Lectio Divina: a Wonderful Way to Continue Reading the Bible

By the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” – Psalm 42:1-2

“He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” – Ezekiel 3:1-3

“So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, ‘Take it, eat it; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.” – Revelation 10:9-10

Often, through the grace of the almighty Lord, certain passages in the sacred text are better understood when the divine Word is read privately. The soul, conscious of its faults and recognizing the truth of what it has heard, is struck by the dart of grief and pierced by the sword of compunction, so that it wishes to do nothing but weep and wash away its stains with floods of tears.” – St. Augustine of Hippo

Throughout the post-Enlightenment twentieth century our approach to reading the Bible has been deeply analytical and most recently influenced by a way of interpreting the Bible known as the historical critical method. This systematic analysis of Scripture has yielded substantial results from a scholarly perspective and helped us to learn more about the Bible.

When taken on the whole, however, this method was a dry, scholarly and rational way of reading the Bible. It spoke to the head, but rarely to the heart. The Bible was often approached as a historical document or merely as a piece of ancient literature. The Scriptures were not viewed as a means to test our hearts, motivate our wills and form us more fully into the image of God. Rather, scholars and clergy approached the Bible like a body on an operating table. We were the trained professional surgeons. The text was given anesthesia. Then we cut into the body and carefully probed each tissue and fiber. Such a reading of the Bible was hardly devotional and left many people starved for spiritual nourishment.

While Bible studies and reading Bible commentaries or books about the Bible are helpful, nothing at all can compare with a bare reading of the Bible, letting God’s Word speak profoundly to our hearts. This need not be an anti-intellectual reading. Rather it calls for a return to the ancient practice that monks and others have used for centuries, which allows the Bible to speak in the most profound ways and to bestow on us its wisdom and teaching so that our lives can be transformed.

This method is called lectio divina, which is pronounced “lex-ee-oh di-vee-nuh.” It is a Latin phrase that means “holy,” “sacred” or “divine reading.” From the first centuries of the Church, the Church Fathers and Mothers practiced this method of reading the Bible, and it can be argued that this approach yields the best fruit. It is something that we can easily teach in our churches to equip our members to practice on their own or in a group. “Vital hearing requires loving, calm, reflective, personal poring over the text,” notes Mariano Magrassi in his book Praying the Bible: an Introduction to Lectio Divina.

As Kathleen Norris in her book Bible Reading for Spiritual Growth notes, “We feel the need for genuine spiritual refreshment as we wander through an environment all too often parched and dry. We long for an affirming relationship with God that will make a difference in how we experience daily life. We eagerly set out on the inviting journey of spiritual growth, seeking deeper relationship with God’s very self.” Lectio divina helps us to accomplish this.

Lectio divina suspends the analytical drive to examine the Bible

Lectio is an ancient Christian practice that has been tested across the centuries. It allows Christians to encounter God directly through the Bible. It is a way of reading the Bible devotionally, rather than academically. It is specifically suited for those who, as the psalmist says, are athirst “for the living God.” (Psalm 42:2) This way of reading the Bible sets aside the rational mind, which has been overly empowered since the Enlightenment. Lectio is not an analytical process, but rather a process of waiting for God to speak to us through Scripture.

I think of those old engravings by Albrecht Durer and later by Rembrandt that show a man or woman sitting with the Bible open on their lap, hands folded, lost in thought as they reflect deeply upon something that they have read in the Scriptures. They are not so much studying the Bible as having a direct encounter with God through God’s Word. They are having a dialogue with God. After reading for a while, they have come upon something powerful in the text that caused them to pause and reflect and engage in prayer as they have a heart-to-heart conversation and experience with God. This indeed is what lectio does, and it is constantly renewing to the soul. That is why St. Jerome said, “The soul is fed each day with lectio divina.”

Unlike the historical critical method of reading the Bible, lectio is not a cold, abstract and speculative encounter with the biblical text, but a slow, persevering and joyful engagement with the Truth itself. It is study and learning pursued with prayer and love. Louis Bouyer says lectio,

…is a personal reading of the Word of God during which we try to assimilate its substance; a reading in faith, in a spirit of prayer, believing in the real presence of God who speaks to us in the sacred text, while the monk himself strives to be present in a spirit of obedience and total surrender to the divine promises and demands.

