At least half an hour of our daily monastic timetable is devoted to lectio divina. Lectio Divina (or ‘sacred reading') is a practice which originated among those who listened to and pondered upon the Sacred Scriptures. St Benedict devoted a significant part of the monastic day to this form of contact with the Word of God in his Rule. His disciples were encouraged to become ‘listeners’ and especially to God’s Word, and to learn it by heart. This was more than rote learning, for he wanted them to fall in love with the Word, and ‘ponder it in their hearts’. The Desert Fathers and Mothers considered the Word less impenetrable than the hearts of its listeners, yet the main purpose of the Word was to live in the heart and transform the lives of disciples.
Although lectio divina has been considered more an attitude to the Scriptures than a method of reading, the Prior of the Grande Chartreuse, Guigo II, developed lectio during the 12th Century, into a method with four 'movements'. These were: reading (lectio), which consists in choosing a passage of Scripture, regarding its ‘Sense’ or meaning, reading the passage slowly, even several times or out-loud, and moving on to the second stage. This is ruminating on the text (meditatio), which involves chewing the Word to extract its flavours, and allowing the Word to move from the ‘head’ to the ‘heart’. This can be the longest part of the process. Once the heart is penetrated, we move on to the third stage: prayer (oratio), which ideally springs from the heart. Whatever emotion has been enlivened, it can characterise the prayer, which may be prayer ‘with tears’ or praise or thanks or the silent prayer of being with God. However, we cannot engineer the final ‘movement’ which is contemplation (contemplatio) which is a pure gift of God, and may come to us in a great variety of ways.
In practical terms, there are various pieces of advice from the practitioners of this art. In individual practice, it is good to give oneself a dedicated time and place for lectio divina. The monastic practice varies from half an hour to two hours, but this must be balanced against the demands of a busy life. A place can be prepared and a small ritual performed to ennoble the time for lectio. To take a whole Book of the Bible and read it right through is also good advice, since this avoids the ‘supermarket’ effect of choosing the passages we like. ‘Close reading’ or taking a very small passage (even one or two verses) is another recommendation, and a daily encounter with God’s Word in this way can be a means of ongoing formation, since we ‘hold’ the Scriptures in one hand, and the book of our experience in the other.
Lectio divina can also be practiced in a group, and this is a threefold listening. We listen to the Word as it is read to us; we listen to the response from our own hearts; and we listen to the responses of the ‘church’ or other members of the group. This builds up the Body of Christ as surely as the celebration of the Eucharist, and can also be a deeply ecumenical experience. It is good to begin with familiar books of the New Testament, before moving on to more obscure books or into the Old Testament, but we can also use ‘Rules’ or the writings of Early Christians and expand our encounter with Christ and with God’s Spirit, who inspires the reading as well as the writing of those who believe.