The Practice of Lectio
We may now turn our attention to the actual “work” of lectio divina. We will examine some essential elements in the practice of each of the four dimensions, lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio, focusing especially on how everything we do as part of lectio divina can draw us closer to God.
Lectio, or reading, initiates lectio divina. We begin by choosing a Biblical text. We may, as Masini suggests, follow the liturgical readings, perhaps concentrating on the daily Gospel or psalm. (33) Magrassi, too, proposes that we follow the liturgical cycle both to prepare for and continue our “liturgical hearing” of Scripture, but Casey advises us to choose one book of the Bible and commit ourselves to working through it from beginning to end in order to preserve what he calls “the integrity of the text.” (34) We might also select texts along a particular theme, like sacrifice or love, or simply choose a passage that attracts our attention and touches our heart.c(35) More advanced practitioners of lectio divina may find appropriate lectio material in other sources, like liturgical texts or the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, but beginners should generally remain within the Sacred Scriptures, for there they are certain of meeting God Himself. (36)
With a chosen text before us, we may now begin lectio divina. We should start by offering a prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to guide us in our reading and open the Bible to us so that we can encounter God and enter into dialogue with Him. We may compose a prayer of our own, thereby taking ownership of the process of lectio divina from the very beginning, or we may use a pre-written prayer, being careful to make the words our own as we recite it. If possible, the prayer should be said aloud to bring our minds to attention, to focus us upon the task at hand, and to to connect us with God.
We will then begin to read our chosen text slowly and attentively, savoring each word and allowing the text to imprint itself on our minds, to present its images, and “to trigger memories and associations” (37) We must remember that we are not reading merely for information or enjoyment. We are reading to meet God, Who is present in a real but mysterious way in each word of the Bible. If we find it helpful, we can read the text out loud, for vocalizing employs more of our senses and opens new “points of contact” between the words and our psyches. (38) Some authors further suggest writing the text longhand as a way to assimilate it more deeply. When we've read the text through once (ten to twenty verses or fewer are enough to capture a passage without overwhelming us), we must return to the beginning and start over, this time reading slowly and attentively until something in the text, a word, a phrase, or an image, catches our attention. At this point we are ready to move into meditatio, to begin “chewing” the text we have just read. It is worth noting, however, that a few repetitions of the passage may be necessary, especially for beginners, to discover the “trigger” that will lead to meditation. There is nothing wrong with this. Patiently and calmly reading and re-reading the Scriptures is a prayer in itself because, as we do so, we place ourselves in the presence of God, Who is meditated through the written word. (39) Further, human beings by nature require repetition. The more we read, hear, or experience something, the better we understand it. This holds true for the Bible, too. The more we interact with the text, the more we repeat it, the more it becomes part of us. We must also mention that during lectio we should take time to make sure we understand (at least in part) our text's “literal sense,” that is, its literary and historical meaning or “the meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.” (40) We might, for instance, look up any words we do not know. We might examine a few commentaries to familiarize ourselves with the historical context, literary genre, and theological importance of the passage. We might also think about how the words and phrases are put together grammatically to tell a story, present a prophecy, or compose a poem. If we are curious, we might even look up a few words in their original language to appreciate their range of meaning. (41) Our goal is to gain knowledge about our passage, for the more background we have, the more likely we will be to accurately hear the message God is giving us through these human words of Scripture. Further, if we put in a little work, a little effort, we will quickly come to feel like this is our own special text, one that God has spoken directly to us.
The Practice of Meditatio
We have now read our selected text, probably several times. We have studied it a bit, too, and perhaps even applied ourselves to some background information concerning it. We have listened to God speaking to us through these words, which have probably become quite familiar to us. Now we must uncover the depths of meaning concealed within this passage. We must practice meditatio, the dimension in which we get to “the heart of the matter,” as Guigo says, and “examine each point thoroughly.” (42) We “chew” or ruminate on the text we have read, re-reading it again and again as we go along, but now pondering each word, phrase, or image that presents itself to our minds as a point of interest. We may begin by asking questions of the passage, or of a particular portion of it, as we try to discover what it tells us about God and how it might apply to our lives and to the life of the Church as a whole. (43) For instance, if we were meditating on the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector in Luke 19:1-10, we might be “caught” by the very first verse, “He [Jesus] came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.” (44) We may wonder, “Why was Jesus in Jericho in the first place?”; “”Where was Jericho, and did it have any special significance?”; Why did Jesus intend to pass through and not stay?”; “What happened to make Him change His mind?”; “Why was it important for Luke to tell us this?”; “How does Jesus 'stay' in the Church?”; “Has He ever come to me only to 'pass through' because I did not, for whatever reason, allow Him to stay with me?”; “What must I change about myself, and ask Jesus to help me change, so that He will remain in me?” The possibilities are endless. We should spend as much time as we need to answer the questions raised by the text, perhaps even returning to commentaries and reference books to assist us in clarifying points that we cannot puzzle out on our own. We should also pay close attention to the imagery, the word pictures, of the text, especially if it is a poem or a narrative. We might think, for example, of Zacchaeus sitting up in his tree craning his neck to see Jesus. After we chuckle a bit (yes, there is humor in the Bible), we might ask ourselves whether we would be willing to look foolish to others in order to see Jesus.
“Why must I do this,” a beginner in lectio divina may ask. “The Bible is the Word of God, right, so why should I put in all this effort? If the Holy Spirit guides me in lectio divina, shouldn't He just give me something to meditate on?” The Holy Spirit does indeed guide our meditation, and He does mysteriously lead us to particular images and words and suggest questions for us to ponder. He even performs the role of “exegete,” helping us grasp the message of Scripture. (45) But in doing so, He uses our minds, and He encourages us to use them, too! God has given us wonderful gifts, our reason, our intellect, our imagination, our memory. He wants us to exercise these as we ponder His Word, which itself is His gift to us. We must remember, too, that the Bible is both human and divine, and therefore, Scriptural meditation requires both human effort and divine guidance. (46) Meditatio may be intimidating at first, particularly to those who do not have much experience with the Bible, but if we come to the text with the proper dispositions, especially commitment, discipline, perseverance, and love, our meditation will grow and blossom into a greater understanding of the Sacred Scriptures, an awareness that we can and must make the Bible our own, a conviction that God is offering us a unique and personal message through His Word, and a desire to return His words to Him in prayer.
33. Masini, 80.
34. Magrassi, 106; Casey, 5.
35. Masini, 80.
36. For a detailed explanation of practicing lectio divina using the texts of Tradition, see Casey, 103-131.
37. Casey, 83.
38. Ibid.; Masini, 81.
39. Masini, 53.
40. Casey, 63; Second Vatican Council.
41. Ibid., 65-66.
42. Guigo, 70,
43. Magrassi, 91-97
44. Luke 19:1 NAB (New American Bible).
45. Masini, 10.
46. Magrassi, 54.