Part I: Lectio Divina: An Overview
Fr. Matta al-Meskeen (Mathew the Poor), a Coptic monk and abbot, writes about two ways of reading in Communion of Love. The first is the approach we take when we read most things, such as newspapers, emails, novels, etc. In this way of reading, we read quickly for understanding, accumulation of information, edification, or for pleasure. The second way of reading is the approach we should be taking to the reading of scripture—one that is reverent, attentive, contemplative. Fr. Matta articulates the distinctions this way: “The first [way of reading] is when a man reads and puts himself and his mind in control of the text, trying to subject its own meaning to his own understanding…The second is when a man puts the text on a level above himself and tries to bring his mind into submission to its meaning, and even sets the text up as a judge over him."1 According to Fr. Matta, reading the Bible as one does other types of documents risks acquiring “a false sense of our own superiority over divine things.”2
Most of us would agree with Fr. Matta that scripture needs to be read differently from other texts we might choose to read. However, we may not know exactly how to read scripture in this deeper way. Because of the amount of reading that most of us do, we have acquired reading habits over the years that are much closer to the first way of reading rather than to the second. Ivan Illich, author of In the Vineyard of the Text, makes the observation that the “modern reading…is an activity performed by commuters or tourists; it is no longer that of pedestrians and pilgrims.”3 Building on Illich, Raymond Studzinski argues that the modern reader is simply
someone who wants to get to a destination as quickly as possible “rather than a pilgrim who takes in everything along the way in a leisurely pace.”4 Studzinski believes that a deep reading of scripture is absolutely necessary for spiritual health. In his book Reading to Live; The Evolving Practice of Lectio Divina, he states: “What impedes some today who hunger for spiritual growth is precisely the inability to read in this deeper way, that is, to read in such a way as to be spiritually challenged and not just given information.”5
This article is divided into three parts. In this first part, we will look at the development of the form of Lectio Divina as it is usually practiced today. In Part II, we will look the way Scripture was interpreted in the early Church and how it is being interpreted in more recent times. Finally, in the third part, we will look at some practical aspects of practicing Lectio.
What is Lectio Divina?
The most common form of Lectio Divina practiced today is composed of four ‘movements’ or ‘moments.’ In usual practice, the selected passage (usually a short passage of a few sentences or a paragraph) is read before each of the four movements and is responded to in different ways after each reading (see Part III for more on this). The four movements are as follows: lectio (literal reading), meditatio (reflection on the meaning of the selection read), oratio (the prayer that arises from our reflections), and finally contemplatio (or ‘resting’ in God in contemplative silence).
Lectio Divina has often been compared to stages in human relationship. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O., in his book Lectio Divina, applies a level of human relationship to each movement in Lectio Divina. He compares the first movement (lectio) to ‘acquaintanceship’, the second movement (meditatio) to ‘friendly companionship,’ the third movement (oratio) to ‘friendship,’ and the fourth movement (contemplatio) to ‘union.’7 William of St. Thierry, a Cistercian monk of the 12th century, uses similar terms in talking about Paul’s epistles: “In all Scripture, diligent reading is as far from superficial perusal as friendship is distinct from acquaintance with a stranger, or as affection given to a companion differs from a casual greeting.”8 As we learn to read in this way, our relationship to both the scripture and to Christ deepens.
Lectio Divina is a simple tool, but like all prayer, it can have great depth and yield great rewards. Lectio Divina can be practiced in community or individually. Today it is more common to see lectio practiced individually (at least outside of monastic communities) and many books have been written about the practice.
Roots of the Modern Practice of Lectio
Lectio Divina has its roots in the Judaic tradition, but it is in the monastic communities of the early Church that the practice expanded beyond liturgical readings and into an early form of Lectio Divina. Of the 30 sets of monastic rules written prior to the 7th century known to us today, virtually all touch on approaches to scriptural reading in one form or another.9 The best-known early rule involving spiritual reading is that of St. Benedict (d. c. 547), but the Rule of St. Pachomius (d. c. 346), the Asketikon of St. Basil (d. c. 379), and the Rule of the Master (6th century) all include guidance on reading scripture.10 St. John Cassian (d. ca. 435) also speaks of it extensively in his Conferences.
