Summary: In the face of multiple trials and difficulties when starting with Lectio Divina, seeing it work, and persevering in it, some often ask this question: “Is there a progressiveness in the implementation of Lectio? If so, can we try different types of Lectio Divina?” In order to answer this question, we will first address two other questions in order to answer in full: 1- Which type of Lectio Divina are we talking about? (which method, which readings, how much time to spend on it) 2- Is Lectio Divina for lay people also or for an “elite” only (Monks, Religious, Priests)?
Section I: Four Possible Stages
A- Recent History
First of all, let us call to mind how, in recent decades, after the Second Vatican Council, we progressively became aware of Lectio Divina as a form of prayer and started to practise it, talk about it, write about it, teach it and finally recommend it via the ordinary Magisterium (Pope). Lectio Divina as we know it today is definitely a new phenomenon in the Church and it continues to develop and sometimes to deviate into new meanings and methods. Lectio Divina as it has been discovered today by parishioners and consecrated however, is different from the Lectio Divina as practised by the Monks in an almost uninterrupted fashion from day one of their existence. Indeed, a decade ago, we witnessed a Pope talking about Lectio Divina and inviting us to practise it. This invitation was issued on a universal scale and was open to everybody. See the 2008 Synod on “The Word of God in The Life and Mission of The Church” and its final document written by Pope Benedict: “Verbum Domini”. The Pope, here, clearly wasn’t talking to Monks. This is a completely new phenomenon, never seen before!
How come we had reached this level of awareness and diffusion of something that almost nobody had talked about three decades ago? The different documents of the Vatican Council, “Dei Verbum” on Revelation, and “Sacrosanctum Concilium” on Liturgy, … give a new impulse to the Word of God in the life of the Church. They invited each Christian to have the Word of God at the centre and starting point of his prayer and of the Liturgy. This guideline we find in the documents of the Council are the fruits of the Liturgical renewal movement, Fathers of the Church, Theology, … As a consequence, the Lectionary had to be revised in order to contain a wider range of passages from the Old and the New Testament. A great abundance of Texts from the Bible was then made available to the People of God and the new Lectionary was published on December 1969. It was so much a success that other Churches and Communities adopted it.
The use of the new Lectionary was also helped by the spread in some linguistic areas abroad by the publication of new monthly Magazines offering the readings of the Mass. This had a huge practical impact on the Church. Silently, spontaneously and in an osmosis-like way, people from all walks of life started to use the daily readings as the centre of their personal prayer time. They weren’t aware that they were starting to practise a new type of Lectio Divina, a Liturgical Lectio Divina, or more simply put: a Lectio Divina based on the daily readings of the Mass. Spontaneously, they took the texts of the Daily Readings, took time and prayed on them, doing what many centuries before St. Augustine described as: God gives the Words that allow us not only to listen to Him but also to talk to Him in our prayer. One can also add the emergence of the Liturgical Calendars, which is a new feature that we find in any catholic bookshop today.
These were totally (except for Missals and the Liturgical Calendar) spontaneous, progressive and nonetheless impressive phenomena. This includes the fact that now with the internet, we have websites and mobile phones/tablets and applications that offer us also the Daily Readings. It has spread. Practising Lectio Divina emerged. Books started to be published. Here let us briefly recall at least two important authors and promoters of Lectio Divina: Cardinal Martini, Archbishop of Milan from the early 1980s and the Italian monk Enzo Bianchi.
When Enzo Bianchi published his first book, he quoted the letter of Guigo the Carthusian where the latter summarised the practice of Lectio Divina in four steps: Reading, Meditating, Praying, and Contemplating. Cardinal Martini, because of his Ignatian experience suggests further steps, among them the most important being: “Action” the act to make as a result of our contemplation. This is why many today have added this fifth step.
As a result, this effort brought people closer to the Word of God. In fact, spontaneously lay people, parish priests and religious started to use the Daily Readings in their daily personal prayer. Homilies started to be more nourished by the readings of the Mass (which is actually a recommendation of the Roman Missal and Lectionary). Many monthly missals with affordable prices started to become wide spread, offering the Daily Readings. Unknowingly, by listening to the Lord in their prayer through the Daily Readings people started to practise a more “portable” Lectio Divina. One can say “portable” because the time used is not the three hours of some Benedictine Monks. Experience showed that a full and complete Lectio Divina was possible in around an hour. Some used only the Gospel reading, others used both readings.
