Monday, February 27, 2023

Lectio Divina (2): What, Where, and When

Last week, we saw St. Gregory the Great speaking about the immense value of the practice of lectio divina or praying with the Scriptures, and I gave a simple sketch of how it works, recommending it as a practice to take up this Lent (and then to continue beyond Lent!) if you are not already doing it.

Naturally, questions arise. How do we decide, in practical terms, what to read each day—where to go in the Bible, how much, and for how long?

What we should bear in mind is that lectio divina is not meant to be an elaborate, burdensome obligation, but a childlike encounter with God in His Word, something that will refresh us and give us light for our journey. It will stretch us and challenge us, to be sure, but in such a way that we are still led to the peace of Christ. It’s not an academic study or a rote recitation. A personally fruitful lectio divina can be done by everybody.


First, as to quantity. Usually several verses, up to about half a chapter, is the right amount for people living in the world. A person could read an entire chapter, but that’s a lot to read slowly and meditatively, and it’s far more important to be able to ponder what we're reading and pray about it than to “get through” a certain book. Even one verse can furnish enough material for lectio divina, if the verse really hits one in the gut. The Gospels are ideally suited to lectio for many reasons, one of which is the way they are divided into small chunks or pericopes (e.g., a parable, miracle, or conversation) that can be taken by themselves.

It is important to read slowly, really thinking about what we are reading, and if something strikes us in a new way, or if we have a sense that this particular “word” (phrase or sentence) is what we need to take to heart, we should stop and ponder that word. There is no requirement to “finish” a section of the text; one can always resume there next time. On the whole, it will do us more good to meditate and pray than to continue reading. Indeed, our powers of concentration are limited, so even if we had all day at our disposal, we would do better with several shorter times of reading mixed with a variety of other activities.

The great Thomist Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange once stated:
One single sentence from Sacred Scripture can nourish the soul, illuminate it, strengthen it in adversity. Sacred Scripture is something far superior to a simple exposition of dogma, subdivided into special tracts: it is an ocean of revealed truth in which we can taste in advance the joys of eternal life.


Second, as to choice of text: there are 73 books in the Bible. They fall into groupings that are extremely different from one another, not only in genre—historical or narrative, prophetic, poetic, epistolary, legislative, apocalyptic—but also in their immediate accessibility or usefulness for personal prayer. The Fathers, Doctors, and mystics of the Church reached a level of spiritual maturity that enabled them to reap a harvest from any verse in Scripture, but since we are not their equals, we need to be more humble and more realistic. Some books clearly lend themselves to lectio divina for beginners, and indeed these books are the ones that all the saints keep going back to. They are: the Psalms (and the Wisdom literature in general); the prophets, both major and minor; and every book in the New Testament, with the Gospels holding pride of place. Simply put, if we choose one of the Gospels or a psalm, it is almost impossible not to profit from meditating on that reading.

Still, there will be dry moments when we can’t make heads or tails of a reading, and that’s also a healthy experience for us: we need to realize that we are not in charge. Any fruit we reap is God’s gift to us, and when we don’t seem to be reaping fruit, it’s because He’s preparing a larger harvest for us that demands a greater faith and trust in him before it can happen. The more experienced we become with lectio, the more freely we can launch out into the deep of other parts of Scripture and find nourishment there, as well.


Third, as to when and where: one need not do lectio divina in a church; what is necessary is to choose a time and place of quiet, where we can let our mind and heart go into the Word of God. For some people, this could be a conveniently situated church or chapel—it is one of the few places in our noisy world that is (usually) still recognized and respected as a haven of silence. But if there is a quiet place in one’s home early in the morning, that, too, would be well suited for lectio. Indeed, so great is the dignity of the Word of God that the Church has granted a plenary indulgence, with the usual conditions, to the devout reading of Scripture for one half-hour, anywhere.

The timing is also important: we need to find a time of day that is not so busy that we will be utterly distracted. For most people, this is early in the morning; once we get started with the work day, there’s too much going on. The morning has a special quality to it that strongly recommends it as a time for lectio.

We may conclude with the rousing words of the Benedictine monk Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel (c. 760–c. 840):
For those who practice it, the experience of sacred reading sharpens perception, enriches understanding, rouses from sloth, banishes idleness, orders life, corrects bad habits, produces salutary weeping, and draws tears from contrite hearts . . . curbs idle speech and vanity, awakens longing for Christ and the heavenly fatherland.
          It must always be accompanied by prayer and intimately joined with it, for we are cleansed by prayer and taught by reading. Therefore, whoever wishes to be with God at all times must prayer often and read often, for when we pray it is we who speak with God, but when we read it is God who speaks with us.
          Every seeker of perfection advances in reading, prayer, and meditation. Reading enables us to learn what we do not know, meditation enables us to retain what we have learned, and prayer enables us to live what we have retained. Reading Sacred Scripture confers on us two gifts: it makes the soul’s understanding keener, and after snatching us from the world’s vanities, it leads us to the love of God.
(Part II of a five-part series. Here is Part I.)

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