LECTIO DIVINA — The Art of Divine Listening

Lectio Divina Graphics

This page is a compilation of articles, resources, and references for the study and practice of lectio divina. They are by no means exhaustive, but they are concise and sufficient enough to avoid confusion on the part of the student.

1. A Brief Introduction and Primer

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Spiritual Reading (Lectio Divina)
(Adapted from “Soul Feast” by Marjorie J. Thompson.)

“Read with a vulnerable heart. Expect to he blessed in the reading.
Read as one awake, one waiting for the Beloved.
Read with reverence.”

— Macrina Wiederkehr —                      

Purpose.  Spiritual reading is reflective and prayerful. It is concerned not with speed or volume but with depth and receptivity. That is because the purpose of spiritual reading is to open ourselves to how God may be speaking to us in and through any particular passage. We are seeking not merely information but formation.

Spiritual reading is a meditative approach to the written word. It requires unhurried time and an open heart. If the purpose of our reading is to be addressed by God, we will need to practice attentive listening and a willingness to respond to what we hear. The attitude suffusing spiritual reading is that of the boy Samuel: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). The art of spiritual reading as a reflective assimilation of sacred writings reaches straight back into the Jewish tradition of meditation: “Happy are those… (whose) delight is in the law of the LORD, and on His law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1: 1-2).

History.  Its practice in the Christian church was refined and given special weight by Saint Benedict in the sixth century. In Benedictine tradition, spiritual reading is referred to by its Latin title, Lectio Divina. Few Protestants are aware that figures like the great Reformer John Calvin and the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter advocated a method of reflective meditation with scripture that is directly derived from Benedictine practice.

Phases. There are lour basic phases in the classic practice of spiritual reading, termed in Latin: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. A quick overview:

  1. Lectio:  literally means “reading,” as if you have a love letter in hand, reading each sentence as if for the first time, expecting that God will address you with a direct and personal message.
  2. Meditatio:  translates “meditation,” which engages us with the text at the level of the “heart” (where memory, experience, thoughts, feelings, hopes, desires, intuition, and intentions are joined).
  3. Oratio:  refers to prayer that naturally flows out of our meditation, our first response to what we have heard and assimilated in the first two phases of spiritual reading. This is the direct cry of the heart to God that rises when we have heard ourselves personally addressed through the Word.
  4. Contemplatio:  contemplation, which essentially is rest in God’s presence, allowing ourselves simply to be.

These phases represent a general and often natural progression, but you may experience a weaving back and forth as Spirit moves you.

Instructions for Spiritua1 Reading.  Here are some preliminaries:

  • A discipline of this sort takes unhurried time. A minimum of half an hour is suggested.
  • Choose a place that affords you solitude and reasonable quiet if at all possible.
  • Be fully available to God.
  • Choose a passage of Scripture or other sacred writing not longer than a few verses.

Begin by reaffirming that the purpose of this reading is to let yourself be addressed by God. Remind yourself of God’s presence with you, here and now, whether you sense it or not — trust that the Divine is attending to you. Offer your gratitude, and ask for the guidance and illumination of Spirit in your reading.

    “Remind yourself of God’s presence with you, here and now, whether you sense it or not…”

Lectio.  Turn to the passage; begin to read silently and slowly, pausing between phrases and sentences. (For some, silent reading allows the mind to wander, so reading aloud or whispering is preferable). Let the words echo and resonate in your mind; allow meanings to sink in, associations to arise; images to surface. If a word or phrase seems especially significant to you, remain with it, turning it over in your mind and heart. When the sense of immediacy faces, move on to another verse. If it remains meaningful for you, stay with it. Here is a word meant for your ears. Be content to listen simply and openly, like a child listening to a story.

Meditatio.  Once you have heard a “word” that seems meant for you, start ruminating on it. Why is this a word for you? What is it about your life right now that needs to hear this word? How is God catching your attention? What does God seem to be saying to you through this word?

