Many Christians engage the Bible only with their minds, thinking about what they read and learning what they should believe. But what about the rest of our being? In addition to thoughts, the human person is made up of emotions, will, body, relationships, and soul (Mark 12:30-31). The Word of God needs to work it’s way into all the parts of our personality so that we are formed more and more into the image of Christ.
This is why the Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). For Scripture to interact deeply with our whole self requires that we read it reflectively, prayerfully, and in conversation with others. One way to let God’s Word dwell deeply in us to use the ancient practice of “Lectio Divina,” which is Latin for “Divine Reading.”
Lectio Divina was developed as a formal discipline for Scripture meditation in ancient times by Benedict of Nursia (480 – 547). It has been expanded further over the centuries by monks who follow Saint Benedict’s “Rule,” but it isn’t just for monks! Or Catholics. Anyone can benefit from this disciplined and delightful way of praying a Bible passage.
In Lectio Divina we read and re-read a Scripture passage (a story from the Gospels or a Psalm work especially well) slowly and prayerfully as a means of furthering our intimacy with Jesus and submitting to his kingdom rule in our lives. We approach the living Word of God ready to hear the Lord speak to us, anticipating that the historical and inspired text will be freshly applied by the Holy Spirit to the personal text of our lives today.
The underlying process of Lectio Divina engages the whole person before Christ as it flows through four R’s as we slowly read, silently reflect, prayerfully respond, and simply rest in God’s presence.
Benedict’s way of reading the Scripture emphasizes listening deeply, “with the ear of our hearts” (Benedict’s Rule, Prologue). There is no hurry in Lectio Divina. Nor is there any intellectual strain to figure out the Scripture’s meaning. We simply wait quietly on the Holy Spirit as we read, listening for the still, small voice of the Lord (1 Kings 19:12) to speak personally to us through his Word. (See below for discussion on the importance of silence in Lectio Divina.)
As God speaks to us we reflect on his Word by “ruminating” on it in our minds. We may focus on one phrase or one word at a time. Like the virgin Mary who pondered in her heart the message of Christ’s incarnation (Luke 1:26-38) we gently and slowly repeat the Word to ourselves over and over so that it interacts with and informs our thoughts and feelings, our beliefs and desires. We’re renewing our minds to be transformed in God’s wonderful ways (Romans 12:2).
Because God has come to us we can go to him and so we respond to his Word by offering our hearts to him in conversation. We express to our Loving Lord whatever feelings or longings are stirred up in us by the Scripture. We confess to him a sin, struggle, or hurt.
As we let the Scripture open our heart to God in this way we find that his arms of grace are open wide to embrace us. In his care our deepest selves find the acceptance, comfort, and healing that we long for.
The Lectio Divina process ends with resting quietly in God’s arms. No words are necessary at this point. God’s Word has focused us on Christ’s indwelling presence. So we simply stay there with Christ in love, joy, and peace. We’re tasting the Lord’s goodness (Psalm 34:8).
Benedictine monks (followers of Benedict) and many other devout Christians have continued the rich spiritual practice of Lectio Divina over the centuries, often modifying the process of how the Word is listened to and responded to.
One of the most dangerous things in the world is to study the Bible without submitting to God. Lectio Divina cultivates an attitude of humility and submission to God. You get out of the way and you open yourself to be spoken to and transformed by God. And you find that he brings his life to your life through the Scripture. The disciplined way of reading slowly and prayerfully helps you to listen to the Lord.
Practicing Lectio Divina over time trains us in this demeanor of submission before the Lord which is the key to every aspect of our spiritual life in Christ.
I learned to meditate deeply and pray quietly on Scripture from Pastor Jim Friedman. He didn’t call this “Lectio Divina” – he’d just say, “Let’s open up God’s Word together and listen to what he has to say to us.” Then we’d be quiet together in God’s presence.
