We have already seen how Guigo, and others before and after him, divided lectio divina into four dimensions (or steps or elements or times, depending upon the author's choice of terminology): lectio or reading; meditatio or meditation; oratio or prayer: and comtemplatio or contemplation. For now, we will only define these terms and briefly discuss their interrelations; part 2 of our study will offer instructions for their practice.
Lectio or reading begins the process of lectio divina. This dimension involves a careful, attentive reading of the Scriptural text. Keeping an open mind and an open heart, the reader slowly reads and savors each word, making sure he or she understands its meaning and the way it relates to the words, phrases, and sentences surrounding it. The reader may read the text aloud and repeat it a number of times, gradually solidifying it in the mind. Also at this point, the reader may find it helpful to turn to a Bible dictionary or commentary to clear up any confusion about the text (we will speak more on this in part 2). At any rate, the first stage of lectio divina thoroughly scrutinizes the text itself, working on the “outside,” as Guigo says, and providing the reader with “food” for the next stage of lectio divina, the meditatio. (5)
According to Guigo, meditatio “chews” the food taken into the mouth (the mind) through lectio. (6) In meditatio, the reader moves deeper into the text, going to “the heart of the matter,” examining the text from a variety of angles, pondering all the possible meanings that it might hold, and trying to assimilate it and see how it resonates in his or her own life. (7) This is the time for a “theological-spiritual development of the subjects that arise from the lectio.” (8) The reader may ask, “What are the deeper meanings of the text?” or “How does it show me Who God is?” or “What do these words tell me about my own life of prayer or activity?” The possibilities are endless, and in fact, the meditatio stage of lectio divina is often the most time-consuming. Indeed, Mario Masini notes that meditatio “is the time to rest in the word, to inhabit it as one's own homeland, to put down one's tent in it. It is the time to live it with one's mind and heart, allowing it to descend from the mind which knows it to the heart which welcomes it.” (9) Here the Sacred Scriptures become the reader's very own possession, rooted deeply in the heart and the mind and made ready to blossom in the next dimension of lectio divina, the oratio.
Oratio means prayer. During this time of lectio divina, the reader responds to God, Whom he or she has listened to in lectio and pondered in meditatio, echoing back to Him the words of the Bible as blessing and adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise. (10) This “spontaneous and confident dialogue” springs from love aroused in the heart and flows out in love toward God, Who is the Source of all love. (11) Then, guided by the Holy Spirit, the reader rises up, if God so wills, through oratio and into the highest stage of lectio divina, the contemplatio.
Contemplatio could be considered both a dimension of lectio divina and its goal. In contemplatio, the reader's soul moves beyond words and thoughts and into an intimate, loving, calm, and silent union with the Blessed Trinity. Let us listen for a moment to the prayer of mystic John of Fécamp as he attempts to capture his contemplative experience: “My spirit raises up to You, only God, a heart that is pure. Everything is still, all is calm, my heart burns with love. My soul overflows with joy, my memory with vigor, my understanding with light. And my whole spirit, inflamed with the desire to see Your beauty, feels itself enraptured by love of invisible realities.” (12) Swept up in a flood of love, the soul is drawn to God, glimpsing, as far as possible in this life, the realities of the beatific vision. Deep within what the Dominicans call the posterior soul, beyond the realm of cognition and sense, the reader meets God and basks in His presence. No one can achieve this blessed state on his or her own power. Contemplatio is a pure gift from God. (13) It is not earned by hard work. It is not achieved automatically as the result of a technical process. It is a gift of God that we must open our hearts to receive. Lectio divina helps us to do this. Through our lectio, meditatio, and oratio, we get to know God in His Word; we grow closer to Him; and we allow Him access to our deepest selves. Then, if God so wills, are we prepared to rest joyfully and calmly in His love, enjoying, we might say, a little foretaste of Heaven. (14)
From this brief discussion of the four dimensions of lectio divina, we might come to the conclusion that the stages or steps always follow each other in a linear sequence, and often this is true. Guigo does, after all, refer to lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio as rungs on a ladder to Heaven and notes that “one precedes another, not only in the order of time but of causality.” He continues, “Reading comes first, and is, as it were the foundation; it provides the subject matter...for meditation. Meditation considers more carefully what is to be sought after...it directs us to prayer. Prayer lifts itself up to God with all its strength, and begs for the treasure it longs for, which is the sweetness of contemplation.” Finally, contemplation “inebriates the thirsting soul with the dew of heavenly sweetness.” (15) There is, then, a sequential order to lectio divina, but like all things of God, the dimensions of lectio divina are much more complex in their interrelations then they first appear.
Lectio divina must never be perceived as merely a recipe for spirituality with hard and fast steps to follow in order to achieve a desired outcome. The dimensions are never, as Cisterian monk Michael Casey warns, “rigid and prescriptive.” Instead, he maintains, lectio divina's stages “are more like colors of a rainbow than bureaucratic categories. The different moments ebb and flow; sometimes they overlap, at others they drift apart.” (16) In fact, lectio divina offers much space for flexibility. One might, for instance, begin with prayer; alternate swiftly between lectio and meditatio as the mind turns over the words of the text; practice oratio and then drop “back down” to lectio to be further inspired by God's word; or perhaps, if God so chooses, even be swept up into contemplatio at the mere sight of a word or phrase. This does not mean, however, that we are free to disregard one or more of the dimensions of lectio divina. In fact, Guigo cautions us against such an aberration with the warning that “reading without meditation is sterile, meditation without reading is liable to error, prayer without meditation is lukewarm, meditation without prayer is unfruitful, prayer when it is fervent wins contemplation, but to obtain it without prayer would be rare, even miraculous.” (17) Mario Masini further reminds us that the moments or dimensions of lectio divina constitute a united and “spontaneous flow of one into the other,” back and forth as God leads the reader on his or her journey through the Biblical text. (18) We must remain open and adaptable, following the Lord's lead as He guides us deeper into lectio divina and deeper into His presence.
5. Guigo II, 69; Masini, 28, 80-83; Mariano Magrassi, Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1998), 105.
6. Guigo II, 69.
7. Masini, 53-54; Magrassi, 108-109.
8. Masini, 84.
9. Ibid., 54.
10. Ibid., 57, 90-91; Magrassi, 113; The Catechism of the Catholic Church, http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/ccc_toc.htm (accessed 27 June, 2009).
11. Magrassi, 115; Masini, 91.
12. Masini, 93.
13. Ibid., 94; Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Act of Lectio Divina (Ligouri: Ligouri/Triumph, 1995), 58.
14. Ibid., 67, 94; Magrassi, 104; Guigo II, 86; Casey 58.
15. Guigo II, 79.
16. Casey, 58.
17. Guigo II, 82.
18. Masini, 71.