Lectio divina is experienced in four movements. We might think of them as moves rather than steps because it reminds us of dancing. When we are first learning a new dance, we are very awkward and very concerned about getting it right. We watch our feet, trying to get them to do what they are supposed to do. We wonder what to do with our hands. If we are dancing with a partner, we may be clumsy at first as we try to figure out how to move together gracefully. But in the end, the point is to be able to enter into the dance, flow with it, improvise and enjoy the person we are dancing with. It is the same with lectio divina. When we are just starting out, we concentrate on following the steps and getting everything in the right order. But eventually as we become more comfortable, they become moves in a dance that flows with beauty and pleasure, heart and soul. The moves become very fluid and flow into one another quite naturally. But first we do have to familiarize ourselves with the basic moves.
To prepare for the lectio process, we first choose a passage of Scripture no more than six to eight verses in length. We begin with a time of silent preparation (silencio) in which we become quiet in God’s presence and touch our desire to hear from God. This gives us the opportunity to allow the busyness and chaos of our life to settle down until there is a quiet inner space in which we can hear from God. Then we read the chosen passage four consecutive times, each time asking a different question that invites us into the dynamic of that move. Each reading is followed by a brief period of silence. The first move is to read (lectio). In this move, we read the passage once or even twice, listening for the word or the phrase that strikes us. This word somehow stands out from all the rest, causes a visceral reaction or brings about a deep sense of resonance or resistance, The mood is gentle, reflective, and we have a sense of expectancy that God will speak to us. After the reading there is a brief period of silence in which we remain with the word, savoring it and repeating it without trying to figure out what it means or why it was given. The second move is to reflect (meditatio). We read the passage a second time, and this time we reflect on the way our life is touched by this word. We might ask, What is it in my life that needed to hear this word today? Or, if the passage is a story: Where am I in this text, and what do I experience as I allow myself to be in this story? Again, there is a brief period of silence in which we stay present with God with whatever comes. Rather than thinking too much about the passage (and we have to be very careful here), we keep coming back to the word that we have been given. The third move is to respond (oratio). Is there an invitation or a challenge for us to respond to? What is our response to God’s invitation? This is the first and unedited response to what we have heard. It is the prayer that comes most naturally in response to what we have heard God say to us, and we allow it to flow freely in the moments of silence that follow. Perhaps Scripture has touched a place of pain, frustration or anger, and we pour out these feelings in the safety of this moment. Perhaps there is a flash of self- knowledge, and we are convicted of some sin. In the silence we feel our remorse and make our confession. Perhaps we are overwhelmed by some way in which God tells us that he loves us, and in the silence we let tears of love and gratitude flow and just soak in God’s love. Or perhaps we hear God calling us to something new, and our heart exclaims, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Whatever our response, we let it find full expression in the silence. When our response has subsided, we read the passage one last time, and this time the invitation is contemplatio— to rest in God. We are like the weaned child in Psalm 131 who has received what it needs from its mother and can now rest with her in peace and quiet. Here we rest with God and enjoy his presence, realizing that God is the One who will enable us to respond faithfully to whatever invitation we have heard from him. We resolve to carry this word with us and live it out (incarnatio) in our daily life. We continue to listen to it throughout the day as we are led deeper and deeper into its meaning and it begins to live in us.