In her book The Craft of Thought, Mary Carruthers compares early monastic practices to that of medieval apprenticeship. Carruthers calls this the “craft of prayer” and describes its connection to monastic practices this way: “The craft of making prayer continuously, which is the craft of monasticism, came to be called sacra pagina in Latin, the constant meditation based on reading and recollecting sacred texts. The early monks called this set of practices mneme theou, ‘the memory of God.’”11 Memorization was a key aspect of scriptural reading in the early monastic communities. Paul Griffiths writes in his book Religious Reading: “For the [religious] reader the ideally read work is the memorized work, and the ideal mode of rereading is by memory recall.”12 The internalization of scripture allowed the individual monk to meditate on scripture without hearing or reading the text (ruminatio).
In the Jewish tradition, in the early Christian monastic communities, and in Scripture itself, the reading of scripture and the memorization of the text was sometimes compared to eating. Scriptural passages were ‘tasted’ in the mouth, taken in, and memorized. These memorized texts could then be brought forth by the monk at any time in a process sometimes compared to ‘chewing the cud.’13 Through memorization, texts can then be contemplated in ore cordis (‘in the mouth of the heart’), enabling the monk to engage in an ongoing practice of meditatio without the physical text.14
This metaphor of consuming the words of scripture was sometimes used in the Old Testament in reference to God’s prophets. Consider this passage in Ezekiel: “And he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.’ Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.” (Ezekiel 3:1-3). We ‘eat‘ His Word in a way that might be compared to the partaking of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
Guigo II and the Late Medieval Method
The method of Lectio Divina usually practiced today is attributed to Guigo II (d. 1188), a Carthusian monk and prior of the Grand Chartreuse monastery in France. Guigo wrote a treatise for his cloister called The Ladder of Monks (Scala Claustralium) or, as it is sometimes called, The Ladder of Paradise (Scala Paradiso) in order to describe the proper way to read scripture. Some scholars speculate that Guigo was aware of (and influenced by) the writings of St. John Cassian who described a very similar set of steps. Cassian’s texts are not specifically referenced in Guigo’s treatise, but given that Cassian’s work is mentioned in St. Benedict’s Rule (to be read daily), it is not hard to imagine that Cassian was familiar to Guigo.
In The Ladder of Monks, Guigo describes the four steps of Lectio Divina: “Reading is to attentively look upon the scriptures with a well-collected spirit. Meditation is the act of the soul’s reflection, seeking to know hidden truths by the light of the mind. Prayer is a pious intention of the soul towards God, saving us from evil and granting to us the good. Contemplation (, finally, is a type of elevation that come to the soul that is attached to God, where it tastes a few parcels of eternal joy.”15
Guigo lays out both the interconnectedness of the four steps and the differences between them. “Reading seeks the sweetness of the life of blessedness [and] meditation finds it. Prayer requests it and contemplation experiences it.”16 Guigo uses Christ’s teaching in Matthew 7:7 to explain further. “‘Seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you.’ ‘Seek’ by reading, and ‘you shall find’ by meditation; ‘knock’ by prayer, ‘and it shall be opened to you’ by contemplation.”17
Giugo warns, though, that those who seek God in Scripture through reason alone will not taste the sweetness of the Lord. “Yet such sweetness…is found neither in reading or in meditation; it must come from above. Pagan philosophers guided by reason have themselves found what is good and true, yet though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as such…They are lost in their thoughts and consumed, and though their wisdom gives them the science of the humanities, it did not arrive from the Holy Spirit, who alone is the source of true wisdom.”18
Why Lectio Divina?
