may need a bit more trial and error until we figure out what works.

There are many “right” ways of praying and meditating, and it is worth considering some alternatives: different books of the Bible, perhaps even other inspirational writings such as a well-written life of a Saint or an devotional book that really resonates with our heart. In the end it is the good fruit that matters, and we can tell what is working well and what is not – especially if we are not just judging for ourselves, but are sharing our discipleship with friends or with a trusted spiritual guide. In considering whether your reading is working, think upon the image of fuel steadily feeding the flame of our prayer life. If the fire keeps burning (and others attest to that fact), we know that the fuel is good.

Regarding the timing of our reading, there can also be a healthy variety. I know people of prayer who read the night before and allow themselves to sleep on it. I know others who read early in the morning over coffee and then pray at a later time. I know still others who spend ten minutes reading and then enter meditation and prayer shortly afterward. Finally, I know people who alternate back and forth between reading and meditating throughout their period of prayer. In fact, I have personally tried all of the above at different seasons of my life. The main point is to draw spiritual nourishment from what we are reading.

We should also realize that “reading” need not mean picking up a book and looking at the written word. Ponder this: Many of the Christians who practiced Lectio Divina over the centuries were not even literate! Prior to the printing press, books were rare and expensive – especially Bibles. Even in the monasteries among monks who could read and write, their precious manuscripts had to be shared, and with the utmost care. Typically, one monk would read in the refectory as the others attentively listened. Whatever words or verses stuck in their heart were the ones they meditated on later, during their designated time for Lectio Divina.

Outside of monasteries, literacy was even less common. But the stories of Scripture were passed on in song, poetry, storytelling, architecture, paintings, stained glass windows, or statues. Those media fueled the prayer of Christians for centuries. If any of them speak deeply to our hearts today, why not utilize them? I know several Christians who struggle to pray with a written text, but flourish with a visual image, a guided meditation, or even an inspiring podcast. We need to find what works well for us personally. If our mind is meditating and our prayer is bearing good fruit, we know we are on the right track.

Returning to our analogy of a baseball pitcher, there are several styles of “reading” that can be effective. You may need try a few of them until you figure out what works consistently well for you. Returning to our image of fuel and fire, I encourage you to ask yourself: What fuels your heart? If your spiritual reading is indeed working, it will consistently be the fuel that helps your heart to be set ablaze in the presence of the living God.

Next time we’ll consider dimension #2: Meditation.

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