Here at L’Abri I have found that along with, “How do you read the Bible?”, one of the most common questions people ask is, “How do I pray?” I have found the movements of lectio divina (“holy” or “divine reading”) offer these answers: Read the Bible by praying; pray by reading the Bible. In other words, reading the Bible and praying go hand-in-hand.
Lectio divina has been around for a long time (at least since the 6th century in Benedictine monasteries) and aims to listen to the Scriptures with the “ear of the heart.” I first began to learn the prayerful movements of this way of reading the Bible in 2009, after graduating from Regent College with a master’s degree in theological studies. Most Wednesday mornings, as my Vancouver neighborhood was waking up, I walked half a block to my church’s urban retreat center–a converted basement apartment that was said to have once been a prohibition era speakeasy–to gather with a handful of other people from my congregation to read aloud and pray with a short passage of Scripture. Then we ate a simple breakfast together and went on our way.
While lectio divina (among other spiritual practices) has gained in popularity in Protestant circles in recent years to the point of seeming “liturgi-cool” (as Joshua jokingly calls it), this way of approaching the Bible helped span the gap years of church upbringing and academic study had put between “the ear of my heart” and God’s primary means of communication. Not that church upbringing or academic study of the Bible are necessarily problems in themselves–both have given me their own sets tools for reading the Bible–but as Dick noted here, if you’re going to spend your life with the Bible, flexibility is important. After grad school, I needed a reading approach that helped me bring my whole self to Scripture again–unfortunately true to some of my professor’s warnings, reading the Bible had become an academic burden requiring more than I could give on a day-in and day-out basis. Moreover, I can see now that what I needed was a way to let the words of Scripture become strange to me again; I thought I knew what the Bible said and so I wasn’t actually hearing it. Put differently, I needed to learn how to slow down and pray with Scripture as I read it.
So how do you “do” lectio divina? There are five movements (or moments–I think it is fair to say the relationship between these components is dynamic more than it is linear): silence, hearing, meditating, praying, contemplating (or resting). In silence, you begin by acknowledging Christ’s presence in the person of the Holy Spirit, ready to speak in the words of Scripture to your heart. The short passage of Scripture (a psalm or a piece of one of the Gospels are great places to begin) is then read three times, aloud, slowly. It has helped me to think of these readings in terms of the process of eating: first, you taste the word, then you chew on it, then you swallow it. Finally, what you have eaten begins to metabolize, and by the grace of God you become what you eat.
To break this down a little more, in the first reading, you are meant to turn “the ear of the heart” to the Scripture passage, and notice if there is a word or phrase in the passage that stands out–this is tasting the word. And what stands out can stand out for any reason: it is troubling; it is arresting; it is confusing; it is surprising; it is beautiful; etc. In the second reading, you meditate on the passage–especially the particular word or phrase that stands out–turning it over, asking, “How does this connect with my own life? How am I responding to this word? Why am I responding in this way?” This is chewing on the word. These questions are all asked as prayers, as things to mull over with Christ’s help. In the third reading, you pray in response to the words God has spoken in the Scripture, and in thought and prayer while reading. This is swallowing the word. Finally, in contemplating or resting in the words God has given, you trust God to make his words part of you. And you go on into your day, fed and nourished.
A concluding note: this way of reading can be done in solitude, but I also recommend doing this with another person or a small group if possible, giving a brief time of sharing thoughts and insights between the three readings. There are several benefits to corporate lectio divina: simply hearing the passage read aloud by others helps you hear things you wouldn’t if you were reading to yourself; hearing what stands out to other people in a passage of Scripture will help you hear it more fully, too; it is harder to skip over troubling moments in the Bible when you are reading in a group (it is good to be bothered by moments like “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts” (Ps. 7:12-13); it is good to wrestle with different meanings of the same word and to be enriched–and at times corrected–by one another’s knowledge.
During term here in Southborough, all are welcome to read the Bible and pray together in the tradition of lectio divina on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings before breakfast. Starting in January, we will be “eating” our way through Psalm 119. You are welcome to join us in the tiled room–or from afar.
If you are interested in further resources for leading lectio divina for a group, email Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further reading on lectio divina and reading the Bible prayerfully, see Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book.