This is a totally new phenomenon. Sixty years ago, the magisterium had hardly mentioned Lectio Divina. Neither did manuals and Courses of Spiritual Theology. As Enzo Bianchi puts it: the Bible came back from exile (Counter Reformation), but we can say today that for the first time ever in history Lectio Divina has become universal. Even The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) mentions it very briefly, but without explaining how it works! But we can find in this paragraph a short indication of how to practise Lectio Divina even if the expression is not present, and it is a quote from Guigo the Carthusian:
“The spiritual writers, paraphrasing Matthew 7:7, summarise in this way the dispositions of the heart nourished by the word of God in prayer “Seek in reading and you will find in meditating; knock in mental prayer and it will be opened to you by contemplation.” (Guigo the Carthusian, Scala Paradisi: PL 40, 998.n)” (Catechism 2654)
(Note: “mental prayer” here is a wrong translation from the original quote of Guigo: “prayer” here is the right word (oratio); otherwise we are mixing “Lectio Divina” with “Mental Prayer”, i.e. “Contemplative Prayer”, though, however, this expression will be used in another paragraph.
More recently, Pope Benedict knowledges the phenomenon: ”at the school of St. Benedict, the monks have always cultivated a special love for the word of God in lectio divina, which today has become the common patrimony of many.” (Pope Benedict XVI to the Benedictine monks, Cassino, 24 May 2009)
B- Which type of Lectio Divina are we talking about?
Above, we have mentioned two spontaneous ways of doing Lectio Divina: either using all the Daily Readings of the Mass or only the Gospel. Some even just use one sentence from the Gospel selected by a magazine.
Nobody, however, has indicated how much time one spends on it. Some experiences show that around one hour is enough to help us hear what the Lord wants from us, by opening up the way to our putting it into practice.
It is clear that we are not talking at all about the monastic way of practising Lectio Divina which sometimes can take up to three hours, including a serious study of the text and commentaries of the Fathers of the Church on the text. Study in this case takes more time within the practice of Lectio Divina. One can easily notice that in Guigo’s short formula, instead, is quick to highlight the verb “to meditate” rather than “to study”.
C- Is Lectio Divina for lay people also or for an “elite”
Is Lectio Divina only for Monks, Religious and Priests as many still think, or it is for all? In order to find a good answer, let us follow this simple line of reasoning: is the Mass for all or only for monks? – For all, obviously. – Don’t we have the Readings in the Mass? Isn’t a special grace inherent in them for each one of us? Didn’t Jesus come during the Mass into our Parish wanting to speak to each one of us? Don’t we ask in the Our Father: “Give us this day our daily bread”! Doesn’t the Lord remind us: “”It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”? (Mt. 4:4) With all this evidence it is difficult to consider that Lectio Divina is only for an elite.
The Synod on the Word of God is a very important event, as is the a deeper study of all the interventions of the Bishops, theologians, lay people during the sessions of the Synod to become aware of this crucial moment in the life of the Church, a moment where we became even more aware that Lectio Divina is from now on to be considered as universal. Still, let us remember that we are talking about a more “portable” Lectio Divina and not a three-hour one with study. It is a lectio that can be summarised as a special prayer time we undertake in order to listen to Jesus’ word through the daily readings (broadly speaking) and to put it into practice.
Please see below “Text 5” in the second section of this article where we see a momentous presentation of Lectio Divina in the Exhortation (2010) that follows the Synod.
Note: It is true that in some areas on the Globe, some Communities or groups didn’t adopt the Daily Readings, but rather divided the entire bible (as some Protestants do) into chapters to read every day and to do their Lectio on them. On the other hand, no document from the Church or serious author negates the necessity to connect Lectio Divina with the Liturgy. More than one recent document from the Magisterium has mentioned it.
D- Is there a progressiveness in the implementation of Lectio?
I have already addressed this issue in our big book on Lectio Divina (“Lectio Divina at the School of Mary”, pp. 126, see the extract below) but I would like to say something about it here. I would suggest four different stages of growth in the practice of Lectio Divina. I consider that the Lectio Divina practised on the two (or three on Sunday and Solemnities) Readings of the Mass as the most powerful way to go about it, the goal we would like to achieve being, also, in tune with the Church’s Liturgy and the working of the Grace of God during the Liturgical Year. It is comparable, car-speed wise, to the Motorway. I would suggest three possible stages before this form of Lectio Divina: 1- Meditation, 2- Early contemplation, 3- Contemplation. The fourth stage is the more Secure Contemplation – the School of Mary’s way.
Meditating on texts, reading commentaries, pondering.
|Reading consecutive paragraphs, book after book.||Using the Gospel reading only.||
Using all the Readings, getting one light.
1- Meditation: a reliable way is to start to familiarise ourselves with the thinking process called Meditation. (please see the article that discusses Meditation) I dare to say here that the text can be from the Bible, but also it can be a good quality spiritual text. The object here of our effort is to learn to focus on a spiritual subject, come face to face with it ourselves, use our minds, ponder, learn and implement.
2- Early Contemplation: from this stage onwards, one uses the Holy Scriptures. Here, the effort is mainly to familiarise oneself with the Bible. If the important books of the Bible have never been read, for example, the Gospels… (Example: the Gospels, Acts, Romans, Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Psalms,..), it would be good to familiarise oneself with them by reading them, paragraph after paragraph, not hesitating to notice which part of the text touches one and meditating, pondering and praying on it. This stage is a mix between a considerable amount of reading still, meditating, and some contemplation (when we are touched by a passage and pray on it).