Oratio.  Let your prayer emerge from your encounter with this text. How do you find yourself praying for your own need? How does this word move you to pray for others? Allow your prayer to flow spontaneously from the heart, expressing as fully as you can what surfaces out of your listening. [However you respond or whatever your response is, make it a point to bring your awareness home to the oneness of God and/or the nature or promises of God.]

Contemplatio.  Release all your thoughts, feelings, and intentions to God. There is no further need to listen, reflect, imagine, or respond. There is simply an invitation to return to a place of rest near the heart of God where you may be at peace. God sustains you with love every moment of your life. Delight in this gift, take comfort and joy in it!

When you emerge from your contemplation, find a word, image or phrase that carries the core message you have received. Take this with you into your daily activities and relationships. Let your reflection and prayer continue inwardly as new experiences deepen the word you heard in your spiritual reading.

Suggested readings to learn more about Lectio Divina:

2. The Elements and Phases of Lectio Divina

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Lectio Divina, Framework of Teresian Prayer

      (Taken from “Lectio Divina and the Practice of Teresian Prayer” by Sam Anthony
      Morello, OCD.  This article originally appeared in the Summer 1991 issue of Spiritual
      Life, ©Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites, ICS Publications.  Note: Some emphasis have been supplied, including additional reference links.)

To begin this section on a personal note, until I discovered lectio divina, my daily practice of prayer took twice as much effort. Now, for many years, I look forward to the time for prayer, and experience not only a greater facility in praying but much greater liberty of spirit. I hope others will experience the same coming home in this time-tested prayer of the monastic ages!

We should not be put off by the mention of monastic prayer. The monks prayed as simple Christians with the good sense to base their prayer on the sacred Scriptures. What they had that we lack is an ideal environment, the great monastic setting of classical times. But some of us suspect that monastic prayer created the setting before the setting sustained the prayer! You will see how easy the practice is and how the busy meditator of our age can settle down in a short time and enter into the interior castle of deep recollection. We don’t always need a quiet place; we need the resolve to be still! It takes a little discipline.

It is not our purpose to discuss the tragic demise of monastic prayer in the West. The fact is that elements of monastic prayer survived, but the basic method was nearly lost even in monastic circles. Teresa (Saint Teresa of Avila) was heir to a monastic tradition, but the spirituality of the times was rather thin and a long chain of events over two centuries left the monastic practice of prayer infirm, to say the least. Happily, modern studies in spirituality have revealed again the simplicity and inner unity of monastic prayer. The Teresian spirit feeds and is fed by this rediscovered tradition.

Image of Teresa of Avila, with quotation.

Saint Teresa of Avila

The Elements of Lectio. Lectio divina means literally the “divine reading.” It is a monastic designation for the meditative reading of the Scriptures. Its elements are ingredients of a spiritual frame of mind, a holy discipline that intuitively and affectively dwells on a biblical text as a means of seeking communion with Christ. The practice could also be described as dwelling on a scriptural text in the divine presence for the sake of radical change in Christ. Yet again, we could say that lectio is making one’s own a small selection, phrase, or word of the Bible, in pursuit of greater faith, hope, and charity. In any event, lectio divina is prayer over the Scriptures. The monastics of the early and medieval church developed this into a fine art.

    “The practice could also be described as
    dwelling on a scriptural text in the divine presence for the sake of radical change in Christ.”

The elements are four:

  1. lectio itself, which means reading, understood as the careful repetitious recitation of a short text of Scripture;
  2. meditatio or meditation, an effort to fathom the meaning of the text and make it personally relevant to oneself in Christ;
  3. oratio, which means prayer, taken as a personal response to the text, asking for the grace of the text or moving over it toward union with God; and
  4. contemplatio, translated contemplation, gazing at length on something.

The idea behind this final element is that sometimes, by the infused grace of God, one is raised above meditation to a state of seeing or experiencing the text as mystery and reality; one comes into experiential contact with the One behind and beyond the text. It is an exposure to the divine presence, to God’s truth and benevolence.

    “… one is raised above meditation to a state of seeing or experiencing the text as mystery and reality; one comes into experiential contact with the One behind and beyond the text.”

