How to Pray Lectio Divina: The Catholic's Ultimate Guide

Jan 18, 2019 10:49:31 AM / by Fr. Michael Denk

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Why pray Lectio Divina? 

Lectio Divina is one of the earliest forms of prayer.  It was practiced by the monks as they prepared for Liturgy and as an extension of the Eucharist in The Liturgy of the Hours.  Lectio Divina gives you a good experience of all three levels of prayer: Vocal, Meditative, and Contemplative.  It is also encouraged by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a way to meditate!  (CCC 2708)

 

What is Lectio Divina?

The goal of this guide is to make Lectio Divina more accessible, memorable and doable for anyone interested.

In this ultimate guide, you'll learn how to prepare for the prayer, the steps involved, Scripture examples to follow, and when to take some time in silence as well as when is a good time to journal.

Lectio Divina is a Latin phrase meaning Divine Reading. It dates all the way back to the 3rd Century. Over the years, it was developed by some of the early Church Fathers, Saints of the Church, and religious communities such as: Origen, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Benedict, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, the Desert Fathers who formed the first monasteries in the Eastern Church, the Carthusians, the Cistercians, the Benedictines, the Carmelites… it has even been introduced to the Protestants by John Calvin.

It was not until Vatican II, in 1965, that one of the Church’s most important documents emphasized the use of Lectio Divina. That document was “Dei Verbum” and is a dogmatic constitution or teaching on the Word of God. In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, reaffirmed the importance of Lectio Divina on the 40th anniversary of “Dei Verbum”: “I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio Divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God, who is speaking, and in praying, responds to Him with trusting openness of heart [cf. Dei verbum, n. 25]. If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church – I am convinced of it – a new spiritual springtime.” Saint John Paul II, when he was the pope, described how to enter into this ancient form of prayer. One condition for Lectio Divina is that the mind and heart be illuminated by the Holy Spirit, that is, by the same Spirit who inspired the Scripture. That the Scripture is approached with an attitude of “reverential hearing”.

As is often said about Scripture, this type of prayer is itself “Ever Ancient,
Ever New.” The practice of Lectio Divina is best when it is experienced. The best way I can explain it is that it is an experience of prayer where you read Scripture in a prayerful and reflective way until God speaks to you through his Word. As we “hear” it over and over, meditate upon it, and contemplate it, the Word of God takes flesh in us. We become one with Christ. We experience this wonderful union with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

As with all prayer, the “way” that we do prayer is not important, but
sometimes, especially for beginners, it is really helpful to have a structure and a routine to “get us into” prayer. Lectio Divina consists of four steps:
Lectio (reading), Oratio (praying), Meditatio (meditation), and Contemplatio (contemplating).

Let’s use the analogy of eating for this. When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart (Jeremiah 15:16). I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). Now let’s apply the four steps of Lectio Divina to eating.

Lectio (reading) is like looking at the meal that is placed before you, deciding which part you want to eat first, which looks the best, what you want to save for last, and taking that first bite.

Meditatio (meditation) is chewing on the food, tasting it, deciding whether you like it or not or if you want more of it or want to try another part of the dish. This is often related to “chewing”. Sometimes we eat our food so fast we don’t even know what it tastes like, and we can do the same with Scripture. For us to really meditate we need to take it slow and notice all the textures and flavors of the Scripture.

Interesting enough, my last name “Denk” is a German word that means to think deeply or to ponder. This part comes naturally to me! The important thing though is that we are not doing any of these steps on our own, but rather reading with God and pondering with God. If we do it alone that is when it can become a rather dark and frustrating experience. This is where it is important to pray with God, with Scriptures, and always have Christ at the center. So “chew” until your heart’s content, but just remember you are “chewing” Scripture and not your own thoughts!

Oratio (pray) means speech, discourse, or dialogue. It is kind of like when we share a meal with anyone, especially with God, conversation tends to flow naturally. During this step you not only savor the food but you savor the company and your heart naturally wants to say something and hear something in response. This could be various spontaneous prayers or a more formal vocal prayer that you write out or say to God.

Contemplatio (contemplation) There is nothing better after having a good meal than “resting” in the company you are with. Think about an Italian dinner where nobody gets up from the table right away. Or a Thanksgiving meal. You have tasted the food. You drank the wine. You have talked, laughed, and loved. Now you just spend that last moment in silence, completely content, taking it all in, savoring it, enjoying it, just “being” there with the people that you love, with the God that you love.

The Catechism emphasizes that “Contemplative Prayer is silence… or silent love…" (CCC, 2717) in which the Father allows us to dwell in His Son, to become one with His Son, to be infused with the Holy Spirit and experience the closest thing to heaven that we can on this earth.

Preparation:

It's important to take some time to prepare before you pray so that when you do enter into prayer you can be as focused and undistributed as possible.   

