Cutting edge spirituality from ancient times

Since the Second Vatican Council there has been a rediscovery of an ancient model for holistically praying Scripture known as lectio divina, or divine reading.

Lectio divina is the traditional name given to holistic prayerful reading of the Bible according to principles originally developed by the ancient Hebrews for reflecting on, praying and assimilating the Old Testament and the accompanying oral traditions. These have been adapted and handed down by the early Church, the Desert Fathers and the monastic communities, and their evolution continues today. They are equally appropriate and accessible to clergy, religious and laypeople.

In the last half-century, there has been a resurgence of monastic literature on the subject, as well as an assimilation of Ignatian spirituality and modern interpretive principles by the late biblical scholar, Cardinal Carlo Martini. While archbishop of Milan, he would meet monthly with the youth of his archdiocese in the cathedral to practice lectio divina on biblical texts according to various themes. These have been transcribed into more than 40 books that have been published in various languages.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Cardinal Martini and his predecessor in Milan, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (better known to the world as Pope Paul VI), lectio divina is gradually regaining its place at the center of lay spirituality, where it began in post-New Testament times. It is no longer confined to the monastic and clerical tradition. It is becoming part of mainstream and cutting edge Catholic spirituality, and has been recommended by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, and the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the Catholic Biblical Federation, various bishops’ conferences and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 1177 and 2708).

Because of the need for a sound apostolic and contemplative spirituality in the face of modern secularism, as well as its seminal place in Catholic and biblical spirituality, the prayer’s contemporary rediscovery and the subsequent renewal is an essential rather than peripheral development in the Church and in its formational and ecumenical dimensions in particular.

Learning the process

Lectio divina is commonly described as being composed of five stages: reading/listening, meditation, prayer, contemplation and action. Its dynamic activities and holistic nature are such that it fosters personal growth and healing while deepening our spirituality. The following is a general description of the practice of lectio divina:

I take a short passage of Scripture, perhaps from the lectionary, the Liturgy of the Hours, a psalm or a biblical book I am working through, and read it slowly, whispering it aloud. I look for a word, phrase, image or experience that speaks to me, and I internalize it through repetition. I consider how this message applies to my life and the changes it calls forth in my actions and attitudes.

After I encounter God’s word, it is natural that I interact directly with him. I tell him how I feel both about this word and my life in general. I oscillate between these active communications and a receptive or listening mode, where I am simply present to God. I ask the Holy Spirit to open my heart and mind to his presence and activity in my life. To dispose myself to a greater internalization of God’s gifts, I linger with him as I would an intimate friend. To soothe my irritations and anxieties, I dispose myself to God’s consolation, the indescribable peace mentioned by St. Paul (see Phil 4:7).

To make a transition from prayer to action, I make a gentle resolution to apply what I received in lectio divina into practice. I then close with a prayer, whether in my own words or from Scripture (for example, a Hail Mary or Lord’s Prayer, or part or all of a psalm).

Spirit-driven

For Catholics, God’s word is not exclusive to the Bible. It is present preeminently in Jesus (see Jn 1:1-18), and is also found in Church teaching, Tradition, the sacraments, nature and human beings, particularly those who are suffering (see Mt 25:31-46). A person doesn’t need to wait until prayer time to engage in the activities of lectio divina. It should be incorporated in one’s lifestyle in a dialogical manner, rather than confined to devotional activity. The Mass is the best place for lectio divina, as the Scripture is proclaimed in the public assembly in the context of the Eucharist. The following are a sample of daily opportunities for holistically experiencing God’s word: relating openly with another person, experiencing some aspect of nature, and reflecting or journaling on God’s involvement in my day.

The fundamental attribute of lectio divina is its Spirit-driven nature. There are no rigid rules or compulsive techniques. Just as human intimacy must be natural and dialogical, so intimacy with God must flow freely and peacefully. We begin by acknowledging that we do not know how to pray, and thereby invite the Spirit to intercede for us (see Rom 8:26-27). We practice trusting God at the controls without abandoning our responsibilities.

Disciplined approach

People who pray are already practicing some form of lectio divina. Its intuitive nature is such that people from other Christian faith traditions also experience it without being conscious of its methodology or history. Knowledge of its background, development, objectives, components and flow enables us to avoid sloppiness and complacency and to offer ourselves to God and each other more completely.

It is the oldest and finest model for spirituality, communications and human development because it is the most natural, adaptable and holistic. It operates on both the human and divine plane, fostering dialogue and collaboration with both God and fellow human beings, particularly Christians, thereby helping us assimilate and live the two greatest commandments (see Mt 22:34-40).

Lectio divina, while it can be difficult, is simple and intuitive in principle and very worthwhile in practice. Many distractions in modern life can deceive us into relegating lectio divina to the periphery. Lectio divina requires focused attention and energy, something at which we are becoming less adept as our environment drains and diverts us. This highlights the need for an ongoing development of a Catholic culture, which the recent popes have heartily emphasized. 

Karl A. Schultz is the director of Genesis Personal Development Center in Daytona Beach, Fla. He has written 13 books on lectio divina.