A classic exposition of these four elements can be found in “The Ladder of Monks,” a twelfth century monastic letter by Guigo II on the contemplative life, where lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio are presented as four rungs leading from earth to heaven. With this work as a general guide, let us consider each element in turn.

The Ladder of Monks Ascending to Heaven

Reading. Reading in the monastic tradition involved placing the divine word on the lips. It was a focusing and centering device. One would gently read a selection from the Bible, and when a thought, line, or word stood out and captured the reader’s attention, he or she would stop there and dwell on that text, carefully repeating it over and over. At each distraction one would simply return to this repetition. He or she would stay with that same text until it dried up, and would then move on with the reading until finding another engaging text. Classically, the monk would do this repetitious reading out loud, proclaiming the word to his or her own senses, praying with the whole body. This first element is very simple, nothing more than verbal focus on a biblical thought, like placing the word as food in the mouth. In this way monks committed to memory the word of God bit by bit,

Meditation. Once the word of God is on the lips and in the mouth, one begins to bite and chew it; one begins to meditate on it. To meditate means to ruminate, to chew the word, dwelling at leisure on a morsel to extract the meaning of the text. Every word of Scripture was seen as intended for oneself. Every text spoke of Christ and of the prayer. The monk personalized the text, entering into the meaning and identifying with it. This is the second element of lectio divina. Meditation employs in an intuitive way all the faculties. One does not work hard at this prayer, but simply keeps listening to the words being repeated, letting them suggest their own images, reflections, intuitive thoughts. The whole process is basically intuitive, a right-brain activity (as is said today), like reading a love letter over and over again. Every word is savored and every thought made one’s own. (Lovers even memorize their favorite passages!) The meditator ponders and perceives the hidden lessons in the word of God in such a way that wisdom for life is learned. Meditation seeks to acquire the mind of Christ. One slowly begins to see what the scriptures are saying. The meditator begins the lifetime task of hearing the word of God so as to keep it. Meditation is basically “hearing the word” that lectio (reading) is repeating.

Prayer. With the help of grace, devout thought engenders prayer, the third element of lectio divina. The word of God moves from the lips to the mind, and now into the heart. Oratio or prayer is the response of the heart to the word of God we have heard addressing us through the Scriptures. Basically, prayer in this sense desires the grace of the text so ardently that it demands the needed graces of God. (Guigo II speaks of imperium, a command issued to God from our dire poverty that desperately depends on the salvation only God can give.) Prayer here is the whole affective component of meditation. It is petition, it is affective conversation with sentiments of love, it is resolution to grow in the virtues of Christ, it is compunction of heart for one’s sins, it is silent company-keeping, it is the loving gaze. Like the other elements of lectio, the affective dimension grows and develops. It moves toward simplicity and on into an acquired contemplation. Prayer desires God.

Contemplation. The fourth element is contemplation. Here God slakes the soul’s thirst and feeds its hunger, according to Guigo II. God gives the meditator a new wine and lifts him or her above the normal meditative self into the sphere of experienced transcendence. Here at last is an infused element of prayer. Here the Spirit prays in the human spirit. One experiences a state of inner harmony; carnal emotions are quieted; the flesh is not at odds with the spirit; the person is in a state of spiritual integration. The light of God’s presence shines through the soul experientially. The love of God is no longer abstract, but concretely poured into the receiving self. One can see oneself being loved and loving in return. Clearly, we are speaking of pure gift at this point. These moments can be fleeting or prolonged, subtle or pronounced. They can go and come again. They can mingle with the flow of meditative words repeated, thoughts reflected, intuitions enjoyed, resolutions enacted. But the person is more still and passive; our God is passing by.

We might sum up what Guigo II says of the four elements of lectio divina in the following ways: reading seeks; meditation finds (meaning); prayer demands; contemplation tastes (God). Or again: reading provides solid food; meditation masticates; prayer achieves a savor; contemplation is the sweetness that refreshes. Or yet again: reading is on the surface; meditation gets to the inner substance; prayer demands by desire; contemplation experiences by delight.


A companion PowerPoint slide show learning presentation on lectio divina is available as a study aid.


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