By Joseph Roberts
Lectio divina, the ancient practice of reading and meditating on Scripture, has seen a huge resurgence as of late. You can now even download apps that are meant to help you along the path of lectio divina. The practice concerns a four-stage “divine reading” of Scripture. Guigo II in his book, The Ladder of Monks, defines these stages as reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. This practice, or “ladder,” is meant to take us directly into the presence of God where we see him face-to-face. This goal should not be minimized. Seeing God face-to-face, or the visio Dei, is not just an important component to the lives of Christians, but rather, it is the very purpose of our lives; one that can be reached here and now.
Guigo’s book paints a picture of divine ascent that is not particularly complicated in theory. It is certainly a process that takes time, focus, and attention. But it is nothing compared to the technical skill required of modern approaches of reading Scripture, such as the historical-critical method. Furthermore, the goal of lectio divina is quite different than that of modern approaches: that is experiencing, rather than understanding, God. These two goals are certainly not mutually exclusive, but their primary intention is nonetheless different. Therefore, the strategies for achieving these goals are also going to be different. While the historical-critical method uses tools such as word studies of original languages, the study of historical context, or textual analysis to arrive at understanding, lectio divina utilizes the four components of reading, meditation, and prayer, to arrive at contemplation.
It may seem obvious to say, but this practice would certainly have already been in place even if the outline of the process had not come into Guigo’s mind. In his book he was clearly elucidating on a practice that preexisted his conceptualization of what was happening. Before the process was formalized, he was reading, meditating, and praying about Scripture, which lead him into contemplation of God. A formal engagement in the process of lectio divina, therefore, is not necessary for all four stages to occur, including seeing God face-to-face.
This vision of God must have been an incredible experience for Guigo the first time that he entered into the contemplation of God — also peculiar. But to his advantage, he experienced this at a much different time than we are living in today. With the rise of the secular age and the hold that modernism has on the Western mind, we might find it difficult to identify what was happening should we reach contemplation. Because of this, we might also misidentify it as something else. Mystical experiences are suspect at best. Our natural tendency to interpret such experiences would be by offering a physical explanation as opposed to a spiritual one.
As mentioned earlier, lectio divina is not particularly complicated, but it does require time, focus, and attention; all of which the modern Western person is short on. We read quickly. There is so much available to read, so it’s difficult to justify reading the same thing over and over again. And while meditation has become very popular (especially during the pandemic), many forms of it are focused on the inner self rather than the reflection on Scripture and the transcendent God. Finally, prayer in itself is something that many struggle to do consistently, let alone praying over Scripture, which we often just approach as something to read (perhaps with accompanying secondary reading). Furthermore, with the amount of technology and entertainment options that we are constantly surrounded by, it’s challenging to get any amount of time in an environment where we can engage in such a process.
These challenges are amplified for children and adolescents. School, activities, friends, social media, etc. — all of these consume their time and attention. For these youths, focused attention on reading, meditation, and prayer seems to be completely out of the question, even within the church. However, there are certain occasions that lend themselves to such situations; one of these in particular is congruent to the monastic environment where lectio divina developed into its formal form: the summer camp.
While all summer camps are not created equal, there are a few shared components to many Bible-based camps. First, campers are told to leave their homes, social environment, and daily routines to spend a certain amount of time in a community whose intention is to study the Bible. They are to leave their technology behind and enter into a daily routine that is common to everyone in this isolated area. They wake together, take meals togethers, and study together — much like a monastic community.
Throughout their time at camp, they hear the Word of God spoken to them, they read the Scriptures multiple times, and they certainly have it on their minds to chew on as well. They sit and listen to a speaker lecture on the passage before breaking out into groups to discuss it further. Questions are asked and considered before the small group prays for guidance in their understanding of Scripture. Campers are given the time, focus, and intention to spend daily time reading, meditating, and praying about Scripture.
The result of these practices is an experience that many people have had a difficult time identifying. A surge of emotion and closeness to God, the compulsion to repent and make promises to change the course of one’s life, and the hope of carrying this experience from camp back to one’s daily life — it is as if one has finally truly become alive for the first time. But the experience does not last. Many contemplatives have lamented the practice of descending the mountain, unsure of when they might be able to return to the peaks of the contemplative experience. This lament is certainly felt by campers who return home and experience emotional lows that make them question their camp experience.
This experience of contemplation at summer camp has been misidentified as emotionalism. Campers begin to wonder if they were fed sugar and endorphins and then told that it was God, tricking them into believing in something that they could feel. But this is not necessarily the case. What if, instead, through reading, meditation, and prayer, they were guided up the mountain to the face of God, where they gazed into love and felt love that moved them in ways that are difficult to replicate elsewhere? Nonetheless, summer camps often develop a reputation of being counter-productive, and parents and churches begin to wonder if sending their kids to a Bible camp is actually beneficial. Or worse, these kids turn into adults with these unresolved thoughts in the backs of their minds, which contribute to circumstances in their lives that may lead them to walk away from God entirely.
The church needs to recognize the value of summer camps for children and adolescents as a catechetical tool for the teaching of lectio divina. The removal from daily routines to spend a week ascending the mountain toward God is perhaps the single most important catechetical tool for young believers. But the experience cannot go on being unidentified if it is to be useful. While it would be foolish to promise an experience of contemplation (after all, even many practiced monks lamented not being able to enter contemplation), campers must be prepared for the reality that leaving summer camp often feels like falling down the mountain. They must be prepared for that process by being told why it happens; why they feel the way that they do. They must be taught that the study of Scripture through reading, meditation, and prayer can often lead one to seeing the face of God, and that leaving that contemplative experience can be miserable. Furthermore, they must be told why summer camp lends itself so well to this practice by removing them from their distracted lives and providing them with the necessary time, focus, and attention that is needed. Finally, and most crucially, they must be taught how to ascend the mountain once again.
Joseph Roberts is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary pursuing a Master of Divinity where he lives with his wife Cassie and three children.