Lectio divina is an exercise in listening to the Word, which captures the mystery of the incarnate Word, therefore penetrating the very mystery of God. There can be no true Christian life without lectio divina. The term “lectio divina” is derived from patristic tradition and literally translated means divine reading, with a double intention:
- on one hand, reading the Scriptures in a spirit of prayer as the word of God, in a spirit of humble listening;
- on the other, letting oneself be read by the Word of God. It is not an exegetical study, but a real moment of prayer.
Lectio divina is a complex, progressive activity, made up of successive stages or moments, through which prayer enters life and is transformed into a practice of life. The progressive stages of classical lectio divina are known as lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio; to these four others can be added, as an application: consolatio, discretio, deliberatio, actio.
The first lectio divina in history to which we have witness would have been imparted by Jesus to his disciples at Emmaus. As a matter of fact, after the resurrection, Jesus explained the prophecies that referred to Him which were written in the Old Testament to His disciples. Following this example of Jesus, the first Christians began to re-read with due love and care the holy books of the people of Israel, discerning their messianic prophecies and their Christological and ecclesiological allegories (i.e., the symbols and themes that could better explain the mystery of the Church and of Christ in the Church). Examples of these prophecies re-read and interpreted by the first Christians are found in the gospels themselves and in the letters of the apostles.
The fathers of the Church, that is the holy bishops of the first centuries, then identified a method of reading the Bible, based on the doctrine of the “four senses”:
- literal-historical (what the text says in its most literal sense and refers to the historical circumstances in which it was written)
- moral-existential (what the text teaches about behaviours and actions to be performed in daily life)
- allegorical — christological — ecclesiological (what in the text is symbolic and can therefore illuminate the nature of Christ and the Church)
- anagogical — eschatological — mystical (where and how the text introduces contemplation, that is, communion with God).
The Fathers of the Desert and the Fathers of the Church taught the task of listening when, for example, they pray to God like this: “Give what thou commandest and command what thou wilt” . This maxim, put in order, offers the two times of lectio divina .
According to the monastic rules of Saints Pachomius, Augustine of Hippo, Basil of Caesarea and Benedict of Norcia, the practice of lectio divina is, with manual labor and participation in the liturgical life, one of the three pillars of monastic life.
In the 12th century, the Carthusian Guigo II in the operetta Scala claustralium, meditating on the passage of the gospel according to Luke (11:9-10) teaches us “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened”, following what Guigo described as an illumination, he codified the method still known today with the name of lectio divina. Guigo II described the most important stages of the reading of the divine will.
The first step of this form of prayer is the lectio (reading), starting with the reading of a short passage of the Bible slowly and carefully (scrutatio). The scrutatio consists in the choice of one or more biblical passages inherent to a specific topic (not differently from what happens for the Liturgy of the Word on Sundays) and in the reading of these. From these we proceed to read the verses connected to it by following the “connections” or links to other similar passages, for a maximum of three to avoid moving away from the original meaning of the referring passage. For example, in the Jerusalem Bible there are links to literal type searches, to single other passages, or “groupings”, that is, to several passages from which you choose how to proceed with your reading, nevertheless, attention must be paid to the fact that very often a single word may have several connotations depending on the context in which they are found; it would therefore be good to know the main theme of each book before venturing into reading, both of the Old and New testaments. Each scrutatio must consist, of passages belonging to the Old and New Testaments as with the Liturgy of the Word of the Sunday Mass. The practice of scrutatio may be carried out differently depending on the Rite used or Religious Order.
Without some form of religious formation or without the help of someone in holy orders could cause some profound problems with regard to interpreting what you are reading. Not being familiar with the subject or theme could lead the reader towards the erronous assumption that the Word is speaking to them “right—here—right—now”, without having made any reflections about what they have read or mediated over what the believe to have understood.
The second step is the meditatio (meditation). During this stage the chosen text is reflected.
The third step is the oratio (prayer), that is the moment to pray for inspiration of our reflection on the passage read.
The last stage of the Lectio is the contemplatio (contemplation) that is, in silence.
To these stages the later spiritual masters have also added the actio (action), which has an operational purpose consequent to what is being meditated upon in the Word, an action within the world inspired by the Scriptures.
1. LECTIO:- The very first step is the lectio. It relates prayer with Sacred Scripture, because it is a lectio divina. It means reading and re-reading the text so as to bring out the most significant elements, the basic elements of the text. I suggest reading “with the pen in hand”, underlining the verbs, the timing of the action, the subjects, the adjectives, etc. After analysing the passage in its elements, we look for other pages that report similar situations, in the New or Old Testament. The lectio widens, biblical events or figures come to mind (David, Moses, Abraham …); the text we are reading is thus illuminated by an attitude of Jesus on another occasion, or from a word by St. Paul.
2. MEDITATIO:- Meditatio is a later step and supposes that the text has been read, reread, dissected. Meditating means deliberating on the biblical page through questions, in other words, considering their permanent values. It is an additional way of approaching the passage: no longer an analytical consideration of the subjects, objects, symbols, internal and external movements, but of the values that the text conveys and transmits. Meditatio should be done with the mind and also with affection because often the values are rich with resonances, feelings. In fact, from what Jesus said two thousand years ago or from what Abraham did 3500 years ago, I must grasp some eternal values: what they are, why they are important, what they mean for today, what sense do they have for me. We then enter into dialogue with the word of God: what are you saying to me? What point of view are you suggesting through this text? What point of view are you warning me about? What mystery is being revealed to me? What depth of the human heart have you discovered?
