This week, I chose to explore the Roman Catholic sacred practice known as Lectio Divina, or sacred reading. This is a deliberate devotional reading of Scripture for spiritual insight and growth. There are many different, though related, practices that popularly go by this name. While I hope to explore other variants in the future, since I think each one has its specific wisdom to share, the one I have chosen for this week’s practice focuses on different senses of Scriptures: the literal meaning, the allegorical meaning, the insightful or moral meaning, and the vocational meaning. While I have periodically done one variation of Lectio Divina or another, especially in group or retreat settings, it has never been a big part of my spiritual practice. So I was interested to see what it would be like this week to use it as a daily practice.
While Lectio Divina as we know it originated with the twelfth-century Carthusian monk Guigo II, both the desire for sacred reading of Scripture and the notion that Scripture can operate on many levels are far older. Certainly by the late Hellenistic period, many Greek and Jewish philosophers were horrified by some of the gorier or more tawdry aspects of their mythologies and sacred histories, and sought ways of rehabilitating them through finding spiritual meanings in them. Later, in the third century of the common era, the Alexandrian Christian scholar Origen taught that Scripture itself is a Sacrament — something material that participates in and can be a channel of divine grace — and similarly urged his students to seek out “hidden” meanings in the Biblical texts.
In the Christian medieval West, this search for hidden meaning in Scripture eventually stabilized around four levels, or ‘senses,’ on which the Scriptures can be said to work: 1) the literal meaning — what the text says; 2) the allegorical meaning — how the text connects to bigger themes of salvation; 3) the insightful or moral meaning — what the text means for us today; and 4) the anagogical meaning — how the text connects to the future consummation of all things in God. For the purposes of my practice, I tweaked this schema a little, replacing the anagogical meaning, which is often difficult to distinguish from allegory, with a vocational meaning: what is the text calling me to today?
What is it?
Here is the method I followed:
- Take a few seconds to calm your heart and mind. Say a short prayer to open your heart up to what God might be telling you.
- Slowly read your passage (I used a mix of the Old Testament or Gospel readings appointed for the day), keeping an eye out for any phrase that jumps out to you.
- With that phrase in mind, slowly re-read the passage.
- Slowly meditate on the phrase with respect to each of the four questions:
- What is literally happening here? (Literal)
- How does this connect to bigger themes of salvation? (Allegorical)
- How does this relate to our life? (Insight or Moral)
- What is this reading calling me to do? (Vocational)
Instructions for the more traditional practice of lectio divina can be found here.
I dedicated part of my early morning writing and creative time to this exercise. Because this is time I already have set aside, it was easy to fit this practice into my week. So, while I didn’t have any trouble sitting down and doing this practice, I recognize that this was assisted by some of the structural elements of my lifestyle. I found there was enough variation in the texts from day to day — switching periodically to using the Old Testament reading instead of the Gospel probably helped here — that I didn’t get bored of the exercise during the week. Each day was a different experience and I really appreciated that.
I have to say that I both enjoyed and appreciated this practice more than I thought I would. It was a profoundly beautiful way to start my day, and I liked the slow, deliberate, and meditative pace. Too often, my tendency with Scripture reading is to read as much as possible in a given sitting, rather than simply being with the passage I’m reading. So this practice was a helpful way of pushing back against that. And as someone who is used to approaching Scripture for study and exegesis, I appreciated the freedom this practice gave me to simply explore what might be there for me today, rather than looking for the “best” or “right” interpretation. While I found the question about allegory difficult to tackle — which I knew going in and was one of the reasons I wanted to do this variation of the practice — something did come to me every day, and a couple of times I found what I discovered in this step to be quite surprising and profound. This alone — being able to be surprised by the text again — made the practice very beneficial. And, each day, I left the practice with a specific intention, something I felt called to do. More often than not this had nothing to do with what I would say the text “means” in a context of Bible study, but because this was an intentionally devotional reading, that didn’t bother me in the least.
That last point, though, does speak a bit to the limitation of the practice. It is very much a personal reading of Scripture and this is totally fine as long as practitioners understand that the insights they glean from the practice aren’t necessarily what the text means outside the context of their lectio divina. There must be place both for these personal readings of Scripture and the shared communal reading of Scripture in the Church and theological and scholarly communities. But, again, as part of a fuller exploration of faith, Scripture, and spirituality, a lectio divina exploring different senses of Scripture is a beautiful and helpful practice.