This week, we will explore an ancient form of prayer called Lectio Divina, or divine reading, which facilitates a dialogue with God in which a person can hear what God is saying to them through scripture. We know that all of scripture, while written with human hands, is the inspired Word of God in which he not only speaks to all of humanity, but also to each one of us on a personal level.
The practice of Lectio Divina goes back to the early Church, with the term first being used by Origen around 190. It was also a popular tradition among the desert monks in the 3rd and 4th centuries. In the 12th century, a Carthusian monk, named Guigo II, formalized the process we use today in his book, The Ladder for Monks: A Letter on the Contemplative Life, as he likens the steps in the process to a ladder that ascends from earth to heaven. Later, after the Second Vatican Council, there was a renewed encouragement of Lectio Divina, especially among the laity, as a way for the faithful to let the Word of God direct their lives. Now, we will examine each of the steps laid out by Guigo, in which he uses the analogy of eating the sweet first fruits of a young tree.
The first step is to select a verse or a longer scripture passage and read it. Often, when we read scripture, we approach it like a history book or a manual of how to live, and not so much as a personal love letter to us as individuals. While reading scripture more objectively is necessary and good, God also wants us to engage with his Word intimately in our hearts to know him more deeply as he reveals himself to us. Imagine a conversation in which a groom reveals more of his deepest self to his bride, strengthening the ties between their hearts. This is how God longs to speak to each one of us.
Once you have chosen the scripture on which to reflect, you must read it and do so more than once. Guigo describes this first step as picking the fruit from the tree and putting it in your mouth. Do not project any theological or deeper analysis of the text in this first step. Read it objectively and literally as you simply put the fruit in your mouth. Reading the text multiple times can be helpful. Slowing down or reading it out loud can help eliminate internal and external distractions. This is especially useful in our fast-paced, noisy world. If you are new to this method, it may be helpful to begin with the gospels, as they are more well-known and easier to read, but know that every single word in scripture was written intending to reveal God, and it is good to work up to even more obscure passages.
The second step of Lectio Divina is meditation, which Guigo compares to chewing. So, after you have put the fruit into your mouth (reading), it is time to start slowly chewing it with meditation. In this step, you are beginning to explore what the passage is saying specifically to you. Allow a single word, phrase, or image to emerge from the larger passage. In his letter Evangelii Gaudium (#153), Pope Francis suggests asking yourself some questions to help you zero in on a more focused word or phrase:
Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: 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?
This step of meditation moves you from an objective reading of scripture to a relational one in which God is expressing his deep and infinite love to you alone. When you chew your food, you also taste it in your own mouth. So, too, God speaks his Word into your personal life and reveals himself to you in those circumstances. For this reason, the word or phrase that emerges from a passage may change each time you meditate on it. Also, remember that sometimes this part of the process may seem easy, while other times, it may take more time and effort to chew on the Word before the favor reaches its fullness.
In this third step, you ask God to reveal what he wants you to know from the passage. He may be challenging you to take another step on your faith journey or guiding you through a particular situation. Maybe he is leading you to give him praise and thanksgiving for the work he has done in your life, or perhaps he simply wants you to feel his love for you more profoundly.
Guigo relates this step to swallowing the fruit you have chewed. Once you have tasted the sweetness of God’s Word, you want to commit to taking it into your body for nourishment by swallowing it, rather than spitting it out like you would rotten fruit. In this step, you allow God’s Word to become part of yourself so that it can work on you from the inside.
The final step of Lectio Divina is contemplation, where you allow the fruit of God’s Word to be digested. Here, you sit in silence without thinking about anything in particular. When you eat, the digestive process is passive as your internal systems transfer the nutrients throughout your body without you having to put in any conscious effort. The same is true for God’s Word. Sitting in passive silence and stillness allows the Word to nourish your body and transform it into a healthier version of itself, while you simply rest in God’s presence.
Similarly, as you change your diet to eat more nutritious food, you slowly see your body change and perform better. You will likewise see a change in your spiritual life as you increase your ingestion of his Word. Through this transformation, you develop a deeper union with God that you carry into the world, informing all your activities and your perception of your surroundings.
Before concluding, it is worth noting that, as Catholics, we do not believe in sola scriptura, which allows the interpretation of scripture to vary between individuals or denominations. Instead, we also believe in Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium to help ensure our interpretation of scripture is uniform and protected by the Holy Spirit. Pope Benedict clarifed:
In this regard, however, one must avoid the risk of an individualistic approach, and remember that God’s word is given to us precisely to build communion, to unite us in the Truth along our path to God. While it is a word addressed to each of us personally, it is also a word which builds community, which builds the Church. Consequently, the sacred text must always be approached in the communion of the Church. (Verbum Domini #86)
To this end, we should take advantage of Catholic resources, bible studies, and commentaries as questions arise regarding what God intends to communicate in specific passages.
Your challenge this week, naturally, is to give Lectio Divina a try. Of course, you may choose any passage you like, but since we are currently in a time of Eucharistic revival in the Church, I would like to suggest using the Bread of Life Discourse, John 6:48-68, in which Jesus loses many followers over what he is telling them about the truth of the Eucharist. Before beginning Lectio Divina on the passage, pray and ask God to help you deepen your understanding of the truth in the Eucharist as you chew, swallow, and digest his word.
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