(The Audio version of these remarks is available above or via The Gospel Life Podcast on Spotify, Apple and Google.)
So I spent three years living in a monastery and I wrote a book about it. One of the questions people ask me is: Monks are supposed to be the experts at prayer, right? How do monks pray? What did you learn about prayer from the monks?
Today I will answer that question. As a matter of fact, the monks do have a unique way of praying. They call it Lectio Divina. That’s Latin for Divine Reading or Sacred Reading.
What is Lectio Divina?
Lectio Divina is a disciplined method of prayerfully reading, meditating and taking up the texts of Scripture into your personal prayer. Monasteries have cultivated this practice for centuries. I learned it when I was there. During those three years, Lectio Divina became the anchor of my prayer life.
But after my departure from the monastery, I struggled greatly to integrate this style of prayer into my lay life. I started to doubt that God could really speak to me in a vital way through Scripture. Honestly, for a period of time, I even doubted God, in general, and I certainly doubted that the Scriptures mediated his voice and his Presence. So, for a time, I stopped setting aside the time to dedicate to this way of praying. During those years, this stream of Christian wisdom gradually died in my heart. At the very least, it began to flow much less regularly.
I did recover my faith, though. And I did start praying again. One day in my early forties, I was asked to give a reflection to a men’s group. I decided to address the topic of Lectio Divina for lay people. It had been about 15 years since my departure from the monastery. I was now married, with four kids. Over time, I had founded two successful businesses. You could say I was settled in my lay state and professional life. Now I was ready to revisit this early anchor of my spiritual life. Did it still have the power to speak to me as a layman?
As I prepared my thoughts for the talk, I also started practicing Lectio more earnestly. But I didn’t really know where to start. I had no guide. So I started simply. I planted seeds. I said, I will spend five minutes a day with Scripture before my work day starts. Five minute daily drips of water into the desert of my heart. I used to practice it in a quiet parking lot on the way to work every morning. It was terribly modest – a renewed, modified, lay person version of this ancient prayer.
I stuck to it.
Since then, Lectio has come to form, once again, the backbone of my prayer life. Five minutes a day has expanded to something that fits at the center of my lay spiritual life. The practice has shifted from drops of water to a stream of living water. Here I want to share here what I have learned about Lectio Divina the second time around. As a layman.
At the heart of Lectio Divina is a discipline and a pattern in praying. One prays in dialogue with the voice of the Trinity in Scripture. Yes, I said the Trinity. For sometimes it is the Father who speaks; other times it is the Holy Spirit; other times, we hear the words of Jesus himself. The practice of Lectio will teach you to hear this voice, to decipher it, to hold fast to it.
A wise monk once said: where God speaks, there is the God, hidden within the voice. I have found this to be true of the encounter with the voice of God that we hear in the Scriptures. God is in the voice. The voice revealed in Scripture brings us into the very presence of the Trinity, hidden in the spoken, written word.
The first key to the tradition of Lectio Divina is the attitude of the heart one brings to this practice. The soul that practices Lectio believes that God has communicated a great disclosure of his heart to us through a long revelation, over many generations, in the Scriptures. So when we pick up the Scriptures, we are picking up something sacred, something capable of transmitting the Holy Spirit directly to our hearts. Distilled and concentrated across a vast expanse of human experience.
This ‘something sacred’ comes to us in a concrete, tangible form. It comes to us in a human mode – as words on a page. This is something we can walk right by, that we can take for granted. But, if our hearts are disposed to a deeper and more generous, more ready listening, the practice of Lectio Divina brings us into contact with a sacred reality. With a spiritual presence, with a person. Lectio brings us within earshot of God’s own voice, God’s thought, God’s heart distilled for us, made present to us.
In John 14, Jesus states that the holding of his Word in one’s heart gives rise to a living encounter with the Father and the Son. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (Jn. 14:23).