Lectio is a way of listening to God who abides in the words of Scripture and speaks to us through Scripture. As the words of the Shema command: “Hear, O Israel” (Deut. 6:4). To ‘hear’ in the biblical sense is to go beyond just listening. “in biblical languages, ‘to hear’ implies ‘to obey’.”19 Christ speaks through His Word or, more precisely, is present within His Word, and thus we read Scripture to grow in our relationship with Him. Scripture reading is an advanced form of listening and prayer. “Intimate ‘listening’ as the fundamental attitude of the encounter with God will also allow us to see Him everywhere, for the ‘heavens tell the glory of God and the firmament proclaims the work of His hands’ (Psalm 19:2)…We will not be surprised, then, to see the Bible treated as sacrament, a real Presence. For the Fathers, the Bible is the Christ.”20 Through it, we grow in our relationship to Him for this is the goal of faith. In a quote attributed to St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258): “You should apply yourself to prayer or to reading; at times you speak to God, at times he speaks to you.”21
As Orthodox Christians, we believe that Scripture is ecclesial—we receive Scripture from and through the Church and understand its meaning through the Church. The Gospel book itself is treated as if the Lord were present in it, as if it were an altar unto itself. Thus our reading and understanding of Scripture are both sacramental and incarnational. In Reading to Live, Duncan Robertson notes that in these early monastic communities “Lectio…took on the dimensions of a liturgical activity done in the presence of God and others.”
Part II: Lectio Divina and Interpretation of Scripture
Lectio Divina is a way of slowing down our reading and directing it in order to focus more intentionally and prayerfully on the scriptural text. But whenever we engaged in the act of reading a text, we are also engaged in an interpretative process. Whether it be Scripture or any other type of text, when we read we are trying to understand the text and to utilize, assimilate, and/or assess the information presented in that text. With regard to Scripture, in Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture, Frances Young calls this process of interpretation “reception and appropriation” by which she is referring to the “exegetical process whereby readers make the text their own.”22 With Scripture, we not only seek to understand it intellectually, but to ascertain its spiritual sense as well; thus how we interpret the text is fundamental to how we receive and appropriate Holy Scripture As Young puts it: “the way in which texts are read determines their meaning” (italics mine).23
Literal and Spiritual
The Fathers tell us that Scripture could have both a literal meaning and a spiritual one. As St. Jerome (d. 420 CE) says: “Everything that we read in the sacred books shines and glitters even in the outer shell; but the marrow is sweeter. He who desires to eat the kernel must first break open the shell.”24 With the help of the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the Holy Fathers, we seek not just the literal meaning, but the ‘marrow’ of meaning from the text--the hidden insights just beyond the words themselves. A deeper, spiritual meaning may or may not be present, but we want to remain open to its possible presence. This deeper meaning has sometimes been called the sensus plenior or the ‘fuller sense.’ The way to the sensus plenior involves not just the literal or historical meaning, but may also involve a deeper, ‘spiritual sense’ in the words. As Henri de Lubac states in Scripture in the Tradition: “…we have not completely perceived the intention of the Spirit as long as we have failed to penetrate to the deepest level. And if we deliberately stop short of that intention, we have been unfaithful to it.”25
Debate about the application of spiritual sense of Scripture has been waging in the Church since its earliest centuries, but that debate became even more vigorous since the Reformation. Luther’s criticism of Origen of Alexandria’s use of allegory led to a basic rejection of the spiritual sense of Scripture after the Reformation, at least among Protestantism theologians. “Luther’s attack on Origen’s use of allegory (de Servo Arbitrio) became decisive not only for the Reformers in general, but for Protestantism ever since.”26 Practically speaking, though, Luther’s critique did not completely end the use of allegory because “in actual practice various forms of figurative interpretation continued to be practiced by the Reformers…even when they stressed the primacy of the literal sense.”27 In the last 150 years with the emergence of the so-called ‘history of religions’ school, followed by the ascendance of the historical-critical method of exegesis, the literal sense became the primary and ‘proper’ way to view Scripture among most Protestant theologians and many Roman Catholic theologians as well.
While the widespread adoption of the historical-critical approach and its resulting scholarship has added greatly to our knowledge about history, language, and the authors in Scripture, the minimizing of patristic contributions (often pejoratively called the ’pre-critical’ era) and of the spiritual sense of Scripture has led to a demonstrable shift to a ‘scientific’ form of exegesis. Exegesis in this context becomes the stuff of the science, history, and grammar. It shifts the emphasis from the divine Author to the human author and admits to very little ‘verticality’ in its interpretive scheme. Moreover, the institutional authority and locus for interpretation becomes the university, not the Church. Reason becomes the final arbiter of all things, rather than faith or doctrine. More importantly, the Church and her doctrine become suspect in this approach tointerpretation. Any use of Church doctrine as part of scriptural interpretation is more likely to be seen as eisegesis (that is, a reading into the text of one’s own pre-existing views or ideas) rather than exegesis.