3. ORATIO:- Oratio is the third stage. At a certain point during the meditatio I can begin to pray. I can truly pray from the beginning: I pray to know Jesus who speaks to me in this passage, I pray to understand its values. However, it is above all at a certain point that prayer begins. “Lord, I don’t know you, I do not have this virtue, I cannot understand your conduct, it’s too much for me.”
4. CONTEMPLATIO:- With contemplatio we enter the specific Christian prayer that is in spirit and truth. The prayer that starts from the text tends to become contemplatio, contemplation. Forgetting the distinctive features, we contemplate the mystery of God which is in the heart of every page of the Bible, the mystery of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. It is a passage for considering the values of adoration of the person of Jesus that summarises all the values, uniting them, expressing them in itself and revealing them. It is a moment of prayer par excellence in which the very things that were useful in stimulating the consciousness are forgotten. We adore and love Jesus, we offer ourselves to him, we ask for forgiveness, we praise the greatness of God, we intercede for our own poverty or for the world, for the people, for the Church. It is truly reaching the pinnacle of the various stages of the spirit of prayer and is the norm, a reference of the preceding stages. To begin with lectio is useful, meditatio is important, since they flow into contemplatio that is life in the fullest sense: it is the life of Christ who lives within the one who contemplates. For this we can also call it “conversion” of the man who turns totally toward God, who chooses Him constantly, attracted to Him, who loves Him with all his heart, with all his mind, with all the elevated supernatural forces of the Spirit.
5. CONSOLATIO:- The most immediate fruit it bears is consolatio. We are fatigued in attempting to define this word while it is a well-known reality in the New Testament. Paul uses it quite a lot, both as a verb – parakaléo – and as a noun – paraklesi – and even foresees it as a ministry. “Whoever has the ministry of consolation – parakalòn – await consolation – paraklései – ” (cf. Romans 12:8). Consolation is an honorific title of God, the God of patience and consolation (cf. Romans 15:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3) and the New Testament considers it as the founding reality of the Christian experience. To us it seems additional support: the need to be comforted appears to us almost as a sign of weakness, and this is quite strange if we think that the Holy Spirit is accomplished as the Paraclete, the Comforter. What therefore, can we comprehend of “consolatio” as the ordinary development of contemplatio? We comprehend the profound, intimate joy that comes from union with God, the luminous, joyful reflection of communion with Him. It is the amuse-bouche of the worship of God, the experience of God as God, a relationship with God lived in the fullness of joy. It is a taste for the things of God, a yearning for truth, for sacrifice and for love. It is the taste of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, a kind of intuitive similar nature with the Gospel values that the lectio has made us discover, that the meditatio has set before us, that the contemplatio has proposed us in the person of Jesus and now, at the moment of consolation, they are assimilated within our person.
6. DISCRETIO:- Consolatio is followed by that specific stance within the New Testament described as discretio, discernment. The consolatio positions man into an admirably harmonious interior taste for Christ, for being with Him, for His poverty, for those who are similar to Jesus in suffering, for the generous discipleship of the cross along with Him. The great choices of Christ, His total abandonment to the Father, His detachment, His dedication to mankind become innate values at the moment of consolatio. Discernment is the inner capacity to perceive where the Spirit of God operates, the evangelical spirit, the Spirit of Christ; it is the capacity to choose, through interior connaturality, according to and like Christ: in situations, in making decisions, during events, with problems. And to perceive instead where the spirit of Satan operates, the spirit of falsehoods, the spirit of deception, the spirit of resentfulness, the spirit of confusion. His relationship with meditatio is very tight because meditatio brings out the values of Jesus and the discretio makes them choose. Discernment never ends, because as we wind along our personal and continual path we encounter new situations, problems, difficulties that cannot be solved automatically by a computer, rather more precisely from time to time have to be compared with the Spirit of Jesus.
7. DELIBERATIO:- Deliberatio is the step following the discretio and indicates a genuine evangelical choice. Every great Christian choice is born of spiritual conformity with Christs’ being, which is conformity with the Father. There are, it is true, other verisimilar reasons, convincing yet not sufficient enough to move if the spiritual drive which operates and stimulates it is not present. It is only the inner strength of the Spirit which leads us toward choosing an evangelical life; otherwise, it cannot be considered as a valid evangelical choice. Deliberatio is an interior act by which man determines his choices in conformity with Christ and as a direct consequence flows into actio.
8. ACTIO:- The final step is actio, the evangelical action that follows from the choice, the deliberation. Therefore, actio is, the manner of living and to conduct oneself according to the Spirit of Christ, it is an unreserved acceptance within us of the apostolic conscience, having it integrated within ourselves, having made this conscious choice and not just as an act of will so as to conform with difficulty, but a reality that came into us through the power of prayer. In this way, prayer is no longer just a prayer with the conviction of accomplishing something better: prayer is the emergence of choice, the formation of one’s life starting with the internalised evangelical choices. The apostolic conscience thus becomes the integration of the evangelical values within us according to the divine call.
The eight stages could be encapsulate in other words: the moment of ascent (lectio, meditatio, oratio), the summit (contemplatio), the descent (consolatio, discretio, deliberatio, actio). Here the renowned dilemma of prayer-action is resolved. They are not two parallel or opposing realities at all, because evangelical action is born out of the evangelical prayers of Scripture. These are two stages of a single action, which conform to the movement of Christ towards man, to the choices and actions of Christ.
. Saint Augustine, Confessions, X,29, 31, 37: “Da quod iubes, et iubes quod vis”.
. Jean Khoury, Respirare la Parola. Lectio divina e vita quotidiana, Ancora, 2003, pp. 58-59: i. “Lord, tell me what you want from me.” ii. “Lord, give me Your Holy Spirit to incarnate and fulfil what you have asked of me.” [our on translation]