Guide To Lectio divina

Lectio divina is an ancient spiritual practice for listening to a scripture passage with the ear of the heart. It is not the same as bible study. In lectio divina we let go of more intellectual, studious, or effortful ways of reading the scripture and enter a state in which we are quiet and receptive to God’s word. We let go of our own words, and let God speak to us. In this practice, the words of scripture become very alive and touch the heart in spontaneous ways that lead us more deeply into relationship with God.

Lectio divina has traditionally been practiced in a number of different formal ways which involve the use of different steps. The steps can be helpful in learning how to be drawn more deeply into the practice, but it is not necessary to practice in such a formal way, particularly if you have just been practicing centering prayer or another meditative practice that has put you into a quiet and receptive state, ready to allow God to speak out of the silence. As Carl Arico says, "Out of the silence, the word of God is heard on a much deeper level and with greater openness."

Here are instructions for several possible approaches to lectio divina, plus some links to some ways of doing lectio divina online.

Basic Instructions

Slowly read through a brief scripture passage, either silently or aloud. Listen to the passage with the ear of the heart. Don’t get distracted during the lectio divina by intellectual types of questions about the passage. Just listen to what the passage is saying to you, right now. You may find that it is helpful to meditate or sit in silence for a few minutes before and after looking at the passage and that it will speak to you in a different way out of the silence.  It is best to read the passage at least twice, and often four times or more, with periods of silence in between.  You may find that each time you read the passage you enter into it more deeply, not necessarily having thoughts about it, but allowing it to touch you or act upon you in a more mysterious way.

To find a scripture passage, you could work your way slowly through the Gospels, flip through and find a passage with which you would like to spend more time, or go to the Lectionary to find passages that are being read this week in churches.

Traditional Instructions

Here is a slightly more formal method for practicing lectio divina. Read the passage four times, leaving a few minutes of silence in between each reading. 

• Listen with the ear of the heart.  Notice if any phrase, sentence or word stands out and gently begin to repeat it to yourself, allowing it to touch you deeply.

• Reflect while you read the passage a second time with deep receptivity.  Notice what thoughts, feelings, and reflections arise within you. Let the words resound in your heart. What might God be asking of you through the scripture?

• Respond spontaneously as you listen. Notice any prayerful response that arises within you, for example a small prayer of gratitude or praise.

• Rest in God's presence beyond thoughts and reflections. Just be.

These four movements do not need to take place in any particular order, and you do not need to do each step.  Notice what is arising and be open to its movement within you.

Watch a video of my colleague Steve Standiford giving a brief introduction to Lectio Divina. 

Different Types of Lectio Divina for Groups

I have attended groups that have used the following approaches:

• The facilitator reads the passage four times. The first time the group sits in silence, the second time the group is invited to offer reflections, the third time the group offers prayers, and the fourth time the group sits in silence again.

• In an alternate method, the passage is read four times, with silence between each reading. After the fourth reading, the members of the group are invited to repeat a word or phrase from the passage that resonated for them. This method is good for large groups when there is not much time for everyone to speak or for groups who are having difficulty not entering into a more intellectual discussion. It can be surprisingly powerful to hear the words in the passage that resonated for others.

• The passage is read four times, with silence between each reading.  There is no verbal response to the reading at all.  This method works well for large groups in which there is not time for responses or for groups who have difficulty avoiding intellectual responses.

• In another alternate method, the passage is read a few times, and the group is invited to offer reflections. Then, after everyone has had a chance to speak, members may speak again if they choose. This method can work well for small groups and groups that are able to stay with their own experience of the passage rather than entering into an intellectual discussion.

• During Lent one year in our group we experimented with a new method: three different readers read three different translations of a brief scripture passage, with long periods of silence in between.  The translations we usually used were the NRSV, The Message, and the CEB, which can all be found on Bible Gateway.  There is something very moving about hearing the three different voices, almost as if we are hearing three different eye-witness accounts, and the three different translations help us to hear the passage in a new way.  It's also a great way to get more people involved reading and facilitating the group.

Other Thoughts on Lectio Divina

• The practice of lectio divina can be especially powerful after a period of centering prayer or a long period of silence.

• If you are doing lectio divina in a group, it is often best to pick a very short passage that is easy to read aloud several times with periods of silence in between.

• You might find at the beginning that it is uncomfortable to leave a few minutes of silence between the readings, but that as the group becomes more accustomed to the practice, the silences become longer.

• In our group, we often read short passages four times, longer passages only two or three times, at the discretion of the reader.  However, it's helpful to announce what you are planning to do so that others know what to expect.

• Different people may be attracted to different types of passages. You could choose a scripture passage at random, take a passage from the weekly Lectionary, work your way slowly through the Sermon on the Mount or another part of the bible, or alternate between scriptural and non-scriptural passages.

• While it's best to avoid intellectual types of discussions during lectio divina and instead focus on your personal experience of the passage, it can sometimes be helpful when doing lectio divina in a group to have a time after the lectio divina during which members of the group can raise more intellectual questions or talk about problems they may have had with the passage that they were not comfortable raising during the lectio divina time.

• When practicing alone, you may find yourself led intuitively to practice lectio divina in a very particular and personal way that helps you to integrate the practice into your prayer life.

• When practicing alone, you might find it helpful to have a piece of paper handy to jot down thoughts and prayers while reading the passage.


Places to Practice Lectio Divina

Many centering prayer groups include lectio divina as part of their program.

Contemplative Outreach is a good resource for further information on Lectio Divina.

I recommend the website Abbey of the Arts, which offers lectio divina online, good instructions for lectio, and a course on lectio divina.

For about five years I was regularly providing passages for Lectio Divina Online.  I am not currently updating these passages, but they are still available online for your use.  They provide a selection of short sacred readings from Judeo-Christian scripture, poems, and spiritual readings.

At one time for about six months I created a daily one to three minute video inspired by lectio divina in which I chant brief passages from the New York Times and the psalms. News of the World Lectio Divina can be found on Youtube and Facebook and there is more information about this practice on my website here.  These videos provide a good practice for integrating contemplative prayer with everyday life.