Lectio Divina and Liturgy

Over the past couple of years as I worked with Paulist Evangelization Ministries on the parish program, Living the Eucharist, I’ve been really pleased with the fact that it includes Lectio Divina, a way of praying with the scriptures. Although it models the practice in small groups, ideally Lectio Divina can be continued on an individual basis long after the program is finished.

Although there are many different ways of praying that use Scripture, the process of lectio divina seems to be a rich one for preparation for or reflection after Sunday Eucharist. This is not catechesis. It is not exegesis. It is not Bible study. But I do believe it can be a kind of mystagogy, opening our hearts and lives to Christ’s presence in the Word.

The specific connection to the liturgy is through the choice of scripture: a reading is taken from the Sunday lectionary. Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP, who wrote the sections on Lectio Divina, and is an experienced retreat director, described the four stages of the process — Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, Contemplatio — in a way that I found engaging. Here are some excerpts from his descriptions.

Lectio

The art of lectio divina begins with cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to attune our hearts to the voice of God, which often speaks very softly and which requires us to become still and silent. … Is there a word or phrase or a sentence that has a particular ‘sheen’ on it, that lifts off the page, or hangs in the air for you when the reading is over? Do not expect a bolt of lightning; attune yourself, rather, for a gentle touch.

Meditatio

After listening to the reading a second time, take up the phrase or verse that attracted you, and let it interact with your thoughts, hopes, memories, and desires. …  Do I ‘see’ or ‘hear’ Christ in this verse? Gratefully receive the Word and look closely at what it reveals to your heart.

Oratio

The third step in lectio divina is prayer, understood both as dialogue and as consecration. … At the heart of oratio is the experience of Christ calling us forth into doing or being. What is Christ in the text calling me to do or to become?

Contemplatio

Here we become still, and know that God is God. Here we lay aside our thoughts. We simply come to rest in the presence of the One who, through the medium of the living Word of Scripture, invites us into God’s loving embrace.

There’s more, of course, and I’m sure there have been many books written on this subject. But this gives you a taste. Now, not everyone will be attracted to any one discipline of prayer, so I’m not proposing that everybody ought to do this, but I found it intriguing and wanted to see if others have experience of it.

Here is why I bring it up. When we think about what it means to fully participate in the Liturgy, it seems to me that we are very sure the choir and cantor should practice, the preacher should prepare his homily, and the readers their readings, and all the ministers should know their cues and be prepared to do whatever is their role in the celebration. Yet many in the assembly, which has a role of the utmost importance in offering their lives joined to the sacrifice of Christ, come in “cold.” By the grace of God, it all still comes together for many people, but I wonder about those who drift away because “I don’t get anything out of Sunday Mass.” Maybe we have to put more thought into what we do outside Mass in order to help people come together to celebrate the liturgy more fruitfully.

Of course there are challenges in this. Having more prayerful attention to the Scriptures which will be proclaimed at Sunday Mass means we must have readers who proclaim them well and with a good grasp of their meaning. We need homilists to realize that when they preach at Mass they are standing on the holy ground that is the intersection of this community’s life and the Word of God. Ball score bonhomie and trite generalities are not enough.

But these are good challenges to have.

We live in an instant gratification society, something that Liturgy flies in the face of. Liturgy is slow and the stakes it is most concerned with are very, very long term. That doesn’t mean there are no immediate returns to be gained from going to Mass. But I think we need to cultivate an ability to enter the liturgical action deeply, and this is a multi-faceted task including disciplines of prayer and the practice of our faith in everyday life.

 

9 comments

  1. Having members of the parish do Lectio alone or even better in a community could be the basis not just for a renewal of appreciation of the celebration of the Eucharist but even more of the life of the parish.

  2. I worry about the approach to lectio which encourages focussing only on a word or phrase. It seems to me that it often encourages a projection of my own concerns onto the text, rather than seeking first to understand what it is saying. Biblical stories, Gospel parables, Pauline theology and so on all have a point to make which require reflection on the whole, not (usually) the mere selection of a word or phrase. Lectio and meditatio are struggles to understand the biblical text and apply its meaning to one’s own situation. They require an openness to the challenging “unexpected” of the gospel. I have found that the stress on choosing a “word” or “phrase” from a text, which seems a very common approach, can sometimes be inimical to biblical understanding, especially if it becomes an exclusive method. What do others think?

    1. @Michael Aiguani – comment #2:
      Lectio isn’t intended to be the exclusive means of engaging the Scriptures. As long as a community enjoys good Biblical preaching, and members avail themselves of further study, either individually or in groups, I’d rather have people engaging the Scriptures on any level at all.

      It can also be a crutch to go first to what other people are saying. I never encourage lector preparation in that way. My lector handouts, in fact, suggest a progression. Do preparation lectio looking first for the personal word or phrase. Then use the imagination to suggest what message will strike a chord with the faith community. Then finally, look to (minimally) Bible footnotes and other sources to see what the scholars and saints are saying.

      Bottom line is that we are not first looking to manufacture Biblical scholars. We wants hearts on fire (cf. Luke 24:32b). Once the people have the authentic inspiration to engage the Scriptures, the motivation for study will come.

    2. @Michael Aiguani – comment #2:
      Michael, I hear you.

      That’s why I made a point of saying this isn’t bible study or catechesis. I don’t think it substitutes for either of those activities, which are designed to ground the understanding and keep us from projecting onto the text things that aren’t there.

      On the other hand, prayer uses parts of our brain that are not analytical, and rightfully so. That’s why I would say there’s a both/and here.

  3. I’m always inclined to add a fifth step, in which we act upon the first four steps, living out the Word in the world. (Activatio? That sounds kind of Harry Potterish.) I think Clare of Assissi was moved in this direction with her final step of “imitatio” (or maybe “imitare” since she probably only knew Italian and not Latin?).
    Since the objective of Lectio Divina is to find/know Christ Incarnate in the Word, it only makes sense, as a final step, to make Christ incarnate for the world.

    1. @Alan Hommerding – comment #4:
      Luther describes a three-step method for prayer: “oratio, meditatio, and tentatio.” For Luther it’s that third step, tentatio/struggle, that take prayer into the world.

    2. @Alan Hommerding – comment #4:
      “Actio” is what that added fifth step is sometimes called, again according to my source, Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP.

      Maybe the action that flows from prayer needs its own category though, I’m thinking. Not because prayer and action are not intimately related, but because any “Actio” would have a number of steps of its own.

  4. I use lectio with my students. We do it as a group, or for individual reflection on retreats. I actually use it with 5th graders (ages 10-11) when we study the Wisdom Literature, particularly the Psalms. It is surprising how fruitful this practice is even with people this young. They feel it makes the Scriptures more accessible. They say things like “I can actually read the Bible and understand it!” They make amazing connections between their own lives and the words of wisdom in the Psalms.

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