My kids are now old enough to notice their skin wrinkle during bath time. They are equal parts freaked out and delighted by this. The more they sit in the tub, soaking in the water and the bubbles, the more they find their skin changing. The practice of lectio divina is a method of reading the Bible that similarly changes us the more we sit soaking in its stories.
Do you have a regular rhythm and practice of reading the Bible? And then once you do, how do you read? How we read the Bible is every bit as important as the fact that we do. Having, first of all, a desire to encounter the living God when we open the Scriptures is important. The Bible is more than just another book. It’s an opportunity to experience the Almighty God who made heaven and earth and you and has known you since the day you were born. By opening these pages of Scripture, we create a space of God to reshape us over time. Much like centering prayer, lectio allows us to slow down and make ourselves present to receive from God in the moment.
Consider this passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:
“‘Oh, Kitty, how nice it could be if we could only get through into Looking-Glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting though into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through—‘ She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.
“In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room.”
In one sense, lectio divina allows to do something like Alice does here. We step out of our world and become immersed in a new world, God’s world. In another sense, lectio divina opens our eyes to see the Holy Spirit stepping out of the pages and working in the world around us.
The term lectio divina means “spiritual reading.” It is a contemplative way of reading the Scriptures. Most of us in the modern world have been trained to experience the world first through our heads. And so, when we read the Bible, by default, we’re thinking about it, attempting to figure it out and explain it. We study the Bible.
Lectio divina flips this. In lectio, we give the Holy Spirit consent to study us as we read the Bible. We make space to simply be with God. In this way, we open the Bible as a means of transformation, not merely information. We read not just with with our minds, but our hearts, also.
As Robert Mulholland writes, “Lectio is a posture of approach and a means of encounter with a text that enables the text to become a place of transforming encounter with God.”
In the classic method of lectio divina there are four stages:
In this first stage, we prayerfully and carefully read. We lovingly take in the words on the page. We notice them. We observe them. We take them in, often reading them more than one or two times. Perhaps it’s a chapter. Or a paragraph. Or a sentence.
The idea is to read until something captures your attention. Read for quality. Not quantity. If you find yourself distracted by your own inquisitive questions, write them down in your journal so you can come back to them later. While a daily reading plan is often a helpful tool, if we’re not careful, it can devolve into checking a box. Lectio divina is not reading to check a box.
The second stage flows out of the first. Once you put the food in your mouth, then you chew it. We think about these words. Our minds are engaged. We trace the flow of the plot. We follow the logic of the argument.
Why does one scene follow the next? Why does that character respond this way? How does this sentence build upon this last one? Why did the author write this? More deeply, why did the Divine Author write this?
In the third stage, we listen to how God may be speaking. To continue the eating metaphor, once we swallow our food we trust our stomachs to continue the process of digesting the food. I don’t ever think about digesting my lunch. It simply happens. I trust a process.
How is this word, phrase, passage working on me? What does God have to say to me through this? What do I want to say to God about this? This is a place of dialogue. It requires patience. It means waiting for God. And that can be hard. We’ve been conditioned for instant gratification, even in our spiritual disciplines. But lectio divina is a way of reading that slows us down.
In the last stage, we open ourselves to a posture of receptivity from God. We allow God the final word. How do we respond to this word? Be silent. Don’t try to figure it out. Sit still and wait for God. Listen, and be okay with the quiet, even if it feels awkward. Allow yourself to rest in God’s presence.
In his book Invitation to a Journey, Robert Mulholland suggests two additional stages for those of us in the modern world to frame the four classical stages of lectio divina.
We live frantically busy lives. We submit ourselves to never-ending to-do lists. In order to even enter the holy space possible in lectio divina, we need to turn all that off.
We need a moment to shut off the monkey brain—those thousand thoughts constantly bouncing around in our heads. Sit in a comfortable place. Breathe, slowly and deeply. Let go of the distractions so that you can be fully present to God. And then begin reading. Take a deep breath and dive in.
This is a final step following resting that leads us back into the ordinariness of our world. If our encounter with God in the Scriptures hasn’t marked us in some way, reshaped our loves and desires so that we can better cooperate with God’s activity in the world, we’ve missed the most crucial piece.
If we walk away merely saying, “That was interesting,” we’ve missed it. We now respond to God. As Jesus says, “Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me.” Like my wrinkled kids in the tub, soaking in these stories transforms us. It changes us by growing our hearts to love God and neighbor so that we look more like Jesus.
François Fénelon writes, “As you read a passage from the Scriptures, pause after each verse or phrase to hear what God might be saying. Consider how Jesus practices what you are reading.”
If you find your Bible reading practice has fallen in a rut, commit to a rhythm of lectio divina for the next 30 days and see what might happen. If you’re new to lectio divina, start with one of the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John—and let yourself soak in and be changed by the words and deeds of Jesus.
Make a consistent time and place for it. Schedule it on your calendar. Use a journal write down what happens, what words or phrases jump out, what the Spirit shows you, what your conversation with God looks like.
May you be at once a little bit freaked out and a little bit delighted at how you find God changes you.
If you want to go deeper, Sacred Reading: The Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey.
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