Category Archives: Lectio Divina

Scripture as Food: Eating the Sacred Page

We have all heard that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deut 8:3 ESV) But this principle is developed further by several texts in Scripture and by quite a few important biblical commentators. For example, we find Ezekiel eating a scroll of God’s words (Ezek 3:3) and again, we find John eating a scroll in Revelation 10:10.  Also, the prophet Amos famously says, “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the land– not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” (Amo 8:11 ESV) If we can have a famine of God’s word, then in some way, God’s word is food for us. It is a source of spiritual sustenance. But this idea grows even further.

For example, Pope Francis delivered a great St. Ephrem quote in his motu proprio today, about the great variety of ways of interpreting Scripture:

“Who is able to understand, Lord, all the richness of even one of your words? There is more that eludes us than what we can understand. We are like the thirsty drinking from a fountain. Your word has as many aspects as the perspectives of those who study it. The Lord has coloured his word with diverse beauties, so that those who study it can contemplate what stirs them. He has hidden in his word all treasures, so that each of us may find a richness in what he or she contemplates” (Commentary on the Diatessaron, 1, 18).

So, I suppose that St. Ephrem here focuses on thirst rather than hunger, but still, it’s the same idea. But wait, there’s more!

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, is talking about the “daily bread” we pray for and explains it like this:

“One may also see in this bread another twofold meaning, viz., Sacramental Bread and the Bread of the Word of God” (Source: Expositio in orationem dominicam)

Pope Benedict XVI, in his apostolic letter, Verbum Domini, points to the hunger and thirst we have for God’s word, relying on Amos:

May the Lord himself, as in the time of the prophet Amos, raise up in our midst a new hunger and thirst for the word of God (cf. Am 8:11). It is our responsibility to pass on what, by God’s grace, we ourselves have received. (sec. 91)

St. Maximus of Turin, in contemplating Jesus’ quotation of Deut 8:3 in Matthew says:

“So, whoever feeds on the word of Christ does not require earthly food, nor can one who feeds on the bread of the Savior desire the food of the world. The Lord has his own bread; indeed, the bread is the Savior himself.” (ACCS, NT Ia, p. 60)

St. Ambrose, in commenting on the manna in the wilderness tells us

“This is the heavenly food…And this is the Word of God which God has set in orderly array. By it the souls of the prudent are fed and delighted; it is clear and sweet, shining with the splendor of truth, and softening with the sweetness of virtue the souls of those who hear it.” (Ambrose of Milan, Saint Ambrose: Letters, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, trans. Mary Melchior Beyenka, vol. 26, The Fathers of the Church [Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954], 117.)

St. Gregory the Great offers to parse the distinction between Scripture as food and Scripture as drink:

When the apostles see their souls starved of the food of truth, they nourish them with the banquet of God’s word. And so it is well said: to eat and drink with them, for Sacred Scripture is sometimes solid food for us, and sometimes drink. It is food in the more obscure passages, since it is broken into pieces when it is explained and swallowed after being chewed. It is drink in the more straightforward parts since it is absorbed just as it is found. (Robert Louis Wilken, Angela Russell Christman, and Michael J. Hollerich, eds., Isaiah, The Church’s Bible [Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 2007], 444.)

Got that? The Scripture food when it is obscure and you have to chew it up before swallowing, but it is drink in the easy, straightforward passages that you only have drink down easily.

St. Jerome himself insists:

 “The flesh of the Lord is true food and his blood true drink; this is the true good that is reserved for us in this present life, to nourish ourselves with his flesh and drink his blood, not only in the Eucharist but also in reading sacred Scripture. Indeed, true food and true drink is the word of God which we derive from the Scriptures” (Commentarius in Ecclesiasten, III: PL 23, 1092A quoted in Verbum Domini, n. 191).

We see in all these comments a shared idea, a common thread: that Scripture is a form of spiritual sustenance akin to the Eucharist. When we read Scripture, we eat Scripture. Of course, we’re not talking about ripping the pages out of your Bible and cooking them up into a stew, but a spiritual eating in which your “soul is satisfied as with fat and rich food” (see Ps 63:5). We have a need–a hunger or a thirst–for God, for spiritual life, for communion. Scripture is given to us in order to satisfy that hunger. So, um, eat up! And Happy Feast of St. Jerome!

Lectio Divina Methods

I’ve been writing Lectio Divina meditations for almost two years now, but I’ve come to realize that there are LOTS of different methods for actually doing Lectio Divina. Pope Benedict has been talking about it quite frequently, telling us that it is good to practice it. But how are we supposed to actually do it?

The Catechism gives it a glib couple references, which aren’t all that enlightening (CCC 1177, 2708). The Wikipedia article is pretty lame, but at least it gives the four movements of Lectio Divina. Ok, did you know that Lectio Divina had movements? What’s Lectio Divina anyway? What if I don’t even know what “lectio” means? Whoa, whoa, I’ll attempt to give you an introduction here that will make some sense and help you actually sit down and pray with the Bible, instead of just reading it. That’s the point, isn’t it? The Bible is God’s Word, but so often we just read it as if it were a novel or a newspaper. Lectio Divina is all about reading the Bible with the knowledge that it is God’s word and not just some book.