But if the Father and the Son are present, then the Spirit is also present. Thus, when we take up the Word, we enter into communion with the life of the Trinity. Lectio is a way of listening to the Father and the Son, in the Spirit. It is a proven method of quieting the heart, hearing the Word, turning it over in one’s mind, probing, searching for its meaning. Lectio enables us to hear the personal resonance of God’s voice speaking to us. It creates a space where we can say yes to that voice in prayer, then rest in the presence of the One who speaks. For when God speaks he speaks out of time, in eternal time. In the eternal present. Lectio is, in this sense, a privileged means of cultivating a personal relationship with the One who addresses us, with Jesus and the Father, in the Spirit.
There are 5 steps in the practice of Lectio Divina, which are usually followed in sequence, but which need not be completed all at once or in order. But they provide a helpful structure for the soul’s journey in relationship to God.
The First Step is Called Actio (Preparation)
Actio refers to the stage of preparation. Suiting up, so to speak, before you stand in the presence of God.
Let us say right now, in this moment, Jesus walked into the room where you currently sit. He walks in. Would you stay seated, perhaps casually slouching, and just say “Hey?” Or would you hop up, with a ready, listening heart, to greet him and hear what he would say?
In Actio, we make an effort to rise up and greet the risen Lord who enters into our presence and speaks to us. We take a few moments to consciously enter into the presence of God. We step away, physically and mentally, from our day to day environment and thoughts and enter into a posture and mindset of belief in God, a readiness to hear him speak.
A short and simple way to do this is to sit down in a quiet corner of the house. Bible in hand. It could even be in a parking lot before work, as it was when I first renewed this practice as a layman. Pause. Take a few breaths, then pray with intent:
“God, come to my aid! O Lord, hasten to help me! Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.”
Then say the Our Father slowly. Think about the words, don’t rush them. Then close this preparatory prayer by saying:
“Father, open my heart, for your child is listening.”
None of these words are “necessary” from God’s perspective. He is ready to speak. It is we who are not always ready to listen. It is for us that the prayer of Actio – the prayer of preparation – is necessary. This prayer helps us step away from our day to day life and enter a space where we are present to God, listening to him. The prayers help us enter a space of availability and listening.
Do what helps you. You can also add a psalm or two after the Our Father. I do this now. I take my time. The deeper I sink into listening from the heart and quietness to my outside life, the deeper my experience of God in Lectio. The important thing to do is to have some repeatable routine that is the spiritual equivalent of taking a shower and putting on work clothes before going to the office. But Actio is preparation for the heart, to get it ready to stand in the presence of God.
The second step is called Lectio (Reading)
Lectio simply means reading. This is the step when we read the Scripture of the day.
Keep it simple. Read Scripture in some regular pattern so you don’t have to decide each day what you will read. Catholics could simply read the Gospel reading from daily Mass, which is what I do. Non-Catholics could read closely the text your Church discussed in the sermon last Sunday. One could also read one of the Gospels straight through. Regardless of specifics, pick a pattern in your approach to Scripture and stick to it.
Once the heart is made ready in Actio, pick up your text for the day and read it slowly, mindfully, lovingly, expectantly. Not quickly. Not like you read a newspaper or a website. Read it as if it were a letter from someone you love, written in another language. Pay attention. Read it from the heart. Read it twice if you can.
Personally, I now read my passage in English, then Latin, then Greek. This discipline slows me down and prompts to hear and to be struck by the power of the word and its richness of meaning. This is not for everyone, but you get the idea. Do what works for you.
Now I want you to do something that will seem strange, but it is critical. I want you to go through the exercise of restating, in your own words, what you have just read. Try not to elaborate or expound. Just restate, as though you were telling the story faithfully to a child, without elaboration. Try to stay close to the text; record it, see it, take it in. Say things like: “I notice that” and then state your observation of what transpires within the text.
This simple practice will teach you to observe more carefully and objectively what the text says and does not say. At this stage in the game, stay away from interpretation. Normally, when we read Scriptures, we immediately skip off what the text says and enter into our reaction to it, what it makes us think, whether we agree or disagree. Don’t do that here. Just notice. Observe. Be a disciple.
