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.


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.


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?

Ordinary Time

Catholic_Bible_Study_Roman_CatholicI don’t know for sure that it’s true, but I have heard that we call it “Ordinary Time” because what defines this season of the Church is reading through the Bible “in order.” Whether or not that’s the source of the name, it is the most fitting description of the season we resume today.

Starting today, daily Mass returns to the two-year cycle in which we read straight through Matthew, Mark, and Luke (with the removal of only small sections that would otherwise be duplicated) every year, and large sections of the Old and New Testaments every other year. (John gets scattered throughout every year, but not in order.) Sunday Mass now continues reading in order through this year’s one of those three Gospels (Matthew), and a somewhat orderly succession of other readings to match.


We might think of this as “ordinary” in contrast to the “interesting” seasons of the Church. But this “orderly” reading of Scripture should actually be considered the “normal” way of the Christian life, with the other seasons only added to highlight it.

Imagine how this might have developed. (The sources on this are somewhat murky, but this exercise in imagination does seem to match roughly the actual historical development of the Lectionary.)

Imagine you are in a community in which the Gospel of Matthew is read, in order, throughout the Sundays of the year. You would read, perhaps, about half a chapter each week. Obviously the Sunday when you read the Passion (in this scheme, it would be pretty near the end of the year) would be given some special prominence. So too would the Sunday when you read the great Gospel of the birth of Christ.

Easter – the Sundays of the Passion and of the Resurrection – would obviously be the high point. If someone wanted to join the Church (as was an especially important part of the early life of the Church), you might tell them Easter is the Sunday to do it. And then you might give them a season of preparation before that – Lent. And in time, you might say, this makes good sense. Why don’t we all take a season to prepare for the Sundays when we read the Gospels of the Passion and the Resurrection. And so you insert a mini-season into Ordinary Time. And then, perhaps, you add another season afterward, to welcome the neophytes into the Church, to help them celebrate – the Easter season.

Eventually, you might match those seasons with similar, short seasons of preparation and celebration for reading the Gospel of Christ’s Birth. And you might move those Sundays to match the seasons: the darkness of Christmas, the new birth of Spring.


The point is, all of this is grafted on to Ordinary Time. It is not that we have “real” liturgical seasons, and then these other non-seasons. To the contrary, the heart of the Lectionary, and of the passage of the Church’s year, is the orderly reading through the Gospels. The other seasons are only added to spruce up that orderly reading. Ordinary Time really is the normal way of the Christian life.


Now, you may know that Ordinary Time is “new” after Vatican II. For many many centuries before the Council, the Lectionary was the same every year; it read a very small part of the Bible (less than 4% of the Old Testament – plus lots and lots of Psalms – and 11% of the New Testament, and 22% of the Gospels), with most weekdays just repeating the previous Sunday’s readings, and nothing exactly in order. The new Lectionary, by contrast, gets through about 14% of the Old Testament (we read nothing like all of it, but a lot more than before, and a good sample) and 55% of the New Testament (plus 90% of the Gospels).

But to understand Vatican II’s reform of the Lectionary, we must understand two things. First of all, the evidence does point to earlier lectionaries that were much more like the modern one: this is a restoration, not an innovation. Second, traditional Catholic spirituality – the spirituality of the middle ages, especially – could afford to have less Scripture at Mass because it was assumed that anyone who had a spiritual life spent vast amounts o f time reading Scripture outside of Mass!

Vatican II’s reform of the Lectionary, then, is not a novelty, but a reboot, a return to traditional Catholic spirituality. “Orderly” reading of the Bible is the normal path of Catholic spirituality. Only because we have forgotten that does the new Lectionary try to draw us back, through this wonderful emphasis in the Lectionary on reading and savoring every verse.

Where is the Bible in your spirituality?