"Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

A personal reflection - Lectio Divina

Catherine Holling

Jlectio divina 1

Today I visited a St Vincent De Paul Op Shop. My friend bungled me in so she could get a costume for the local theatre production. While she rummaged through the clothes, I scoured the book shelf. Sometimes the most wonderful out of print novels turn up in such places. Sadly, today it was just pulp fiction.

Some of the authors were okay; I could’ve easily bought a couple of books. But there was an uncomfortable sense about something? Not sadness . . . . emptiness perhaps?

Now I’m just standing there staring at the shelves, trying to name it, that uncomfortable sense. Was it sadness! The books had lost my attention, but I kept up the pretence and kept looking. I was really just staring beyond to the wall. My ‘book adventure’ had dissipated, I was now consumed with trying to name what was going on inside. This sense. . . If I say it was an overwhelming sense of I just want God, you’ll think I’m stupid, that I don’t know what I’m talking about or as I most fear that there is something Zealotry about me. So for all these reasons I say nought.

Within me though, there’s a gap for which these books, don’t have words. They don’t quench my thirst, they don’t satisfy, nothing they say points to the “beyond”. Struggling with this sense, it dawned on me, perhaps, this is the comfort I’ve found within Lectio Divina, and why I would like to continue the practice. For me, it seems to quell the peaks and troughs of emotional distance that comes with a sense of God. Rather than the sense of homecomings or silence, one is gently led into a rhythm of daily living where Christ is the centre, and you evolve around Christ, rather than Christ being an optional extra on a menu of daily busyness, or Christ being unreachable, as if I will only find some sense of solace in a quiet lonely church where I can just be in the silence...

It’s definitely a struggle to keep Lectio Divina, as a routine, given a busy family and work life. If you stop cleaning the house, shopping for food, cooking meals, washing clothes, listening to family members and friends, the house - the home, slowly starts to fall apart, and people start to get ill, and a downward spiral begins. So you have to keep up the work, you call it “stewardship”, I think. We call it “chores”, not quite as sexy.

I seem to have found a safe haven in Lectio Divina. I feel more anchored and encouraged in the spiritual life. There is a sense of contentment that seems to calm the energy. I’ve become more reflective of how I behave with my work colleagues, friends and family. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. I want to be with God. I want to keep this conversation going.

Okay, clearly established, I have a desire for God, but this can be very annoying in a secular society, because you are constantly looking and it’s just shallow water out there, it’s hard to find suitable folk or materials with which to have a conversation. Staring at those books, I asked; What can you say to me of God?

What is reading without God? What is anything without God, really? I couldn’t cope in a world where God doesn’t exist.

Take reading for example, I like reading as much as the next person, I’ll spend hours in bookshops and although I enjoy them, there is a part of me, a certain personal void that can’t be filled, no matter what the genre. I am always looking for something that points to ‘’the other’’, to the beyond.

I can’t touch or see God, but I can find ways of relating, questioning, of being challenged. It does take a certain nature, one that desires to find God. If you ask Does God exist? at least God is in the equation, the sentence, the question. Perhaps as a practicing Catholic that type of questioning is a bit heretical, or at least heathen like, but I think it’s healthy. It’s a challenge, and one that I come up against with my nieces and nephews, they ask this question and so too must I. How do I get a sense of God and where does it come from? How do I know that sense is right? Where is it leading me? How do I know that is a good place to go?

As much as I want to find God, I am just a single entity in a universe of infinite ideas and possibilities, so how do I find what God wants of me? How do I have a conversation with God? How do I hear what I want to say to God? Perhaps most importantly, how can I hear what God has to say to me?

I don’t know how you stop looking and searching for that ‘touch’ of God. Nothing else is the same and now everything is compared to it.

At night, the noise of the day fades and all those things causing stress, are not quite as loud, now is when I can quieten down and enter another reality, the words of the bible.

I was exposed to Lectio Divina years ago, and dabbled in it over the years. It always felt good, connected, insightful, with a sense of pointing towards God. Mind you, I was doing group Lectio, which provides many more dynamics than individual. Social dynamics are at work, so it is hard to determine what’s going on and what I’m really engaging with? The people, the engagement, the word, the prayer, or what? Too many variables to measure, though one must believe that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I shall be there with them.” (Matt 18:20)

Once you get used to the practice of Lectio Divina or the Divine Office, try going without it and see what happens. I do this in spells of tiredness or frustration. Yes I know, this is not something my Lecturer wants to hear, but it’s a good test to see whether he’s read thus far.

When I stop doing Lectio, I’m okay at first, more free time, you can read anything you want as you have more free time, walk away from all that religious mumbo jumbo, and just walk away. For a time this is great, then eventually an uncomfortable void starts, and I end up looking for reference back in my spiritual life. My normal behaviour is to busy myself in a book shop looking at the latest releases, but ending up reading the back of Thomas Merton. Same with art work I love being at the art gallery, but the art work that points to the beyond is where I will always find myself.

