Ordinary Time and Lectio Divina

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

What is “Lectio Divina”? Well, the words in Latin just mean, “divine reading.” I assume people who read a Web page like this are aware that it means something like, “prayerful reading of the Bible.”

You may also know that there is a popular four-step “technique” out there, explained especially in some of Pope Benedict XVI’s documents. Step one is “lectio”: read a passage of Scripture. Step two is “meditatio”: ponder what that passage says. Step three is “oratio”: once we have heard Christ speak to us, we speak to him in prayer. And step four is “contemplatio,” which Benedict describes as looking at our life from God’s perspective, and thus, he says, letting the Word convert us.

But there are other methods of lectio divina. Years ago some Benedictine monks taught me a simpler version of the same: read a short passage, pick out a short phrase that jumps out at you, and just chew on those couple of words – the early Church said a Christian chews on Scripture the way a cow chews its cud: sit with those words, see what they say.

Years later, I asked a friend who was a Benedictine monk (and is now an abbot) how he practiced lectio divina. He was a little confused by the question – because for the true monastic tradition, there is no technique. He said, “I just . . . read the Bible, prayerfully.”

In fact, the phrase “lectio divina” comes from chapter 48 of the Rule of St. Benedict, where Benedict says, “idleness is the enemy of the soul, so let the brothers spend some hours working with their hands, and the rest of the hours in lectione divina”: doing “divine reading.” He doesn’t mean, “practicing a certain technique of prayer.” He means, fill up your free time reading the Bible.

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Pope Benedict’s four-step model, I think, just summarizes the medieval classic “The Ladder of Monks,” by Guigo II, a Carthusian writing around the year 1150. Carthusians are hermits, so even more than Benedict, Guigo’s central purpose is to talk about how you fill up the empty hours.

The “Ladder” is those four steps. But I think we get closer to what Guigo means – and probably what Pope Benedict means, too – if we keep the steps more closely united. We’re tempted to sort of leave our reading behind, and then take some “time for contemplation.” Guigo tells us that’s like pulling the ladder beneath us off of the ground – which doesn’t work very well!

Instead, we need to keep the bottom of the ladder firmly on the ground: keep our prayer rooted in reading. That’s the first part of his advice: the medieval tradition is insistent that we should never leave our reading behind. To them, any kind of “contemplation” that takes us away from the text for more than a few moments is probably more like spacing out than like real prayer. They strongly advise against that – as, interestingly, did the great Carmelite mystics, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

“Contemplative time” is closer to the Buddhist tradition than to Catholic spirituality. Catholics read the Bible!

On the other hand, climb the ladder: read it prayerfully. Think about what you read. Pray about it. “Contemplate,” in the sense that you get your mind immersed enough in the reading that you really try to see what it sees. Or in other words: read, and read well.

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Perhaps the best model for lectio divina, then, is just Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time, as we said on Monday, is about simply reading through the Scriptures. No tricks, no techniques. Reading the Scriptures is itself a great spiritual practice – the greatest, the one that we take even into the Mass itself, as the privileged way to prepare for communion.

We read the Scriptures prayerfully. Not in a class – though a class can help our lectio divina. Not hurriedly, though neither need we get bogged down. No, the perfect example of how to do lectio divina is when we actually read the Bible in the Mass: as part of our prayer, surrounded by prayer, drawing us into prayer. The Liturgy of the Word is the perfect example of lectio divina. That’s what we imitate in our own prayer.

And then we simply read. And as at Mass, our reading helps us gain familiarity with the stories, helps us learn what the Psalms and the Gospels are talking about. It “seasons” us, so that we learn to think the way the Bible talks. And it helps us to fall in love with the Biblical Word of God itself, to turn back again and again and simply meet Christ in his Word.

That is the heart of traditional Catholic spirituality: just to read.

How could you incorporate more Bible reading in your life?

eric.m.johnston

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