What is lectio divina? How do I pray it?


What is lectio divina?

The Catholic Church, in her recent assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” (October 5–26, 2008), has drawn our attention to the importance of using Scripture not just for reading, but also as a way of prayer.

Praying with Scripture is a very old practice. We see evidence of it in the Book of Psalms, where the Psalmist responds with a prayer of praise to his reading of the word of God:

"Your word, LORD, stands forever; it is firm as the heavens … How I love your teaching, Lord! I study it all day long … Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.” (Psalm 119: 89, 97, 105)

Lectio divina (Latin for “divine reading”) is a simple method of praying with Scripture. It was already known by the Church Fathers in the early days of the Church. Lectio divina was recommended by Saint Cyprian (a third-century bishop and martyr). It has been part of the prayer of Christians throughout the history of the Church. Monasteries kept the practice alive. Saint Benedict (480–547 A.D.) taught his monks to pray in this way 1500 years ago, and it is still a wonderful way to pray today.



Why pray with Scripture?

Prayer should be a two-way conversation: God speaks to us, and we respond to Him. Like any conversation with a loved one, our prayer should not be one-sided; we should not do all the talking nor fail to listen.

Normally, we do not hear God’s voice with our human ears. So how does He speak to us? One very important way is through Scripture. Holy Scripture, the inspired word of God, can be thought of as letters from the Holy Spirit:

“The Scriptures are then in the heart and hands of the Church as the ‘Letter sent by God to humankind.’ ” (Saint Gregory the Great, c. 540–604 A.D.)

When we practice lectio divina, we carry on this two-way conversation with God:

“Diligently practice prayer and lectio divina. When you pray, you speak with God; when you read, God speaks with you.” (Saint Cyprian, 190–258 A.D.)

“Your prayer is your word addressed to God. When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray you speak to God.” (Saint Augustine, 354–430 A.D.)


Getting ready for lectio divina

FIND THE RIGHT TIME AND PLACE. Set aside a few minutes (aim for ten to fifteen minutes a day if you can manage it) in a quiet, comfortable place where you can be relatively free of distractions. Have your Bible available.

PRAY FOR HELP. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you. You are about to have a conversation with God Himself; invite Him to take the lead in the conversation!

PICK A SCRIPTURE PASSAGE. Choose a Scripture passage as the subject of your prayer time. It should not be too long, perhaps a short Psalm (or a section of a longer one), a story from one of the Gospels, etc. There are many ways to choose:

*]You might choose a book of the Bible that appeals to you, and read and pray with a little bit of it each day. The Psalms are great; they were Jesus’ prayer book, so they should be good enough for us! Or you might choose one of the Gospels or one of Paul’s letters.
*]If you want to pray with the liturgical seasons of the Church, try one of the daily Mass readings (First or Second Reading, Responsorial Psalm, or Gospel). You can find them listed at usccb.org/nab/ .
*]If you pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily, you can choose one of the psalms or readings from the day (if it is a long reading, just use part of it).
*]Or just flip through your Bible, and settle on whatever interests you.

QUIET YOUR MIND FOR A FEW MINUTES. Now you’re really ready to get started!


The four stages of lectio divina

Lectio divina has four stages, or parts, each with its Latin name:

*]Lectio (reading)
*]Meditatio (meditation)
*]Oratio (prayer)
*]Contemplatio (contemplation)

Each of these stages will be described briefly below.


The first stage:

Lectio (reading)

Read the passage.

Reread it again s-l-o-w-l-y, line by line, pausing from time to time. Notice any words or phrases that appeal to you or attract your attention.

You’re not reading just to get the gist of the story; every word or phrase can have meaning.


The second stage:

Meditatio (meditation)

Mull over the passage you have just read. Remember, this is God speaking to you. The words or phrases that caught your attention may contain God’s special message for you. (He speaks to each one of us in a unique and individual way. No two people will get the exact same thing out of the passage. And if you were to read it again a year from now, you might hear something different.)

Spend extra time thinking about the meaning of the words that “jumped out” at you.

Ask yourself:

*]What is God saying to my heart?
*]How can I relate this passage to my daily life?
*]What is God asking of me at this moment?


The third stage:

Oratio (prayer)

Now it’s your turn to speak. Respond to God’s word in silent prayer. What do you want to say back to God?

The passage you just read may inspire you to …

*]Thank God.
*]Praise Him.
*]Tell Him you are sorry about something.
*]Give yourself to Him in complete trust.
*]Ask Him for something you need. Has the passage brought to mind any personal needs you might have? Or the needs of others?
*]Make a resolution. Has the passage prompted you to take some action in your life? To overcome a bad or sinful habit? To reach out to someone in need?

If you would like, you can go back to the Scripture passage and repeat the meditatio and oratio stages with another phrase or two. It’s up to you. Let the Holy Spirit lead you.


The fourth stage:

Contemplatio (contemplation)

When you are finished reading, listening, and talking to God, it’s time to just rest in His loving presence for a few minutes.

No words are needed. Be at peace and rest in silence before the Lord.

Just love Him, and let Him love you. (Kind of like a couple falling in love — sometimes it’s enough just to be in the same room together.)

Finish with a prayer of thanksgiving for the gifts and inspirations received during your prayer time.



After you have been practicing lectio divina on a regular basis for some time, you may find the pattern of your prayer changing.

*]You may pass more quickly from one stage to another.
*]You may find the different stages becoming more “fluid,” overlapping each other.
*]You may find yourself going back and forth among the different stages, or skipping a stage entirely.
Don’t worry about it. The framework of lectio divina can be compared to the scaffolding of a building. Once the structure has been built, sometimes it’s okay to let the scaffolding be taken away.

If your practice of lectio divina is still leading you into loving dialogue with God, you’re doing just fine. Always follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.


Lectio divina in a group setting

The preceding posts have described a method of lectio divina for an individual person. But it is also possible to practice lectio divina in a group setting (for example, a prayer group or a group retreat).

Bishop Santiago Silva Retamales of Valparaiso, Chile, while participating in the recent Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” described how one group in his diocese does this. For a description of this group’s method, see a recent Zenit article:


This is just an example; there are probably other ways to adapt lectio divina to a group setting.


The fruits of lectio divina

Prayer should change us. Here are some fruits we should expect from praying with Scripture, described by some experts on prayer (bold emphasis added).

First, from Saint Maximus the Confessor (580–662 A.D.):

“The Words of God, if pronounced by rote and not heard, have no resonance in the actions of those who merely speak them. But rather, if they are pronounced and put into action, they have the power to dispel demons and help people build God’s dwelling in their hearts and make progress in works of justice.”

From an address to young people by Pope John Paul II:

“I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio Divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart. If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church — I am convinced of it—a new spiritual springtime … It should never be forgotten that the Word of God is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path” (Psalm 119:105).

From an address to young people by Pope Benedict XVI:

“I urge you to become familiar with the Bible, and to have it at hand so that it can be your compass pointing out the road to follow.”

“The diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart.”

And finally, these are the closing words from the “Instrumentum Laboris” preceding the Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”:

Lectio Divina is not confined to a few, well-committed individuals among the faithful nor to a group of specialists in prayer. Instead, Lectio Divina is a necessary element of an authentic Christian life in a secularized world, which needs contemplative, attentive, critical and courageous people who, at times, must make totally new, untried choices. These particular undertakings will not be purely routine nor come from public opinion but will result from hearing the Word of the Lord and perceiving the mysterious stirring of the Holy Spirit in the heart.


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