Do you ever feel like prayer is a one-sided communication? Does it seem like you do all the talking in prayer, but you never hear anything from God in return? Does this leave your prayer feeling cold and empty? What if I told you that there is an ancient practice of prayer in the Church that can help to satisfy your desire to hear God speaking to you? The Church has recommended this practice throughout the centuries, even as recently as Pope Francis. It is also mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the section on meditative prayer (2708). The practice is called lectio divina, or Divine Reading. At the Synod of Bishops in 2008, the topic of lectio divina was prominent. As Pope Benedict XVI writes in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, “The Synod frequently insisted on the need for a prayerful approach to the sacred text as a fundamental element in the spiritual life of every believer, in the various ministries and states in life, with a particular reference to lectio divina. The word of God is at the basis of all authentic Christian spirituality.” The Synod Fathers understood that a deeper connection needs to be established between the lives of the Christian faithful, their prayer, and their pursuit of holiness.
St. John of the Cross has said this concerning the Word of God: “Since [God] has given us his Son, his only word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything at once in this sole word – and he has no more to say… because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has spoken all at once by giving us this All who is his Son.” All the Scriptures can be summed up in this one Word of God, the person of Jesus Christ. Through the Scriptures, we come into close contact with Our Lord and can hear him speaking to us. Pope Benedict XVI points out that the tradition of the early Church Fathers has been to approach Sacred Scripture, the Word of God, as if we are entering into dialogue with God. St. Augustine says, “Your prayer is the word you speak to God. When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray, you speak to God.” While lectio divina is certainly not the only means to approach Sacred Scripture, it is the one to which the Synod Fathers paid the greatest attention. For our benefit, Pope Benedict XVI listed in his exhortation the basic steps of lectio divina, which I would like to recount here. There are five basic steps.
The first step (lectio) begins by selecting a text of Scripture and beginning to read it. It might be helpful to pray for the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit before reading Scripture. Benedict XVI says that our reading of the text should lead to “a desire to understand its true content.” We should ask ourselves questions such as, “What does the biblical text say in itself?” In doing this, we avoid imposing our own ideas upon the text or merely looking for confirmation of our own ideas, but rather seek to understand it as it is.
The second step (meditatio) is to engage in meditation upon the chosen text. We ask ourselves, “What does the biblical text say to us?” Again, this should not be a matter of using the Word of God to confirm our own ideas and biases but rather to seek to understand God’s message to us as it comes to us through His Word. Benedict XVI says, “Here, each person, individually but also as a member of the community, must let himself or herself be moved and challenged.” We know that we are sinners in need of conversion. God’s Word should convince us of our sin and of God’s mercy, which moves us to repentance and conversion.
The third step (oratio) is our response in prayer to what we just read. We ask ourselves, “What do we say to the Lord in response to his word?” Benedict XVI says, “Prayer, as petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise, is the primary way by which the word transforms us.” Hence, our prayer at this stage becomes a response to God who has spoken to us through the Scriptures.
The fourth step (contemplatio) is a gift from God in which we see and judge reality according to His perspective. This necessarily implies a change of mind and heart on our part, since our sin and our erroneous, worldly thinking has made us unlike God. As St. Paul says to the Romans in his letter: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (12:2).” Benedict XVI says, “Contemplation aims at creating within us a truly wise and discerning vision of reality, as God sees it, and at forming within us ‘the mind of Christ.’” This requires the virtue of humility, which is described by the Catechism as the foundation of prayer. We cannot effectively enter a prayerful dialogue with God without humility, seeing God, ourselves, and others as we truly are.
The fifth step (actio) is a reminder to us that our prayer and dialogue with God should move us towards action. As God has first loved us and has given Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ, so we are likewise moved to give of ourselves to others in Christian charity. Hence prayer and charitable works are intimately connected to each other.
Pope Benedict XVI concludes his instruction on lectio divina by leaving us the example of the Blessed Mother as the perfect model of this type of prayer. She was always attentive to the Word of God and pondered God’s words and His wonderful works in her heart. Benedict says, “[Mary] discovered the profound bond which unites, in God’s great plan, apparently disparate events, actions and things.” In other words, it was through Mary’s prayer and dialogue with God that she was able to perceive things according to God’s perspective, which in turn strengthened her understanding of everyday events and God’s hidden action behind them. In essence, her prayer enabled her to grow in wisdom. As we engage in lectio divina, we should keep the example of Mary in mind and seek to imitate her virtues so that we might enter into a greater, more meaningful dialogue with God and with His Church and make our prayer time with God more fruitful.
– Fr. Matthew Mary