Recently I led an exercise of meditative reading of the Bible. I read Isaiah 43:1-8 four times, instructing the women to engage with the text with a different emphasis each time. About a month later, I was humbled to hear from one woman about how God spoke to her through the exercise. She said she and her husband had been to Brunei in Southeast Asia a couple of weeks before to visit their daughter and family (including three young grandchildren), who have lived there for the last seven years. While there, she learned that her son-in-law decided to apply for teaching jobs in Belgium, Singapore, and Oman. With Belgium being far closer to home, she and her husband were hoping this would be their final destination.
She said, “When you read Isaiah to us the only sentences I heard were verses 5 and 6, where it says, “I will bring your children from the East and your daughters from far-off lands.” How relevant to me were those words and I held onto them as a promise to me from God – that He was telling me that my son-in-law would get the job and my family would move closer. I was so convinced that I told others what God was saying. So imagine the great joy when we heard he had been offered the job in Belgium and they were to start in September! No more 17 hour flights to see them! God truly had gathered my children from the East and my daughter from a far-off land.”
She said that before my talk she had never heard of lectio divina – a Latin phrase for the act of sacred reading – but since she had come across it several times.
This ancient practice of slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures moves what can be a merely rational process deep into one’s heart. As we chew over a piece of Scripture it sinks into our being. We begin to slow down, receive, and make a personal response.
Sacred reading was birthed in the monasteries. In the sixth century, St. Benedict formed a rule for living which included time for the monks to read. This was unusual because books then were rare – it took a community of scribes many hours to copy these precious documents. And the scribes only penned the books that were worthy of their time and effort, with the Scriptures taking the primary place.
Out of this scarcity of resources, this rich form of reading emerged. When we follow their approach, we too submit ourselves to the text, revering it as God’s Word. Unlike those who engage in contemporary literary criticism, often deconstructing the source document, we submit ourselves to the Bible and its words, asking God through His Holy Spirit to shape and form us.
Sacred reading takes time and effort – it’s not a process we control. Rather, we need to go against the grain of today’s culture, which demands instant results, and instead practice patience and tenacity. The author and monk Michael Casey, who has written the inspiring and informative book Sacred Reading (from which I draw in this article), says that lectio divina is like entering a cave. As we read slowly, moving through the steps, we need to give our eyes the chance to adjust to the dimmer light.
As we read the Bible regularly, asking God to speak to us through it, we will be changed. As the evangelist Dwight Moody said, “The Scriptures were not given to increase our knowledge, but to change our lives.” The Lord will give us nourishment for the day – like the Israelites who received their daily manna in the desert.
But that change comes as we obey what we hear God saying through His Word and His still, small voice, putting into practice His gentle admonishments and commands. As Jesus said to His disciples as He was preparing them for His death and coming again, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:23-24, NIV).
The Four R’s
Before we get down to the mechanics, consider this quotation from Dietrich Bonheoffer, the German minister who was martyred at the end of World War 2:
“The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love. And just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation. [Ask of the text]: “What does it say to me?” Then ponder that Word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.” The Way to Freedom, New York: Harper & Row, 1966, 59.
I love how he instructs us to let the Word of God take possession of us. Ready to have a go? Choose a favorite text or the next one in your Bible reading plan, if you have one. Need a suggested text? The one I used to lead the group through the lectio divina exercise was Isaiah 43:1-8, which I read aloud to them four times, using the steps below. One woman wept openly, commenting afterward that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword.
This practice can be seen as the four R’s: reading, reflecting, responding, and resting. Although this discipline has four stages, it’s a circular process, so we may move from one back to another, and then jump down to another, all at our own pace, as inspired by the Spirit.
The first step is reading (lectio). We read a passage, listening with expectancy, with holy reverence. We turn our hearts to God, attentive to any words He might want to impart to us through His Word.
The second step is meditating (meditatio). This is our time to ruminate over the text – as an animal chews its cud (which was an image used in antiquity for a Christian pondering the Word of God). As Bonheoffer says, “Mary could be said to be engaging in this step as she ‘pondered in her heart’ what she saw and heard of Christ” (Luke 2:19, NIV). We take in the Word and turn it over, this way and that, gently repeating it and letting it interact with our thoughts, hopes, memories, and desires. In this step we allow God’s Word to become His word to us.
The third step is praying (oratio). We make our response to God in this step, offering Him thanksgiving, praise, petition, repentance, and adoration through our hearts, bodies, and voices. We allow His Word to touch the deepest part of ourselves as we ask the Lord to transform us. In this step we see prayer as a dialogue with God – a loving conversation with the One who has made us.
The fourth step is contemplating (contemplatio). In this step we stop in the presence of our loving Father. Words are not necessary as we rest, without striving, as we practice silence, simply enjoying the presence of God. As modern people we easily miss this step, rushing off to check our emails, texts or social media. We have to retrain ourselves to stop and enjoy; just to be and not to rush off.
Move through these steps with your text, pausing and reflecting, and mining the riches of God’s Word. We’d love to hear in the comments how God speaks to you if you employ this practice – what struck you in a new way? Were you able to rest and receive?
I’m including the famous prayer of Thomas Cranmer from the Book of Common Prayer:
Blessed Lord, who caused
all Holy Scriptures to be written
for our learning:
help us so to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and
inwardly digest them,
that through patience, and
the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace
and for ever hold fast
the hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us
in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and ever. Amen.
As you engage with this ancient practice, I pray God will impart His riches of grace into your lives. “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32, NIV).