The Ancient Christian Art of Spiritual Reading

Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be — and shouldn’t be — an intellectual grind. Lectio divina is the ancient way of not only reading but praying the Bible.

Lectio Divina: An Ancient Catholic Way of Reading the Bible

OFTEN, WHEN TEACHING college undergraduates, I have found that my students are hiding a guilty secret: they don’t really know how to read.

Learn to read any book with greater understanding

Now, that doesn’t mean that, if I were to give them a book or newspaper and asked them to read a particular sentence they would be stymied. They would be able to make out all the words, and even comprehend entire sentences or paragraphs, so they are not “illiterate” in the most basic sense. But many of them don’t know how to make sense of what they read:

  • to be able to discern the most important ideas and to see how those ideas fit together;
  • to put these ideas into context with other assigned readings (to see connections or contradictions);
  • to assess or apply the significance of what they have read, once they understand it;
  • to judge the value of what they have read, taking into account its merits and deficits; and other tasks that allow them to get some value out of what they have read.

When I discovered how universal this “guilty secret” was, I worked out a four-point reading method (distilled and adapted from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book) that I required them to apply to each assigned reading—a method that students found very profitable and easily adaptable to reading for other classes or purposes, as well.

The Catholic’s “Guilty Secret”

Many Christians (and perhaps Catholics in particular) have a similar “guilty secret,” but this one has to do with reading the Bible: they know they should be reading the Bible, they want to, but they just don’t know where to begin or how to go about it. Most feel that they should have some plan or program to follow, so they wait for a Bible study class to be announced in their parish, hoping that the right curriculum, the right teacher, the right set of videos will give them what they need, and in the meantime they just . . . feel guilty.

Now, I would never belittle the value of group study or a knowledgeable instructor; those can be very valuable for Bible study. But the Bible is not simply a “text” to be studied like any other. It is a sacred text in which God communicates His truth to and for us. To access this truth in a very deep and personal way, there is one quite excellent, very ancient and adaptable method of Bible reading that has been practiced profitably in the Church for millennia.

This method is both simple and profound, requiring no teacher, curriculum, or grand plan. Like the reading method I devised for my college students, this one has four steps, but unlike that method it requires no real intellectual effort; it is accessible to any Christian, requires very little practice to master, and can pay bountiful benefits. You don’t need anyone or anything besides a Bible to use this method, either.

The Ancient Christian Way to Read (and Pray) the Bible

The ancient method to which I refer is called lectio divina, “divine reading.” (It is called “divine” because it is guided by God, not some programmatic method.) Most Catholics have heard of it, but may think of it as something for monks or saints, not ordinary believers. This is a mistake, for several reasons.

  • First, it requires very little time carved out of an ordinary day to profit from this method.
  • Second, the method requires only prayerful attention, not great erudition or sanctity. (If practiced regularly, however, it certainly can help the practitioner grow in holiness.)
  • And, then, this method does not require you to work your way through the whole Bible, or to read scholarly commentary or take copious notes. On the contrary, it concentrates on short passages and simply requires prayerful attention.

And one of the really nice things about lectio divina is that it is really not so much a kind of study as a kind of prayer. It helps us to reflect on what God has to say to us through His written word, and allows us to respond prayerfully and gratefully to that message. So when we read the Bible this way, we not only gain an intimate, up-close knowledge of Scripture but also a more intimate relationship with God. This is what He wants, after all, more than anything—for us to know Him and to love Him.

Once you become familiar with the method, it can become quite a natural way to respond to Scripture whenever you encounter it (in the liturgy or elsewhere). In other words, lectio divina is suitable for anyone and accessible to everyone.

Here is a nice introduction to lectio divina by a Brazilian bishop who wanted to introduce lectio divina to the faithful of his diocese. I’ll quote most of it here, since it’s short. [Note: original online source, Zenit News, has shut down operations in Dec. 2020 and link is no longer available.] In square brackets, I put the traditional Latin term for each of the four steps.

First, one reads the passage [lectio]. “In this first instance, one attempts to understand the text exactly as it appears, without pretending to extract from it immediately messages and conclusions.”

Meditation [meditatio] on the text comes next, in response to the question “What is God saying to me, or to us, through this text? Now we really do try to listen to God who is speaking to us and we receive his voice.”

Then comes “prayer” [oratio]. “In this third step, we respond to the question: What does this text bring me to say to God?”

Let us always remember that a good biblical reading is always done in the dialogue of faith: God speaks, we listen and accept, and respond to God and speak to him. [The text] might inspire several types of prayer: praise, profession of faith, thanksgiving, adoration, petition for forgiveness and help.

The fourth and final step of lectio divina is contemplation [contemplatio]. In this step “we dwell on the Word and further our understanding of the mystery of God and his plan of love and salvation; at the same time, we dispose ourselves to accept in our concrete lives what the Word teaches us,” renewing our good intentions and obedience of the faith.

By the way, Pope Benedict very frequently recommends this method to all and sundry, and frequently uses it as the basis of many of his weekly public addresses.

Getting Started with Lectio Divina

Learn to read like a Catholic

If anyone should still hesitate, asking, “Where do I begin?” I would like to suggest that he begin with one of the Scripture passages from the lectionary for the daily Mass, or from the propers of the Liturgy of the Hours (a.k.a. the breviary or the Daily Office). Here is the daily Mass lectionary, on the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. This link will take you to, a very nice website that provides the daily propers for each of the daily offices.

Many non-Catholics have the mistaken notion that the Catholic Church does not place much emphasis on the authority of the Bible or promote Scripture reading, but Catholics know that is just not true: not only is the Catholic liturgy is a densely-woven tissue of Scripture references, but each day the lectionary for the Mass presents three (and on Sundays four) substantial passages from the Bible for the faithful to meditate on. Lectio divina provides a way to use the daily liturgical readings for personal devotional meditation.

Now, off you go! Happy reading (& meditating,  praying, and contemplating)!

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