[Note: This article is part of a series on engaging Scripture as a means of spiritual formation.]
Lectio divina is a formational approach to Bible reading in which the reader takes seriously that the primary purpose of reading Scripture is to be in the presence of God through the reading of Scripture. Time tested throughout the centuries, lectio divina means “divine word.” Its engagement with Scripture is purposefully methodical and deliberate, thereby allowing novices to readily pick it up for themselves. Yet, its distinct movements repeat within themselves, thus offering nuances and rhythms that yield endless possibilities for those more experienced with the practice.
Lectio does not require the resources of a research library most pastors and academics rely on for more cerebral work. Still, it does ask participants to intentionally prep for immersion in Scripture. A block of time—twenty-five to forty-five minutes—dedicated to distraction-free quiet is recommended. The passage should be brief, but big enough to chew on. I’ve found Ps 139 borders on being longer, but manageable even in a guided setting. However, any forays in Ps 119 are best limited to a single stanza! The Psalms are often a “go-to” resource for many lectio fans, but passages from wisdom literature or the epistles also work well. I urge my students to embrace old-school technology and use a physical Bible or provide printouts for each person when in a group setting. While it minimizes potential distractions that come with screens, paper provides a tangible surface for underlining or marginalia done with the pen or pencil you’ll want to have on hand.
The basic steps are as follows:
Silencio or “the silence”: Begin by taking several moments to prepare to hear from God through your meditation on the word. Sit comfortably, but not so comfortably you might fall asleep! Take a few deep breaths and center yourself for encountering God through Scripture. Be intentional and invite God to speak freely to you just as you might when you sit down to ask a trusted friend for advice.
Lectio or “the reading”: Read aloud through the passage slowly, responding to the question: What is Scripture saying? Be sure to read aloud whether you are engaging lectio individually or as part of a larger group. Notice what words or phrases stand out to you. What do you hear? Take a few moments afterwards and feel free to make notes emphasizing what you heard with your ears or noted in the silent spaces between words.
Meditatio or “the meditation”: Read through (aloud) a second time reflecting on the question: How is my life touched by this? Give special attention to what stood out previously. When the reading concludes, take several minutes in the quiet to consider possibilities and connections these words have with your life. What significance do they hold for you at this time and place?
Oratio or talking with God: Read through (aloud) for a third time and final time. Consider the guiding question: “What might God be leading you to pray? Maybe you need to cry out about the unfairness and injustices of the world. Do you need to plead for grace? Offer thanksgiving? Ask forgiveness? Seek guidance? Share praise? The versatility of the Psalms for lectio becomes apparent here, because no human emotion is off the table in those rich texts.
Contemplatio or contemplation: For many, this movement is about seeking a stillness of mind before the demands of the day clamber for attention. It is a time to simply enjoy God’s presence as you might take pleasure in the wordless company of a dear soul, whether it be in quiet companionship riding in a car or on the porch step in the evening twilight. I like to think of it as a bridge movement that transitions us from the activity of talking with God to actually living out the Scripture in ordinary life. Contemplation is like letting the yeast rise in bread making. Just as a yeast cake dissolves in water and is kneaded into the dough that it might be proofed in the rising for the baking of the bread, lectio is an intake and pondering of Scripture. Contemplation allows for the opportunity to let the word permeate our bones, animate our sinews, and sustain our souls in the work we are called to do in the world. So stay open for God now and even as you move into the busy-ness that is your life.
Similar to many practices of faith, lectio can be subject to the “what-we-learn-is-what-we-like-and-is-therefore-right” phenomenon. However, there is no single way to do lectio. It can be engaged individually or in a group setting. When in a group setting, sharing aloud can add to the experience, but avoid speaking on behalf of others or engaging in cross-talk. Eugene Peterson’s The Message is a popular translation for many English speakers, but any Bible translation or even three different translations can be used for each movement. In a group setting, the reading can be shared among three different participants or not. Finally, even though the practice relies on the spoken word, it is perfectly permissible to use visual artwork that invites participants to consider what can be seen and not just heard in the selected Scripture. The ways in which a passage can be engaged through lectio divina and offer formation in the lives of its participants is only limited by the Holy Spirit’s direction.