3- Contemplation: we may very well take only the daily Gospel from the readings of the Mass. One can do a very committed Lectio Divina here, by trying to pray on the text and listening to the Lord who nourishes and guides us.
4- Secure Contemplation: the Lectio Divina as we teach it, i.e. based on the two or three daily readings of the Mass. This option is the most secure and most powerful way usually, because it involves witnessing the miracle of the “crossing over” of the two or three texts, where in the end only one message/light reaches us from Christ through the intervention of the Holy Spirit.
This is a progressive way, almost like going from one type of soil in the Parable of the Sower (Mt. 13) to the other. From the first soil, where meditation is needed to plough the soil, open it, allow some oxygen in. Then persevering in exploring the main books of the Bible, allowing for a little depth, but still having some difficulties with the stones. Then making a stronger effort of perseverance, fighting against temptations, doubts and worries (the thorns). Then, reaching with the help of Our Lady, a more determined and perseverant practice of Lectio Divina, bearing fruits on a daily basis.
Here is the text from my big book on Lectio Divina where I briefly address the issue of the progressive implementation of Lectio Divina (“Lectio Divina at the School of Mary”, p. 126):
“c) Progressing in Lectio or Progressive Lectio?
In this paragraph we would like to deal with another important point: Should one do Lectio, right from the start, in the way indicated in Part Two of this book? Or should things be done progressively?
One may succeed in doing it as indicated from the very beginning if one already has some knowledge of the Bible. And one may continue having other ways of benefiting from the Bible while practising Lectio: for example, through the cursive reading of the Bible, the study of particular books, exegetical studies, etc. To repeat: there is no opposition between the practice of Lectio with the two texts of the daily Mass and other ways of reading the Bible, whether this be simple reading, meditation, listening to the Lord in a particular part of the Gospel, sharing about Scripture or formal study. Lectio is a specific activity that allows God to speak to us each day and to transform us in Him. This is food we receive at Mass and use in a concrete manner. In short, Lectio happens or it does not. There is no inner progression in this practice. Either it functions, and we listen to the Spirit, or it does not. But, in any case, before starting this exercise, we could spend some time getting to know the Bible by reading at least the most important books, with the provided introductions that introduce us to a world quite different from the one we live in. But that is not what one might call progressive Lectio. This is simply a way enabling us to read the Bible better, and to avoid misunderstanding it. In this way the instrument becomes intelligible and transparent (I would say: “sacramental”) for God who wants to speak to us.
There is then a progressive access to Lectio, but Lectio in itself cannot be a progressive – or half-done – practice.”
This text above was written in 2001. Today, almost twenty years afterwards, in this article, I am trying to expand more on this issue. I am trying to shed a better light on the last sentence written above: “There is then a progressive access to Lectio, but Lectio in itself cannot be a progressive – or half-done – practice”.
What was meant is: in a proper Lectio Divina (not in Meditation) there is no half-contemplation, or half-intervention of the Holy Spirit in us with His “particular help”. In this article I suggested the possibility of four steps: 1- Meditation (which doesn’t have any supernatural dimension), 2- Early Contemplation, 3- Contemplation, 4- Secure Contemplation. The last three have the supernatural dimension in them. For, as it is written above: “In short, Lectio happens or it does not.” This means contemplation is contemplation. In it, God acts directly and personally in us. We can’t have a half-contemplation. Therefore, there is no progressiveness between Stage 1 and Stages 2, 3, 4. No progression (no incomplete contemplation) but a clear net “jump” in quality. Like in the case of a switch. When God intervenes, He intervenes.
At best, one can say that in Stage 2, we might have an alternating state, where sometimes we have an intervention, whereby we are touched by a word or a verse in the text, and we ponder on it and sometimes no. Stages 2 and 3 lead to Stage 4 anyway, being intermediate stages aiming to a “perfect” form. I have used on purpose the expression: “Secure Contemplation” to qualify Stage 4, because when we practise Lectio Divina we need to be sure of what the Lord wants to say to us. We can’t come out of it hesitating. The supernatural yet precise light He gives us indicates the implementation of an act with His help.
This doesn’t mean that on some days Lectio Divina doesn’t work. It is very much possible that on certain days, for a reason that escapes us, the supernatural action of God doesn’t occur. But this is not “half-contemplation”. My aim is to encourage the Faithful to believe in the desire of God at Mass, in His Goodness and the meaning of the Liturgy of the Word. The readings of the Mass are not given to us as a decorative aspect of the liturgy. It is a true and proper Proclamation where Christ is present, because He loves us and wants to talk to us, heal us, walk with us, guide us in truth, with the Holy Spirit who uses His Words to touch us deeply. It is a real daily desire from God who loves us.
Section II: The Texts