We swam, drank a lot of Dr. Pepper, ate pepperoni pizza and devoured an ice cream cake before it was time for presents. I was sixteen years old and had just gotten my driver’s license. I eyed the small box in the corner and opened it immediately finding a travel size Old Spice deodorant. Everyone laughed. My mom thinks she’s funny. Then I grabbed a larger box. It felt like it weighed at least twenty pounds. As I unwrapped the package everyone knew what I was looking for. To my surprise: it was a Bible. I’m embarrassed now, but my first thought to myself was: ‘Why does a sixteen-year old need a Bible?’ It was a large, hardback, navy blue study Bible complete with a handy traveling case. My name was etched on the front cover in gold and sticky tabs conveniently labeled all sixty-six books. Then, I read the card and looked up at the well-meaning woman who purchased it for me, put on my best smile and said, ‘Thanks.’ All I wanted to do was to get past this awkward moment and get back to the presents. But, with sincerity she began to explain that I should begin in Genesis and work my way through Revelation. She meant well. But, did she really think that I could read 2,412 pages? I smiled and nodded and someone handed me another gift. I opened it and found the keys to a Chevrolet pick up truck. It didn’t matter that it was ten years old or that it was my Dad’s old work truck. It was a truck, and I was sixteen.
I can’t even remember opening the rest of my gifts. Freedom was in the air and I was breathing it in. As I ran out the door, my mom handed me my gifts: new boxers, deodorant, my navy blue Bible, and some gift cards. I threw the gifts in the back of the truck and I was off. The excitement of my driving freedom lasted for about nine months. Then my truck broke down. All I had with me by the side of the road was a worn down travel size deodorant and the brand new, untouched, navy blue Bible. As I waited for help I cracked that Bible open. I wish that I could tell you that the words spoke to me and instantaneously fire came down from heaven and I was a new person. No, it didn’t happen like that. In fact, the words were puzzling and made my brain hurt. The truth I learned along the side of the road, is that the Bible is a hard book to read. Yet, somehow, right then, at the height of my disillusionment this book strangely piqued my curiosity and beckoned me to study more. In fact, I’ve given my life to understanding and teaching the Bible. So as I always say, “Boxers wear out, trucks break down, deodorant doesn’t last, but big, navy blue study Bibles endure forever.”
The Bible is a collection of books written during different historical periods from different cultural perspectives and contains a variety of genres and languages. A question emerges for all of us who want to get off the curb, crack open this book, and enter into its unfolding story. How do we in the 21st Century read the Bible meaningfully?
We live in a world of words: a world of instantly accessible information. We flip through newspapers and magazines. We navigate the World Wide Web. We make purchases with our “smart” phones. We pay our bills with a click. As a society, we’ve become conditioned to the 15-second sound byte. When was the last time you enjoyed a novel cover to cover or have been engrossed by a poet’s words? And while all this instant information can be beneficial, unfortunately this conditioning does not help us when we come to the Bible. The Bible is not just about information but transformation. And transformation takes time. Reading the Bible in fragmented sound bytes will not do. A practice of reading is needed that avoids using the Bible in broken bits to support and defend our own agendas.
Christian communities must embrace a reading practice (or discipline) that engages the whole person, i.e. mind, heart, and soul. Early Christians understood this. In fact, St. Benedict who lived from 480 to 547 AD started a monastery and stressed to his monks the importance of meditative reading. Later, Guigo II who lived from 1115 to 1198 wrote a book that offered practical steps for Lectio Divina. What’s important is that for at least the last 1500 years Christians have found Lectio Divina helpful in reading and living the Bible. As I’ve spent time studying and teaching the Bible I’ve found no better tool than the ancient Christian practice of Lectio Divina or Sacred Reading. Lectio Divina enables us to live God-dimensioned in a me- dimensioned world. This reading practice—Lectio Divina—begins with retraining our ears to hear. As Jesus said; “He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Mark 4:9).”
Lectio Divina or Sacred Reading is a way of reading the Bible that allows us to hear, enter into, and find a home within God’s story. This reading practice can best be described as multi-dimensional. Through the discipline of Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio we hear, ponder, become, and embody. All four dimensions of Lectio Divina interact and overlap, creating a way of reading that leads us into a way of living. Practices make people.
Through a disciplined and repeated reading of a short passage of scripture we hear afresh God’s overtures of love (Lectio), we ponder God’s ways in the world (Meditatio), we become God’s people through participation (Oratio), and we embody Jesus’ way of life in word and deed (Contemplatio).
Lectio Divina’s goal is not simply the meditative self-absorption of information but rather it is a personal, communal, and ultimately a globally transforming activity. Lectio Divina is a Gospel practice that opens us up to the awe- inspiring possibility of living God’s story. Through the dimensions of truly hearing, pondering, becoming and embodying Jesus, communities of individuals link themselves with God’s compelling story. This love story, now embodied in the community, becomes a witness of God’s world- transforming love. But how do we stranded roadside sitters of the real world accomplish this discipline? How does Lectio Divina become a part of our daily lives?
Steps to Lectio Divina
1. Begin by finding a passage of scripture to read. I’ve found it helpful to pick a passage from the Revised Common Lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of chosen scriptures passages that revolve around the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. You can also select a book of the Bible to work through slowly. (I recommend Jonah, Esther, Philippians or James.) Additionally, here are some passages as you are starting out: Psalm 23:1-3, Matthew 5:5, 1 John 3:1-3, Isaiah 1:15-17. Make sure that the passage you’ve chosen isn’t too long. Next, quiet yourself, and begin opening your heart towards God. Offer yourself to God and open yourself to God’s love. Sometimes I light a candle to remind me that God is near. Just before I begin I like to prayer Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”
2. Lectio (we listen to the scriptures). Read the passage once and familiarize yourself with it. Slowly read the same passage a second time, and a third time, and even a fourth if necessary. Keep reading until the passage becomes “strange and new” (Karl Barth, “The Strange New World Within the Bible, pgs 28-50). Listen for a word or phrase that shimmers to you. A shimmer word is something that beckons you, addresses you, stirs, unnerves, disturbs, grabs, or fascinates you. Share this word with the group or write it down in a journal. Hold onto this word and let it continue to draw your mind back to the passage and your life.
3. Meditatio (we ponder the scriptures). Pondering is an act considering something deeply and thoroughly. Ask yourself: what came before and after my selected passage? What light does this shed? Then allow your mind to think about the entire Biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation: what does this passage remind you of? Next, put yourself in the world of your passage. What are the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions that emerge? Lastly, return to your shimmer word. Share with the group or journal about your experience. What is God offering you?
4. Oratio (we participate with the scriptures). Let prayers, petitions, and questions arise to God. Let your passage be the launching pad for dialogue with God. Bring all of yourself to this discussion: your faith, doubts, folly, and suspicion. Allow your soul to be saturated with God’s presence. Return once more to your shimmer word.
5. Contemplatio (we live the scriptures). The final step asks the question: so what? Contemplatio is the step of embodying or incarnating what we have learned. Often, the Spirit speaks very personally through our shimmer words and personal experiences to reveal to us where God is leading us. Is there someone that needs to be forgiven? Is there a character quality that you need to put into practice? Is there a ministry that God is calling you to? What tangible ways can you work God’s ways into your life? Share with the group or write this in a journal.
Dive Deeper into Lectio Divina
- Binz, Stephen J. Conversing with God in Scripture: A Contemporary Approach to Lectio Divina
- Casey, Michael. Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina
- Pennington, M. Basil. Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures
- Peterson, Eugene H. Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading
- Studzinski, Raymond. Reading to Live: The Evolving Practice of Lectio Divina