5 P’s of Prayer (Blog post *Coming Soon*) 

  1. Prepare - Know your passage ahead of time and meditate on it throughout the day. When you transition into prayer, take time to breathe, relax, slow down, and just rest.
  2. Place - go to your prayer place, room or chair. 90% of prayer is just being there.
  3. Posture - we pray using our bodies. Try one of the four postures: standing, sitting, kneeling, or prostrating.
  4. Presence - make the Sign of the Cross and invite the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit into this time of prayer. Invite God the Father to hold you, the Son to be the Good Shepherd to you, and the Holy Spirit to be Christ in you.
  5. Passage - hold the Bible in your lap and realize: "The Word of God is alive." The Father will speak to you!

Now You're Ready to Begin Pray

Tip: It is always good to hold your Bible on your lap; there is something about holding the Word of God that I think helps us focus on it and really reverence it. If you don't have a bible and want to order one you can get it here.  

Tip: The same is true for a physical journal. There is nothing like it.  If you don't have a journal you can get them here.  

Step 1: Lectio

The first step of Lectio Divina is Lectio, which is to read. 

Lectio should always be done with Scripture and in the presence of God - that is what makes it divine reading.

It should never be forgotten that the Word of God is what we are focusing our attention on. It is through praying with Scripture in a very personal way with God that this truly becomes an experience of God.

As Lectio Divina was developed over the centuries, one of the things that remained consistent was the first step: reading the passage, over and over.

The first time slowly, the second time more slowly. Then a third time, even more slowly.

You may even try and read the Scripture passage out loud during one of the times.

Exercise: 

For this exercise, we will use Psalm 23.  Read it now slowly.  Notice any words or phrases that speak to you.   

The LORD is my shepherd;

there is nothing I lack.

In green pastures he makes me lie down;

to still waters he leads me;

he restores my soul.

He guides me along right paths

for the sake name.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff comfort me.

You set a table before me

in front of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Indeed, goodness and mercy will pursue me

all the days of my life;

I will dwell in the house of the LORD

for endless days.

 

This is a familiar Psalm, but maybe this is the first time you have actually heard it or read it straight through.

Read it again a second time, a little bit slower.  Try to notice one word or phrase that sticks out to you.  

The LORD is my shepherd;

there is nothing I lack.

In green pastures he makes me lie down;

to still waters he leads me;

he restores my soul.

He guides me along right paths

for the sake name.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff comfort me.

You set a table before me

in front of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Indeed, goodness and mercy will pursue me

all the days of my life;

I will dwell in the house of the LORD

for endless days.

Did you enjoy it more the second time around?  What word or phrase did you notice? 

Read it a third time, even slower.  Maybe you paid attention to different parts of Psalm 23 or noticed things that you didn’t notice the first or second time around. It will probably happen again in this next reading.

So read it one last time, very slowly paying attention to any word or phrase that strikes you.  

The LORD is my shepherd;

there is nothing I lack.

In green pastures he makes me lie down;

to still waters he leads me;

he restores my soul.

He guides me along right paths

for the sake name.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff comfort me.

You set a table before me

in front of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Indeed, goodness and mercy will pursue me

all the days of my life;

I will dwell in the house of the LORD

for endless days.

  

Journal Your Thoughts

What word or phrases stuck out to you? 

Take some time in silence with this reading, and then journal any words, phrases, or ideas that called out to you.

The Word of God, we believe, is alive; so right now, God is speaking to you as you read this. He is saying something to you right now that He has never said before or will ever say again. Right now, the Word is alive. God speaks to you.  Pay attention to the words and phrases that  spoke to you... God wants to speak to you.  

 

Step 2: Meditatio

The second step of Lectio Divina is meditatio, which is meditation.

So let's spend some time meditating upon Psalm 23. When you meditate on this Psalm, it is a time to really use your mind, to use your imagination, to think about it, to ponder, and to apply it to your own life.

To wrestle with it, to question it, and to ask God what it really means for you.

With that in mind, we will walk through this meditation together.

Meditation: Psalm 23 

Now we will take some time to meditate and reflect on the different words, phrases, and images of Psalm 23.  

The Lord is my shepherd. I think this is the part that we all love, that we have this Good Shepherd that will lead us and guide us.

There is nothing I lack. Wow! Have you ever thought about this before? You lack nothing. Right now, with Jesus as your shepherd, you lack nothing. There is nothing I lack, we have everything that we need, we have a good shepherd to guide us.

In green pastures he makes me lie down. Try to think about this, a restful image of the green pasture. Have you ever done that on a warm summer day, laid out in the grass in the sun? Such a relaxing feeling.

To still waters He leads me. Imagine yourself by that water, completely still. There is a beauty in water. Imagine yourself drinking from a spring. Thirsty, and being restored.

He restores my soul. I think so many times our souls feel beaten up by life - tired. Right now, He is refreshing and restoring your soul.

He guides me along right paths / for the sake of his name. Maybe there is a decision you have to make right now in life, and you just realize that the Good Shepherd is going to guide you. He guides you along the right path. Maybe this passage, right now, just brings you a sense of assurance or trust that He is guiding you.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. My grandfather told me before he died that this was a prayer that he would often recite to himself, over and over. When he was in World War II, in the darkest of times, he would repeat this: 

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, / I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

What are you going through in life right now that is difficult?

