I wonder if you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘Lectio Divina’. It’s Latin – and it translates literally as ‘Divine Reading’. It’s a practice from ancient times, of (essentially) reading Scripture very slowly, carefully and prayerfully, to allow each word, phrase and theological concept the time to settle into one’s soul: time for the Spirit of God to commune with the Spirit of Man.
Today, we are confronted with a blizzard of theological ideas, from the mouth of John the Baptiser. The context is that people have been quizzing John about this new prophet who has appeared on the scene – this Jesus of Nazareth fellow. Who is he? (the crowd is wondering). Is he the Messiah that John foretold?
In response, John speaks in phrases and words which come at us like bullets from a gun. Frankly, without taking the time to read them carefully, they can wash over us…like some of my more theological sermons! We need to take time to fully absorb the importance of what John is saying.
Lectio Divina gives us a simple, practical tool for doing just that. Divine Reading has been a practice of the church since at least the time of St Benedict (in the 6th Century). It fell out of fashion in some quarters, but in the 20th and 21st Century it has been somewhat revived as a useful, spiritual tool. The Second Vatican Council recommended its revival. Pope Benedict re-affirmed the idea at the start of the 21st Century. And it’s a technique taught by Spiritual Directors and Guides all over the world.
Put simply, Lectio Divina – Divine Reading – is a four stage process:
4) and contemplation.
Let’s just unpack those a bit:
First, choose a text to focus on.
For example the chosen text can be from Eucharistic liturgy, daily prayers or affirmations, or from the Gospel; there are no specific requirements regarding the texts used during this practice: nor are there requirements on reading a certain amount each time you practice the Lectio Divina. It could be a long passage, or just a few words.
Next, embrace silence.
Focus on your breathing, or repeat a prayer silently, as you relax and allow yourself to let go of noise and distractions. Once you are silent and focused, you can start to intently read the text you chose.
Read the text
Take your time, read very slowly, in order to take in each individual word and its sound. While reading, be sure that you are also listening, as you wander calmly through the words about and of God. When you arrive to a word or phrase that you feel grabs your attention, stop, and repeat it, memorizing it, absorbing it. If the text contains a story, take time to imagine yourself as one of the characters in the story. What would they have felt? What might God have been saying to them?
If you find a phrase or a word that you don’t understand, make a note of it, or underline it for later study. You could look it up, later, on the internet. Or you could ask me, or another priest, for an explanation of what is being said.
You may find your thoughts wandering into memories, or current worries and distractions. This is part of the process. This is you offering your thoughts, concerns, and mind to God and this, in turn, is God speaking and listening to you.
This should lead you to the next phase, of conversing with God;
You can “speak” with your thoughts, ideas, your inner voice, or out loud. Or you could draw or paint your thoughts. You should feel calm and relaxed: this is you interacting with God, who is happy to visit with you. Then you can remain in contemplative silence, in God’s company, and return to the text when you feel it’s right.
Remember that the goal is not to complete a certain amount of text or reading, but to connect with God by reading his words.
Let’s try this technique with just half of one of the verses from today’s Gospel: “He whom God has sent speaks the words of God….” (John 3.34)
We’ve selected our text. Now, be still. Let silence encompass you.
Ready? Now read the text, slowly, thoughtfully, questioningly…
“He who God has sent…” Who is that referring to? Well it’s John speaking. And we know he was being asked questions about Jesus. So this must refer to Jesus – that’s the ‘He’. But what happened to him…’He who God has sent…’ So Jesus was sent by God. His being among us wasn’t an accident of fate or history. His arrival among us was a deliberate act of a loving Father-God. But what’s next? What did he do?
“He….speaks the words of God”. So Jesus speaks the words of God. Does that mean that his words have special power, special authority? Are Jesus’ words different from the other words we read in the Bible? Perhaps the other words we read are inspired by God…like a mountain inspires a painter. But not the actual words of God. Those are Jesus’ words alone. So what does that mean? Does it mean that we should pay more attention to Jesus’ words? Is that why some Bibles print Jesus’ words in red ink? Is that why the book of the Gospels is paraded before reading, rather than just read from the Bible like other readings?
I could go on…but I hope you get the idea. Out of just 10 words, a whole parade of questions, insights, and contemplation can flow. And having done that task, Lectio Divina invites us to converse with God….so let us pray:
Father, thank you for sending Jesus to us. Thank you for choosing to send him, out of your love for us. Thank you for speaking to us, so clearly, so beautifully, so powerfully through the words he spoke while he was among us. Thank you for his wisdom. Thank you for his stories, and his insight. Thank for the Love he conveyed. Help me, Father, to listen more keenly to Jesus words, every day. Help me to respond to them with joy, and with purpose. Amen.
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