Lectio Divina is an ancient way of praying Scripture, as the Benedictines would say “listening with the ear of one’s heart”. I love that.
First, some of my background.
Scripture 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 its importance and began to suspect that there must be hidden meanings imbedded in the verses. Both in school and in Awana, 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. Over the next few years I wrestled with a variety of questions. Why were they different? I learned about different versions, which for the most part, are different translations. Why were there other translations? Why so many interpretations of the Hebrew of “Old” Testament and the Greek of the “New” Testament? Could any of them be trusted? If so which one and how was I to know? By my senior year in high school, I wanted to take Greek. I decided that was the only way to get to the bottom of things.
So I did. In college I took two years of Greek in my first two years. 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’s in Biblical Languages. I wanted to be a Bible professor. I loved learning about the Bible, and I loved sharing it with others. But for me, within a couple of years, it just wasn’t enough any more. 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 it’s place and importance).
And then one day I experienced Lectio Divina. I think it is 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 – I wish I had written it down right away. 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 have heard a passage, it can speak to me in fresh ways when I engage it as God’s living word for me that day.
It also has a way of “leveling the playing field”, so to speak. No matter what someone’s background or knowledge of Scripture is, they can be nourished and refreshed by the experience. As a group exercise, it is also quite powerful. It is a great way to focus a Sunday school class because anyone can experience it together – whether someone has been in church for 80 years, or is a first time visitor trying to figure out what God and church are all about, both of those people and everyone in between can sit around the text together. And as for the passage that you may have heard so many times that you immediately tune out and start drooling when you hear it – those are my favorite passages to choose for a group, because it allows the text to have new life breathed into it and then you can hear it as God’s word again.
So how does it work? There are four basic parts. When I was first introduced to it, and when I used it for teaching adult Sunday school, I talked about the four parts in a different way than I do now, though in essence they’re still the same: reading, meditating, praying and resting. It is always important to start by quieting the mind and heart, and praying for the Spirit’s guidance. I would read the passage through four times, each time followed by a question and time for silent reflection. If it was in a group setting, that silence would be followed by sharing, either in small groups, or all together depending on the size of the whole group. The first part, “reading” would be followed by the question “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 meditation, and I would ask “Why did that word or phrase stand out to you? What is going on in your life that you are touched by it?” The third part is prayer, bring that word or phrase into conversation with God. Then for resting I would ask if they heard an invitation in the passage, to do, be, or become something in response to what they have read.
I love the analogy of eating for understanding Lectio. Eating, chewing, swallowing and being refreshed, correlates to reading, meditating, prayer and resting. When we are eating we first taste it, 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.
Something I have learned most recently, and how Lectio has changed a bit for me, is in the move between meditation and prayer. Sister Marcy at the Francis House of Prayer explained it this way: If a man is driving home from work and is thinking about how wonderful his wife is, how blessed he is to have her in his life, and how he just can’t imagine life without her – and he arrives home, walks in the door, sees his wife and says ‘hello’ and then goes into the office and gets on his computer without ever telling her how he feels about her, all his wonderful thoughts do nothing to enhance their relationship.
Another way my practice of Lectio l has changed also relates to prayer. It is one thing to tell God any manner of things – but it is another to actually have a conversation, to wait and listen to hear what God says in response. Sometimes it is very hard to be patient, to be still, and to be quiet. But when God speaks, it is unmistakable. 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?
Finally, the fourth part, resting, has changed for me. This is also due to Sister Marcy’s influence. Instead of asking whether I hear an invitation, I now like to ask: what can I take with me in my pocket? What word or phrase, image or feeling can I take with me today, carry around, and pull out throughout the day and continue to be refreshed by it? Being someone who likes little trinkets and mementos, that question resonates with me a lot.