Lectio Divina: The Art of Divine Reading

By Audrey Hindes

lectio-web.jpgScripture has always been important to me in different ways and at different times in my life. In our small private Christian school growing up, we were told to read our Bibles every day. I really tried, but the combination of a King James Version Bible and a young child just isn’t terribly productive—not for me anyway. I was nevertheless convinced of the Bible’s importance and began to suspect that there must be hidden meanings embedded in the verses.

Both in school and in church we memorized scores upon scores of biblical passages. When I was fourteen my parents gave me a copy of The Living Bible. Whoa. After only really knowing the KJV, I wasn’t even sure I was reading the same thing. I turned to passages I had memorized and was shocked and fascinated by the differences. Why were they different? Why were there so many translations? Which one could I trust? By my senior year in high school, I had decided that the only way to get to the bottom of things was to take Greek.

So I did. In college I took two years of Greek. I double-majored in biblical studies and classics. I took loads of Bible classes, Latin, and pseudepigrapha in my quest to “dig deep.” Then I went to graduate school and got a master of arts in Biblical Languages. I became a Bible professor and taught Bible at a university for seven years. But for me, within just a couple of years, it wasn’t enough anymore. I hardly ever heard a satisfying sermon. I couldn’t stomach any devotional literature. On the other hand, I didn’t really care about things like textual emendation all that much either (yes, I know it has its place and importance).

Biblical Bonding

Lectio Divina is traditionally a solitary pursuit, but it can also be a group exercise that promotes community and trust. “I find that Lectio has a way of leveling the playing field,” says Hindes. “No matter what someone’s background or knowledge of Scripture is, they can sit around the text together and be nourished and refreshed by the experience.”

Communal Lectio Divina works well in small congregational units, such as Sunday School classes or youth groups. The steps—lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio—remain the same, but there’s an option to share with the group following each reading or period of silence. For example, after the first reading of the text, members may share the word that resonated with them; after the second, why it’s speaking to them at this point in their lives; and after a silent period during which each member prays and converses with God, they may share what they will take from the experience. The group may read the text aloud in unison or have one person serve as the leader for the session.

Some groups choose to use upcoming lectionary readings to prepare for worship, but Hindes says that any Scripture reading will do: “My favorite passages for a group are those you’ve heard so many times that you immediately tune out when you hear them,” she says. “Using Lectio Divina allows the text to have new life breathed into it, so you can hear it as God’s word again.”

And then one day I experienced Lectio Divina—“divine reading”—an ancient way of praying Scripture that the Benedictines call “listening with the ear of one’s heart.” I love that. I think it’s safe to say that I experienced Scripture in a more deeply personal way than I ever had before. All my academic training was still there in the background, but it wasn’t the primary framework for reading. I was “listening with the ear of my heart.” I don’t remember everything about that first experience, but I remember that the word that stood out to me was “thin,” and I’m pretty sure it was from Mark, and that the translation was The Message because it was talking about the festival of “thin” bread rather than “unleavened” bread. And I know that I will never hear that passage in the same way again because it was what I needed to hear that day. And that’s the beauty of Lectio to me: No matter how many times I have studied or heard a passage, it can speak to me in fresh ways when I engage it as God’s living word for me that day.

So how does it work? There are four basic steps: reading, meditation, prayer, and rest, also known by the Latin lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.  Each step is associated with different questions and followed by a time for silence. Before beginning, start by quieting the mind and heart and praying for the Spirit’s guidance.

The first part, lectio, is a slow and gradual reading of a Scripture passage—perhaps several times—followed by the questions “What stood out to you? What word or phrase ‘sparkled’ or ‘shimmered’?” It’s just noticing, without commentary, question, or assessment—that’s the hard part.

After reading is meditatio (meditation), where you reflect on what you read. Why did that word or phrase stand out to you? What is going on in your life that you are touched by it? What is within you that is responding to this?

In the third part, oratio (prayer), bring that word or phrase into conversation with God. What is God trying to show you through this word or phrase? Listen for an invitation in the passage, to do, be, or become something in response to what you have read.

Finally, in contemplatio (“contemplation”), simply rest in God’s presence. This step often employs the practice of centering prayer, a form of silent prayer that promotes resting in God’s direct presence without the intermediaries of thoughts, words, or images.

I love the analogy of eating as a way to understand Lectio. Eating, chewing, swallowing, and being refreshed correlates to reading, meditating, prayer, and resting. When eating, we first taste, we notice what we put into our mouths. Then we start to chew on it and break it down. When we swallow food, we take it down deep inside of us and it literally becomes a part of us and helps us to become healthy and grow. Finally, after eating a healthy meal, we are refreshed and restored and we can rest.

lectio-web-2.jpgMy practice of Lectio has changed a bit since my first encounter with it, most notably in the third step of prayer. It is one thing to tell God any manner of things—but it is another to have an actual conversation, to wait and listen to hear what God might say in response. Sometimes it is very hard to be patient, to be still, and to be quiet. But when God speaks, it is unmistakable because it’s usually not something that I would have said myself. Without waiting for God’s response, we might as well not even call it a personal relationship—not if all we’re doing is firing off a to-do list for God based on what we think needs to happen. We say we want to know God’s will for our lives, but are we really listening?

Now instead of asking whether I hear an invitation, I ask: what can I take with me in my pocket? What word or phrase, image or feeling, can I take with me and carry around today? As a person who likes little trinkets and mementos, that question resonates with me a lot. I love reaching back into my pocket, pulling out something that sparkles, and continuing to be refreshed by it throughout the day.

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Audrey Hindes is program associate for academic and international support at Candler. She is currently reading Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller,and The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.