All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching… (2 Tim 3:16)
As Catholics, and specifically Catholic men, we are often accused of not reading our Bibles. Yet, there is a centuries-old practice within the Church called Lectio Divina which is intended to help Catholics delve more deeply into Holy Scripture. This article will give the reader an introduction to this beautiful and accessible approach to the Word of God.
Process of “Ruminating”
Lectio Divina is often translated as “divine reading”, but I’ve heard it described by the Fathers of the Early Church as the prayerful rumination of Holy Scripture. This is a beautiful description. When I think of the word “ruminate”, I associate it with cattle that “chew the cud” and this is a helpful analogy.
Let’s consider what cows do. First they approach the plant with a desire to eat. When they eat the plant, they chew it up carefully in their mouths. There, the saliva begins digestion, which continues when the food passes through to their stomachs. In the stomach, the food is broken down further, making it more easily digestible. However, cows then regurgitate the partially digested food and it returns to their mouths where they “chew their cud”. In this way, they are getting more nutrients out of the food.
Traditionally, there are four components of Lectio Divina which correspond to this process of ruminating in cattle:
- Lectio: reading
- Meditatio: meditate
- Oratio: prayer
- Contemplatio: contemplate
Before one reads anything – whether Sacred Scripture or a regular book – some preparation is needed. It’s generally difficult to focus if there are distractions or even if there is a lack of desire to read. In other words, just as the hungry cow approaches the plant with a desire to eat, so too should we approach the Word of God with a desire to be spiritually nourished. “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God” (Ps 42:1). A prayer to the Holy Spirit helps prepare ourselves to begin:
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and enkindle in them the fire of Thy love.
V. Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created.
R. And You will renew the face of the earth.
Let us pray. O God, Who didst instruct the hearts of the faithful by the light of the Holy Spirit, grant us in the same Spirit to be truly wise, and ever to rejoice in His consolation. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Once we’re more properly disposed, we begin by reading (Lectio) or “consuming” the Word of God – just like the cow eats the plant. Now rather than reading an entire book of the Bible or even an entire chapter, just start with one verse. Remember that Elijah didn’t hear the voice of God in the strong wind that shook mountains, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but rather in the still small whisper (cf. 1 Kings 19:9-12); similarly, we’re able to listen to God in a short phrase or sentence.
It is sometimes helpful to read the passage several times in order to better absorb it. With this Word of God on our lips, we begin to meditate (meditatio) like the cow who initially chews on the plant. This step is less a theological exercise – that is, we’re not trying to analyze the original meaning of the Hebrew or consider the Sitz im Leben – but rather, a spiritual one. When we meditate on this passage, our aim is to listen to what God wants to say to us. How does Christ want us to understand this passage in our lives? How can we better conform our wills to God’s will through this passage? His Word needs to become our word.
In his Holy Rule, St. Benedict describes the daily schedule of the monk by his famous maxim ora et labora (prayer and work). He orders the day this way because “idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading (Lectio Divina)” (RB 48). St. Benedict saw great wisdom in performing Lectio Divina in a monastery, so that our personal interpretation of Scripture never contradicts the Tradition or Magisterium of the Church. Hence, we should keep in mind what the Church teaches when meditating, so as to obey St. Paul’s charge in his second letter to the Thessalonians: “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2:15).
Once we’ve had a chance to mediate, the next step is to pray (oratio) with this verse. Prayer is a dialogue with God, and so after we have listened to God, it’s our chance to make a response. In other words, the passage is being further digested, just like the food passing from the mouth to the stomach of the cow. How can this Word which we’ve prayed bring me closer to God? How can I more strongly embrace our Lord?
The final step of Lectio Divina is to contemplate (contemplatio), which goes beyond what we did before in the step when we meditated. In its section on prayer, The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes contemplation in several ways (2709-2719), but one of my favorites is when it quotes the writing of St. Teresa of Avila: “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us” (CCC 2709).
This reference to “close sharing between friends” presupposes that we’ve already listened to our friend – when we listened to what Our Lord was saying to us through his written word – and then responded through our prayer. In other words, it advances the dialogue. We’re able to “chew our cud”.
She also refers to “taking time frequently”, which is significant. Just as we require physical food for our bodies, we need spiritual food (i.e., Holy Scripture) to nourish our souls. And how frequently do we eat? Well, if we eat several times a day, how often should we be spiritually fed? For this reason, St. Benedict suggests that monks should spend two periods of time during their daily schedule in Lectio Divina: “let them apply themselves to reading (Lectio) until the second hour is complete” and “but after their repast let them devote themselves to reading (Lectio) or the psalms” (RB 48).
Finally, St. Teresa mentions being “alone with him who loves us”. This unconditional, steadfast love on the part of God is the impetus for all we do, the reason why we want to deepen our relationship with Our Lord. In the words of St. Jerome: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” And again, we’re not striving for an academic knowledge; we are looking for a deep and profound knowledge of a good friend; Lectio Divina, then, becomes a medium to improving our relationship with our best friend, the one who loves us and who died on the cross for our sins.
Lectio Divina & Men
As men, we are called to be the spiritual leaders of our families (if we’re husbands and fathers) and of the faithful (if we’re deacons, priests, and bishops). In order to be effective and holy witnesses to the Faith, we must have a basic, but solid knowledge of Christ, with the desire to deepen our relationship; for this reason, St. Jerome’s saying is so critical: the more we know Scripture, the better we know Christ. And thus Lectio Divina becomes an important instrument in our toolboxes, a tool used in both our private and public prayer, to sanctify our families and those souls to whom we are entrusted.