Lectio Divina

Eltin Griffin, O.Carm.

St Ignatius of Loyola during the process of his conversion used to muse to himself. ‘What if I should do this which St Francis did: and which St Dominic did?’ In similar vein I, Eltin Griffin had the audacity to say ‘What if I should do this what Cardinal Martini does?’ The Cardinal Archbishop of Milan conducts a session of Lectio Divina for 3000 young persons in the Cathedral at Milan on the first Thursday of every month. He has trained seventy of his priests to conduct lectio on similar lines. They serve another twelve thousand young people in other churches round the city on the same evening as in the Cathedral. Martini holds that it is virtually impossible to be a Christian in today’s world unless one is exposed to the Word of God. My knowledge of the Word of God would be infinitesimal compared with that of Martini. That doesn’t give me the excuse to sit back and do nothing. The single greatest need in the Irish Church at the moment must be to educate people as to what the Word of God is all about. There are Scripture journey men and women travelling around the country. One Dominican, a man in his seventies, covers different areas on three nights a week with a two year course on the biblical journey. However, the number available bears no relation to the need. There is a famine in the land that can only be satisfied by exposure to the Word.

A support system
The liturgy, they say, has failed to live up to expectations. It has failed to deliver what it promised. There are even pleas from some quarters to reinvent the liturgy. The failure is perhaps not with liturgy as such. The liturgy has no support system. People come cold to the Sunday Eucharist unprepared for the strange language of the readings. They lack a biblical culture. If the preacher is equally lacking, then it’s a case of the blind leading the blind and both falling into a pit of frustration.

Deceptively simple:
Lectio Divina done in a community situation is perhaps one way out of the impasse. Lectio is deceptively simple but can be totally engaging. Read the text. Read it out loud. Tease out the meaning. Repeat words and phrases until it becomes part of you. Meditate on the text which means that we allow the Word to challenge us in our daily lives, to make connections with our memories, ambitions, hopes, dreams, strivings and endeavours. That in turn leads to praying, to sights perhaps, to grateful praise, to repentance and petition and finally under the impetus of God’s grace to what exceeds all sensible understanding, contemplation, being held by the Word in the depths of one’s being.

Rule of St Benedict
Lectio is one of the oldest ways of praying in the Church. There is evidence of it in the bible itself. It was enshrined in the Rule of St. Benedict and became one of the distinctive features of monastic life. Lectio can be done on one’s own or in community. My own community engages itself in an hour of lectio once a month. But why confine it to the clover situations of religious communities and retreat houses. Why not take it out into the parishes and introduce it to the people of God?

Lenten lectio
I made the offer to a well-disposed and friendly parish priest. The idea was to hold two sessions, morning and evening of the Tuesdays of Lent. This meant preaching at all Masses on a particular Sunday explaining what lectio was about and inviting people to come and explore the Word together. They came, they participated and they enjoyed it. One hundred and fifty or so each Tuesday morning and evening. The church building was conducive. The people call it the Oratory, the Parish Church of St. Attracta at Meadowbrook in the neighbourhood of Ballinteer. We used the same text each Tuesday and we didn’t finish it - Chapter four of John Gospel, the Woman at the Well. We read the text all together in its entirety. We paused, reflected and asked people to contribute as to its meaning and its meaning for them. It was a most refreshing experience hearing what people get out of the text, their ability to explore the deeper spiritual meaning. The neighbouring parish got a bit jealous and asked for a similar experience for five Tuesdays in October/November. That parish has the advantage of a cells movement which meets in peoples’ homes once a week. The experience in the cells seemed to give them the courage to contribute more readily. On a once off basis I have tried it with other groups, with a meeting of parish representatives, of readers in preparation for a day of reflection in every parish on Mission Sunday in the Diocese of Dublin. One of the most alert groups was in another neighbouring parish, that of Ballally at the culmination of their pastoral development and renewal course. The biggest challenge must be in a depressed parish where people live in a ghetto, threatened by insecurity, and threats of physical violence in a no exit situation. Such people do not read a text easily. That does not mean that they are incapable of hearing the Word. One of my most satisfying experiences was in such a milieu which could only be described as raw, utterly raw. Travelling in there at night time was a chilling experience. Ironically, the finest insights into the Gospel passage came from people who were seldom seen in church.

There is a lot of refining to be done as to how best to present lectio divina. Presenting it during a lunch hour retreat in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral, one lady wanted to know if it was a retreat for dyslectics. Another wanted to know if the Mass in Latin was coming back again. You can’t win all of the people all of the time everywhere no matter how good you think you are. Anyway, we all go out of date very easily. We retain the Latin tag, Lectio Divina since there is no equivalent term that can give the exact meaning in English. Translate it as spiritual reading and it means something totally different. Neither is sacred reading the exact equivalent of what is meant by Lectio Divina. I described it earlier in the context of presenting it at parish level, the classical form of lectio that the Church has inherited from the monastic tradition. Guigo, an obscure Carthusian monk of the twelfth century, expounds this traditional method of prayerful reading of the Scriptures as if it were a ladder reaching from earth to Heaven on which there are four rungs, lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio.

