by Olivia Martin
Advent starts on Sunday, Dec. 2.
What better time than the beginning of the church year to bring the Lord into your life in an intimate new way?
Come study with The Leaven at the feet of the masters — or at least some of the monks who still utilize St. Benedict’s practice of “lectio divina” almost 1500 years after his death.
ATCHISON — It’s not news that St. Benedict’s Abbey here is a place of peace and prayer.
But perhaps less known is by what concrete methods that peace is attained.
Is it simply inherent to the monastery building? Or monastery life?
Does it emerge effortlessly — and do you have to wear a black-hooded robe to possess it?
Luckily, the monks were able to answer those questions and more by pointing to a single practice: “lectio divina.”
Though it sounds like the name of a Star Wars heroine, “lectio divina” is Latin for “divine reading.”
It is a central prayer of Benedictine monasticism and is, fundamentally, an exercise in coming into contact with the divine through prayerful meditation on the word of God.
“For St. Benedict,” said Father Meinrad Miller, OSB, “lectio is the real heart of the spiritual life.”
Lectio enhances the liturgy, sacraments, one’s spiritual life and vice versa.
“Lectio divina is, primarily, listening,” said Father Simon Baker, OSB.
“It is listening for a way that God is speaking to you,” he added.
But, what does God sound like?
“Well, he sounds a lot like me to me,” said Father Simon.
What? No voice from a burning bush? Or instructions from angels?
“If you’re turning to lectio to seek that encounter with God who listens and wishes to speak back in that conversation,” he continued, “then you have to be aware that sometimes his voice sounds a lot like yours.”
The five steps of lectio divina
- “Lectio” — Read
All of us are familiar with Scripture. We hear it read aloud at every Sunday Mass and hopefully read it in our homes.
So, at first glance, it seems like this first step shouldn’t be too hard.
But Father Simon and other monks agreed that this is perhaps the most difficult step of lectio.
“This is the danger of prayer,” said Father Meinrad. “You sit down to pray and, at once, you think of all the things you could be doing.
“[But] it’s like the Nike commercial: ‘Just do it.’”
Just “doing” it, he said, eventually catches you up in it.
“I rarely find that once I get into good lectio that I don’t want to be there,” he said.
The choice of Scripture passage is up to you, although passages from the Gospels are a great place to start. And there are aids available if you don’t want to go it alone: Try “Lectio Divina of the Gospels 2018-2019,” published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, or something similar, if you’d like.
Just don’t attempt to “complete” a certain section; this isn’t a school assignment.
Instead, it’s a chance to let God lead you into a deeper appreciation of his word.
The key to doing lectio well, say the monks, is to sit in silence, quiet the mind and read slowly.
“You do lectio the way you drink a glass of fine wine,” said Father Marion Charboneau, OSB.
“You sip and savor it,” he added. “You drink it like a connoisseur, swirl it around, like, ‘Oh! What an aftertaste!”
- “Meditatio” — Meditation
The meditative step of lectio is simple, by comparison.
“That’s just making connections,” said Father Simon. “You use the word or phrase that stuck out to you like a reading lens, through which you see your life.”
These connections are vast and can vary from being reminded of a past experience to re-awakening forgotten desires.
The point is to reflect on one’s life through the truth of the reading, looking for ways the reading connects to concrete events in one’s life.
- “Oratio” — Prayer
“Naturally, what will happen [after meditation] is things will be awakened in you which immediately lead you into prayer,” said Father Simon.
“If you’re doing the steps well,” he noted, “prayer just happens — you don’t have to force it.”
- “Contemplatio” — Awareness of God’s presence
The next stage, likewise, follows rather naturally.
Contemplatio is an opportunity to sit awhile with whatever you’ve discovered from your reading and your prayer.
“I think of it as sunbathing,” said Father Simon. “If you sit outside in the sun, it’s going to affect your appearance; it’s going to change you . . . you’re not doing anything.”
- Optional: “Resolution”
But lectio need not be an entirely reflective exercise; one last step can serve as an action point.
You can ask yourself, prompted Father Simon, the following: “Based on your prayer and meditation, how are you going to take the fruit of your prayer and act on it throughout the day?”
There are no formulas
While the steps of lectio are now widely practiced, in St. Benedict’s day they didn’t exist.
For him, the steps of lectio flowed naturally from his daily encounter with God in reading the Scriptures.
It was not until centuries later that the steps were formed to help people navigate the Scriptures and their own lives better. The steps, like the reading of Scripture during lectio, are traditional and are guidelines rather than strict rules.
In fact, lectio can be done in as many ways and contexts as friendships are expressed — because lectio is, ultimately, a conversation with a person: God.
“When you’re doing [lectio], just be with God,” said Father Marion. “Sometimes it’s just good to be with somebody you love. Your prayer life can never be reduced to a formula.”
For Father Meinrad, lectio has helped him on his journey of recovery from alcoholism.
He often integrates 12-step recovery literature with Scripture readings in his daily lectio.
“I think St. Benedict’s thing was not to have an exercise in futility,” he said, “but [he] wanted something that was beneficial and was going to lead the person.
“For me, that [integration] has been a radical change. . . . It’s been very good for me.”
To further emphasize the possibility of encountering God anywhere, Father Simon quipped, “You could even have lectio reading The Leaven!”
Praying lectio can have therapeutic effects as well.
“It’s divine therapy in some ways,” said Father Meinrad, “because the Holy Spirit is reminding me where my origin is and where I’m going.”
While both spiritually and mentally therapeutic, lectio should not be reduced to just thinking positively.
“If lectio is just you having good thoughts about a reading, that’s not lectio,” said Father Simon.
“But if you are cognizant that lectio is primarily an exercise in an encounter with the divine, then you’re fine,” he continued. “You are actually speaking with another person.”
Awareness that lectio is a conversation with the ever-present Holy Spirit is essential to the practice.
“Then, we remember that lectio is not a burden, but something we are privileged to do,” said Father Meinrad.
A new gaze
Any habit creates change — and doing lectio divina is no exception.
“It’s taught me how badly I really need God,” said Father Marion. “Life is better when you do lectio.”
“When I do lectio,” agreed Father Meinrad, “that inspires me to look at my life then go to Mass and confession because I know I need the Lord more.
“It has helped me appreciate God’s presence.”
For Father Simon, it has been a lesson in the constancy of God’s love.
“I used to think if I was behaving well, I was doing great and worthy of God’s love,” he said. “And if I wasn’t, then I was doing poorly and God wasn’t paying attention to me.
“But now, I’m convinced otherwise, because I have daily encounters with him in lectio when I’m doing great — and when I’m not.”