Monday, February 06, 2017

What is Lectio Divina?

Previously: What Is the Examen?

I've taken to occasionally writing about specific spiritual practices as a way to help encourage Christians--particularly mainline Protestants--to deepen their inner life. I figure that I need to do more than just complain about my and other denominational traditions' seeming aversion to such things, so explaining what various practices are is a start.

Today, we discuss lectio divina.

The term itself started showing up in the 4th or 5th Century, but the practice may be even older. It refers to a way of reading the Bible with God's guidance, although the method and purpose may seem strange and alien to most Christians familiar with Western traditions and views of scripture. It involves a slow, deliberate way of reading a text, seeking how God may be speaking a word to the reader for their unique and particular life moment.

Lectio divina is a contemplative exercise that focuses on the heart rather than the head. It is a way of reading that is not primarly concerned with what a text "means," how it may properly be interpreted in light of historical factors, or how it may be intellectually evaluated or understood. Instead, as Origen put it, we undertake this way of reading to pay attention to the soul of scripture rather than the letter.

Centuries later, Jeanne Bouvier de la Mothe Guyon would refer to this practice as "praying the scripture," and described it thus:
In the past it may have been your habit, while reading, to move very quickly from one verse of Scripture to another until you had read the whole passage. Perhaps you were seeking to find the main point of the passage. But in coming to the Lord by means of "praying the Scripture," you do not read quickly; you read very slowly. You do not move from one passage to another, not until you have sensed the very heart of what you have read. You may then want to take that portion of Scripture that has touched you and turn it into prayer. (excerpted from Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, pp. 7-14)
Ultimately, lectio divina is a form of prayer that uses reading a scripture passage as a starting point. But as Guyon notes, it involves a particular way of reading that is neither fast nor intellectually driven. Rather, it encourages the one observing it to read at a deliberate, gradual pace in order to listen to how the Holy Spirit may be using the words on the page to convey something to the reader's life. One listens for the soul of the text rather than merely attends to the words.

So, how does one practice lectio divina? Set aside at least 15-30 minutes for the following:
  1. Choose a text. One of the Gospels or one of Paul's letters may serve as good introductory texts for the practice. Start at the beginning of the book or letter and plan to continue it in subsequent observances, heeding Guyon's warning not to jump around.
  2. Take time to quiet yourself. Take slow, deep breaths. Repeat a word such as "peace," "love," "Jesus," or "Spirit." Focus on a candle flame or an image or icon such as a painting or cross if it is helpful.
  3. Begin reading the text slowly and in a soft voice. When a word or phrase strikes you, stay with it. Allow it to linger with you. Repeat it as often as seems necessary. There may be no apparent reason why this word or phrase has stuck out, but allow it to take root and speak to you as you recite it in the same slow rhythm. When you become tired of doing this or begin to be distracted, move on and continue reading until another word or phrase strikes you, then do the same.
  4. Conclude your reading with a prayer of thanksgiving. Express gratitude to God for the gifts of this practice and in your life.
  5. After ending your prayer time, journal about the experience.
It may be that during the course of a half hour, you only ended up reading one sentence or a couple verses. That's okay. The exercise is different person to person and day to day. Over time, the reader begins cultivating a deeper relationship with scripture and with God that is unique to the individual. The primary purpose of this exercise is not to use the Bible to learn more about God, but to experience God's presence through its words.

(Work consulted: Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church by Robin Maas & Gabriel O'Donnell)