The Bible is not the only book to which this style of reading can be applied. I remember visiting St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery, in Spencer, Massachusetts many years ago and being taken on a tour of the monastery. I knew that every monk in the Benedictine tradition was required to devote at least an hour each day to sacred reading. I have always loved books, and so I asked my guide, what he was reading. He replied that he was reading a volume by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. “What book will you read after that?” I asked. “Oh no,” he said. “I am reading this book using lectio divina. I read about two pages a day. It will take me two years or more to finish it.” I was stunned. We are trained to read quickly. It takes training to unlearn the speed with which we have been accustomed to reading. When it comes to reading the Bible, speed is a vice, not a virtue. For those who practice it, lectio offers many benefits.

We live in an age where many people read for pleasure. When I ask someone I know what they are reading, they often reply, “Just some trash.” In the ancient days, books were rare and extraordinarily expensive. You had to kill a flock of sheep to produce enough velum to write a book and an individual or a team of scribes spent perhaps a thousand hours or more copying the text. Most individuals were illiterate. The vast majority of people never owned a book. A single book took years to copy and produce. Only the wealthiest individuals or institutions like cathedrals and monasteries could afford to own books. Few people read books. Most listened to them being read. Lectio, therefore, was a natural way to listen to Scripture and ponder its message.

Monks learned to memorize and recite large portions of the Bible aloud. Lectio developed in this setting, where monks ruminated for hour each day over a passage or page of the Bible. Large portions of Scripture were committed to memory. Before beginning seminary, I visited a monastery in Leuven, Belgium several times while living in Paris. I stayed with the monks and worked outdoors with them. We raked leaves and cleaned the monastery grounds. We ate meals together, and I attended all of their worship services. Whenever they stood to recite the psalms, they never lifted the Psalter. Each of them had committed all 150 psalms to memory. It was impressive to witness. In the course of a week, they recited the entire Psalter aloud, and over time they simply chanted it from memory. I can only imagine what it must be like to have internalized all 150 psalms, to know them by heart and to recite all of them each week. In time, they literally become part of who you are.

Saint Samargdus, a ninth century monk who lived near Verdun, France, wrote,

For those who practice it, the experience of lectio sacra sharpens perception, enriches understanding, rouses from sloth, banishes idleness, orders life, corrects bad habits, produces salutary weeping and draws tears from contrite hearts…curbs idle speech and vanity, awakens longing for Christ and the heavenly homeland.

All of this rings true to my experience with lectio.

Lectio divina is a way of resting in God

Lectio is therefore an encounter with the living God. It is a form of prayer, not study. In lectio we become receivers of God’s Word, not active analysts treating the Bible as dead matter awaiting our careful dissection. To engage in lectio we must come to rest and set aside the burdens of our busy lives in order to listen and receive the gifts of wisdom and love that God so greatly longs to share with us. The gifts that we receive from lectio will vary on any given day. On one day we might receive the gift of seeing our need for increased kindness and gentleness with a member of our family or a colleague at work. On another day we might receive the gift of humility and realize that we have been acting haughtily and aloof to others.

Sometimes the gift that we receive is not for us. Rather, as my old spiritual mentor Fr. Basil Pennington used to say, “We receive a spiritual bouquet, which is intended by God to be shared with others. We are given a Word from our Lord to carry with us and give away to another person whom we shall encounter this day.” Lectio calls for deep personal intimacy with God. It is getting to know and experience God up close rather than standing at a safe distance like a spectator watching a sporting event from the sideline. If we spend our entire life standing on the sideline then we never fully comprehend what it feels like to be on the field playing a sport. Lectio calls for us to participate more directly with a biblical text and fully engage God’s Word.

The Bible tells us, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” (Genesis 1:27) Lectio was designed to help us encounter God in such a way that we might be transformed more fully into the image of God. By practicing lectio we become “ambassadors for Christ” as St. Paul says. We are equipped to be reconcilers for Christ wherever we go, trained and transformed into servant leaders. The mind of Christ is given to us. We are ready to be “doers of the Word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22)

Lectio divina can be done in groups

Lectio can be done in private or it can be done in groups. If it is done in a group, the leader will read a passage of the Bible aloud and the other participants listen rather than read along. The leader should read no more than 10 verses at a time. He or she should pause after reading the lesson, and give participants two or three minutes to contemplate what they have heard. Afterwards, the leader may facilitate a discussion by allowing each participant to speak for a minute or two about what he or she heard read aloud.

