Praying Outside the Box: 4 Variations of Lectio Divina That Will Enhance Your Prayer Life

I like to talk. My idea of a good night with friends is lounging in one of our living rooms with a glass of wine or a mug of tea and nothing to do but chat. My favorite lunch break activity is calling my mom to catch up on the latest family news, books we’ve read, and upcoming plans. My husband and I spend more or less every evening taking a long walk with our dog, and you guessed it, talking.

Now, when I say that I like talking, I actually mean that I like conversation. And the most satisfying conversations are ones in which talking and listening are balanced.

Given my love of conversation, you would think that prayer comes naturally to me. What is prayer, after all, but talking and listening to God?

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Prayer isn’t easy for me, though, and part of the reason why is that I find it difficult to achieve the balance of talking and listening. I journal frequently, but I often finish writing a page feeling as if I talked and talked and talked but didn’t listen. I like the idea of meditating, but I’m unable to sustain that level of intense listening for very long.

Because my primary challenge with prayer is finding the balance between talking and listening, my prayer life took a major turn when I began to think outside the box and explore non-conversational methods of prayer. Learning about and praying numerous variations of Lectio Divina during a two-week period that I spent at a Benedictine monastery opened this doorway for me.

Lectio Divina is a prayer method that typically immerses an individual in Scripture and helps them hear God’s voice through a particular passage and their reflection on it. Lectio treats Scripture as the living, breathing Word of God — not an old and dusty book to be studied — reminding us that God is active in the world and in our hearts today as much as He was when the stories of Scripture were written. Our job, as praying people, is to slow down enough that we can become aware of and attentive to that presence. Lectio can help us do just that as it prompts us to let the Word of God sink into us through repeated reading and contemplation of a passage.

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During my time at the Benedictine monastery, I was taught that I could use the method of Lectio — a slow, careful, listening for God’s voice — with items, objects, and experiences other than Scripture. In the words of St. Benedict, to pray Lectio is to “listen with the ear of the heart,” and the heart can listen to all aspects of life. The sisters at Mount Saint Benedict showed me how to pray Lectio with music, icons, poetry, and photography.

I was introduced to musical Lectio with Puccini’s “Humming Chorus,” a piece I’d highly recommend for anyone who would like to try praying with music (though any music will do!). The exquisitely beautiful melody and the movement of the chorus evoked simultaneous senses of peace and longing within me. Experiencing this emotional reaction in the context of prayer helped me to recognize the feelings of peace and longing as coming from God.

Praying Lectio with icons involved slowly contemplating painted images of the Holy Family, other biblical figures, and saints. As I stared at one depiction of Jesus, I felt as if we were really making eye contact and communicating, wordlessly, through our locked gaze. I teared up as I felt truly seen.

We used Dan Berrigan’s “Zen Poem (For Dorothy Day)” to experience Lectio with poetry and considered what appealed to us about the poem, how it made us feel, and if the poem reminded us of anything in our own lives. One particular line — “I know nothing of supernatural powers / I have yet to perfect my natural powers” — made me chuckle with understanding as I recognized the same feeling in myself. Relating to the poet gave me a sense of connection with humanity.

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Lectio with photography was my favorite. We spent 30 minutes outside on a sunny afternoon capturing images of God’s beauty revealed through nature. Focusing on one particular object or plant at a time called me to pay greater attention to the intricacies of light, shadow, shape, and color than I usually do. As I leaned in close to photograph the petals of a blooming flower, the fragrance exuding from it and the tickle of a gentle breeze on my skin delighted me. I felt God’s presence through my senses.

Praying different forms of Lectio Divina reminded me that God speaks in many languages, some without words. God speaks through emotions, tears, laughter, and sensations. And noticing and responding to God in each of these contexts is just a different kind of communication. Lectio helped me to stop thinking of prayer as talking and listening in their traditional forms and enabled me to connect with God much more comfortably and deeply.

Originally published March 18, 2019