“Your Word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path” (Ps.119:105)
The words of Sacred Scripture are beautiful and consoling and in them, we learn of the Person of Jesus Christ. We hear the readings at Mass – the Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels – and we may well find these very moving and wish to read more of them. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that the Word of God is something living and active, while the Psalms tells us it is a light for our path.
There remains an assumption in some places that Catholics are not familiar with the Bible, that this is really something for other Christian denominations to read, and there persists the erroneous belief that the Church does not want us to read the Bible. The reality, however, is that not only is the Church perfectly happy for us to read the Bible, but it actively and greatly encourages us to do so.
Moreover, the Church encourages us to read the Bible as prayerfully as possible; she even points us toward a very ancient method called ‘Lectio Divina’ as one way to accomplish this. This article looks at the ‘why’, the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of Lectio Divina. It concludes with links to two excellent articles – by the Carmelites and the Jesuits – which will walk you through the actual process of delving into the practice of Lectio Divina.
One of the great documents to come forth from the Second Vatican Council was the ‘Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation’, ‘Dei Verbum’, promulgated in November 1965. This document reminded us of the place of both Sacred Scripture and Tradition within the Church, and of the relationship between the two.
The document begins by looking at the role of the Apostles and the commission given to them by the Risen Lord to be His “witnesses.. to the ends of the earth” (cf.Acts 1:8). This witness was consigned to written form in the books of the New Testament which, together with those of the Old Testament, form Sacred Scripture. But Divine Revelation, in the teaching of the Church, is not solely the written witness – it also consists of the oral witness, the practice of the faith which we call Tradition. Scripture and Tradition are closely bound together, as Dei Verbum reminds us –
“..there exists a close connection and communication between sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred Tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known..” (Dei Verbum, para.9)
Later in the document, the Council Fathers go on to speak about place of Scripture in the life of the Church –
“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord.. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.. The force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.” (Dei Verbum, para.21)
Then, after addressing Bishops, Priests, Deacons and the Religious, the Council Fathers remind the every-day Catholic that the Scriptures are for us, too –
“Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.. The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful.. to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the ‘excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8). ‘For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.'(5) Therefore, they should gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids which, in our time.. are commendably spread everywhere. And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for ‘we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying’.” (Dei Verbum, para.22, 25)
Clearly, then, the Catholic Church not only allows us to read Sacred Scripture, but encourages us to do so. And moreover, the Fathers encourage us to do so prayerfully, as this should always accompany our reading of Scripture to enable it to become conversation, that the Holy Spirit might speak to us in the reading of the Word. The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes this appeal, and goes on to say –
“..Christians therefore read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen. Such typological reading discloses the inexhaustible content of the Old Testament; but it must not make us forget that the OldTestament retains its own intrinsic value as Revelation reaffirmed by our Lord himself. Besides, the New Testament has to be read in the light of the Old. Early Christian catechesis made constant use of the Old Testament. As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New..” (Catechism, art.3, para.129)
The Church reminds us very clearly that –
“It is always possible to pray.. prayer is a vital necessity.. prayer and Christian life are inseparable” (Catechism, para.2743-2745)
The Catechism summarises beautifully on the form and nature of prayer when it tells us –
“The Christian tradition comprises three major expressions of the life of prayer: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplative prayer. They have in common the recollection of the heart. Vocal prayer, founded on the union of body and soul in human nature, associates the body with the interior prayer of the heart, following Christ’s example of praying to His Father and teaching the Our Father to His disciples. Meditation is a prayerful quest engaging thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. It’s goal is to make our own in faith the subject considered, by confronting it with the reality of our own life. Contemplative prayer is the simple expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, an attentiveness to the Word of God, a silent love. It achieves real union with the prayer of Christ to the extent that it makes us share in His mystery.” (Catechism para.2721-2724)
Thankfully, the Church also suggests an ancient and venerable way of praying with the Scriptures in a prayerful manner, which we call ‘lectio divina’, or ‘divine reading’. Often, it is simply referred to as ‘lectio’. In Section 4 of the Catechism, the Church tells us –
“Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ, as in lectio divina or the Rosary. This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with Him.” (Catechism, para.2708)
Father Douglas Leonhardt SJ notes that in the intervening years since Vatican II,
“..Some Catholics have hesitated to read Scripture privately because they did not feel they knew enough about the Bible. But this reason for avoiding the reading of Scripture is a temptation because it puts the focus on the individual and not on Christ. The truth is that we have a teacher in the Holy Spirit whom Christ promised and we received at Baptism. ‘I have said these things to you while still with you; but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.’ (John 14:25-26). There are two easy ways to pray with Scripture. One is called in Latin, Lectio Divina..”
Speaking from Castel Gandolfo in September 2005, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a large group of people who were taking part in a congress on Scripture in the life of the Church. He told them –
“We are grateful to God that in recent times, and thanks to the impact made by the Dogmatic Constitution ‘Dei Verbum’ the fundamental importance of the Word of God has been deeply re-evaluated.. In this context, I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of ‘Lectio divina’: ‘the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart’ (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 25). If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church — I am convinced of it — a new spiritual springtime. As a strong point of biblical ministry, ‘Lectio divina’ should therefore be increasingly encouraged.. It should never be forgotten that the Word of God is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Castel Gandolfo, 16 September 2005)
In his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation ‘Verbum Domini’, published in September 2010, Pope Benedict returned to this subject. He noted that
“the Synod frequently insisted on the need for a prayerful approach to the sacred text as a fundamental element in the spiritual life of every believer, in the various ministries and states in life, with particular reference to lectio divina..” (para.86)
He added –
“The documents produced before and during the Synod mentioned a number of methods for a faith-filled and fruitful approach to sacred Scripture. Yet the greatest attention was paid to lectio divina, which is truly ‘capable of opening up to the faithful the treasures of God’s word, but also of bringing about an encounter with Christ, the living word of God’.” (para.87)
Pope Benedict then outlined the required steps for authentic lectio divina –
“I would like here to review the basic steps of this procedure.
It opens with the reading (lectio) of a text, which leads to a desire to understand its true content: what does the biblical text say in itself? Without this, there is always a risk that the text will become a pretext for never moving beyond our own ideas.
Next comes meditation (meditatio), which asks: what does the biblical text say to us? Here, each person, individually but also as a member of the community, must let himself or herself be moved and challenged.
Following this comes prayer (oratio), which asks the question: what do we say to the Lord in response to his word? Prayer, as petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise, is the primary way by which the word transforms us.
Finally, lectio divina concludes with contemplation (contemplatio), during which we take up, as a gift from God, his own way of seeing and judging reality, and ask ourselves what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us?” (para.87)
He concluded this part of his text by pointing out that –
“We find the supreme synthesis and fulfilment of this process in the Mother of God. For every member of the faithful Mary is the model of docile acceptance of God’s word, for she “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19; cf. 2:51); she discovered the profound bond which unites, in God’s great plan, apparently disparate events, actions and things.” (para.87)
There are a great deal of resources available on the subject of lectio divina, and an increasing number of parishes now have lectio groups where the faithful gather together to prayerfully contemplate the Scriptures, often with spiritual direction from the Priest, which is ideal. If this article has given you a desire to learn a little more about lectio divina and how to go about practising it, take a look at the internet, or – even better – speak to your Priest.
In the meantime, here are two good sites to begin with:
– What Is Lectio Divina? written by the Order of Carmelites, and
– Praying With Scripture by Fr Douglas Leonhardt.
May the Merciful Lord, Who speaks to us in the Sacred Scriptures, lighten our path with His divine Word.
“For the word of God is living and active” (Heb.4:12)