In his book The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation, Keith Stanglin calls this emphasis on historical-critical method the ‘secularization’ of exegesis.28 In the hands of many exponents of historical-critical approach, the spiritual sense is no longer required because, as the argument goes, Scripture is clear enough on its own in what Protestant theologians call the ‘clarity of Scripture’ or the ‘perspicuity of Scripture.’ As Stanglin notes: “As a purely descriptive endeavor, historical-critical exegesis practices something like methodological atheism” and he goes on to assert that in this context “the Bible becomes little more than an ancient artifact to be scrutinized by scientific, scholarly processes.”29 It is clear that the early Church Fathers saw Scripture as having both literal and spiritual meanings. As Henri de Lubac puts it: “There is no resource of the human mind, no method, no scientific procedure which will ever be enough to make us hear ‘the music written on the silent pages of the Holy Books.’”30
Interpretation of Scripture in the Early Church
Scholars of early Christianity in the first half of the 20th century have often framed the debate as the outgrowth of two main ‘schools’ of scriptural interpretation in the early Church--the Alexandrian ‘school’ and the Antiochian ‘school.’ Proponents of this distinction assert that the Alexandrian approach tended to be allegorical in its approach to Scripture, while the Antiochene approach relied more on a more literal/historical approach.
The distinction is not entirely without merit, but beginning in the middle of the 20th century, patristic scholars began to view the distinction as overly broad and full of exceptions and contradictions. At times, the Alexandrians professed a literal understanding in passages where the Antiochenes saw allegory and sometimes theologians within the same ‘school’ disagreed
with one another about interpretations. Nevertheless, the ‘two schools’ theory became largely institutionalized beginning in the early 20th century.
At the heart of the debate in the early Church was the use of allegory, especially by the early Alexandrians, notably Origen. The use of allegory in Christian exegesis initially developed out of Hellenistic and Jewish allegorical traditions. The Alexandrian’s allegorical model was built upon a tradition of interpretation that had initially developed around classic Greek texts and later around Jewish Scripture. The Antiochenes used fewer allegorical interpretations and anchored their exegesis more in the original literal/historical sense, but both the Antiochene and Alexandrian Fathers used both literal and spiritual exegesis.
Ultimately a reconsideration of the early Christian sources in the last century in the West helped lead to a better understanding of the intent of the Fathers in their use of allegorical/spiritual interpretations and in the subtler distinctions and similarities between the two exegetical approaches in Alexandria and Antioch. This ‘re-discovery’ and reassessment of the early Christian writings was led in part by some twentieth century theologians and writers in what has come to be called the Ressourcement movement—theologians and authors such as de Lubac, Daniélou, Leclercq, and others. This renewed interest in the writings of some controversial early Fathers such as Origen has led to a deeper recognition of their contributions to early Christianity and their impact on later theologians.
