What is Lectio Divina?
Lectio divina, literally “divine reading,” is a traditional method of contemplative prayer which commonly uses a sacred text as a starting point. Lectio divina springs from Jewish haggadah, a process of heart-centered interaction with scripture. The 4th and 5th century Desert Mothers and Fathers seem to be the earliest practitioners of Christian lectio. The method was further refined by later monastic writers, primarily Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century and the 12th century Carthusian monk Guido II. In modern times, Lectio divina has made its way out of the cloister into the more public prayer lives of lay men and women.
Lectio divina is a simple method, composed of four “movements”: reading (lectio), reflection (meditatio), listening (oratio), and contemplation (contemplatio). Lectio is a process of moving from the surface meaning of the words, slowly going deeper and deeper into one’s own heart and the heart of God, which are one and the same, it seems.
Entire books have been written on lectio. (see, for example, Christine Valters Paintner’s Lectio Divina.) I’ve been using lectio by myself and with groups for some time now – not always with scripture. In fact, hardly ever with scripture. We use stories, poetry, memories, and natural objects such as sprigs of sage and pieces of our local volcanic rock. Birds are especially good lectio fodder, for me.
It’s this use of the natural world as a sacred text that I’m finding most profound these days. Belden Lane in his Backpacking with the Saints calls this sacred reading of the landscape “lectio terrestris.” The process is the same: simply noticing what’s around me (lectio), reflecting on what I notice and narrowing my focus (meditatio), listening to what the object of my reflection may be saying to me (oratio), and finally sitting with what I heard (contemplatio), which never fails to surprise.
A Personal Example of Lectio Terrestris
Here’s an example of my latest lectio terrestris experience. My husband and I were hiking into the Cascades last week, to one of our favorite high mountain lakes. We’d been anticipating the trip for months, looking forward to when the snow had melted enough for us to go back. However, before we were more than a mile up the trail, two things became apparent. The mosquitos were hellacious. And the winter’s heavy snow had brought down lots of trees. We were climbing over and crawling under logs every hundred yards, it seemed, for five miles, all the while swatting mosquitos and cursing. When we finally got to our lake, mercifully breezy and exposed enough that the mosquitos abated, I stuck my feet in the water, pulled out my journal, and proceeded to lectio. This is sort of what happened, in four movements.
- Lectio: What I notice is lots of downed logs, many mosquitoes, high wispy clouds in a blue blue sky, warm sun on this rock, and my feet in the cool water.
- Meditatio: I’m going to focus on the logs, because that feels right. I feel a tug there.
- Oratio: I hear the downed trees saying that dead things fall on the path and create obstacles. They’ll slow me down and divert me. They don’t need to stop me. Being stopped by something that used to be alive but is now dead and in my way isn’t necessarily a given. I can choose if I’m going to be stopped. I can figure out a way around the obstacle.
- Contemplatio: So… what are the dead things that I’m letting stop me? Old armor, needing to be right, wanting to be perfect and always adept, either/or binary thinking, self-criticism, fear, and my stories about my personal history…. I can choose differently.
I saw those downed trees differently on the way back.
Lectio always surprises me. Always.