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Lectio Divina

Explaining an ancient tradition.

The elder googled it, thought it sounded like a new age mystical practice and suggested I not choose the topic of lectio divina for their adult education. That response was reason enough, so I introduced them to this way of reading Scripture, which the church has practiced for 1500 years with the encouragement of monks, teachers, Reformers (John Calvin), preachers (Puritan Richard Baxter), pastors (Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book) and popes. As Pope John Paul II said, “It is especially necessary that listening to the word of God should become a life-giving encounter, in the ancient and ever valid tradition of lectio divina, which draws from the biblical text the living Word which questions, directs and shapes our lives.”

I have often been told to read Scripture in my devotions but seldom shown how. I learned reading in the modern historical, grammatical, literary, theological way. I have taught students how to read Scripture academically. All good, but lectio divina opens up Scripture to life in another way.

The Process

Lectio divina is simple: silence, reading, meditating, praying, contemplating and living. It needs to be practiced and experienced.

Silence prepares us to encounter God through his Word. Silence helps us slow down enough to listen, to disconnect and to reconnect enough to focus. We are surrounded by ambient noise. When we quiet the external noise, the internal noise gets louder. Our minds race and wander. In silence we can feel our body breathing and tensing. Silent time helps us relax and let go.

Read. You are probably reading this in the modern way, in your mind, silently. Lectio reading is with your body, out loud. Try it. It is different. Reading out loud engages our bodies and minds. We breathe, use our vocal cords, stimulate our ears. We focus on every word. We pause. We pace. Punctuation makes sense. We engage with the text more. We pay attention to different characters, dialogue and narration, verbs, nouns, adverbs and adjectives.

Many suggest reading the text out loud three or four times or reading it in different translations. Read enough text to have a context, a unit, but not too much text to feel overwhelmed. This will vary with genre, but I suggest around ten verses. Some say just a couple.

Meditate. This word causes some people problems, though it’s not Eastern meditation that seeks to empty oneself and overcome our rational binaries. This is meditation to connect with the text and Word of God. “Meditation discerns the connections and listens for the harmonies that come together in Jesus” (Eat This Book, 102).

Meditation is of the head and heart. Some will ignore the head questions, but we need to seek to understand the text. Ask the basic questions: what? (content), when? (historical), where? (geographical), who? (characters), how? (literary), why? (meaning, theology). You may not have time for all these, but let them come to mind or write them down. Then ponder with your heart. What caught your attention? Why? How is this connecting with your life and world? Ponder. Mull. Connect. Meditate.

Pray. Speak with God in and through the text. Maybe this occasions a wrestling, a conflict, a challenge, a confession, a need. Pray. Maybe the text brings comfort, encouragement, help, hope. Praise. Let words of the text become your words to God or God’s words to you. This could be out loud, too, with mind and body.

Contemplate. Bring the text and your life together again. “Contemplatio . . . is not something we self-consciously do; it happens, it is a gift, it is something to which we are receptive and obedient. . . it is “infused” (Eat This Book). God answers prayer. What jumps out of the text as God’s word to you now? Maybe a single word or short phrase sings from your mouth or rings in your ear and heart.

Live. Act in the light of the text, that word or phrase given. Be surprised when someone or something in your day or week reminds you of this text. See how it guides you. Coram Deo. Missio Dei. (Before God’s face in God’s mission). Live Scripture.

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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