A guideline
Guigo’s method does not claim to bind people into a rigid structure. He presumes that each one will find one’s own rhythm of personal prayer. The method is a guideline which has encouraged the prayer of thousands of monastics and of laity across the centuries. It went into oblivion after the Reformation because of Roman Catholic reaction to the Protestant use of the Bible and because of the emphasis on the rational as opposed to the affective and intuitive side of the human person. Lectio combines both head and heart. Lectio is ‘the wholeness of wholly attending’ to borrow a phrase of D. H. Lawrence.

Lectio has been rediscovered in our time. Indeed, it admits of many forms as it has developed in the missionary world, among them the seven-step Lumko method which is used widely in several parts of Africa. The Lumko method is very suitable for small prayer, Bible or faith-sharing groups. I am indebted here to a series of lectures given by a Maltese Carmelite priest, Fr. Alexander Vella, in Dublin in the summer of 1993.
Lectio acknowledges, respects and presumes the academic study of the Bible. During the lectio itself one struggles with the naked text, avoiding the twin dangers either of intellectualising it or of fundamentalist interpretation. One is concerned with the deeper spiritual meaning of the text.

The Holy Spirit
The books of the Bible were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Inspiration like creation is not an event out of the past. Inspiration is ongoing. The Spirit makes God’s Word from the past present to the reader. Through the Holy Spirit, God is addressing his Word to me here and now. (DV, No. 8) ‘Just as the Spirit of life touched the spirit of the Prophet (biblical author) so he touches the spirit of the reader’ – Gregory the Great.

An intrinsic unity
There is an intrinsic unity in the Scriptures. Origen describes Christ as the ‘Verbum brevissimum’, the Word which concludes and abbreviates all the words of Scripture. John of the Cross puts it succinctly and beautifully in ‘The Ascent of  Mount Carmel’ (Bk. 2:22-3). ‘In giving us his Son his only Word he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word – and he has no more to say...’

Purpose of Lectio
The purpose of lectio is threefold, to meet God on God’s terms, to discern his will and to reach ‘the surpassing knowledge of. Jesus Christ.’ (Phil 3.8). ‘For  ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’ (St. Jerome). The disposition we bring to lectio is described by Isaiah ‘he wakens my ear to listen to one being taught’ (50.5). To describe the four stages of what Guigo calls the divine ladder of prayer:

First step: Lectio (Reading)
Select a biblical text. Read it over and over again. Let it echo and re-echo inside you. Remember that God is speaking to you, here and now. It is a question more of listening, attending to what he is saying as opposed to reflecting. The question we are posing is what does the text mean? What is it saying?

Second step: Meditatio (Meditation)
Mull over the passage. Ruminate on it (a favourite word with the monks). Find parallel passages in other books of the Bible. The footnotes in a copy of the Bible may indicate such passages, especially verses from the psalms. Find associations in your life experience. Memories may well surface, even painful memories seeking healing. Discern how the text is challenging you today, challenging perhaps your addictions, your false idols, the unconverted part of you.

Third step: Oratio (Prayer)
Prayer according to Teresa of Avila is a dialogue. God speaks and we respond through the words of the text in so far as we can. The liturgy is the great teacher here, responding to the Word in the language of the Word. We respond in the normal moods of praying, thanking, asking, repenting, praising, interceding etc.

Fourth step: Contemplatio (Contemplation)
Read the text again, savouring what you have unearthed in the previous steps. Be open to God’s gift of an understanding that goes beyond all sensible understanding. Contemplation can also mean to see everything and everyone through the eyes of God.

To come back again to Guigo. He turns to a metaphor to explain the four steps, four moments which are connected and correlated. ‘The reading is like solid food being brought to the mouth. Meditation tears it down and chews it. Prayer savours it. Contemplation then, is like a sweetness which refreshes and instils joy.’ Then he explains in plain words: ‘Reading refers to the exterior exercise, meditation is the interior understanding, prayer is the desire, and lastly contemplation surpasses all sensible experience.’
St. Gregory the Great advises us to ‘find the heart of God in the Word of God.’ St. Bernard of Clairvaux writes: ‘I store up the Word of God as you would food. The Word of God is a living bread, the food of the soul. Bread kept in a cupboard can be stolen, eaten by rats, go stale but once it is eaten none of these misfortunes are to be feared. Store up the Word of God like that, because blessed are those that keep it. Let it sink into your inmost heart and pass into your affections and way of life. Eat plentifully of it and your soul will rejoice. Never forget to eat this bread, lest your heart wither but feed and strengthen it with so rich and fruitful a food. If you hold on to the Word the Word will protect you. The Son of God will come to you and his Father also.’

The following book was written as an aid to those who use Lectio Divina in schools and parishes and is also a very useful tool for those who have Lectio Divina in a family setting:
With the Word of God – Lectio Divina: A Guide for Prayer in School, Home and Parish.
Chris O’Donnell, O.Carm., and Jude Groden, RSM.
McCrimmon Publishing Company Ltd. 2003. ISBN: 0855976462.