By Marcia Hotchkiss
I have always been a reader. Going to the public library weekly was an activity that I treasured as a child. When my faith became more real to me in high school, I participated in Bible study to learn more about God, as well as the people and historical context of Scripture. My prayers were mainly me talking to God, telling him my concerns and confessing my sins. Although both this type of study and this type of prayer is useful, as I matured, I wanted something more, a connection that felt more real in my heart and my soul.
During my spiritual direction training, I was introduced to different types of contemplative prayer practices. One that was new to me was lectio divina, which is also called “sacred reading” or “divine listening.” The Western Church was first introduced to lectio divina by the desert fathers and mothers, and it was later incorporated into St. Benedict’s rule of life. The practice draws on the manner in which the Haggadah, a Passover text that relates the story of the Exodus, is read by Jews. The literal meaning of Haggadah is “telling,” and the name captures the practice of telling an important story again and again. This type of Scripture reading is for formation, rather than information. As Thomas Cranmer wrote in his “Homily on Scripture,” “Let us ruminate, and, as it were, chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort and consolation of them.”
The practitioner’s aim during lectio divina is to listen with their heart to the sacred text for what they hear being said to them by God. Most often the sacred text is Scripture, but sometimes other texts are used. Often gospel stories, parables of Jesus, or psalms are the Scriptures selected. In writing about lectio divina, the contemplative nun, author, and speaker Joan Chittister says, “This reading becomes a dialogue among writer, reader, and the spirit of God within us. It gives insight, understanding, and a new spirit, the flowering of the soul.”
There are four phases in this type of prayer: reading (lectio), reflecting on (meditatio), responding to (oratio), and resting in (contemplatio) with the ultimate goal being to nourish and deepen one’s relationship with God. The Jesuit author and priest James Martin in Learning to Pray describes the four steps like this:
- Reading — What does the text say?
- Meditation — What does the text say to me?
- Prayer — What do I want to say to God on the basis of the text?
- Action — What difference can this text make in how I act?
In short, the idea is to sit with the reading in an unhurried and listening posture, believing that God wants to speak with and to us.
Although lectio divina predates Ignatian spirituality, the practice became mostly lost to the Western Church. In the middle of the 20th century the Catholic Church had a resurgence of lectio and other types of contemplative spirituality, and these practices began to spread to mainline and other churches. However, there have been some vocal objections to lectio divina in recent times. Unfortunately, these arguments misstate and misinterpret the actual practice of lectio divina by saying that any type of emptying of one’s mind is a type of mysticism and has no rational value. I think these objections fail to see the bigger picture. No contemplative believes that lectio divina usurps the importance for Bible study and logical inquiry, which is needed “so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (1 Tim. 3:17). The rector of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Ottawa, Canada, the Rev. Canon Brent Stiller, describes the different approaches:
Sometimes Bible studies can be focused, primarily, on the exegetical
analysis of Biblical passages, though this sometimes translates into
highly cerebral studies (or sermons) where the message is focused
on the biblical context or grammar of the passage.
Whether alone or in corporate worship, in lectio divina we are reading
and listening with our hearts. As participants in the life of the eternal word,
Jesus, we come with longing to enter the text with our imaginations
and “feltness” — alive to the Spirit speaking to us in the now. “What is
God telling me, today? How is Jesus looking toward me, inviting me
to trust or act today?”
Some well-known evangelicals have seconded Stiller’s thoughts. For example, both Timothy Keller and Beth Moore have advocated for lectio divina as a prayer practice that draws disciples closer to God. Many in our own Anglican/Episcopal tradition value this type of prayer as well, as evidenced by the many churches that teach lectio divina for individuals, groups, and even congregations. In 2021 Episcopal Relief & Development even created a new resource, “Lectio Divina,” that was described “as a form of centering prayer that invites us to listen to God and to listen to the experiences of fellow followers of Jesus from across the Anglican Communion.” The resource includes short videos where program partners who work with Episcopal Relief & Development around the world share personal reflections using their work and life experiences with each scripture reading.
My husband, Tom, and I have found that contemplative prayer practices have been helpful in our work at The Abbey on Lovers Lane in Dallas. These seekers are often looking for a more visceral, emotional connection with the transcendent, and lectio divina is one of the practices they find accessible and useful. It is no secret that mainline denomination attendance has decreased significantly over the past few decades. It is also noteworthy that people now identifying as “spiritual but not religious” cross all demographics, including age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Yet, as a church we are still called to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19). Lectio divina, along with other contemplative practices, are about formation of disciples at their core. The words of Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, ring true: “The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” This type of spiritual depth is transformational in individual lives and in the world.
Experienced spiritual director and retreat leader Pat Stone has been leading prayer groups at the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas for many years. Pat believes, “It is the single most important spiritual discipline to learn and practice daily. If our goal in our Christian walk is to come to know God better and to come to know our true self, the very best place to establish this close, intimate relationship that allows for these discoveries is through lectio divina.”
My hope is that we will continue to allow God to work in our imaginations and emotions as well as our intellect by using methods of prayer such as lectio divina. Then we will know as the saints throughout the years have known that “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow” (Heb. 4:12a).
Marcia Hotchkiss is a spiritual director, retreat leader, and co-founder of The Abbey on Lovers Lane (www.abbeyonlovers.org). Marcia recently co-authored Hope-Peace-Love-Joy: An Advent Devotional. She is a member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.