Lectio is a delightful discipline and one on which so many books have been written that I pray I have not misrepresented its depth by presenting it so simply. The power, of course, is in the doing. Though lectio was originally developed as a private discipline, my first experience with lectio divina was in a small group setting at a conference, with teaching and facilitation by Richard Peace. Richard was to read a chosen passage from the front of the room. After every move— the reading and then the silence— we were to go around the circle in our small groups and share very briefly what we had just experienced. Most of us didn’t know each other, and that didn’t matter at all: the purpose of the group was to support each one of us as we listened to God in Scripture in a very personal way within this small community. The passage Richard chose was Matthew 14:22- 32, the story of Peter walking to Jesus on the water. A very familiar story. There would have been little a speaker could have said on that passage that would have been new to me. But as Richard read the passage aloud for the first time, I was pierced. One word was much louder and clearer than all the rest: Come. I knew this was the word, because as I heard it I felt both resistance in my gut and resonance in my heart. It was the strangest and most compelling experience with Scripture I had ever had. In the first move, I heard the word clearly and couldn’t make any sense of it, so I sat with it. In the second move, I started to get an inkling of the place in my life where God was asking me to risk more to be faithful to his call. And in the third move, I could hear myself saying to God, “But I have come as far as I can! I can’t come any further!” Yet even as I was protesting, I could feel great warmth and desire— the same desire that must have led Peter to jump out of the boat. I wanted so much to go to Jesus on the water! As frightened as I felt, I was thrilled at the idea that maybe there was more ahead for me. I was so glad that Jesus wanted me to come to him and that he was inviting me. This was an extremely intimate moment with God, a time of wrestling but also of longing and joy and giving myself over to him in a new way. And sure enough, shortly thereafter I faced a new challenge that required courage, and Jesus’ word Come was exactly the word I needed. In this moment I understood afresh that the Scripture is truly unlike any other book on the planet. It is alive and it is God breathed, not just way back when it was written but now, each and every time I find ways to open myself to its power.
Choose a passage (six to eight verses); it can be part of your normal reading plan, a passage you select for today or a passage from the lectionary reading for this week. Use it to enter prayerfully into the lectio process. Following are very detailed instructions to help you learn the moves.
Preparation (Silencio). Take a moment to come fully into the present. With your eyes closed, let your body relax, and allow yourself to become consciously aware of God’s presence with you. Express your willingness (or your willingness to be made willing) to hear from God in these moments by using a brief prayer such as “Come Lord Jesus,” or “Here I am,” or “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Read (Lectio): Listen for the word or the phrase that is addressed to you. Turn to the passage and begin to read slowly, pausing between phrases and sentences. You may read silently, or you may find it helpful to read the passage aloud, allowing the words to echo and resonate, sink in and settle into your heart. As you read, listen for a word or phrase that strikes you or catches your attention. Allow a moment of silence, repeating that word or phrase softly to yourself, pondering it and savoring it as though pondering the words of a loved one. This is the word that is meant for you. Be content to listen simply and openly, without judging or analyzing.
Reflect (Meditatio): How is my life touched by this word? Once you have heard the word that is meant for you, read the passage again, and listen for the way this passage connects with your life. Ask, What is it in my life right now that needs to hear this word? Allow several moments of silence following this reading, and explore thoughts, perceptions and sensory impressions. If the passage is a story, perhaps ask yourself, Where am I in this scene? What do I hear as I imagine myself in the story or hear these words addressed specifically to me? How do the dynamics of this story connect with my own life experience?
Respond (Oratio): What is my response to God based on what I have read and encountered? Read the passage one more time, listening for your own deepest and truest response. In silence after the reading, allow your prayer to flow spontaneously from your heart as fully and as truly as you can. At this point you are entering into a personal dialogue with God, “sharing with God the feelings the text has aroused, . . . feelings such as love, joy, sorrow, anger, repentance, desire, need, conviction, consecration. We pour out our hearts in complete honesty, especially as the text has probed aspects of our being and doing in the midst of various issues and relationships.” Pay attention to any sense that God is inviting you to act or to respond in some way to the word you have heard. You may find it helpful to write your prayers or to journal at this point.
Rest (Contemplatio): Rest in the Word of God. In this final reading you are invited to release and return to a place of rest in God. You have given your response its full expression, so now you can move into a time of waiting and resting in God’s presence, like the weaned child who leans against its mother (Psalm 131:2). This is a posture of total yieldedness and abandon to the great Lover of your soul.
Resolve (Incarnatio): Incarnate (live out) the Word of God. As you emerge from this place of personal encounter with God to life in the company of others, resolve to carry this word with you and to live it out in the context of daily life and activity. As you continue to listen to the word throughout the day, you will be led deeper and deeper into its meaning, until it begins to live in you and you enflesh this word to the world in which you live. As a way of supporting your intent to live out the word you have been given, you may want to choose an image, a picture or a symbol that you can carry to remind you of it.