The Four Senses of Scripture
While the modern form of Lectio is usually traced to Guigo, it might be argued that the four-fold model originated with the Conferences of St. John Cassian (d. 435 CE). Cassian divided his model into two main categories (literal/historical and spiritual) with the spiritual category then subdivided into three subcategories—typology/allegory (prefiguration of Christ, His Church, or the sacraments); tropology (or moral understanding); and anagoge (or eschatological understanding).31 This fourfold sense of Scripture is sometimes referred the Quadriga (named after a Roman chariot pulled by four horses standing adjacent to one another). In an article
called Rehabilitating the Quadriga, Peter Leithart says: “It would be too much to say that the Quadriga heals all our hermeneutical diseases, but it heals an awful lot of them. And not only hermeneutical diseases. The Quadriga is not only a method of reading but a practical theology and a spirituality, a historiography, an ethics, and a politics, a way of training our senses to discern Christ not only everywhere in Scripture, but everywhere and in everything.”32
The work of 20th century Catholic theologian and bishop Henri de Lubac was quite influential in this reexamination of the role of the spiritual sense. In his three-volume work entitled Medieval Exegesis, de Lubac compares the three spiritual modes of allegorical understandings to the ‘threefold advent ‘of Christ: “The first advent, ‘humble and hidden,’ on our earth, performs the work of redemption, which is pursued in the Church and in her sacraments: this is the object of allegory in the proper sense of the word. The second advent, entirely interior, takes place within the soul of each of the faithful, and is unfolded by tropology. The third and last advent is saved up for the ‘end of the age,’ when Christ will appear in his glory and will come to look for his own to take them away with him: such is the object of anagoge.”33
The ancient way of describing the four senses was to use Jerusalem as an example. In the literal/historical sense, Jerusalem is an actual city that existed in biblical times and still exists today. In the allegorical/typological sense, Jerusalem might be seen as representative of the Church. In the tropological/moral sense, Jerusalem is “the soul of the believer, the interior city of the King of Glory.” In the eschatological sense, Jerusalem is the eschatological destination, the heavenly Jerusalem.34
While multiple meanings are possible from a scriptural passage, that doesn’t necessarily mean that four different meanings always exist. Indeed, a passage may have only one meaning or multiple meanings. The important thing is to be alert to the possibility of spiritual meaning beyond the literal/historical meaning. “’When you read Holy Scripture,’ St. Mark the Ascetic
urges, ’perceive its hidden meanings.’ To perceive those hidden meanings—to understand Scripture in a spiritual way…and to sound its inner depths and power—requires that our reading progress from a rational apprehension of the text to meditation on its ultimate meaning.”35
Arguably the most important spiritual sense used by the Fathers after the literal-historical sense was typology—sometimes referred to simply as ‘allegory.’ The Church Fathers saw the Old Testament as a Christian book and found numerous passages that anticipated Christ, His Church, the Sacraments, etc. These ‘prefigurations’ of Christ and His Church might include both type-to-type and type-to-antitype (such as flood/baptism) analogies. Thus patristic exegesis was centered on Christ and, as such, became the most important patristic hermeneutical principle. On the road to Emmaus, Christ Himself taught His disciples about these prophecies: “…And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
St. Irenaeus (d. c. 202) argued that Scripture can only be understood properly and fully when the two Testaments are seen as a continuous, internally-consistent, apostolic, and Christ-centered record of salvation history. Heretical movements such as Marcionism, Gnosticism, Arianism, and others used Scripture to tell their own stories, very different stories. Indeed, Satan tried to use Scripture against Christ in the wilderness (Mat. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13; Mark 1:12-13). These false stories grew out of a broad and improper allegorical interpretation of Scripture. These excesses needed to be challenged in the early Church, both methodologically and theologically. In fact, the first complete commentary (on the Gospel of John) was written by Gnostics, specifically Heracleon (late 2nd century), who was a disciple of Valentinus (d. c. 160).36
Application to Lectio Divina
The movement from the literal/historical to the spiritual is similar to the path of Lectio. In this movement from the rational/intellectual to the spiritual, the literal/historical sense becomes the catalyst and anchor for the spiritual sense. “This implies that the primary sense is not the literal or historical sense, but rather what tradition calls the spiritual or transcendent sense, the sensus plenior.”37 Duncan Robertson referring to allegorical analysis writes: “The bread must be broken; the scriptural book interpreted (objectively) and experienced (subjectively). Objectively: the text is to be broken open—its content must be disclosed and revealed. Broken into—in order to extract meaning, in all its traditional metaphors, as the…kernel from the nut, as marrow from a bone, as honey from a comb.”38
