Learning to Listen: Lectio Divina
I have never been a disciplined person; I thrive on spontaneity and surprises. This means, as a lifelong church attender and Christian, I have wrestled for almost five decades with guilt about my inability to regularly engage in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, solitude, tithing, fasting, etc. Don’t even get me started on my difficulties with Scripture memorization–I have a colander for a brain.
Essentially, I have loved Jesus my whole life, but I have often felt like a second-class citizen in His presence or, worse, a failure as a follower. My status constantly depended on whatever (in)ability prevailed at any given time.
About five years ago I was introduced to some of the Ignatian spiritual practices (named for St. Ignatius of Loyola) through my work at Fuller Seminary in the Division of Vocation Formation. The two key exercises we use are Lectio Divina and the Examen Prayer.
This introduction led me to a new stage in my adventure with Jesus that not only ignited a new flush of personal spiritual growth, but revealed to me the immense amount of grace and freedom that can be found in the spiritual disciplines, a concept I never associated with any of the spiritual disciplines. This week I would like to share Lectio Divina (pronounced LEK-tsee-oh in Ecclesiastical Latin, or LEK-tee-oh in Classical Latin, di-VEE-nah for those who enjoy arguing about such things).
Here is how we introduce it to students at Fuller:
“Lectio Divina involves listening to a text repeatedly and contemplating it in silence, trusting that God will meet us in the Scripture and speak into our everyday lives. The discipline is rooted in the belief that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures are indeed alive and active for us as we engage them for the purpose of being transformed (Hebrews 4:12).
This kind of reading is very different than reading for information, the kind of reading we do when reading textbooks for class. Lectio Divina is a core spiritual discipline, as it helps us to hear, discern, and faithfully respond to the voice of the Spirit who calls us to Jesus and sends us into God’s mission in the world. This is at the heart of the practices for vocation formation.
You may notice that the name, Lectio Divina, is Latin, or you may know that it is used in the Catholic church. For some, this may be concerning. However, it is important to know that Lectio Divina was regularly used in the 6th century (and most likely earlier)–when there was only ONE Christian faith and church.
The fact that Protestants neglected to promote Lectio Divina, as they did with many spiritual disciplines, does not make this practice any less powerful (or any more corrupt). It simply means the Reformers were more concerned with battling the heresy of salvation by works than they were about how exactly Christians could exercise their freedom to connect with God. In fact, Luther writes:
Secondly, you should meditate, that is, not only in your heart, but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them. And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding. You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is haft ripe. (Luther’s Works 34.386)
If anything, that sounds like a solid affirmation of a discipline like Lectio Divina, regardless of whether Luther calls it by an officially recognized name or not. Rather than nitpicking over whether a spiritual discipline is too Catholic (or Reformed) enough, I imagine he (and more importantly, God) would say all that matters is whether or not you are meditating on Scripture to listen for what it says and what the Holy Spirit says through it.
Too often, I find that Christians would rather spend more time debating the finer points of methodology than actually practicing listening for God. I highly doubt that God is going to have a problem with anyone reading His Word, pondering it, inviting the Holy Spirit to speak through it and then spending time basking in His presence with it–which is what Lectio Divina is.
Lastly, one of the most important safeguards against hearing something contrary to what God is trying to communicate through the Holy Spirit or God’s Word, is the Church–our faith community, both local and universal. One of the things we emphasize in our work at Fuller is that “people need both silence and community to properly hear, faithfully interpret, and obediently respond to God’s speaking.”
The fact that God speaks to all His people means that we have a safety net in others that keeps us from going off the theological rails. The really cool thing is that, not only can you ask others to check what you are hearing God say to you, you can actually practice Lectio Divina together as a group and see how it deepens your understanding and experience of the Word and God corporately!
I will be honest–I really disliked Lectio for several years. I find that anything that is too repetitive tends to bore me. I could not appreciate the value in reading the same passage multiple times. Until…one day I found it fit my season of life like a round peg in a round hole.
The repetition that initially repelled me actually became the very thing that drew me in because so often I was distracted by my season of crisis that I needed the second, third, and fourth chances to hear the Scripture again because I missed it the first time. Or the second. Or the third. The questions helped me to refocus each time and go a little deeper, when normally I would’ve glossed over it, checked a box on mental to-do list, and scurried away. I came to love it because it taught me to stop, slow down and really look and listen for God.
So I encourage you to try Lectio Divina on and see how it fits. Maybe, like me, you will find it does not yet suit you. But try to withhold judgment until you have practiced it a few times. Like anything worth learning, it gets better with practice. At the very least, you will have another tool in your spiritual toolbox to use when the time is right. There is a plethora of blogs on how to do Lectio Divina, so I won’t go into the details of outlining the process here because you can just go HERE, HERE, or HERE. However, after you get an idea of how to practice it, if you would like to walk through it with me, join me at my YouTube channel here and I will lead you through it!