By Fr. Jeff Genung
Blessed are they who meditate on God’s Word day and night. They shall be like a tree, firmly planted beside streams of living water, which yields fruit in its season, whose leaves shall not wither, and whatsoever they do will prosper. Psalm 1
Lectio Divina is a call to love. Now more than ever, each of us, and our world need prayer, but who will give prayer a home? Of all the different forms of prayer, there is one that has for all time beckoned the hearts and souls of contemplatives. The form of prayer that we Christians refer to as Lectio Divina (pronounced Lexeo Divena) is a method of prayerful reading and listening to Divine Scripture. Lectio Divina was practiced by the early church Fathers and has also been practiced for centuries as the foundation of prayer within the monastic tradition. The monk becomes immersed in a life of prayer. By the grace of the Holy Spirit the monk gradually becomes transformed into the image of Christ, according to the Gospel. By living a prayerful, contemplative life, our resemblance to Christ is gradually restored and we awaken to the truth of our Divine nature, Love.
If we follow the most ancient roots of this form of prayer, we discover that Christians actually inherited much of this tradition from Judaism. The ancient Jews practiced a method of prayer referred to as Hagah, which consists of the reciting and chanting of sacred texts over and over again, at times interspersed with periods of reflection and silence. The text, usually memorized and almost always chanted over and over, serves as a kind of mantra. The meaning of the text was often considered of secondary importance. The most important thing was the purification that was happening to the one praying, as they continued to be drawn into deeper states of mystical union.
The most common practice of Lectio Divina includes a series of slow, contemplative readings of sacred text, most often from the Scriptures. It can be practiced in either solitude or in community.
Lectio – reading/listening
Just as with Centering Prayer, we are instructed to find a quiet place from which to engage this prayer. In Lectio, we are invited to listen deeply and with reverence, to hear with more than our ears. In the Prologue to the Benedictine Rule, Saint Benedict directs the reader, “Listen carefully to my instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” In the Old Testament, the Prophets would exclaim “Sh’ma Israel: Hear, O Israel,” Listen! In the New Testament Christ proclaims to his disciples “be watchful” and “I am with you always.” So it is in the first reading of Lectio, we are invited to listen with our heart. If in community, we simply listen, savoring the Word of God. If we are practicing Lectio in solitude, we should both read the words and listen deeply to the words that have been spoken.
After each reading there are periods of silence lasting several minutes or more. During this silence, the spoken words begin to penetrate us mentally, physically and emotionally. In Lectio we are attuning ourselves to that still, small voice which is always present within us. It requires only our consent and attention for its presence to become revealed. Lectio opens us up to prayer by inviting the Holy Spirit, which is already present, to now become active. By becoming receptive to the Spirit, we also invite the grace that the Spirit imparts.
To listen deeply we need to calm the mind and it’s associations. We do this by relaxing our body, mind and emotions and by feeding ourselves on the influences of Scripture, prayer, and silence. In the Gospel of Luke 17:20 Jesus says, “The kingdom of God does not come visibly.” In Hosea 6:6, the Prophet exclaims, “Hear the word of the Lord, “I don’t want your sacrifices – I want your Love; I don’t want your offerings-I want you to know me.” This is the same thing that the Holy Spirit is saying to us. We live in such a hurried, fearful and uncertain world. Through Lectio, we are called to let it all go, so that we might receive the offerings of the spirit, gently listening for a word or phrase that may be speaking to us particularly.
Meditatio – meditation
The second reading invites us to listen again, but now from a deeper place. In Meditatio we open ourselves to a word or a passage that may speak to us in a personal way. We take the reading in more deeply and “ruminate” on it. In this reflective state, we begin to share the insight of Mother Mary “pondering in her heart” what she saw and heard of Christ (Luke 2:19).
The wisdom, mystery and power of Scripture are inexhaustible. If we only read the Scriptures like we would anything else, we can only hope to understand its depths. Casual reading and study are a necessary beginning, but only a beginning. Scripture has the capacity to reveal new and deeper meaning each time. Familiarity with sacred text is very useful, but even more important and spiritually nourishing is the prayerful reading of scripture. Lectio Divina open us up to new and ever more transforming depths of Christ, the Holy Spirit and The Word as God.
The pace of the world we live in and the constant associations of our mind, keeps us skimming on the surface of life, like a person on water skis, but sinking into life requires us to slow down. The same analogy is true for scripture and for prayer. Less reading and more silence, yield less superficiality and more depth of Spirit. In this way, less is indeed more.
In Meditatio we allow the word of God to become God’s word for us. Our receptivity and consent invites the Holy Spirit to become more active, touching us at ever-deeper levels of our being.
Oratio – prayer
In the third period of Lectio Divina called Oratio – our prayer becomes affective prayer, a loving conversation with the one that our soul longs to unite with. Oratio is a prayer of the emotions, wherein our will responds to God. At this point of our prayer, our heart begins to communicate its yearning and receptivity to the Spirit and the Spirit in response fills us ever more with Divine love. Here, we gently recite the healing word or phrase given us in Lectio and Meditatio. Oratio becomes a prayer of consecration where the deepest parts of our being are being cleansed and transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. This is the beginning of contemplation, wherein we become more attentive to the presence and action of the Spirit. Oratio enables us to feel the depth of God’s presence in us, without ever sounding a word. What could be more perfect?
Contemplatio – contemplation
In the fourth and final period, we read the passage once more but now we simply rest in the presence of God. Our prayer to God now becomes God’s prayer in us. No words needed here. We have entered into the realm of union. Words are a mere ladder to the Divine. God has given us the gift of words to enable us to go beyond words and into the ground of being itself. This is the realm of union of soul and spirit, wherein we become united with and transformed into the image and likeness of God. In Contemplatio, we enter into our inheritance as Sons and Daughters of the Most High God. We become Divine Love and words are unnecessary. In this deep silence of the heart, we quietly rest in the presence of Christ. Amen!
Lectio is a beautiful way to enter into any day and particularly the Sabbath. As a Christian I feel deeply indebted to the centuries of monks that have kept this ancient prayer practice alive. It is one of the sacred treasures of the Christian monastic tradition.
The aim of the monk is to pray without ceasing. Likewise, as contemplatives, we are also called to a life of prayer. When our life becomes like our prayer, then our prayer becomes our life. Integrating these forms of prayer into our daily live enables us to discover the underlying spiritual rhythm that governs all of creation. Lectio Divina awakens us to love. This most precious gift, which is a living relationship with God, invites the Holy Spirit to enter into and transform our deepest parts. Through the sacramental grace of this prayer our hearts become more and more purified. Our love for God and for each other continues to grow, and grow and therein the two great commandments are fulfilled.