>Origins of Lectio
“To get the full flavor of an herb, it must be pressed between the fingers, so it is the same with the Scriptures; the more familiar they become, the more they reveal their hidden treasures and yield their indescribable riches.” (St. John Chrysostom, 370s)
“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” (St. Jerome, 400s)
“The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” (St. Augustine, 400s)
“All troubles of the Church, all the evils in the world, flow from this source: that men do not by clear and sound knowledge and serious consideration penetrate into the truths of Sacred Scripture.” (St. Teresa of Avila, 1500s)
The early centrality of reading of Sacred Scripture, and then meditating and praying over its meaning, is evident in the 48th chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict (400s).
But it was an 11th c. Carthusian prior named Guigo 1 who formalized Lectio Divina, describing the method in a letter written to a fellow religious. This letter, which has become known as Scala Paradisi (you can find it here) describes a 4-stepped ladder to Heaven. Those steps, and Guigo’s brief descriptions of them, are:
lectio (reading): “looking on Holy Scripture with all one’s will and wit”
meditatio (meditation): “a studious in-searching with the mind to know what was before concealed through desiring proper skill”
oratio (prayer): “a devout desiring of the heart to get what is good and avoid what is evil”
contemplatio (contemplation): “the lifting up of the heart to God tasting somewhat of the heavenly sweetness and savor”
Guigo then sums up the process with a nice little soundbyte: “Reading seeks, meditation finds, prayer asks, contemplation feels.”
If I had to sum up the process of Lectio I would say that it teaches you to listen.
Listen! In a sense, forget what you think about, all your great ideas. Just listen. If you do this properly you will reach a point where the presence of God is obvious. When you feel God present – STOP! Be very very still. This is a moment at the top of Mount Tabor – Christ is Transfigured – don’t be like Peter and being talking! You are before the Beloved of God, “listen to Him!”
A word of caution: Lectio (and all prayer) is not about feelings. You may get some amazing feelings of awe and wonder. Or you may get nothing. or you may get feelings of fear or sorrow. But prayer (and lectio) are not about feelings. It is not about ideas either – you may get a good idea, or you may get nothing and fall asleep. Or you may get confused and frustrated. It is not about ideas.
If it is not about feelings, and not about thinking, what is it? It is about trusting – trusting that God is faithful to His word, that He lives in your heart of hearts, and that he will accomplish what he set out to accomplish. That is prayer.
Step 1: Lectio
This is the most familiar for us all, so I do not need to spend much time on this. Instead let us practice. We will read from the Gospel of Mark. The passage for our session today will be Mark 1:40-45. So, for the first step of this, I want you to take about 15-20 minutes and learn about the book we are about to read, Mark, and about this opening chapter. Read the whole of chapter one and perhaps some of Chapter 2. Get a good feel for the passage, where it falls. Also look for how many people are in the scene, where does it take place. Do an inventory. become familiar with it. Also have a look at any of the cross-references for our particular passage – see if the scene happens in any other of the synoptic Gospels (Lk 5:17-26, Mt. 8:2-4). Any links to the OT? For those of us who know Mark better, then the challenge is to find something new – but it is there – just dig a little.
Step 2: Meditatio
Now we begin to go a little deeper. Now that you feel pretty familiar with what we are about to meditate on, and you have some idea of the context, and the overall place of the scene in the story, now we begin to meditate. What you will try to do is to bring this passage into your life, into your heart. This is the Living Word of God you have just read, so take, eat – it is good stuff.
One of the things you will do is to try to memorize the passage. Just repeat it to yourself until you can quote it, maybe not verbatim, but at least a very close paraphrase. Try to close your eyes and repeat the passage, replay the events. At the same time ask the Holy Spirit some questions:
What is this that I have just read like? Where have I seen some(thing/one) like that before?
As you think of the passage, try to come up with some adjectives to describe the scene, the person(s). Compare your words to the text – how does it match?
See if the Holy Spirit leads you to any other portion of Scripture, esp. the OT which shadows this. Or perhaps something in the Epistles? Look at the contexts – how are they different or the same?
This requires more attention than the informational reading we have just done. This is formational so it goes deeper.
We will now read the passage three times (organize readers) with 5 minutes silence in-between. Everyone listen very carefully, and try to repeat it to themselves. No peeking in your own Bible – let the reader read. After they are done, you can compare with your version. But try to do this quietly and without distracting the others (sitting arrangement).
Take notes if you wish, but try to keep them simple – this is not study anymore. You are to listen and absorb.
Step 3: Oratio
Ok – this gets even deeper. We will again read it three times. You try to get deeper into the message which is embedded in the passage by turning it into a prayer. That is, let the Holy Spirit suggest something in your life that this passage can serve as an example to pray. For example, the obvious thing here is that it is a request for healing, so you can remember this passage and say something like “Jesus you are always willing to heal, I raise up for you my illness, and I too will share the story of your healing with everyone.” Or something like that.
Step 4: Contemplatio
The final step is the easiest. You just rest in God. But it is very very hard to not-do something. So we need a way to stay put. One way is to adapt the method of Centering Prayer.
Centering Prayer is a method of praying which is the “other side” of Lectio. The two go together, the two should go together. Briefly, in Centering Prayer you have a word, a sacred word, something like “Jesus”, or “Love”. You sit still and you use this word to anchor yourself, and whenever you find your mind wandering you use the word to come back to being still. It is quite simple but very effective way of praying.
For some it will not feel like prayer – it lacks words, it lacks petitions, it lacks everything. But this is a deep prayer – it asks you to believe that Jesus is in your heart, that the Holy Spirit really does pray through you with deep sighs, and that it may be better if you just let that deep prayer arise without all the noise and activity from your mind and from your lips.
How does this link? With Lectio you will be grounding your prayer in two things – in the Word of God, and on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Is it better? Not really. But being able to let the Holy Spirit give you a word has two advantages: it guards you from thinking your word is a sacred mantra of some sort (it isn’t); and it allows you to begin a relationship, a conversation, with the Holy Spirit.
So, as you worked through the first three stages you are left with a clear impression form the text, can you get it down to one word? Maybe one of the words of the text, or perhaps the Spirit gave you a word which sums up this passage? Use that.
What do you do, you sit, as we have been sitting, and you allow your mind to be filled with the word, with the image, so that all other thoughts are either silenced or they chime in harmoniously, adding and deepening your awe at the depth of the Word of God.
This is not really about having a vacuum in your mind – that is not the point. The point is the opposite – it is to be filled with God. So filled that you don’t really have “your” thoughts, “your” anything. It is just God.
Let me repeat my word of caution: prayer is not about feelings. It is not about ideas. It is about trusting – trusting that God is faithful to His word, that He lives in your heart of hearts, and that he will accomplish what he set out to accomplish.
You just rest with full trust.