Praying the Scriptures

What is Lectio Divina?

García Colambás quotes a marvellous passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on his discovery of lectio divina (literally sacred or holy reading) as a privileged means of encountering the living God. “And here I desire to reveal a personal confidence: ever since I have considered the Bible as the place of encounter with God, ‘the place where I can meet God’, day by day I discover marvel upon marvel. I read it in the morning and in the evening and often in the course of the day I meditate on a text I choose for the week, and try to immerse myself profoundly in it in order to grasp truly what it tells us. I am personally persuaded that without it I could not truly live and certainly I could not believe.”[1] Colambás goes on to say: “To read, to listen, to retain, to deepen, to live the Word of God contained in Scripture, to immerse oneself in it with faith and love – that is, essentially what lectio divina is all about.” Lectio in other words is above all a prayer filled activity of dialogue with a God who wishes to enter into a loving relationship with us.

However, the most useful definition of lectio which I’ve come across was also written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the 1930s: “We ponder the chosen text on the strength of the promise that it has something utterly personal to say to us for this day … Here we are not expounding [the text] or preparing a sermon or conducting Bible study of any kind; we are rather waiting for God’s Word to us … Often we are so burdened and overwhelmed with other thoughts, images and concerns that it may take a long time before God’s Word has swept all else aside and come through. But it will surely come …”[2] What I like about this compelling description is that it makes clear the distinction between lectio and study and it also stresses that in lectio God speaks a personal word to us which illumines our present situation.

Putting on the Mind of Christ

Two Scriptural quotations sum up for me what the practice of lectio divina is all about. St Paul writes: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). And, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). The regular practice of lectio divina will help us to see the world through the eyes of Christ and to act in the world as his disciples of mercy and love. However, putting on the mind of Christ is a slow, lifelong task as we can be easily blinded or side-tracked by various kinds of idol worship. For St Benedict lectio divina is the surest road to conversion, the surest way to ’’have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). The regular practice of lectio divina is a way of listening, of allowing oneself to be impregnated by the Word of God. As that great realist, the Trappist monk Michael Casey, puts it: “It is often a simple question of mathematics. A person who spends two hours a day with the mass media and one hour with the Scriptures is surely more likely to be formed by that at which he spends more time. The fact that the influence is subtle and goes undetected in no way diminishes its potency. When this exposure continues day after day for a period of years, then the formation of the mind of Christ in the person will have to battle serious opposition.”[3]

Not too long ago I came across a wonderful passage from the Book of Proverbs which expresses this insight beautifully.

My son, pay attention to what I am telling you;
listen carefully to my words. Do not let them out of your sight,
keep them deep in your heart;
for they are life to those who find them
and health to one’s whole body. Above all else, keep watch over your heart,
since here are the wellsprings of life. (The Book of Proverbs, 4:20-23)

Steps in Lectio

The traditional division of lectio into four steps goes back to the essay, The Ladder of Monastics (Scala Claustralium), written in the late twelfth century by Guigo II, the ninth prior of the Grande Chartreuse. The four steps are not to be taken as being prescriptive and invariably the path which one will follow. As Michael Casey writes: “Its stages are more like the colors of a rainbow than bureaucratic categories. The different moments ebb and flow; sometimes they overlap, at others they drift apart.”[4] The stages are, however, helpful as a compass to orientate us as we set out on our journey of encounter with God in his Word.

1. Reading or lectio: What does the biblical text say ‘objectively’, in its own historical context? At this stage [or preferably prior to the lectio session] it is useful to make use of a Bible commentary or a study bible in order to understand more fully the historical and theological background to the passage of Scripture you are praying. Without this effort to understand the otherness of the passage, there is always a risk that the text will become a pretext for never moving beyond our own ideas. We try to read the text slowly as if for the first time. Reading it aloud slowly several times in an unfamiliar translation and/or in another language can help us to overcome the ‘blindness’ which over familiarity with a well-known Scripture passage can bring. In lectio we are trying to slow down, to become receptive, to allow the Word of God to penetrate our defences, to master us. In our academic mode of reading it’s just the opposite. We try to grasp the key ideas, to master the text.