For example: in the passage from Mark (7:31-37) where Jesus heals the deaf man by putting spit into his ears and then telling him not to tell anyone after he is healed, don’t comment. Don’t disagree. Don’t wonder whether Jesus was serious. Just observe. “I notice that Jesus took some of his saliva and put it into the man’s ears…I notice that Jesus tells the man not to tell anyone after he is cured.” Let the facts strike you with a sense of immediacy, with no commentary.
Personally, when I have time, I re-write the passage in my journal, paraphrasing it, putting it into my own words. When I have less time, I just recount it verbally, staying close to the facts.
This simple task helps the word sink into your heart. It helps your mind grab it. It puts you in the scene, a diligent, observant disciple. Faithfully done, this step will open up the next step of the process.
The 3rd step is called Meditatio (Meditation)
This next step is when you get to stop, to linger, you ponder over one aspect or two of the text that strikes you, speaks to you, troubles you, makes you question. You ask ‘What?’ You ask ‘Why?’ You think about it. You inquire in a posture of prayer. You pose a question and hold onto it, if you can’t answer it now.
You might also make a running log of Jesus’ characteristics. How is what Jesus is doing here like what he has done elsewhere? What does this passage reveal about Jesus? What is the key message Jesus is trying to reveal to me here? Ponder especially this question: What is the heart of this passage? What is the key message to me personally? How does it speak to me, in a connected strand with the way God has been speaking to me in other passages?
As you practice Lectio, you will discover a thread, a continuity of God’s voice speaking to you. A story and a personal dialogue will unfold over time. Each day, see if you can sum up the heart of the passage in 1-2 sentences. Write down those sentences and hold onto them. It also helps if you pick out 1-2 of the key Scripture verses that express the heart of your passage. Write those verses down in your computer or your phone, and then write the 1-2 thoughts that you have written that capture what you see as the heart of the passage. Write these in a journal or your phone or both. These are pearls you can return to later, anchors of the heart. They will be springboards as your prayer moves from Meditatio to Oratio.
You should end up with something like this: Scripture verse, followed by brief prayer meditation.
“And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you . . . how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Lk 11. Jesus, you teach your disciples to ask, to be persistent in prayer, to seek, to reach. You promise that those who seek will receive the Holy Spirit. Amen. Father, I thirst, I trust. Breathe in me your Holy Spirit.
The 4th Step is called Oratio (Prayer)
What is expressed in rational, discursive thought at the end of Meditatio must now be transformed into a living prayer from a heart full of faith and love. Take what you have written in Meditatio in prayer and lift it up from your heart to God’s heart. Say it again and again in a posture of supplication, of love, of faith. To do so is nothing other than to carry out the pattern of persistent prayer that Jesus bade his disciples practice in Lk 11. Ask, seek, knock . . . the Holy Spirit is given to those who seek and ask.
A beautiful way to practice Oratio is through what is called the Jesus prayer. This is a lattice of prayer that the monastic tradition has handed down to us. Take the words of the poor sinner before God as your own: “Lord Jesus, you are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” To this prayer of faith, add your own prayer. Let this prayer lead you straight to a contemplation of Jesus’s own heart. Repeating the example from above:
Lord Jesus, you are the Christ, the son of the Living God, you teach your disciples to ask, to be persistent in prayer, to seek, to reach. You promise that those who seek will receive your Holy Spirit. Amen. Jesus, I thirst, I trust. Breathe in me your Holy Spirit.
Repeat this process 10x; or 3x if you are rushed; or 1x if you are super-rushed. Then close with a Glory Be. That is the end of your morning prayer.
If you like, you can also take a moment here to present to the heart of Jesus the needs and intentions of those you are praying for. If you regularly pray for others, this is a good place to do so.
Oratio on the go – The trick to practicing Lectio as a lay person is to let your prayer seep into the rest of your day. Or, as another wise monk has said: the secret to prayer is frequency in prayer. I have found the best way to do this is to keep my 1-2 central verses of Scripture plus my condensed prayer response as a note on my phone and to return to it often throughout the day. When I have a break in the day, a car ride to a meeting, a walk up the stairs at work, a break between calls, I step back in my spirit from what I am doing, return to my 2 verses of Scripture, lift up my written prayer to Jesus, and close. Boom. There’s sixty seconds of simple attention right there. In those moments, my heart drops right back to that grounding place of encounter with the voice of the Holy Spirit.