Reading Scripture in the Fourfold Way
Spiritual understanding must be connected to literal/historical sense. The Holy Spirit becomes our guide and companion in this quest. “God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” (I Cor. 2:10). Breck notes the importance of anchoring the spiritual sense in the literal/historical sense: “[The] spiritual sense is discerned precisely in and through historical reality. This is why [the Antiochene Father) Diodore of Tarsus asserted that the event contains a ‘double’ sense, at once historical and transcendent. Otherwise we lose all grasp of reality, as events, persons, and institutions of the biblical account are reduced to simple metaphors. This is the danger of excessive allegorizing.”39 Getting from the literal/historical to the sensus plenior also requires that we cooperate with the Holy Spirit (synergia). “To make the pilgrimage from the literal sense to the to the ‘fuller sense,’ the sensus plenior, however, requires that we submit ourselves, in humility and ascetic struggle, to the guiding influence of the Spirit of Truth. St. John Chrysostom and other Church Fathers insisted that no one can truly interpret Scripture who does not willingly submit to it.”40
How do we know whether the interpretations we land on are more our own than His? Our interpretations will be either confirmed or rejected through our life and worship in the Church which is among the many reasons why our active participation is so important. As Breck notes: “While personal interpretations of Scripture are welcome and encouraged, those interpretations forfeit their claim to authority if they sever their connection with the ecclesial Body and its Tradition.”41
Part III: Application of Lectio Divina
In a short book entitled When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer, L. Joseph Letendre argues that Christians need three distinct approaches to Scripture, all of which should have a place.42 The first way is to read Scripture as we would any other book and become generally familiar with what is contained within it. Letendre calls this first approach a “broad reading of the Bible” for the purpose of becoming more Scripturally literate. This type of approach is closer to Fr. Matta’s first type of reading described at the beginning of this paper. From this first way of approaching Scripture, we learn the “principles of the Christian life” and become familiar with the characters and stories in Scripture. The second way is the study of Scripture. Here we adopt a “narrower and a more specific focus.” In this second type of approach which is more like traditional Bible study, we might use commentaries, historical resources, the writings of the Fathers, etc. The goal here is to deepen our understanding of Scripture from an intellectual standpoint.43
The third and final approach is Lectio Divina. As we have seen, Lectio is qualitatively different than the other two approaches. Lectio’s focus is on prayer and we should leave commentaries and research materials aside. As Letendre notes: “The example for this kind of reading, as for so much in the spiritual life, is found in Mary, the mother of our Lord. Twice in his Gospel, St. Luke describes her as pondering things ‘in her heart.’44 This is precisely what Lectio involves: pondering the Word of God in our hearts.” As Breck notes: “The Scriptures…can only truly be understood and expounded from within. Their proper—that is, their true or ‘orthodox’ –interpretation requires on the part of the interpreter a life of personal repentance, ascetic struggle, and worship.”45
The Practice of Lectio
As noted earlier in the paper, the four movements or moments of Lectio are reading (lectio), meditation (meditatio), prayer (oratio), and contemplation (contemplatio). To that we can add four additional elements which are tangential, but beneficial for our practice--namely, ‘place’ (statio), ‘invocation’ (invocatio or epiklesis), ‘action’ (actio), and sometimes, in group settings, ‘discussion’ (conversatio). These additional four elements can help conform our practice more fully into a practice of prayer.
Time and Place. Most teachers of Lectio recommend setting a fixed time for Lectio. Setting a time and committing to that time will help establish Lectio as a discipline which will eventually become a cherished time of prayer. While it is good to allow sufficient time for the practice, beginning with a shorter amount of time to start (say, 5-10 minutes a day) may be enough in the beginning.
When practicing Lectio it is important to choose a proper place (statio) for practice. For many Orthodox Christians, this will probably be the prayer corner in our homes. However, any comfortable, quiet place where the likelihood of interruption is low will suffice. As St. John Cassian says in his Conferences: “Then, having banished all worldly concerns and thoughts, strive in every way to devote yourself constantly to the sacred reading…”46
Picking a Passage for Lectio. When picking a scriptural verse to read during Lectio, the most important guideline is to keep it short—maybe a paragraph or a parable or a section of a psalm. Some practitioners of Lectio think that Lectio should be limited to the Gospels, but that seems a little restrictive. My personal opinion is that the entire New Testament and the Psalms make for good material for Lectio. If you are unsure about what to do, ask your priest or pastor.