After everyone has had an opportunity to speak, the leader may read the entire lesson again or ask someone in the group to do it, especially if a person of a different gender can be selected. This time, the leader might encourage everyone participating to consider a word, phrase or verse that particularly stands out. Then the leader pauses again for two or three minutes to allow the Word of God to sink in and deeply penetrate into the souls of the listeners.

No one should feel compelled to speak. In fact, anyone who wishes to remain silent may simply indicate her or his desire to pass and let others speak in their place. It is important that neither the leader nor anyone in the group attempt to explain the text or interpret what another person has said. The goal is not analysis, but transformation and prayer. A participant may be encouraged to say, “I sense….” or “I hear….” or “I see….” It is a personal statement made by someone who has listened to the Word of God being read aloud to her or him like a love letter written specifically by God to this individual.

The leader or another member of the group reads the passage for a third time. Before reading, the leader might ask each participant to think about “What is God calling you to do in your life as a result of this passage from the Bible?” or “How has this passage personally touched your life?” This allows the participant to enter directly into the reading, rather than to stand on the sidelines or sit like a moviegoer in a theater. When lectio is done well, the persons doing it move from feeling like passive spectators to active participants in the Christian life.

Practising lectio on your own

I primarily practice lectio on my own, as do most people. This was the way that the monks practiced it and continue to do so. Lectio is composed of four steps. Each step is described by a Latin word. The first step is lectio, which calls for merely reading the text, either silently or aloud to ourselves. In the ancient world, the text was always read aloud. In his famous autobiography The Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo notes how shocked he was when he came upon St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, silently reading to himself. Such a practice was rare in the ancient world. To pronounce the Word of God is to form the Word with our entire body, and there are some benefits to doing so. Each person must determine for him or herself whether to read from the Bible silently or aloud. You can practice each way and see what feels best for you and yields the finest results of reading and contemplation.

The second step is meditatio, which calls for meditating on the text. This is an entirely different approach from Bible study or rigorous analysis. Here we are not putting the Word of God under the microscope of our rational brain, but rather “ruminating” over the text like a cow chewing her cud. We may take a word, a phrase or an entire verse, especially if it is short, and mull it over again and again in our brain and in our heart. Recently, while flying on an airplane, I read chapter 11 of Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is not one of his most famous nor most inspiring chapters. But I found myself ruminating over verse 8 where Paul quotes Scripture, saying, “God gave them a sluggish spirit….”

Perhaps it was because I was tired and it was late, my flight had been rerouted and I had been placed on another airline, but this verse stood out for me. I kept silently re-iterating it within myself, mulling it over, ruminating on it, wondering in what ways was I being sluggish in my spiritual life and in my life in general. No one around me knew what I was doing. I was prayerfully pondering the text in silence.

After college I traveled to France and worked for 10 days in the grape harvest outside the city of Saumur in a little village in the Loire Valley. It was an incredible experience. My fellow workers and I would carry in large plastic containers with up to 50 pounds of grapes at a time. We emptied them into even larger containers sitting on a flatbed wagon pulled by a farm tractor. They were then brought to the chateau, where they were poured into large stone cellars.

These grapes were later transported and poured into a large cylinder with contracting wooden ribs that squeezed them until all of their juice flowed out of the cylinder and ran down a stone rivulet into a large stainless steel container, where the juice would ferment. I remember watching as they unloaded what was left inside the cylinder after the grapes had been crushed. What remained resembled horse manure. It was a brown, fibrous substance, which was given to the French government as a 1% tax and used to make a strong liqueur.

This is what ruminating over the Word of God does. It metaphorically crushes the Word of God within us, internalizing it, squeezing out its nutrients, allowing the Word to be broken open in order that it might feed our heart, mind and soul. The spiritual nutrients are released as we chew over the same simple text again and again, as opposed to moving from chapter to chapter like a speed walker trying to get from one end of the Appalachian Trail to the other while racing past breathtaking scenery without seeing it.