2. Meditation or meditatio: What does the biblical text say to me/us? Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we seek to discern the spiritual meaning which the text has for us in our everyday lives, to encounter the living presence of the Holy Spirit speaking directly to our lived situation today. If a word or a phrase leaps out at us then we should stay with it, allowing the text to speak a word of life to us. The Homiletic Directory quotes some questions given by Pope Francis to help us to ruminate and meditate better, to slow down in our reading: “Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want me to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me?” [5]

According to Colombás the early and medieval monastics primarily tried in meditatio “to assimilate better what they had read, to assimilate it completely by kind of chewing and digestion comparable to that of ruminants. … ruminatio consists of two elements: first, frequent and even continuous repetition of one word or one text; second the interior savouring and assimilation of that word. … to make the word of God pass not into the head, but the heart.”[6]

Abbot John Klassen of Collegeville encourages students to engage in contemplative reading rather than the ‘fast food’ consumption of ill digested texts. He quotes Guigo the Carthusian: “For what is the use of spending one’s time in continuous reading of books unless we can draw our nourishment from them by chewing and digesting this food, so that its strength can pass into our inmost heart?” Abbot John comments: “What a question for us who consume so many documents, but do not allow us them to nourish us deeply. We are both overfed and undernourished. We gulp down ideas without reflection, just as we down fast food.”× References for Jeremiah 20:7Cross ReferencesFootnotes× References for Jeremiah 20:8[7]  Cross References

Maria Tasto expresses this process well: “Listening to the Word of God challenges us to stoop down lower than we have ever stooped before. In other words, we need to step out of our world and into the world of Jesus. We need to come defenceless, ready to be influenced. We need to be willing to be vulnerable, open to learn, to change, and to be transformed. This may entail a level of listening that we have never engaged in before.”[8]

3. Prayer or oratio: What do we say to the Lord in response to his word? Prayer, as adoration/praise, contrition, intercession and thanksgiving is the primary way by which the word transforms us. We respond to the Lord and dialogue with him. Mario Masini writes: “The lectio is our listening to God in His word, the oratio is our response to what God is saying.”[9]

4. Contemplation or contemplatio: Maria Tasto writes that “Lectio divina is like a four-step dance with God – reading, reflecting, responding, and resting with His Word. As we enter more fully into the inner rhythm of this dance, we experience an ever-deepening relationship with God’s Word and Spirit.”[10] In contemplation we rest silently in God’s embrace and allow our minds and hearts to be renewed by His loving gaze and presence.

5. Action or Actio: Doing the Word moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity. “Caesarius of Arles warned that hearing the Word can never leave the hearer the same. God’s Word either redeems or condemns the person who hears it; as does the Body of Christ in the Eucharist (cf. 1 Cor 11:29). He used to preach: ‘If one does not consume the Word of God by putting it into practice, like manna, it will produce worms which will eat it.’ This is the judgement the Word, the two edged-sword, carries with it.”[11]

Try Praying a Passage of Scripture

You might like to try out praying the Scripture passage below.  Begin by stilling yourself and asking God’s Spirit to guide you.

“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, Lord, and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the Earth.”

Read the passage slowly several times. In this way you let go of the effort to control the text and allow God speak to you through his inspired word.

If a word or phrase strikes you, stay with it, chew it over and let it speak to your heart.

Bring your response before God in prayer, in the way of a conversation or a dialogue where you both speak and listen.

Finally, rest silently in the Lord’s loving gaze.

He Became Like a Servant

Does your life in Christ give you strength? Does his love comfort you? Do we share together in the spirit? Do you have mercy and kindness? If so, make me very happy by having the same thoughts, sharing the same love, and having one mind and purpose. When you do things, do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Instead, be humble and give more honour to others than to yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others. In your lives you must think and act like Christ Jesus.

Christ himself was like God in everything. But he did not think that being equal with God was something to be used for his own benefit. But he gave up his place with God and made himself nothing. He was born to be a man and became like a servant. And when he was living as a man, he humbled himself and was fully obedient to God, even when that caused his death — death on a cross. So God raised him to the highest place. God made his name greater than every other name so that every knee will bow to the name of Jesus — everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. And everyone will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and bring glory to God the Father. Philippians 2:1-11 (New Century Version)


[1] Quoted by García M. Colombás in Reading God, “Lectio Divina” Schulyer Spiritual Series, Vol. 9, Benedictine Mission House, 1993, pp. 32-33
[2] Life Together, SCM Press, 1954, p.62.
[3] Michael Casey, Seventy-four Tools For Good Living: Reflections on the Fourth Chapter of Benedict’s Rule, Liturgical Press, MN, 2014, pp. 67-68.
[4] Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, Liguori/Triumph, Missouri, 1996, p. 58.
[5] Homiletic Directory, no. 32, Catholic Truth Society, London, 2015, p. 27.
[6] Colombás, pp. 96-97.
[7] Abbey Banner, Saint John’s Abbey, Fall 2017, p.15.
[8] Maria Tasto, The transforming power of Lectio Divina,Twenty-Third Publications, New London, CT, 2013, p. 23.
[9] Mario Masini, Ibid., p. 58.
[10] Tasto, Ibid., p. 64.
[11] Enzo Bianchi, Praying the Word: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, Cistercian Publications, 1998, p. 67.