I’m trying to say I stay with Lectio Divina because it points to the beyond. It is a collection of writings from Christian communities, who have been trying to describe what God is for them. Who Christ Jesus was/is, God incarnate on earth, and their relationship with him.

Lectio Divina, is reading and reflecting on the scriptures, The Word of God. If I want a relationship with God, I want to know what God wants me of me. I want to know how to talk to God. While I might not have the words, I can learn to listen to the silence, and in the silence I can hear the questions where my heart cries out to God.

Lectio Divina is a four part movement: Lectio – read - What do the words say? Meditatio – meditate - what is my response? Oratio – pray- what do I say to God? Contemplatio – contemplate.

Lectio is about trying to understand what the words say, who are the characters, what’s going on in the story, what are they doing, what’s happening, what’s the situation, the context, when and where?

There are many aids to help unravel the Scripture. Whether one uses the notes in their Bible, or grabs a concordance, a bible dictionary, or map to help give context, or a Biblical commentary to help unwrap the passage, the level and depth are dependent on the reader and their situation.

Lectio requires multiple readings of the text. The first reading, I usually scan, getting the overall idea of the passage. The next reading is slower, taking in each word, trying to understand places, and characters. I’m consciously attempting to absorb what’s happening in the story. Do I understand who all the characters are, where they are from, who they represent?

I keep reading it over again. Some passages are easier than others. When there are place names, I try to find a map and understand the locations they are talking about. Is it mountainous, or desert, a town, a city, on the sea? Are there many people or is it an intimate group? Haven’t I seen these words before in another passage? Where was that? What do those numbers represent? Surely the guy’s not 100 years old?

I read the passage silently when I scan and then aloud in subsequent readings, trying to get the passage into my own rhythm, or rather get myself into the story. I’ve moved from being a passive audience as in the first reading to an active participant in trying to understand the words and becoming a recipient of the story.

Meditatio – what is my response to the reading, what is happening within me, how am I feeling, what words am I drawn to, and what does it feel like? Gendlin would call this, waiting on the text and listening for what is happening to you as you do so 1. Allowing the text to affect you, chewing over particular words and phrases. Asking the “what” questions tend to promote listening, asking open question, ask them with your head but listen with your belly, what are you feeling?

If Lectio is ‘The Divine’ talking, then Meditatio is the human response. What does my belly say?

For me, Lectio Divina is interesting because of the question, or questions, the search for God, and my relationship with God. It is a place where I can ask questions.

Now I can ask, what do the words say? Then another question, what do the words say to me? What do I say in response?

Lectio Divina can’t be a quick reading, a happy acceptance of every drop of ink on the page, it’s meant to seek a response from you, not just a non-reaction, or false compliance out of duty.

The listening is listening with the belly, listening to how I feel, listening with compassion, and being kind to myself so I can hear, without judgement. Humility is helpful; can I accept myself with all my faults? Really, I have faults? Hard to comprehend. Can I be open and honest, rather than defensive and as such, then only allowing myself to partially listen?

Humility helps enormously with Lectio, it’s as if someone turned up the volume, gave us ears to hear. It’s a learned virtue, and I’m a long way from becoming friends, the idea of being comfortable with a mirror or bright light on me is far from desirable.

Whatever my emotional state, I take that to my reading, and if I can be honest and sit with that, perhaps my reception of scripture will be more open than an exercise of the ‘gritted teeth’ striving for perfection and control. Gendlin talks of an “ANS” Technique, acknowledging emotions gently, being Non Judgemental, and staying with that feeling, asking ‘what am I feeling?’ Acknowledge it and be gentle with yourself.

To make this act of faith, the grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit must precede and assist, moving the heart and turning it to God, opening the eyes of the mind and giving "joy and ease to everyone in assenting to the truth and believing it." 2

The third part of Lectio is Oratio – What do I say to God? Does this feeling lead me to another place in Scripture, and what does this say? What do I want to say to God, what did the scriptures say to me that asks me to respond? What are the words I want to respond with? Perhaps not words perhaps just desire, perhaps feeling? What was stirred up in me, or is it just empty, nothing, that too is a comment, that too is a prayer. Dear God there was nothing, where the Hell are you? As in any relationship, honesty helps; it’s a sign of trust, faith, and hope.

The fourth part of Lectio is Contemplatio – a quiet resting place in God. Listening to the silence.