Is this a time in your life that is like the shadow of death? Well, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, / I will fear no evil. Why?

For you are with me. He is with you right now. Whatever you are going through in life, whatever dark valley you are walking through, you have the Good Shepherd right with you.

Your rod and your staff comfort me. What does this mean: Your rod and your staff comfort me.

Shepherds often use the rod and staff for protection, so maybe we can think of that as protection. With His rod and His staff, the Good Shepherd is protecting you from any evil.

Our Heavenly Father who governs all things can keep you safe from anything that would do you harm, from anything that would keep you from being with Him. With His rod and staff, He comforts you.

You set a table before me. What is it like to share a meal with God? To have everything that you need? All the food is provided for you. Not only is there food, but there is wine. There is gladness and there is joy. Imagine being at that table with God.

In front of my enemies. Is there anybody that you are afraid of right now? Is there anybody that has been an enemy to you, that has bullied you, or that has been harsh to you?

Imagine yourself, right now, being protected. That God has chosen you right now because you are reading this, and praying with this, and meditating on this. There is something special about you. God has chosen you for this.

You anoint my head with oil. Oil is a sign of protection and of being chosen. When you were baptized your head was anointed with oil.

If you have been confirmed, your head was anointed with oil and you were sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Meditate upon this reality. Imagine Jesus right now anointing your head with oil.

My cup overflows. When you look at everything you have in life and all that God provides for you, gratitude tends to be overwhelming. 

Indeed goodness and mercy will pursue me / all the days of my life. What does this mean for you, that all the days of your life, God is going to pursue you with goodness and mercy? Isn’t that a wonderful thing?

will dwell in the house of the LORD / for endless days. As you come to the end of this part of meditation, take a moment in silence to think about what that means to dwell in the house of the LORD / for endless days.

You never have to leave, you can always be here with Him in His house with this meal. The Good Shepherd protecting you. Lacking nothing.

Journal Your Thoughts: Psalm 23

Take some time now to journal. What was most vivid for you? What was most real for you? What was it like to experience and meditate upon the Good Shepherd in Psalm 23?

 

Step 3: Oratio

The third step of Lectio Divina is oratio or prayer.

Chances are that after meditating upon this passage there is something that stood out for you.

Maybe there is a question you want to ask of God or maybe there is something you feel He is saying to you.

In some way or another, allow yourself to pray with God. To talk this over with God. To speak to Him, to question Him, and to let Him respond to you.

Journal Your Thoughts

Take a moment of silence and journal when you are ready. Let whatever comes to mind flow through you and be written out on the page. Often times, without even realizing it, we will write the very thing that God is speaking to us. So spend some time in prayer and journal what God speaks.

 

Step 4: Contemplatio

The fourth step in Lectio Divina is contemplatio or contemplation.

This fourth step is very simple. Sometimes it is a difficult step for people because it involves silence. It is doing nothing. It is just resting.

Take a moment to savor it and take it all in. This is your opportunity to rest. You don’t have to say anything or do anything. Just be with God. It might help to look at the Scripture passage once more to contemplate a Word or phrase.

Or read through your journal and rest with whatever God is speaking to you.

Journal Your Thoughts

Take a moment now to rest with it, to enjoy this experience and spend some time in silence. When you are ready, journal your experience.

 

Conclusion

How Did It Go? What Did You Think?

Take a moment to reflect on your prayer experience today. How do you feel? Be sure to take note of anything going through your heart, mind or soul.  You may notice different feelings, emotions, or further questions. You may want to explore these further with God or your Spiritual Director. This prayer is meant to be an experience that brings you closer to God and allows you to focus on what he is speaking to you. 

By practicing this prayer more frequently, you will learn preparation and steps involved, as well as which Scripture passages you can follow, and finally, you'll know when it's best to have a moment of silence to journal.

Now you know the steps to pray Lectio Divina!  

Try it with your favorite scripture passage.  You can also use the daily mass readings every day!  

Did you find this prayer helpful? Do you have any insights or questions? Or do you want more Scripture references to follow? Let me know by commenting below. God Bless You! 

If you enjoyed this prayer and want to experience God like never before, sign up for our free Pray 40 Days Program.

 

Topics: How To Pray

Fr. Michael Denk

Written by Fr. Michael Denk

Fr. Michael was ordained into priesthood for the Diocese of Cleveland on May 12, 2007. He received a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts from St. Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications, with a specialization in video and audio production, from Cleveland State University in 2001. He is dedicated to helping others encounter Christ through the celebration of the Eucharist, preaching, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual direction, and prayer. Fr. Michael is dedicated to helping others encounter Christ through the celebration of the Eucharist, preaching, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual direction, and prayer. He is devoted to the poor, especially in Africa and El Salvador where he has led several mission trips. Through the Global Fellows program, he has visited Madagascar and Rwanda with Catholic Relief Services.

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