Two approaches to choosing a passage should be avoided. First, simply picking up a Bible and randomly picking a passage is not an effective or advisable way to proceed. The second approach to avoid is picking one’s own favorite passages in Scripture, simply because we may come to those passages with already-held views and opinions.
One easy way to meet all these guidelines is to use the daily Gospel or Epistle reading for the day from a lectionary. That way, we also align ourselves with the liturgical calendar and can pray that verse with the rest of the Church. Another effective approach is to read through a New Testament book doing a little bit at a time.
Invocation (invocatio/epiklesis). As we settle into our time for Lectio, we should do two things before beginning the practice. First, begin with a period of silence (or in saying the Jesus Prayer or other short prayer). This helps to quiet our thoughts and to put us in a receptive mode. Second, before starting Lectio, pray an invocation to the Holy Spirit (invocatio/epikesis). “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak...” (Jn. 16:13).
Discussion (conversatio). Outside of monasteries, most Lectio is done individually. However, when practiced in group settings, one might consider adding a discussion period to allow the thoughts of the group to be shared. There are no fixed rules on when to do insert this discussion. Two possibilities: add this discussion after meditatio which is before the transition to oratio, or after contemplatio which is the final movement. Conversatio does not mean conversation in the modern sense, but also involves commonality in both life and purpose. Thus we share more than words or intellectual insights in conversatio.
Action (actio). The fruits of the practice of Lectio should prompt us to action (actio)—that is, to live out the commands of Scripture. How can we act on the lessons we learn from our time with Scripture? “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26).
Starting Lectio Divina. As we begin our practice, we read the selected passage slowly (lectio). If possible, we should speak the words out loud. This helps to slow us down and also allows us to hear the words at the same time. In this first movement, we are simply looking to understand the words themselves. At the same time, though, we remain alert for any words or phrases that draw our attention.
In the second movement (meditatio), we reflect on the passage, reading it again and perhaps focusing on the words or phrases that stood out for us in our initial reading. We also remain open to deeper spiritual meanings as part of this movement and ponder how those meanings may intersect with our lives.
In the third movement (oratio) we lift up our prayers to Him based on both the passage and on the reflections we have had in the first two movements. We then ask for the grace to grow in our relationship to Him and His Word. Finally, in the final movement (contemplatio), we give Him thanks and rest for a time in His Presence.
Ideally, we should read the passage before each movement or moment of Lectio, at least when we first begin our practice. As we develop, though, we may find ourselves doing things in a different order or perhaps even skipping a movement. We follow where the Spirit leads. Lectio has been called a “method-less method”—it is not a set of hard and fast rules.47
Lectio and Orthodoxy
Is Lectio Divina appropriate for Orthodox Christians? As Orthodox Christians, we are right to be suspicious of methods and techniques. However, lectio is not a ‘method’ per se, but a set of tools to help us read in the way Fr. Matta describes (see Part I). Fr. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and author of several books on contemplative Christianity, says the four movements of lectio properly applied are more like a circle than a ladder with the Holy Spirit at the center of that circle, thus making Him equidistant from all four movements.48 The Holy Spirit can engage us at any time in any of the four movements. It is not necessary, therefore, to complete all four movements or to even do them in a particular order. In short, Lectio Divina does not require rigid adherence to a set of rules. The four movements only provide a set of guidelines to follow in order to read scripture with proper attention, intention, devotion, and, with God’s help, understanding.
