“Lectio” is the Latin word for reading. In Catholic language a lector is a reader and a lectionary is the book of scripture readings. So the Latin “Lectio Divina” translates into English as “Divine”, “holy” or “prayerful” reading.
To understand how this practice developed in the Church, it’s important to understand that the skill of reading is a relatively modern phenomenon. Books did not become easily available to people until the invention of the printing press in the 16th century. Until then, Bibles and other books of prayer were copied by hand. This became one of the tasks of a monastery, or community of monks. Monks learned the skills of copying the elegantly illuminated manuscripts which can be seen today in many museums. It took many years of work to complete a single Bible. Some monks devoted their entire lives to this work. Bibles were rare and therefore costly.
Monasteries were the place Bibles were copied, kept, and therefore read. Monks were persons of prayer and they were the only people who had access to Bibles for use in their prayer. Scripture was read not only at Mass but during monastic meals and other community prayers and exercises.
St. Benedict, who lived in the 6th century, is considered the founder of monastic life. He wrote a rule for his monks that is noted for its practicality. He suggested that members of his monastic communities spend two or three hours a day reading from the Scriptures. As time went on, other kinds of spiritual books were written. These included commentaries on the Bible,the writings of the 4th century Fathers of the Church, lives of the saints, and treatises on the moral life.
Part of the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council has been an interest among laypeople in practices of prayer and meditation. The popularity of the writings of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton have led to an interest in incorporating monastic spiritual traditions into the devotional life of the wider Church.
“Lectio Divina”, in the tradition of the Rule of St. Benedict, consists of four activities somewhat like the movements of a symphony. The first of these is “lectio.” This is not simply reading, but reading with a listening heart. It is reading the Scripture as though hearing the voice of God. The second movement is “meditatio” which involves spending time with the word, reflecting on it, chewing it over. If we walk from a dark room into a bright light, it takes a while for our eyes to become accostomed to the details of what is all around us. In the same time we need to spend time with the Scripture to allow its reality to come alive for us. This activity involves our imagination.
The third activity of Lectio Divina is what the monks called “oratio.” Another name for this is “prayer of the heart.” It’s an awareness of God’s presence that includes our feelings as well as our intellect. Finally, there is “contemplatio”, a state of letting go of thought, imagination, and feeling in order for God to enter every corner of our being.
This is Lectio Divina as St. Benedict and other saints describe it, not necessarily as most of us experience it, most of the time. For those beginning this practice, it may be simply a chance to listen to the Scripture readings in a fresh and challenging way. It’s best to enter a prayer like Lectio Divina without too many expectations, and simply let the experience work on us in whatever way it will.