How do you experience God’s presence or hear His voice in Scripture? What is lectio divina, and how do you practice this type of prayer in a group or by yourself? These five steps of lectio divina are clear and simple. They’ll help you hear the Holy Spirit, meet God in Scripture, and discern the presence of Jesus Christ in your life.
Lectio Divina (divine or sacred reading) is a type of prayer. It’s an approach to the Christian Scriptures that helps us hear God’s word in this present moment. Lectio divina is an ancient practice of divine reading and prayer that dates back to the early mothers and fathers of the Christian faith.
The prayer practice of lectio divina is a simple way to talk to the Holy Spirit (and hear Him talking back!). Lectio divina is rooted in the belief that through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures are indeed alive and active — and we can be spiritually transformed by them! God wants to speak to us, to be known and know us on a deeply personal, intimate level. Lectio divina is a type of prayer that can help us meet God in Scripture.
“Your desire for more of God than you have right now, your longing for love, your need for deeper levels of spiritual transformation than you have experienced so far is the truest thing about you,” writes Ruth Haley Barton, author of Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence. “You might think that your woundedness or your sinfulness is the truest thing about you or that your giftedness or your personality type or your job title or your identity as husband or wife, mother or father, somehow defines you. But in reality, it is your desire for God and your capacity to reach for more of God than you have right now that is the deepest essence of who you are.”
What is Lectio Divina? Meeting God in Scripture
This description and definition of lectio divina — including five steps to practicing lectio divina include excerpts from Lectio Divina: Engaging the Scriptures for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton.
Lectio divina involves a slower, more reflective reading of Scripture that helps us to be open to God’s initiative rather than being subject to human agendas (our own or someone else’s).
Lectio divina offers a balance of silence and words. We enter into the rhythm of speaking and listening — which is at the heart of intimate communication. A time of silence before the reading helps us to quiet our inner chaos so that we are prepared to listen. Moments of silence throughout the process help us be attentive to God when He does speak and creates space for noticing our own inner dynamics. When we notice our thoughts and feelings, we can explore them in God’s presence.
5 Steps to Lectio Divina
When we are just starting to learn what lectio divina is and how to do it, we concentrate on following the steps and getting everything in the right order. But eventually, as we become more comfortable, the five steps to lectio divina become moves in a dance that flows with beauty and pleasure, heart and soul. The moves become fluid and flow into each another naturally. But first we do have to familiarize ourselves with the basic steps of lectio divina.
Choose a short passage (6–8 verses at most) that is either a part of your normal reading plan, a passage you have chosen for today, or a passage from the lectionary reading for this week, and enter prayerfully into the lectio divina process. Following are very detailed instructions to help you learn the moves. (This approach to Scripture is so old that it was originally presented in Latin. Although I have chosen English words to describe the process, I have included the Latin words in parentheses so that the beauty and the nuance of the original language are not lost.)
Prepare (Silencio). Take a moment to come fully into the present moment. With your eyes closed, let your body relax and allow yourself to become consciously aware of God’s presence with you. Express your willingness (or your willingness to be made willing) to hear from God in these moments by using a brief prayer, such as “Come Lord Jesus,” “Here I am,” or “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Read the chosen passage of Scripture four consecutive times, each time asking a slightly different question that invites you into the dynamic of that move. Each reading is then followed by a brief period of silence. Lectio divina is meeting God in Scripture on His time and in His way. Trust Him.
1. Listen for the word or the phrase that is addressed to you
Turn to the Scripture passage and read slowly, pausing between phrases and sentences. You may read silently. Or, you might read the Scripture passage aloud. Allow the words to echo and resonate, sink in, and settle into your heart. As you read, listen for the word or phrase that strikes you or catches your attention. Allow for a moment of silence. Then, repeat that word or phrase softly to yourself, pondering it and savoring it as though pondering the words of loved one. This is the word that is meant for you. Be content to listen simply and openly without judging or analyzing.
2. Reflect (Meditatio): How is my life touched by this word?
Once you have heard the word that is meant for you, read the Scripture passage again and listen for the way in which this passage connects with your life. Ask, “What is it in my life right now that needs to hear this word?” Allow several moments of silence following this reading and explore thoughts, perceptions, and sensory impressions. If the passage is a story, perhaps ask yourself, “Where am I in this scene? What do I hear as I imagine myself in the story or hear these words addressed specifically to me? How do the dynamics of this story connect with my own life experience?”
3. Respond (Oratio): What is my response to God based on what I have read and encountered?
Read the Scripture passage one more time. Listen for your own deepest and truest response. In the moments of silence that follow this reading, allow your prayer to flow spontaneously from your heart as fully and as truly as you can. At this point you are entering into a personal dialogue with God.
“Share with God the feelings the text has aroused in you, feelings such as love, joy, sorrow, anger, repentance, desire, need, conviction, consecration,” writes Robert Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. “Pour out your heart in complete honesty, especially as the text has probed aspects of your being and doing in the midst of various issues and relationships.”
Pay attention to any sense that God is inviting you to act or respond in some way to the word. Lectio divina is a type of prayer — and it is also a way to practice daily life. You might find it helpful to write your prayers or to journal.
4. Rest (Contemplatio): Rest in the Word of God
In the final lectio divina Scripture reading, release and return to a place of rest in God. You have given your response its full expression; now you can move into a time of waiting and resting in God’s presence like the weaned child who leans against its mother in Psalm 131. This is a posture of total submission, acceptance and abandon to the Great Shepherd of our souls.
5. Resolve (Incarnatio): Live out the Word of God
As you emerge from this place of personal encounter with God to the world and others, resolve carry this word within you. Live it out in your daily life and activities. As you continue to listen to the word throughout the day, you will be led deeper and deeper into its meaning. Lectio divina is a type of prayer that begins to live in you and change the world in which you live. Lectio divina is meeting God in Scripture and changing the way you live. You may want to choose an image, picture or symbol that you can carry to remind you of your experience.
“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,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community.
“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… Do not ask ‘How shall I pass this on?’ but ‘What does it say to me?’ Then ponder this word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.”
©Adapted from Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (InterVarsity Press, 2006) by Ruth Haley Barton.
If you’re like me, you get distracted while practicing lectio divina! Read 3 Easy Ways to Stay Focused When You Pray.