As some Orthodox observers have noted, too few Orthodox Christians read Scripture on a regular basis. Fr. John Breck, a former Professor of Biblical Exegesis and Patristics at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute, observes that Orthodox are not nearly as familiar with Scripture as we should be. Fr. John sees the benefits of Lectio Divina and argues that an Orthodox practice of Lectio could assist Orthodox Christians in their prayer life. He expresses concern, though, about its reception by some Orthodox Christians: “Many Orthodox recoil from the idea that we have something to learn from other Christian traditions. They would react with skepticism and irritation to the suggestion that we might benefit from familiarizing ourselves with a method of spiritual reading usually associated with Roman Catholicism.”50
The lessons of Scripture are the same now as they were in the early Church. Christ does not change and the message of Scripture doesn’t change. As Augustine wrote “You will recall that one and the same Word of God extends throughout Scripture, that it is one and the same Utterance that resounds in the mouths of all the sacred writers, since he who was in the beginning God with God has no need of separate syllables; for he is not subject to time.” The Word of God reaches out to all of us across time and longs to reveal Itself to us. Abraham Heschel puts it best: “The Bible is primarily not man’s vision of God, but God’s vision of man. The Bible is not man’s theology, but God’s anthropology."52
1 Matta El-Meskeen, The Communion of Love (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 16
2 El-Meskeen, The Communion of Love, 17
3 Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalion (Chicago and London: The University
of Chicago Press, 1993), 110
4 Raymond Studzinski, Reading to Live: The Evolving Practice of Lectio Divina (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2009),
Kindle e-book, Ch. 1
5 Studzinski, Reading to Live: The Evolving Practice of Lectio Divina, Ch. 1
6 Enzo Bianchi, Praying the Word: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, trans. James Zona (Collegeville: Liturgical Press,
7 M Basil Pennington, Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures (New York: The
Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), 77
8 Tim Gray, Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina (West Chester PA: Ascension Press,
9 Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), 89
10 Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading, 89
11 Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1998), 2
12 Paul Griffiths, Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion (New York and Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1999), 46
13 Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading, 98
14 Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading, 8
15 Guigo II, Lectio Divina: The Ladder of Paradise: An Early Guide to Lectio Divina. Translated by Xavier Moran
(Amazon Digital Services, 2014), Kindle e-book, Ch. 1
16 Guigo II, Lectio Divina: The Ladder of Paradise: An Early Guide to Lectio Divina, Ch. 2
17 Guigo II, Lectio Divina: The Ladder of Paradise: An Early Guide to Lectio Divina, Ch. 2
18 Guigo II, Lectio Divina: The Ladder of Paradise: An Early Guide to Lectio Divina, Ch. 3
19 John Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood NY: St.
Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 67
20 Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann, Wisdom and Practices of the Ancient Faith (Paris: Theosis Books, 2014), 36-37
21 Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2011),
Kindle e-book, Preface
22 Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Peabody MA: Baker
Academic/Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 9
23 Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture, 10
24 Jill Haak Adels, The Wisdom of the Saints: An Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 175
25 Henry de Lubac, Scripture in the Tradition, trans. Peter Casarella (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company,
26 Brevard Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 2004), Kindle e-book, Ch. 5.3
27 Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, Ch.5.3
28 Keith Stanglin, The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), Kindle ebook,
Part 2, Ch. 7
29 Stanglin, The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation, Part II, Ch 7
30 de Lubac, Scripture in the Tradition, 19
31 Columba Stewart, Cassian the Monk (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 93
32 Peter Leithart, Rehabilitating the Quadriga, (Theopolis Institute: 2013),
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Edinburgh: Wm. B. Eerdmans and T & T Clark Ltd., 2000), Kindle e-book, Ch. 10.1
34 John Peck, Interpreting the Bible the Orthodox Way (Preacher’s Institute: 2014), Kindle e-book, (see ‘The
35 Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 79
36 John A McGuckin, The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years (Downers Grove IL: 2017), Kindle e-book,
37 Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 80
38 Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading, 184
39 Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 80
40 Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 44
41 Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 40
42 L Joseph Letendre, When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer (Chesterton IN: Ancient Faith
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43 Letendre, When You Pray, 31-32
44 Letendre, When You Pray, 33
45 Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 31
46 John Cassian, John Cassian: Conferences (Classics of Western Spirituality), trans. Colm Luibheid (Mahwah NJ:
Paulist Press: 1985), 164-165
47 Thomas Keating, Lectio Divina Series: Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina,
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48 Thomas Keating, Lectio Divina Series: Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina
49 Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 69
50 Stephen Binz, Conversing with God in Scripture: A Contemporary Approach to Lectio Divina (Frederick MD: Word
Among Us Press, 2008), Kindle e-book, ch. 2
51 Abraham Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology, ed. Samuel Dresner (New York: Crossroad, 1998),