Lectio Divina

Deep, contemplative reading is part of just about all traditions with written scriptures. Since most of the religions have revered texts, reading forms a very special form of devotion and provides an interesting background to explore the modes of contemplative engagement.

In the Christian tradition contemplative reading is known as lectio divina (“divine reading,” in Latin). Through a process of close, contemplative reading, the simple words on the page become clearer and more meaningful. It brings greater understanding and connection, something easily missed by a superficial, quick reading.

In the third Century, the Christian scholar Origen saw that if you read in the right spirit, you would find the meaning “hidden from most people.” When St. Benedict compiled his rules for monasteries in the sixth century, he included reading as an important part of the monk’s day at a time when personal reading was still relatively rare. He recognized that this was a way of the monks’ being with scripture that called them deeply to study, ponder, listen, and pray. To this day, The Rule of St. Benedict is the most common and influential rule used by monasteries and monks, more than 1,400 years after its writing.

In the 12th century, a Carthusian monk named Guigo, formalized four stages to the practice of Lectio Divina. Today, there are many ways of practicing Lectio Divina but Guigo’s description remains the foundation. As in the earliest Judaic textual practices, he described four levels of meaning and four approaches to the text: lectio (reading and then understanding the text), meditatio (reflection and contextualizing the meaning), oratio (listening within and living the meaning), and contemplatio (being still, and meeting God in the text). It was a fundamentally contemplative approach: first becoming keenly aware of what was on the page and then successively attending to greater and deeper meaning within, building to the realization of global connection.

Departing somewhat more from the traditional form, David G. Haskell, Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at the University of the South, in his course on “Food and Hunger: Contemplation and Action,” introduced a modification of Basil Pennington’s Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures (Crossroad Publishing Company,1998) for reading short essays on hunger and food in class. This participatory process of reading aloud around the room, he remarks, “immerses students in the text so that they’re swimming in it, even putting the snorkel beneath, rather than speedboating over the surface.”

In a circle of students, he reminds them that it will be necessary to project their voices and assures them that it is all right to stumble or pass to a neighbor; in initial stages of group work, it is important that students feel comfortable and know that they can have the freedom to hesitate or even opt out. This provides a sense of freedom that allows them to embrace fear rather than ball up and fight it.

The instructions for his exercise are as follows:

  1. Sit quietly and relax our minds and bodies for one minute.
  2. Read aloud, slowly, the entire text, each of us reading one or two sentences, “passing along” the reading to the left to the next reader.
  3. One minute of silence and reflection.
  4. One of us reads aloud the short passage that we have chosen in advance.
  5. Another minute of silence and reflection.
  6. We share a word or short phrase in response to the reading—just give voice to the word without explanation or discussion.
  7. Another person reads the short passage again.
  8. One minute of silence and reflection.
  9. We share longer responses to the text—a sentence or two. We listen attentively to one another without correcting or disputing.
  10. Another person reads the short passage one last time, followed by another minute of silence.