Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Practice of lectio divina

While seeking to develop affections and inclinations that are thoroughly Godward, the follower of Jesus must construct a network of distinctively Christian practices that form a life liturgy that is equally God-centered. In her wisdom throughout history, the church has developed distinctively Christian activities that are oriented very specifically toward the face of God as well as Christian ways of performing actions that are common to virtually all people.

One such uniquely Christian practice is lectio divina, an ancient monastic method for reading Scripture. Forgotten by much of Christendom, this practice can inform us in our reading not only of Scripture but also of any sort of literature.

The Latin term lectio divina literally means “divine reading” and comprises, depending on the specific tradition, four distinct actions: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.

Jeremiah said, “Your words were found and I ate them, And Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart; For I have been called by Your name, O Yahweh God of hosts” (15:16). The practice of lectio divina has been described in terms of feasting, like Jeremiah, on God’s word. By reading, we put in our mouths what is set before us. By meditating, we chew and ruminate on it. By praying, we relish (or pucker at) the flavors of the text. And by contemplating, we swallow and digest it. Thus, like Jeremiah, God’s words become the “joy and delight” of our hearts.

These actions encourage a slow, careful reading of Scripture and discourage a consumerist, scanning of the surface in search of brief thrills or nuggets of truth. This type of deliberate reading is a more loving reception of the gift which is the text. And by loving God, the Giver of the text, we participate in the text at a much more affective level.

(The same can be said about our reading of any other type of literature, even if it be pagan. In order to do justice to the gifted nature of a text and to the neighbor who is the giver, we must read works in a manner commensurate with their nature as literature. Detailed, deliberate texts must be read slowly and carefully. Action thrillers may be read quickly and shallowly. Reading texts in these ways is obedience to the Christian injunction to love our neighbor, but it does not require turning our enemies into our friends.)

This year, as part of our education (worship practice), the readers in my family will be practicing a form of lectio divina as we read through the Bible. I have tried to formulate the four actions in a way suitable for children. Here are the instructions and descriptions I framed for them:

Pray before you read:
Deal bountifully with Your servant,
That I may live and keep Your word.
Open my eyes, that I may behold
Wonderful things from Your law.
I am a stranger in the earth;
Do not hide Your commandments from me.

Read (listen) - “Please receive instruction from His mouth And establish His words in your heart” (Job 22:22). Write a brief summary of the passage for the day.

Meditate - “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (Joshua 1:8). Write down a question in response to today’s passage that you want answered and that you will think about throughout the day.

Pray - “May my prayer be counted as incense before You; The lifting up of my hands as the evening offering.” (Psalm 141:2). Write a prayer of consecration that asks God to change you according to the words of today’s passage.

Contemplate - “Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:21-22). Keep God’s word in your heart and mind throughout the day, and put it in practice.

The children have journals on which to write their thoughts and use one page per day. So far, I am pleased with the outcome. In addition to appreciating their childlike handling of the Biblical text, I am also happy for the opportunity to give them writing instruction. When I get home in the evening, I have each child in turn bring me his or her journal, and we talk about them. I give affirmation and guidance about the quality of their responses. At dinner, we discuss the meditation questions as a family.

Of course, we have only done this three days so far, but I think that this will quickly become a fruitful daily ritual in the life of my family. Ultimately, I hope the fruit will be an increased love for God and his word as well as a greater ability to worship God on Sunday with His people more fully.

(Some of the ideas about charitable reading came from Alan Jacobs’s rather dense book, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.)


  1. Fantastic insights Joe!

  2. Since reading your article we have adopted a similar practice. Thank you for the idea!