If you do this faithfully, you will actually descend into a deeper grasp of the Word as the day progresses. You will actually be more deeply grabbed by it. The Spirit penetrates deeper, gets simpler, and the heart settles more surely into God’s heart. This simple method is a very effective means of practicing the presence of God, of living your days in His presence.
You might think all this repetition is redundant. But the rock doesn’t think water is redundant when it drip, drip, drips over time. Instead, the rock gradually gives way and a smooth path is made. It takes repetition and time. So it is with the Spirit in our hearts. Repetition is actually necessary for a path of the Spirit to be worn in our hearts. Jesus himself calls us to persistence and repetition in prayer. See, especially, the story of the persistent widow in Luke 18.
The 5th and final step of Lectio is Contemplatio (Contemplation)
The 5th step is the heart to heart contemplation of the living God. It is the peaceful, loving surrender to God, as Edith Stein says, venturing into God in faith.
Yes, this is possible. But it is God’s work, not ours. We make ourselves available but one doesn’t contemplate God, as though it were an active verb. One stands before God and is drawn by God into an exchange of heart to heart. This is like a single flame of a candle being pulled into a broader fire. When it happens, what matters is to respond with a ready heart, a heart that has been saying all day “I am ready, Lord, if you come. If you call, I am ready.” The trick is to make space in your heart and in your life for contemplation to happen.
For most of us, the first four steps of Lectio will be our lot, at least in the beginning. But the candle will eventually be drawn into a broader flame, into a silent heart to heart with God. I have found this sometimes occurs, in a busy layperson’s life, in the heart of night. Some monks rise at 3 am to pray the evening office. I know no lay people who do that. However, I know many people who tell me they frequently wake up at 3 or 4 am, restless, with lots on their mind. Why not dedicate this time to prayer? You’re up anyway.
That was my approach, in the beginning. When I would wake up in the thick of night, which sometimes happens, I considered it an invitation. Like bells ringing from a monastery tower, calling me to prayer. I would rise, get out of bed, go downstairs, say an Our Father in front of an Icon of the Trinity. Then I pace and pray a string of 10 prayers, repeating my saved verses and the prayer from the Meditatio step from earlier in the day.
Usually, by this point that prayer has become simpler, shorter; more of a simple pulse of spiritual affection. I repeat it 10x, then close with a Glory Be. Sometimes this process is quick, if I’m very tired. Other times, I find I rest longer in this movement of the heart, pacing and praying. It’s free time. I give it to God. After the Glory Be, my ladder of prayer for the day is complete.
I head upstairs, open the reading for the next day and read it through. This is like casting seeds upon the fields before the break of day. It prepares the heart. Then I return peacefully to sleep and start over the next morning.
In the face of such a horizon of grace, the concerns of the day recede like the setting sun. Like the mist of early morning that is gone at noon.
Another way to practice Contemplatio is by taking a leisurely walk at night and repeating a string of 10 or more prayers. Or by taking time alone, in a Church. The trick is to find a regular place where you make yourself available. Dispose your self for contemplation. Set aside time in the day for it. Make it a point to practice steps 1-4 of Lectio before that time and then give yourself time to rest in prayer, if the Spirit moves you. The ten prayers will provide the backbone for this time. They are the ladder which may lead you to a deep encounter. It happens.
Tips For Making This Method Your Own
There you have it. A method of Lectio Divina, learned from the monks and now proven over time in the practice of a regular lay man. Over the past six years I have shared this method with others from different backgrounds. I think there are multiple different ways of going about it. I am still experimenting with the most effective ways to help working professionals and busy Moms and Dads take up this practice. If you’d like to learn more, send me a note and follow my podcast and website for additional resources and ideas, as I make them available.
God bless you. May He reveal Himself to you, hidden in His word.