This month, we will be looking at another method of meditation that can help us in our daily encounter with the Lord. As we heard from Sr. Clara in December, a prayer method is an instrument to help us pray, and we cannot get so caught up in learning the right technique that we end up missing God’s presence!
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us:
There are as many and varied methods of meditation as there are spiritual masters. Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly, lest they come to resemble the three first kinds of soil in the parable of the sower. But a method is only a guide; the important thing is to advance, with the Holy Spirit, along the one way of prayer: Christ Jesus. (CCC 2707)
Lectio divina is a method of prayer that engages us with the Scriptures. In the dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum from the Second Vatican Council, we see the importance that the Church places on Sacred Scripture. Through the Scriptures, God humbles Himself so that we may have a means to come to know Him. Special preeminence is given to the Gospels because they are “the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word” (DV 18). And further, “The Church has always venerated the Divine Scriptures just as she venerates the Body of the Lord” (DV 21). This is a powerful statement! God wants to encounter us concretely both in the Eucharist and in the Scriptures!
So what is lectio divina? Translated from Latin, it means “Divine Reading”. This divine reading of the Scriptures began to develop in the early Church, and in particular, in the monastic life. Praying with Scripture was very important in the Jewish tradition, and the early Christians lived this practice as well, especially praying with the psalms. We can see the importance of meditation with Scripture in the Rule of St. Benedict, which was composed in the sixth century. St. Benedict wanted his monks to take frequent breaks from their tasks in order to read and ponder Scripture. In the eleventh century, a Carthusian prior named Guigo II formalized this method in a letter to his fellow religious. He described the method as a four-runged ladder that takes us up to Heaven. Each rung corresponds to one of four steps. Let’s take a look now at each step of the ladder!
There are four traditional steps to lectio divina. They are lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer), and contemplatio (contemplation). We can pray with any Scripture passage, but the Gospels have a special place. There are two ways that I have used to help me decide each day what passage to pray with. The first way is to meditate with the Gospel that the liturgy presents for the Mass that day. Here is a link that takes us to the daily readings. Another way is to choose a Gospel and simply go through it little by little. There is no rush to get through quickly. I once heard that a man spent four months meditating the Transfiguration of Jesus! Let the Spirit set the pace. Ok, now let’s look at this method in more detail.
Before we actually begin the first step, we must go to our quiet, lonely place (perhaps a prayer corner that we have created in our homes since last month!). We place ourselves in a comfortable position and calm our minds and hearts (maybe taking a few moments for slow and steady breathing). Once we have become interiorly calm, we call upon the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide our meditation. Now that we are consciously in the presence of God, we may begin the first step.
Lectio: We should already have our Bible passage picked out, but before we read it, we want to have an idea about the context of our passage. We might look and see what passages come before and after our passage to get a bigger picture of what’s going on in our passage. Once we have a general sense of the context, we can begin an attentive and slow reading of our short passage from Scripture. The passage shouldn’t be too long (if it is long, then we might break it up over a period of several days). We want to read the passage more than once in order to soak in each word, and we seek to understand what is going on in the passage. After we’ve read the passage one or two times, we begin to read it again very slowly, and when a word or phrase catches our attention, we can stop reading and focus our attention there. This is when we begin the next step.
Meditatio: In this step, we might begin by repeating the word or phrase over and over again in our minds, memorizing it, allowing it to soak deep within our souls. We try to understand what this word means, what God wants to communicate through it. We also seek to understand how it relates to our own lives, how it relates to our inner world of concerns, memories and ideas. Memories or thoughts that arise in our hearts during this moment of meditation are meant to be given to God as an offering of ourselves to Him. This helps to open dialogue with the Lord, as we see in the following step.
Oratio: Now we are explicitly speaking with God about the passage. We seek to interact with Him as we would with someone who we know loves and accepts us just as we are. Here we may speak to Him about what has arisen in our hearts from the Word we have read. There is room for silence and for allowing our thoughts and prayers to arise. Perhaps we may feel inclined to worship God, to ask Him for something, to discern a decision in our lives with Him, or to thank Him. We seek also to listen to His voice as He speaks to our hearts and responds to our prayers. We need not be discouraged if we do not seem to hear Him speak. With time we learn to recognize His voice, especially since His voice tends to leave a sense of peace and joy in our hearts.
Contemplatio: As our prayer deepens, here we allow ourselves to become absorbed in the words of God as the Holy Spirit draws us into His presence through Scripture. This is a moment in which we simply rest in God’s embrace. There is no need for words, but we allow ourselves to be enveloped in God’s loving presence. We cannot in our own power produce contemplation, but we can make space for it to happen if God gives us this gift, without rushing out of it or being in a hurry to read and talk again.
Sometimes during our prayer of lectio divina, we may go through these steps more than once. We may either return to the same word or phrase to ponder it anew, or we may go back to the text in order to seek a new word or phrase. We mustn’t become critical of how well we have prayed, remembering that the goal of lectio divina is none other than that of being in the presence of God by praying with the Scriptures.
Many traditions add a 5th step that for us Apostles of the Interior Life is very important, which is actio, or “action”. Actio is the response we give to God with our actions after having spent time with Him. This step is what allows our prayer to transform us into Christ. At the end of our prayer, we ask God to help us bear fruit during the day by letting the word penetrate our actions. As the day continues, we may recall our prayer and the word or phrase that touched our heart, and this word may continue to speak to us and enlighten our actions throughout the day. We may not always see the fruit that the Word has on our lives immediately. What matters most is having an open heart that allows communication with the Lord to continue even outside our specific moments of prayer. In this way, we also learn to perceive the gentle inspirations of the Holy Spirit that may encourage us to take certain actions in our day. Our actions that flow from our experiences in prayer are always a response on our part to a loving call from the Lord to bear fruit in our lives.
And for those who pray together with family or with small groups, we can even add another step called collatio, which means “spiritual sharing”. Once we have finished praying our meditation, we can gather as a group and share with others the graces that we experienced. We might share the word or phrase that caught our attention and how God was speaking to us personally through that word. Having the opportunity to share with others the gifts we receive in prayer allows those gifts to grow and be of benefit also to others, and it helps us to strengthen the bonds we share in Christ.
Concrete resolution for the month:
- Try this method out by following Alexa’s guided lectio divina on Youtube
- Because of the nature of this method, we need to give ourselves enough time to enter into it. As a resolution, let us commit to giving 15-30 minutes of our day dedicated to this form of prayer for one week. After one week of faithfully praying lectio divina, let us evaluate how the week went and how our heart responds to this method. Perhaps we may choose to adopt it for our meditation in the future, or we may choose to follow the method of the 3 R’s or another method that facilitates our encounter with the Lord.