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The practice of lectio divina, (divine reading), is foundational to monastic life. So important is divine reading to the spiritual well-being of a monk that, traditionally, we devoted some of the best hours of the day to this practice. Lectio Divina is a discipline whose fruits are experienced over time. One needs to understand the practice and then commit to it with some regularity.
It is supremely important for you to realize that, when you are doing Lectio Divina, you are encountering the very Word of God. When the words of scripture are read with faith, Jesus is present. Think about that, and ask yourself: "Where do you I keep my bible? Is it stuck on a shelf with a bunch of other books? Is it lying on the floor next to my socks? If this word is truly the living presence of the Lord in your midst, might it not make sense to place your bible on a bookstand? Maybe, when it comes time to read your bible, you might light a candle. Light is a wonderful and very ancient symbol of the mystery of Jesus' presence. These are easy things to do, and will make you more conscious that, reading the bible, you are encountering the living Word of God.
Lectio Divina is slow reading. It's a little like reading a love letter. Did you ever receive a love letter from someone? When you are reading something someone very special wrote and you can actually feel the person present next to you, then, you are in no hurry as you read. You take your time; you read over certain parts again and again because doing so seems to make the person's felt presence grow stronger. The purpose of of a love letter is not to teach you new things. This is a letter from someone you love and whose absence you feel. Lectio Divina is like reading a love letter from God. As the presence of the beloved is felt, you will be inclined to slow down; to savor particular words, expressions and images.
Traditionally, Lectio Divina has been described as progressing in four movements: "Lectio" - reading the word of God, "Meditatio" - meditating on that word, "Oratio" - offering a prayer response to the meditated word, and "Contemplatio" - contemplation, that is, quietly abiding in the experience of being, heart and soul, a total "yes" to God.
First - one reads the word of God. It may be helpful to designate a particular place that you can withdraw to each day to do Lectio Divina. In your mind, this place is a set apart for sacred activity; a simple and beautiful place which you begin to associate with God's loving presence. This is a place you are reasonably sure you are not going to be disturbed.
You will need to set time aside for this exercise, at least fifteen or twenty minutes each day, and it will be important that you make it a regular practice. Monks have found that the darkness of early morning, when the world is still asleep, is an especially fitting time for Lectio Divina.
Some monks begin Lectio Divina with a prayer inviting God's Holy Spirit to bless and guide their reading. An example might be: "Heavenly Father, in whose Word all things are made, draw me by your Holy Spirit into the mystery of these sacred words."
You will need to choose a passage of scripture to read. There are various approaches you can take. Some monks begin at the start of the bible or a book of the bible and read straight through, continuously. Others prefer to make a random selection of a reading each day. A particularly fruitful approach is to read the Lectionary readings of the day. This will help you enter into and experience deeply the different feasts and liturgical seasons throughout the year.
"Meditation" is a word that is understood in many different ways in our pluralistic North American culture. "Meditatio" actually refers to a quite distinctive form of Christian meditation. Christian meditation, strictly speaking, is not being present to the mind as an expanded experience of the self. This is certainly a worthwhile practice and will bear its own kind of fruits, but it is not really what we are referring to when we speak of Christian meditation. "Meditatio" also doesn't mean shutting down the mind in order to experience "no self". This, again, can be a fruitful exercise, but Christian meditation is something different. By "Meditatio", we mean:
Carrying the living word of God from the mind down into the heart where it awakens in us a loving response.
How does one "carry" the word of God from the mind down into the heart? Monks do this in different ways. Reading the scriptures aloud in a soft voice gives you a physical experience of the word of God; completes the intellectual apprehension of the word with a sensory experience. Repetition is another way to "carry" the word from the mind down into the heart. As the words are softly repeated, one has a fuller, felt experience of their meaning.
The fruit of meditatio is self-knowledge. St. Bernard once described the sacred word as "a beam of light thumbing through the book of your life"!
Having read and meditated on the Word of God; having carried that word from your head down into your heart, a response is awakened in the heart and given expression in prayer. "Oratio" means prayer. Your personal responses to the word of God will be diverse. When the living Word of God gains entrance into the innermost recesses of your heart, your response can be unpredictable. This is where things get interesting! The word of God may awaken in you memories and associations. You may find yourself stirred by an unexpected rush of emotion: hopefulness, anxiety, elation, or anger.
You may also experience boredom. Be reflective about this experience. It could be that you simply are bored. But boredom can also indicate a complex emotional experience to something you just read. Maybe the words you just read are unwelcome or challenging to you. ("I say - forgive your brother seven times seven times!") This can set up an interior conflict or ambivalence inside you which in turn draws psychic energy which can make you feel tired. You say "I feel bored", or "I am having no response to this passage", but you may have just read something that is calling you to conversion and something in you is resisting that call.
"Contemplatio" or contemplation is the goal and prize of the practice of Lectio Divina. It is also something that is difficult to describe and talk about! Contemplation might be describes as the quiet experience of the God in Jesus Christ alive in his church; an experience in which all oppositions are reconciled, divisions between hearts are healed; where all resistance to God is abandoned, and the soul becomes a unified and complete "yes" to God.
St. Bernard, the spiritual father of our order, described contemplation as what happens when the the likeness of God is restored to the human soul. Seeing His own likeness once again in the soul, God "snatches up", ("rapture"), the soul and introduces it into the deepest secrets and most intimate communion shared by the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Why "snatched up?" Bernard says: "Because, while the Son "comes down" to us, and the Holy Spirit also "comes down" to us, the Father does not "come down" but takes us up to where He is.
Lectio Divina is a gift from God, one of the most precious He bestows on us. And so we pray: "Thank you Father for the gift of your beloved Son, our Savior. Thank you for the sacred word he gave us. We believe this word has power to transform our lives and promise to dispose ourselves to receive this word; to ponder it in our hearts; and let it impregnate us with divine life as did Mary the Mother of God!"