When I started this series I mentioned that our mentor as we search for a richer way to engage with the Bible, Guigo II (d. 1188), because
I want to look at his “ladder” rung by rung, but first I want to do two things. I want to say why lectio divina is so helpful, and I want to make sure you avoid a common mistake about it.
First, higher critical study is very different from a prayerful study of Scripture.
I’m not by any means the only one who thinks we will find a more life-giving relationship with the Bible if we side-step the modern approaches of the historical-critical method as taught in many seminaries and universities.
The historical-critical approach can turn the Bible into something like a cadaver in an anatomy class: we are there to take it apart and put each bit through scientific analysis. If it is alive when we start it will surely be dead when we are done.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve done a good bit of academic study using those methods, and I’ve gained a lot from it. No method will get you a better knowledge of how the text of Scripture came to us, and what it meant in its ancient linguistic and cultural contexts. There is great stuff to be mined there.
But in all the centuries before the Enlightenment, Christians assumed that the text of Scripture was to be approached prayerfully, as a means to encounter and learn from the living God revealed there. (You can see how John Calvin engaged in this kind of prayerful study in my book, Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers.)
Second, Lectio Divina is not a casual free association on a Scriptural text
Many who want to nurture richer spiritual life among today’s Christians claim to invite small groups through the process of lectio divina. Here’s my distillation of common practice:
- A passage is read aloud while all listen, and each person shares a word that struck them somehow in the reading.
- The passage is read a second time, and each person shares how the word or passage impacts their life.
- The passage is read a third time, and each person shares what the word or passage is calling them to do.
That, I have to say, is a nice process. It places members of a group in a listening stance to Scripture, and gives a framework for shared discussion of their encounter with Scripture and life in response.
However, this process is a far cry from lectio divina as practiced in the medieval monastic tradition. This process often draws a group into a fairly superficial encounter with a Scriptural passage — after all, they just hear it three times and share the thoughts and feelings that come to mind.
For Guigo there are four connected steps (reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating) and each of them asks for more from us that a quick listen and response. Here’s Guigo’s first summary of those four steps of lectio divina:
Reading is the careful study of the Scriptures, concentrating all one’s powers on it. Meditation is the busy application of the mind to seek with the help of one’s own reason for knowledge of hidden truth. Prayer is the heart’s devoted turning to God to drive away evil and obtain what is good. Contemplation is when the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness.
This is a process monks would spend hours at. This is a serious, and fully engaged approach. Look at the benefits it claims to promise — knowledge, finding what is truly good, tasting God’s everlasting sweetness.
I look forward to exploring each step with you over the coming weeks!
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What has been your experience of lectio divina? How is your encounter with Scripture like prayer, or unlike prayer?