Lectio divina is devotional reading of Scripture, followed by meditative consideration of the personal impact of that Scripture, verbal response to the reading and meditation, and contemplative response through active or passive reception.
Lectio divina (“holy reading”), or reading Scripture with the purpose of grounding our prayers, assumes that conversation with God is not only possible, but eagerly expected by God. In providing us with Scripture, God has spoken his word to us for our time, regardless of whether we are well-educated or illiterate (Heb 4:12). When we listen and respond to the Bible, we seek to know the Word made flesh, who is revealed there1 (1 John 1:1–2). We actively practice our belief that his Holy Spirit will supply the light that we need to understand and receive the Word (John 16:13). Benedict of Nursia believed this and sought to commune with Christ by first trusting that Christ would make himself known (Jer 29:12–14).
Benedict was born in 480 in the Apennine Mountains of what is now Italy. He came from a good family, who sent him to Rome to study, but the licentious behavior of his fellow students, indeed of the entire crumbling Empire, distressed him. Abandoning the scholastic life, he took to the hills to dwell in a cave and to seek Christ as a hermit. Impressed with his devotion, some local monks asked him to become their abbot, which he did reluctantly. However, his governance proved too strict, so they tried to free themselves by poisoning him. The attempt failed to kill him, but it did drive him back to his hermitage.
Nevertheless, his fame continued to spread and others joined him or sent their sons to experience what was then considered the “complete” Christian life: monastic community (Acts 2:44–47). Eventually he established twelve monasteries in the region, each with twelve monks, but his popularity made him the target of local clergy. At the age of fifty, he left Subiaco and moved halfway to Naples. He and his disciples destroyed the temple of Apollo that they found on Monte Cassino and established a new monastery, where lay people, bishops, and even the king of the Goths sought his counsel. He died (c. 547) shortly after his twin sister, St. Scholastica, who had also followed the monastic way and resided in a convent nearby.2
Benedict’s enduring contribution is the Rule he developed to guide the monks toward complete devotion and holiness. It outlines times of silence, encourages the monastery to be self-sufficient, and gathers the community in worship and prayer throughout the day. In the forty-eighth chapter of the Rule, Benedict states that community members “should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.”3 He explains this prayerful reading as cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to hear “with the ear of your heart” (prologue 1).4
Later, prayerful reading or lectio divina was systematized into four steps: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Reading signified “looking on Holy Scripture with all one’s will and wit,” what we call Bible study. Meditation meant “a studious insearching with the mind to know what was before concealed”; that is, considering how the Scripture may be speaking to you in particular. Prayer proper involved “a devout desiring of the heart to get what is good and avoid what is evil.” This is prayer as we tend to think of it: responding to the Scripture with praise, thanksgiving, confession, or requests. And contemplation concluded the reading with a “lifting up of the heart to God,” sometimes through action.5
Some of us start with lifting up our hearts and would just as soon end there. Like the Romans of Benedict’s time, we know how to celebrate, but the stillness of contemplation sounds tedious at first. Prayerful reading provides a habit for receiving the “whole counsel” of God (Acts 20:27 KJV), so that the life of our party becomes the fullness of Christ’s joy (Ps 84:2; John 10:10).
Others of us come to Scripture already in love with its drama and tragedy. Lectio divina grounds our imaginations in the Word. Not only do we read the word; lectio allows Christ the Word to study us in return (John 1:14). As we discipline our hearts to move back into principles of truth, we discover how the Christian story of suffering and glory takes root in reality and practice (Matt 5:16; Jas 2:22).
Still others, like Benedict, are so driven by correct Scripture-interpretation and obedience that we forget to enjoy the process of listening and responding to Jesus and the people in our communities (Jas 1:23–25). Instead we can comfort ourselves and teach others that obedience to Scripture principles will silence the nagging sense that we lack holiness or devotion. The steps of prayerful reading can shift this right thinking out of the mind into the heart and finally into right action (1 John 5:20).
1M. Basil Pennington, Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures (New York: Crossroad, 1998), 5–6.
2Timothy Fry, preface to The Rule of St. Benedict in English, by Benedict (ed. Timothy Fry; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1982), 9–10.
3Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (ed. Timothy Fry; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1982), 69.
5“Letter of Dom Guigo the Carthusian to Brother Gervase about the Contemplative Life,” (ed. Fish Eaters), n.p. [cited 12 Jan 2006]. Online: www.fisheaters.com//guigo.html.