Lectio Divina

Today we complete the first of this year’s three readings of the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict. Every day we have tweeted a single sentence or phrase of the day’s portion of the Rule. Doing so may have been of no help to anyone but ourselves, but it has concentrated our minds wonderfully. To distill into a single sentence what is already a remarkably concise text requires a prayerful mulling over of something already known by heart. It is, if you like, an online exercise in lectio divina.

The two key phrases in the above paragraph are “known by heart” and “prayerful mulling over”. There is no mystery about the practice of lectio divina although many have tried to make it sound difficult or esoteric. Nothing is needed except a text and an attentive heart – and perhaps the willingness to spend time on something that has no purpose beyond itself. Many people who have “tried” lectio divina and given up do so at the point where the process really begins, in the boredom and “flatness” of a text that apparently yields nothing. To pray in this way you must give up all ideas of mastering the text and instead allow the  text to master you.

The very first word of the prologue is obsculta – listen, listen carefully! – and we are invited to “bend low the ear of your heart” to hear what the Master wishes to say. That is the invitation of lectio divina, renewed daily. What we carry away from our lectio divina may not be what we expected, may not even occur to us until much later in the day (Benedict assumes that we will give time to lectio divina early in the day), but it will be something that changes us because this way of praying is intimately connected with conversion of heart, metanoia. Little by little, God chips away at the encrustations surrounding us so that we may be genuinely free.

Personally, I always begin the day with scripture, the unadulterated word of God, so to say. It may be only a line or two, the quantity is irrelevant. What matters is to open ourselves to “the voice of God that cries out to us every day”. (RB Prol. 9) We must believe that God speaks, not always as easy as it sounds, and be brave enough to listen. Sometimes, it can seem like being ready to go back to school again, learning again things we thought we already knew and are horrified to discover we have forgotten or imperfectly understood. Interestingly, Benedict describes the monastery as “a school for the Lord’s service”. (RB Prol. 45) It is no accident that the practice of lectio divina is the characteristic activity of monks and nuns in that school.


9 thoughts on “Lectio Divina”

  1. An excellent look at lectio divina in the monastic setting. Lectio divina as described here does not seem ‘too’ difficult at all, though in practice it likely presents difficulties.

    There is the idea of ‘known by heart’: Is it that benedictine monastics have RB committed to memory already that this is highlighted here – or is all text used for lectio learned by heart before reflecting upon it?

    Also, pondering a text is not restricted to the initial period of lectio but extends throughout the day?

    Today’s post leaves us with much to reflect upon. Thank you. Very helpful.

  2. No, lectio divina isn’t “difficult” but you need to be ready to learn how to read slowly again. Although we do learn the Rule by heart, it isn’t essential to commit a text to memory. The important things is to “savour” it, chew it over, make it your own. Starting the day with lectio divina gives one something to ruminate on later. David Knowles spent much of his life living outside his monastery, in fact he was exclaustrated for a long period, but he used to say that little phrases from his reading would come bubbling up as he walked about Cambridge to provide him with spiritual nourishment. As you’ll notice, all the images I’ve used are drawn from eating. Our lectio divina is a form of spiritual sustenance.

  3. The images of ingesting sacred words as spiritual food bring to mind God’s presence in the Holy Eucharist, and even the Child Jesus who is born in a ‘manger’ is as spiritual nourishment for us.

  4. Dame, thank you for this excellent post on Lectio. As a layman (who always thought he would end up in the cloister) I must say it is the most difficult thing for me to be disciplined about. Doubts quickly take over, and I worry that perhaps I am moving through the text too quickly, trying to find a phrase or sentence that “speaks to me.” However, I have made a renewed effort in Lectio as my 2011 resolution and am reading a slim volume on Lectio by Michael Casey, OCSO. I must confess that the jury is still out in regards the usefulness of this book as I fear it is making me more scrupulous. Might you continue on bit with some useful points on how one might approach Lectio, perhaps as you might present it to a novice? Would this perhaps be a subject for a future podcast? I apologise in advance for even suggesting more work for you!

    • I’m touched by the honesty and trust in all these comments. As a matter of fact, Quietnun and I are in the process of getting together our first Five Minute Focus Retreat which will be on the subject of lectio divina. We’re intending to release it just before Lent. If you check back on the Shared Cloister page of our web site, you’ll see that we’ve made one or two changes to our planned scheme. We don’t want to put anyone off, but we’ve decided that, as we give such a lot of time/material free and are not exactly well-off ourselves, we could legitimately charge for our online retreats – on a sliding scale and reflecting the degree of personal engagement with the retreatant. What do you think?

      • I think a charge for online retreats is very reasonable and even desired. It is an additional way to generate income for the monastery and for those who benefit and can afford, to reciprocate charity with charity. I think also that the idea of using a sliding scale is important so that all who wish to participate may do so.

  5. An excellent post. A few years ago, we had a small retreat in our parish conducted by a Benedictine monk who assisted at our parish on Sundays. We requested lectio divina and it was wonderful.
    I guess the hard part was doing what St Benedict said: Listen, with the ear of your heart. We were hearing but were we listening? Time to ponder the bible passage we were given to read, and to try and let the words of God speak to us. Hard at first but if you give it a chance, it was great.

  6. You do provide so much that is of great value at no cost to those who visit your offerings on line. I think it is a good idea to offer some services for a fee.

    People have sought out monastery print and publishing operations for many years and paid for the books and information they received. To me this is the same idea but in a different format.

    Thank you for all you do for others and best wishes with the on line retreats.

  7. I often sit at a desk and write out the day’s passage (I usually take the gospel of the day, or get someone to make me a set of readings on some theme): this has proven very helpful in settling in to the text when I am restless or distracted (or falling asleep over the page!).

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