When Jim opened his Bible he opened his heart. He’d read the passage deliberately and then he’d listen silently. Then we’d each talk about what we noticed and how the passage interacted with our lives. Then he’d ask me (or someone else when we were in his discipleship group) to read the passage again in a different translation and we’d listen and mediate and share some more.
Finally, we’d talk to God together about his Word and what he was speaking into our personal lives. It was later that I found that this form of meditation has been around for a long time called Lectio Divina.
I have found it especially meaningful to share scriptures with others in groups. I have had the pleasure of leading men with addictions, pastors, and other ministry leaders and church groups. The way that I was mentored by trusted people who instructed me.
A group can be a very rich and deeply personal sharing of souls if the leader knows how to guide the group effectively! It’s important for Group Leaders to learn the process from a spiritual mentor and to use it personally in their own lives before leading other people. As you absorb the quiet spirit and gentle rhythm of Lectio then you can naturally share it with others. (In the spiritual life you can’t very well pass on what you haven’t personally experienced and integrated into your life with God!)Just teaching is not part of the process. True scripture meditation involves a spirtual connection not just one way flow of information.
It takes time for new members in Groups to participate effectively in the purpose and pacing for meanaful rhythm to take place. The conversation in a Lectio Group is different than it is typical in Christian small groups. Lectio is not a time to analyze the Bible passage or give opinions on what it means like we may do in Bible study. Nor is it appropriate for lengthy sharing of personal needs or giving advice like may be done in some support groups.
One way to do Lectio is for the group to read together through a Bible passage three times. Each reading is offered by a different member out loud (which is the way the Scriptures have been experienced by most people for most of our history) so that we can literally hear God’s Word ministered to us.
Each reading is guided by a focus question to help us engage deeply with God’s Word. The leader gives the focus question before each reading of the text.
Typical focus questions are:
1. 1st Reading: Listen to the Holy Spirit minister God’s Word to you. What one word or phrase especially touches your heart?
2. 2nd Reading: Enter the passage. What emotions do you have? What personal struggle or longing in your life today is God speaking into? (Be specific.)
3. 3rd Reading: Receive what Christ has for you today. What is your personal invitation from the Lord? What do you sense God might be saying to you?
Sometimes four readings are done. In that case there is no sharing after the first reading which is used to get acquainted with the whole passage. And then the three focus questions above can be used for the last three readings.
After the three readings there is a period of silence of about three to seven minutes for further meditation, prayer, and resting in God’s presence. In the quiet we learn to hold our thoughts and feelings in the flow, images, and experience of the Bible passage. We’re following the advice of the ancient spiritual writers: “Let the Word of God descend from your mind down into your heart.” (Our heart is our will, not our feelings; it’s where we make our choices.)
As we quietly marinate in the juices of God’s Word we’re absorbing God’s grace and truth, training our will to attend to his presence, listening to him speak into our lives, and submitting ourselves to be formed in the image of Christ.
In Group Lectio Divina the silence is an opportunity for group members to hold one another before Christ who is actually present in the person of the Holy Spirit. The group’s quiet concentration on Christ and prayerful attentiveness to what he’s saying through the Bible passage assists individuals in learning to “be still and know” that the Lord is God (Psalm 46:10).
Some group members will struggle with the silence at first. Many of us in our culture today fill our lives with noise and activity. Being quiet and still in a group our bodies may feel antsy and jittery. Our minds may wander. We may not feel connected to God. It takes mentoring from experienced group members and practice to learn how to use silent prayer to connect deeply with God, your own self, and the others in your group.
Participants may wish to journal their reflections during the silence. This helps with being still and attentive to God. And it provides a record of your meditation and conversation with God that you can refer back to.
In a Lectio Group the sharing is brief, personal, and prayerful.
It’s very special when people share openly with one another what God seems to be saying to them or how things are going in their relationship with Christ. As members listen to one another they can feed off of the fruit of others’ meditations. Soul talk like this promotes spiritual friendship as members draw closer, not only to one another, but also to Christ in one another!