The third stage of lectio is called oratio, from the Latin word for prayer. We get the word “oration” from this. Here we pause after our meditating on the Word and offer a prayer up to God based on what we have read or how we have been moved or touched by God’s Word. Perhaps we have read a text that makes us realize how busy and overburdened we have been, and so we offer a prayer asking God to help us slow down and walk through life in a more relaxed manner. Or perhaps while we ruminated over the text we recall being boastful and speaking in a selfish manner to someone, and we offer a prayer requesting God’s forgiveness and asking God to help us increase our humility.

The final step is often the most difficult. It calls for being silent and listening to God, so that God can get a word in edgewise with us. This fourth step is called contemplatio, and it is from this word that we get the English word “contemplation.” In contemplation, we attentively listen. We sit quietly, as we should have throughout the entire exercise of lectio, perhaps on the floor with our legs crossed as if in meditation or at our desk or in a favorite chair at home, and we listen.

We listen for God to speak a Word to us based on the prayer that we have offered up. I believe that this is the most difficult step because so many of us are trained to work hard, run hard, keep busy and always strive to accomplish a task. Sitting still and doing nothing goes against the grain of how we lead our lives. It is counterintuitive to believe that by being silent and still and waiting upon God, much will happen in our lives, yet this is just what lectio affirms. It is when we center down and enter a receptive mode in silence and solitude that God can finally deliver a message that God has been waiting to share with us.

In his eighth-century work known as the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the earliest history of the Church in England, the Venerable Bede, the great Benedictine author, monk and historian, recalls how the illiterate poet Caedmon would memorize Scripture. He would be found by others “ruminating over it, like some clean animal chewing the cud.” Caedmon would then transform the text into a melodious verse or hymn.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer later picked up on this when he wrote his famous sermon about reading the Bible in which he said, “Let us ruminate, and, as it were, chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort and consolation” of the Holy Scripture. Cranmer’s sermon was one of many model sermons that were distributed throughout the Church of England to every priest in order that they might be read aloud in every parish, instructing worshippers in the basic and vital components of the Christian faith.

This same spirit of “ruminating” over the text was captured in the famous collect or prayer that Archbishop Cranmer composed for The Book of Common Prayer, which reads:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them; that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou has given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, for ever and ever, Amen.”

When we practice lectio and learn the art of reading the Bible prayerfully, we literally marinate ourselves in the Scriptures. But we not only marinate ourselves, which suggests that the juices of God’s divine Word bathe the exterior of our being, but the truth and wisdom of God’s love penetrate deep within us. As we appropriate God’s Word slowly, God’s wisdom and love become part of us. We internalize God’s truth. It heals, forgives, replenishes, anoints, equips, strengthens and comforts us. Our eyes are opened and our ears can hear. We are quieter and more centered. In doing and saying some things and refraining from others, we behave in ways that would have been impossible had we not spent time with God, who we encounter most directly in the Scriptures.
Luke’s Gospel alone tells the story of two of Jesus’s disciples walking on the road to Emmaus after Jesus had been arrested, tried and crucified. The two were utterly dejected. They hung their heads and walked as grieving people do, stunned and gutted of hope, downcast and frightened. As they trudged along, a stranger came up beside them and engaged them in conversation.

He asked them what they had been discussing as they walked along. Then one of them, Cleopas, asked, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there [in Jerusalem] these days?” (Luke 24:18) They told him about how Jesus had spoken and acted mightily like a prophet and then was handed over to death and crucified. Then some of the women had gone to the tomb early that morning and found his body missing.

Jesus, who had come in the guise of a stranger, then opened the Scriptures to them and interpreted everything that the Bible had to say about the Messiah. After they invited him to dine with them and spend the night, Christ revealed himself in the breaking of the bread. Suddenly, their eyes were opened and they recognize that this stranger was actually Christ himself. Then he disappeared from their sight. Turning to each other, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

This is what occurs when we truly engage God’s Word, not as students reading from an ancient book or historians examining records and reports from centuries ago. In lectio we have a real encounter with the living God mediated by the Word of God. You can actually sense God’s presence and God’s voice speaking as you read the Bible and ponder its significance for your life today. This is how God intended us to engage his Word.

By the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Founder and Director of The Bible Challenge