Part 1: What is Lectio Divina anyway?
Lectio Divina means “divine reading.” It is an ancient Christian practice of reading the Scriptures with prayerful attention. It is not a Bible study method, but a prayer method. This is important. With Lectio Divina we’re trying to reap the spiritual fruits of the Scripture, to “squeeze the juice out” as Pope Benedict is fond of saying. We are not trying to gain archaeological information or just simple knowledge. With Lectio Divina, we are using the Scripture to draw closer to God through reading and understanding the Bible. It is a perfect example of what St. Augustine calls “credo ut intellegam, intellego ut credas.” That is, “I believe in order to understand, I understand in order to believe.” With Lectio Divina we do a bit of both. We start with the premise that this is the Word of God (I believe). Then we read the Bible with full attention (I understand) and faith (I believe). We think about what we’ve read (I understand) and then we use that new understanding to draw closer to God in prayer (I believe). I’m basically assuming here that you’ll be doing Lectio Divina individually. It can be done in a group, but it’s not very common.

Part 2: What are the “movements” in Lectio Divina?
Lectio Divina has four “movements.” We’re not talking about physical movement here, but interior, spiritual movement. So what are the movements called? Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio and Contemplatio. Ok, in case you hadn’t guessed it, you can basically add an “n” to the end of every word to magically turn it from Latin into English. But if you’re talking to your friends about Lectio Divina, cut off the “n”, you’ll sound smarter. 🙂 So that leaves us with “Lection, Meditation, Oration, and Contemplation.” Let’s take each one of these apart

Movement 1: Lection
Lectio or Lection is the most basic part and the first step in the process: Read! Doesn’t sound too hard, just actually read the text of the Bible on which you are going to be meditating. There are couple important pieces here. Don’t pick something uber-long that you’ll never get through. Pick something manageable, maybe between a verse and a chapter. You can also do your Lectio Divina in bite-size chunks, so if you want to do one verse at a time that’s okay, just make sure that you’re getting something like a complete thought. That is, it might be confusing and unhelpful to meditate on “sons of Magbish, one hundred and fifty-six” (Ezr 2:30 NAB). On the other hand you could probably meditate for a long time on “and the Word was God.” (Jn 1:1) So pick what you read carefully and make sure it’s not too long or too short.

And when you do sit down (or kneel or stand) and read it, read with full attention of your mind and heart. Read it patiently, not with the rush to finish, but enjoy it, savor it. Remember, this is GOD’s word, it’s not just another book. Keep that in mind, that in some way, God is actually speaking to you through what you are reading. This is very important. Read it with greater attention than you would read the line in the newspaper that shows how much your mutual fund went up or down. Read it with more attention than you would a passionate love letter from your significant other. Read it with more attention than you would that line of information on ESPN’s website about how your team did last night. Read it with your mind so you understand it. But read it with your heart too, so you get it, so it sinks in, so it makes a difference.

Movement 2: Meditation
Meditation is the next step after reading. Now meditation can vary from a very simple exercise, to a very complicated one. If it is helpful to you–and only if it is helpful–you can do a bit of studying on the verse. You can look up cross references, read footnotes, read the comments I write, read the places where the Catechism uses the passage. But don’t bog yourself down with too much. The point is not to indulge in information overload, but to grow spiritually. Keep that in mind while you study. But, you need not do all this. And don’t do it if it doesn’t help you pray.

Ok, so after you’ve done your studying or not, meditate! Well, ok, but what does that mean? It means to think deeply about the passage at hand. Ruminate, digest, absorb, remember. Think about what the passage means–to you, to God, to the world. Think about how it affects everything: behavior, politics, religion. Think about how it makes a difference, about the fact that it is something that God is saying. Think prayerfully–this is where “meditation” is a little different than just “thinking.” Go back and re-read it if you need too, but focus on meditating, the kind of deep spiritual thinking that you do when you learn something that profoundly changes your life, when you encounter God in a new way, when you begin to pray. Once the meditation is in full gear, you’re ready to move to the next movement: Oration.

Movement 3: Oration
Oration is a fancy word for “prayer.” This is the point where you transition from meditative thinking into the realm of prayer. Oration is a conversation with God–that’s what all prayer is, right? So go from meditating on the passage to actually talking with God. Ask him questions, tell him things you would only tell your closest friend (or maybe not even). And listen to him.

This kind of prayer requires that your heart not be flailing around in the turbid waters of regular life. This is NOT the time to think about the grocery list or the car payment or the kids’ lunches or clipping your toenails. This is God-time. It is His and He gets it. It is about having a real conversation with God, a real back-and-forth, a real question and answer time, a real meeting of the minds. Pray. Pray about what you learned, pray about what you read, ask God to reveal it to you more. Ask God to reveal himself to you more. Pray out loud or pray quietly, but pray. Seek God through His Word. This is the time to really benefit spiritually from the Word. Open your heart to Him and let Him transform you.

Movement 4: Contemplation
Contemplation is the final stage of Lectio Divina.
You’ve gotten past the reading and thinking, the meditating and even the prayer conversation. Now you’ve come to the wordless prayer of Contemplation. Now, it is important to remember that Contemplation is not a technique. It is not like a push-up or a sit-up. It is a relationship. Think of it in the same way you think of those quiet moments with your significant other when the love-experience is so intense that words have stopped and you’re just looking into one another’s eyes and knowing one another in way that is too deep for words. That’s what contemplation is like. You find yourself caught up in God’s love, His life, His being. All of the details and fine points of life fade into the background as you just soak in the Father’s presence, as you stare into the eyes of Jesus. Contemplation of this kind is an experience of love, a foretaste of heaven, a window into eternity.

Don’t become overly concerned if this last stage is difficult to get to or doesn’t really feel like anything. The spiritual doctors of the Church have written a lot about contemplation and if you want a good understanding of it go read some St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis De Sales or St. Therese of Liseux.

Now that you’ve completed one Lectio Divina, you can either be done or you can go on to the next verse and keep going. Just keep this rhythm of the four movements in mind. Lectio Divina is life-transforming because it is a way to connect to the life of Jesus and the realities of His Word.