Lectio Divina as a Method of Theological Reflection

By Cherry Haisten

Lectio divina is usually defined as “sacred reading.” In its traditional form it is a reflective method of reading scripture. Today it is experiencing something of a renaissance in which many new variations of the old form are flourishing. It can be done individually or in a group. Part of the Western Christian contemplative tradition, lectio divina is sacred not because of the inherent holiness of the text but because of the attitude the student/disciple brings to the task and because the task involves a deepening relationship with God. Anything can be a text—Christian scriptures, Hebrew scriptures, the Koran, the Baghavad-Gita, any literature, especially poetry. Nature can be a text. Our own lives or specific incidents in our lives can be texts. All of creation is a revelation of God if we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the heart to love and understand. Moreover, God created us in God’s image. The life of each one of us flared up from some tiny spark of the divine. But we spend much of our time out of touch with the divine within. Lectio divina, if we take the time for it, can help us to get in touch with the divine within and with the deep knowing that comes from that source. If incidents from our own lives can be a text, then how might lectio divina be used to examine that text and plumb its depths? The four steps of traditional lectio are simply:

1. Lectio – reading or hearing the text, listening to it with the ear of the heart

2. Meditatio – pondering the text in your heart

3. Oratio – responding to the text

4. Contemplatio – resting in God

The medieval scholastic way of proceeding in lectio was to follow the steps in a linear progression. The more ancient way of doing lectio was to listen to a text with an open heart and a willingness to be led, and then to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thus the order of the steps might not be a simple one, two, three, four. Rather one might listen and then be drawn immediately into resting in God. Another time one might listen, react or become outraged or upset, and go directly to oratio, responding emotionally to God. One might listen and ponder without having much response at all and then go back to listening, reading the text again and again, reflecting until some insight comes or until time runs out. There is no absolute right or wrong. The fourfold process of lectio can be adapted as a format for theological reflection, the process whereby an individual engages scripture, tradition, reason, experience, and perhaps other influences to examine prayerfully the content of her/his life. This content might be one very brief conversation or any range of more complex encounters with people, the natural world, or God. Because this system is flexible and dynamic, it can be used any time, any place, and thus it lends itself to theological reflection, which a “convicted” Christian should be continually engaged in. For the sake of simplicity, I will take the steps of lectio in order as a method of theological reflection.

Step 1 Lectio: The first step involves “reading a text.” Thus you must have a text to “read,” as you might read a letter of tracks in the sand. If you are reflecting on an incident from your life, you have a choice of how to proceed. You might simply go over in your mind the basic outline of what happened giving yourself time to remember the details of the incident. If it is helpful to you to externalize the content, then take a few minutes to write down a narrative account. Take your time in this step, as in every step, but don’t take so much time that you don’t get to the rest of the steps. Once you have generated the text, either in your mind or on paper, think or read through it slowly to allow yourself to enter into the experience again. Approach this task as gently as possible without expectations.

Step 2 Meditatio: When you are finished reading through the text, close your eyes and sit with what you have read. If you haven’t taken the time before Step 1 to breathe deeply, relax, and enter the present moment, now would be a good time to do that. All the while keep the text in your mind and heart. Give yourself as much time as you care to give, allowing any responses to the text to surface. Notice what your responses are. Pay attention to your body. If a particular word or phrase brings tears or a twist in your gut, note it and let it be. Just note whatever responses or reactions you have to your text. For now, just notice. Don’t do anything with them. After a few minutes, you may want to go back to lectio and read the text again. That’s fine. In this step of lectio, associations and meanings may appear. If you are reminded of anything— another experience in your life, a passage from scripture, a favorite poem or novel, some advice from a wise mentor—bring those into your meditation for what they have to reveal, but don’t feel pressured to integrate or synthesize everything. One traditional way of doing lectio is, during meditatio, to choose one word or phrase that grabs you in some way, or is given to you, and allow it to reveal its riches to you without worrying about making sense of the whole experience. In lectio we are tapping into a deeper way of knowing, a more interior intuitive knowing– beneath the mind or cognitive awareness– at the level of the heart. The connections may not become clear right away. You may repeat the steps as many times as you want to or have time for, and you may journal about any of this part if you feel called to, but avoid compulsively recording everything.*

Step 3 Oratio: The third step of lectio comes from the Latin word meaning to pray. This step literally involves prayer, but prayer that may take an endless variety of forms, not limited to the usual intercessions or petitions. When Job shook his fist at God and demanded answers, he was engaging in oratio. When you cry out in frustration at an injustice, that is oratio. When you burst into praise at the beauty of a sunset or utter a spontaneous thank-you for the gift of a glorious day, that is oratio. When you plead with God to help you with an insoluble problem or to deliver you from despair, that is oratio. If you get up and dance with joy or sing or paint, that may be oratio. Oratio is simply your response to the text, addressed to God.

Step 4 Contemplatio: Finally, accept the reality of what you have been given to face and understand—to the best of your ability or to the limits of what God has revealed to you thus far. Have faith that all will be well, and rest in God. You may take as long for this part as you have time for. In traditional lectio, contemplatio was not taken for granted, but rather considered a gift of God. When you get up from this process, with God’s help you may have the strength to do what needs to be done, the wisdom or discernment to let go of much you cannot do anything about, and most importantly you will be more centered in your own relationship with God and your own being and perhaps with others. With time and practice, it may be possible to continue resting in God even as you act in the world. At the end of your prayer you may challenge yourself to risk taking one step in faith outside the edge of your comfort zone or out of your usual patterns of handling your life’s issues. Or you may discern that now is not the time for action but for self-care of another sort. Or there may be many other possibilities depending on your own life circumstances and the movement of the Holy Spirit within them.

Blessings on using this process.


* Meditatio is the step that Ignatius’s followers focused on. A good way to engage a text, it came to be known as mental prayer ordiscursive meditation. However, its emphasis can be primarily rational, analytical, imaginative or intellectually creative. When it is replaced in the context of the rest of lectio it becomes a richer and fuller experience engaging more of our whole selves. Lectio divina is part of the Christian apophatic heritage, which emphasizes emptying the mind of intellectual or visual images, embracing our human unknowing, and “waiting on God.” The most kataphatic part of lectio divina is meditatio. In the Ignatian exercises, meditatio is developed to a kataphatic extreme, i.e. it uses intellectual or visual images fully. The thrust of lectio divina is at the opposite end of the continuum.