Lately I find myself thinking a lot about lectio divina (in English godly reading), a meditative way to read the Bible that was originally characteristic of mediaeval monks, especially in the Early Middle Ages. It continued to be found wherever men and women lived under a religious rule that both fostered regular daily prayer based on scripture and set aside time for private devotional reading of the Bible. When I was studying a commentary on John’s Gospel by a twelfth-century monastic writer, lectio divina was something I often considered, but less so in recent years, especially when I was still working. I know why I have been thinking about it again — our interim priest-in-charge (what a mouthful!), David, spoke about it in a sermon recently.
What is lectio divina? Well, it is a way to read the Bible in which you use reminiscence of the Bible to illuminate and give meaning to what you’re reading. What do I mean by that? The idea of reminiscence is that you can use other passages which employ similar words or phrasing to shed light on and explain the passage you are reading. It’s called reminiscence because those early monks lived in a world steeped in praying and hearing the Bible: they learned to read from the Psalms and Paul’s letters, they prayed the divine office five times a day complete with Psalms and canticles and short Bible readings. By simple repetition they learned much of the Bible by heart, so when they turned to the Bible for devotional reading, they used their recollections of other passages very naturally to help make clear the one they were reading.
Nowadays many of us need to use a concordance or other such tool (like a Bible with running marginal references) to find other verses or passages that use the same or similar words or phrasing. But whether finding such passages is done through reminiscence proper or by using such aids, the desired result is the same: that this lectio divina, this godly reading, may guide our understanding of the Scripture we are reading and make its meaning and its place in the interconnectivity of Scripture plain to us.
It is a slow and meditative process; one might turn over in the mind only a few verses a day in this way, exploring all their ramifications. And it takes place in a context of prayer. Furthermore, lectio divina is not a way of doing Bible study, although insights gained through it may illuminate study as well as devotion. It is the way the heart prays, not the way the mind understands. But both are needful in a balanced Christian life.
So even though it may seem very hard to set aside time to read the Bible in such a devotional way and to become so familiar with it that we don’t need so many tools to do so, it is worth the effort. The monks themselves described it as both reminiscent and ruminative, and they used the beautiful image of the honeybee. Just as the honeybee builds up the comb to hold the sweetness and golden goodness of the honey, so the one who practises lectio divina builds a network of interconnections in their heart and mind to hold the spiritual insights about God that lie just under the surface of Scripture.
Note: If you want to know more about lectio divina and the world out of which it came, you may want to try The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, A Study of Monastic Culture, Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., tr, C. Misrahi, (Fordham Univ. Press, NY, 1961, 1974). A translation of L’Amour des letters et le desire de Dieu: initiation aux auteurs monastiques du moyen age (Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 1957).