“To get the full flavor of an herb, it must be pressed between the fingers. So it is the same with the Scriptures; the more familiar they become, the more they reveal their hidden treasures and yield their indescribable riches.”
—St. John Chrysostom, 347-407 A.D
Lectio divina, an ancient method of praying while reading the Scriptures, is today being used to bring many Catholics back to a more profound understanding of the Scriptures, the Word of God.
Catholics in the past have sometimes tended to be less familiar with the Bible than, for example, evangelical Protestants, who can often cite Scripture verses with great ease because they study the Bible so closely. What can be done to help Catholics become more familiar with the Word of God? The answer lies in two Latin words: lectio divina. Lectio divina is a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures so that the Bible — the living Word of God — becomes a means of union with God. This ancient and powerful form of praying with Scripture was practiced by the early Christian monks and was prescribed in the monastic rules of Sts. Pachomius, Augustine, Basil and Benedict.
Centrality of the Bible
God’s Word is, of course, crucial to the life of the Catholic Church. In fact, the last two Popes — the late Pope John Paul II and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI — urged Catholics to study Sacred Scripture. Now the American Bible Society, in a publishing venture together with the Vatican Press under the vibrant direction of Father Giuseppe Costa, S.D.B., is helping Catholics respond to that call.
Pope Benedict solidly supported lectio divina. In a 2005 speech, he recommended this ancient method of prayer: “The diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart.”
“Our mission is the Word of God,” Mario Paredes, liaison to the Roman Catholic Church at the American Bible Society, said. “We join in partnership with the Catholic Church and are presenting lectio divina as our flagship program serving Catholics everywhere.”
During the nearly 500 years following the launch of the Reformation by Martin Luther in 1517, Catholics were often distant from the Bible. As a result, they sometimes did not have as profound and well-rounded an understanding of Scripture as they might have had had Scripture been emphasized more. But “not knowing the Bible is ignorance of Christ,” Paredes said, quoting St. Jerome. “The entire Bible points to one single reality, the person of Jesus.”
Into the Heart of God
Lectio divina, Paredes said, bears great fruit. “Meeting Jesus in the Word produces an excitement, joy and happiness because people are speaking with the Lord,” he said.
Sister Veronica Gross, RSM, has seen the fruit of lectio divina in her home parish of Mother of Divine Providence in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Several years ago, the parish hosted various speakers to discuss different forms of spirituality with parishioners. Of approaches, the people liked lectio divina the best, says Sr. Veronica. “They were actually able to do it. It was manageable, and people realized that Scripture is approachable,” says Sr. Veronica, who belongs to the order of the Sisters of Mercy. “We call the Scripture the living Word of God,” she adds. “Lectio divina meets people where they are. It’s so personal, and that’s the beauty of it.”
As part of its Roman Catholic ministry, the American Bible Society, together with the Vatican Press, has prepared the manual Pray With the Bible, to introduce English- and Spanish-speaking Catholics to lectio divina.
During retreats, the manual can be used to train people in this method. They will then take their knowledge of lectio divina and share it with their fellow parishioners.
The American Bible Society, using this approach, hopes to touch some 200,000 people a year.
Although lectio divina has its roots in the monastic tradition, this method of prayer is for all Christians, including laypeople. “It’s a beautiful way to bring you right into the heart of God,” says Paredes.
The Four Steps of Lectio Divina
1. Lectio. This reading of Scripture is different from the speed reading that many modern Christians apply to newspapers, books and even to the Bible. Using lectio divina, people read a Scripture passage slowly and attentively, attuned to hear a word or phrase that captures their attention.
2. Meditatio. Once readers find a word or phrase in the Scriptures that speaks to them, they think about it and ponder it. They memorize it, gently repeat it and allow the words to interact with their thoughts, hopes, memories and desires. Through meditatio, God’s Word becomes His Word for participants — a word that touches them at the deepest levels.
3. Oratio. This third step is prayer, understood as dialogue with God, a loving conversation with the one who invites participants into his embrace. During this step, people allow the Word they’ve taken in to touch their hearts.
4. Contemplatio. In this final step, participants simply rest in the presence of the One who, through his Word, invites them to accept his transforming embrace. Practicing silence, they enjoy the experience of simply being in the presence of God.
Catholic writer Paul Zalonski writes that at a 2010 conference on lectio divina, the keynote presenter, Trappist Brother Simeon Levia, a monk of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, gave a thoughtful talk on lectio divina at a conference sponsored by Paredes and his staff at the American Bible Society. Brother Simeon’s talk developed nine qualities of lectio divina. For his seventh point, he noted that lectio is necessarily ecclesial.
“It is the Church who is the owner and guardian of Scripture,” Zalonski writes. “When we say that lectio is ecclesial we also mean that it is inherently Christological and Marian. How could one read and pray with the Scriptures without thinking about it being Christocentric? What converges is the reality of knowing who Christ is and how the Father sees his Son. Lectio is Marian because the Word is conceived in her womb, and Mary pondered the word in her heart. It is through Mary that we learn how to be silent, adoring, and faithful to God coming to humanity. Mary is the first Church that lives the Word in all its fullness.” Lectio lived in this way imparts in the deepest parts of the soul a modest foretaste of heaven.