Wednesday, August 26, 2015

By Norvene Vest

The simple process of Bible reflection known as lectio divina is intended specifically for spiritual nourishment. We often think of reading the Bible as a process of study. But there is a way of reading the Bible devotionally to satisfy spiritual thirst. Christians have long known a means of turning to scripture that transcends any time and culture-specific references, reaching into the reader's present experience to facilitate spiritual growth.** Yet this older process has been set aside in the "rational" centuries from the Reformation (sixteenth century) through the Enlightenment (eighteenth century); that is, the time when a definitive split between sacred and secular emerged through dramatic changes in philosophy and the arts, politics and economics, trade and daily life. In general, our post-Enlightenment twentieth century tends to emphasize a historical and analytical approach toward any text. Systematic analysis of the scripture has yielded many valuable insights about events at the time of writing, the relationship between various editors, and the like. But these details have tended to overwhelm a more devotional method of presence to the scripture. While this approach has achieved many gains, it has neglected an older tradition that viewed the Bible as an aid to the spiritual life rather than chiefly a source of data or information!


It is now difficult for us to imagine what a devotional approach to the Bible might mean, much less how to go about it. Yet the ancient Christian art of Bible reading for spiritual growth has never been totally lost, and today it is gradually reemerging in several radically different Christian settings -- from monastic communities in the United States to recently evangelized African Christians. Lectio divina offers a means of Bible reading available to all for spiritual growth.


The ancient Christian tongue twister name is lectio divina (pronounced lex-ee-oh dih-vee-nuh). This Latin phrase literally translates into English as "divine reading" and refers primarily to the reading of sacred scriptures as practiced by the early Christian fathers and mothers. In Latin as in English, the adjective "divine" refers both to the material being read (the divine word) and the method of reading (an inspired approach). The Latin also carries a tradition of meaning that is vaster than the literal English translation suggests. Therefore, we continue to use the Latin phrase and usually shorten it simply to lectio.


Historically, both individuals and groups use lectio with much variation in actual practice. It focuses on the good word of God as revealed in divine scriptures, although it can be practiced on other readings of spiritual depth and on events drawn from daily life also. Lectio looks to the Bible as the word of God, a privileged text from which Christians receive continued nourishment. Yet lectio is not Bible study, for it involves neither an analysis of a scripture passage nor an emphasis on text information. Scripture study is an essential supplement to ongoing lectio but is not directly involved in this process. Above all, lectio is undertaken in the conviction that God's word is meant to be a "good" word; that is, something carrying God's own life in a way that benefits the one who receives it faithfully. Lectio turns to the scripture for nurture, comfort, and refreshment. Lectio is an encounter with the living God; it is prayer.


Lectio is a way of deep prayer, of encounter with God. Yet this mode of deep prayer differs from much modern practice. It involves reason and discursive thought, an inner exploration of meaning. It connects daily prayer both with the credal truths of the Christian tradition and with life's current issues. Lectio fully engages the mind and the body as active partners in spiritual nourishment. Lectio has both an active mode and a receptive mode; both are essential to its practice. For example, the meditative lectio phrase is not the same as a mantra, which is intended to quiet mental thought in order to deepen spiritual centering. On the contrary, in lectio we use the gifted phrase as a means of interacting directly with the actual situations of life, evoking new images and possibilities that empower us to live in congruence with our faith. The lectio phrase is the fruitful word of God in the sense that Isaiah intends it:


For as the rains and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11, NRSV)


**The primary source for lectio divina is monastic experience, especially as required by the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia, who makes lectio a substantial element in each day's schedule. He wrote the Rule in the mid-sixth century, and it has formed the basis for Christian monastic practice since then. See The Rule of Saint Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, Timothy Fry, Senior Editor and Translator (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1981) or Norvene Vest's commentary on the Rule called Preferring Christ, which has a translation of the Rule by Luke Dysinger (Trabuco Canyon, Calif.: Source Books, 1991).