A Look at Lectio Divina
2020 is the Year of the Word and the tenth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (which is all about Scripture), so this year seems like a very appropriate one to encourage you all to open up your Bibles and do some spiritual reading! This is especially the case if we will be spending more time at home because of lock-down.
St Jerome once said that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” and as Jesus tells us that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) it would seem that engaging with Scripture is essential. The Bible is sometimes described as the ‘Book of Life’ because it contains the life-giving words of Jesus, who describes himself as “the bread of life” (John 6.35). Whilst he feeds us with this bread every time that we receive Holy Communion, this has now been denied to us during lock-down. However, rest assured that we can still receive this bread of life. We can do so simply by means of desire (otherwise known as spiritual communion), but also through the practice of Lectio Divina.
So, what is Lectio Divina? Well, let us first compare it to what it is not. These days most people practise ‘extensive reading’ whereby we read though a wide range of literature either for entertainment or for information. We are pulled along by the narrative or argument and do not stop to pause and reflect deeply on each chapter or paragraph. Lectio Divina, on the other hand, is a form of close reading whereby we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures and keep returning to them. Before the 18th century close reading of a few key texts such as the Bible was the norm and even most of the wealthy only had a comparatively modest collection of books. This changed as books became cheaper and more widely available, especially with the emergence of public libraries. Now whilst extensive reading is great in terms of improving our literary knowledge or filling an idle hour with a gripping yarn, it is not so great when it comes to reading texts such as the Bible which are supposed to nourish our spiritual life.
In Lectio Divina we are nourishing our spiritual lives by inwardly digesting the Word of God. For just as we need to digest physical food in order to give us energy for life, we also need to inwardly digest spiritual food in order to give us the spiritual energy we need to live as followers of Christ. As Our Lord put it, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4). And again, just as we chew our food so must we also chew over the Scripture we read – reading the same passage repeatedly to suck out as much nourishment from it as we can. Let us be able to say with the Prophet Jeremiah, “Thy words were found, and I ate them, and thy words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jeremiah 15.16). Because the encounter with Christ in Scripture is of such vital importance to our spiritual lives, Pope Benedict XV in his encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus exhorted the bishops of the Church to “never desist from urging the faithful to read daily the Gospels, the Acts and the Epistles, so as to gather thence food for their souls.”
In Lectio Divina we first choose a passage of Scripture to read, preferably short and no longer than a chapter in length – remember the key is to read Scripture closely and not race through it as we might a novel. Indeed, you might even want to spend a whole week reflecting on the same passage. After we have decided on a passage, we read it and note what verse or verses resonate in our hearts, as that probably indicates what God is trying to say to us in that passage. As we continue to ponder over the text in our hearts we will find that the Holy Spirit will use the inspired words to mould us into the loving and virtuous people he wants us to become. That is not to say that we will suddenly become perfect (by no means!), but if done regularly and consistently we will have a better understanding of God’s will and therefore grow in love for God and neighbour.
So now we have established the benefits of this practice how do we go about implementing Benedict XV’s advice of integrating Bible-reading into our daily lives? Well, I have found that the best way to start a new daily habit is to tie it to an already existing habit. So for instance, if you are in the habit of making a cup of coffee or tea first thing in the morning perhaps take the time when you are drinking it to also nourish your soul by spending time with Scripture. Alternatively (or additionally) you might want to spend time with Scripture every night before turning out your light or when you have finished your last lecture of the day. Find a time that works best for you and stick to it!
Furthermore, Lectio Divina works not only as a solitary activity, but also an activity that you can do with others as it works very well in group settings. Reading the Bible with others can be a great way of building up the Church and encouraging each other in faith, as what God speaks to others through Scripture can also be shared with others in a group setting. With modern technology and access to the internet we can do this even during the impending lock-down. Look to see if your parish runs an online Lectio Divina group and if not perhaps think about starting up your own. Alternatively, perhaps you might want to pair up with another person and read the same passages together daily so that you can discuss it with each other and keep each other accountable in your daily reading. Either way, find a method that works in helping you and others engage with Scripture during this lock-down period and beyond.