In their interventions, a good number of Synod Fathers insisted on the importance of silence in relation to the word of God and its reception in the lives of the faithful (Propositio 14). The word in fact, can only be spoken and heard in silence, outward and inward. 3

The practice of Lectio Divina allows for resonances or echoes to resound through your being. We hear God’s word through our entire being; whether that is reading a word or paragraph from Scripture, watching a sunset, or listening to music. The resonance comes when the whole being is ‘caught’ for a time, a moment of Grace. A moment when the wisdom of The Word, and the I am Who I am become one, for a time, however fleeting. A sense of the “more than” becomes apparent. A movement of the The Word, The Spirit, and myself resounding as one.

“So it always is: when you escape to a desert the silence shouts in your ear.” (Graham Greene, The Quiet American)

It’s not a good idea to expect anything to happen in the silence, except just rest, one is gazing at God as God gazes back 4 . To listen to the silence takes faith, it is perhaps the hardest part of the whole exercise. It is when you are, excuse me saying, actively passive.

For me the silence is an enormous relief, I am not so good at vocalising what it is I need and asking God for things or for anything for me, I don’t understand. I have witnessed much hardship through illness and death of family and friends from a young age and I just accept that as life, much of it I can’t mention to others as they wouldn’t understand, and there is loneliness in that. This life experience is tattooed on my being, but God knows where I’ve been and what I’ve had to do, and I can just sit there in this knowing of acceptance without worrying of others prying in where they wouldn’t understand.

For others, the silence is where a community can be of enormous support. If you are unused to such exercise, it can seem very peculiar, and a waste of time. A community can support you, by being with others who honour this ancient practice you can follow and gather some security that you are not alone, that you are doing it “right”, and that the word “right” really doesn’t have a place in prayer, this is important, and difficult to fathom.

Lectio Divina, whether it is done in a group or individually. Whether the participant follows set readings or chooses a specific text to concentrate on, or the random ‘dart method’. All have their advantages.

Group Lectio Divina has different styles it can adopt, whether people do their reading and reflection prior to coming to the group or during the group, etc.

Once the group is established and rules are set to provide for a positive and constructive experience, the dynamic can be very moving.

The camaraderie of a group can take on a sense of comfort, friendship and support for the spiritual life of its members. The energy of the group can catch you unawares. One member’s reflection can affect another’s. The spirit in the group is a dynamic that is the X Factor. It’s not obvious to the participants the impact they are having on one another.

For example, within the group, a person sitting opposite is shifting back and forth in their seat, rubbing their hands. They speak next, they present their reflection but pause and comment “Actually something else has just come up, something you just said, it just hit me, for a long time, I’ve never realised, not until today, not until you said those words.

I have seen this often, and have often been the one affected by others. I have often found release or expression in a text via another person’s reflection. It opens a door that I did not see, I was not able to open, on my own; perhaps I was too insecure to knock? Their sense of truth speaks to my own, and in that I find my voice. If we can spare ourselves a little compassion and listen to that voice inside, we may be able to take time to listen to others so they may experience the same release.

As pure with intention as I try to be, I am a human being living in a specific time and place, which means I am culturally loaded, and tainted with baggage, I attempt to take all to scripture, myself, my community, my work, my exhaustion, my world.

While Bible study is commonly held is Parishes, with references of authority and people to match, Lectio is quite the opposite, it demands questions over answers and is a rare find in Australian parishes. It is promoted on Diocesan websites, but I’m not sure why? I think it is more an ideal than a reality, perhaps more of an individual more than parish groups?

Lectio Divina is a conversation I have with God, I listen, and talk, I ask questions. I have the questions and I am the only one who can listen for the answer. My life is a question, what does God want me to do? To listen to the answer both God and I have to be present. God’s word is in Scripture so spending time becoming acquainted with Scripture is about developing a friendship. At the beginning of any relationship one feels guarded, awkward, and open to rejection, sharing only the shallowest of interests and feelings. It takes time, energy and commitment to move along, God is there, it’s up to me whether I attend....

The biblical scriptures have been resonating and resounding with communities since their beginning.

The practice of Lectio gives me a sense of communion rather than alienation, that comes from seeking the spirit in a secular world, in a multi cultural environment, where the church and its practices do not dominate the culture. Unlike parts of Europe where churches are dense and the catholic faith is the air you breathe.

I don’t believe I’m doing anything extraordinary by taking up Lectio Divina, it’s just listening to The Word, dwelling on the scriptures, you could call it “bearing witness to the light”, a call to the Christian by fact of their Baptism. The fact that I’m a Christian would seem to indicate it’s as natural as breathing.

[1] E. Gendlin, Focusing, Bantam Paperbacks, 1986.
[2] DOGMATIC CONSTITUTION ON DIVINE REVELATION DEI VERBUM. Paragraph 5.
[3] Verbum Domini POST-SYNODAL 2010 APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION VERBUM DOMINI OF THE HOLY FATHER BENEDICT XVI

[4] Someone famous said that