By Bill Gaultiere © 2008, 2010, 2012
Lectio Divina is a tried and true approach to meditating on passages from the Bible. It’s a way to take the Word of God deep into our hearts and lives. It’s a special gift to share this way of listening to God through Scripture with others in a Bible study or spiritual formation group.
Lectio Divina Groups feature quiet meditation on a Bible passage and soul talk in order to facilitate Christ-centered community. There are a variety of ways to facilitate Lectio Divina Groups. I’d like to share with you the approach that we have found most helpful in our Soul Shepherding ministry to pastors and other leaders.
Jesus Meditated on Scripture
Jesus found his mission statement in the Bible (Luke 4:18-19). He lived in submission to it, saying, “This had to happen so that the Scripture would be fulfilled” (Luke 4:21; John 17:12 and 19:24, 28). Often he quoted Scripture and brought out deep and profound insights. How did Jesus do this? He didn’t come out of the womb reciting Psalms! One of the great mysteries of the incarnation of God in Christ is that he had to learn and grow spiritually (Luke 2:52, Hebrews 5:8).
Based on how Jesus embodied and taught from the Old Testament Scriptures, especially the Psalms, we know that he spent years meditating on them – probably in the spirit of what is now called “Lectio Divina.”
We have no doubt that Jesus not only studied the Scriptures, but that he also engaged personally and deeply with them. (Bible study and Bible meditation are complementary disciplines.) We know from the Gospels that Jesus memorized Scripture and this led him into meditation, prayer, and soul talk with others. And we can imagine him in his times of solitude or in conversation with his disciples reading the Scriptures in a quiet, contemplative, and personally reflective way.
Out of Jesus’ profound way of praying the Scriptures blossomed astounding wisdom, compassion, and power. And the writings of the Apostles in the New Testament demonstrate that they followed the Master’s example by studying and prayerfully absorbing the Old Testament Scriptures and the Gospels.
Learning to Meditate Deeply on God’s Word
Many Christ followers engage the Bible only with their minds, thinking about what they read and learning what they should believe. But what about the rest of our being? In addition to thoughts, the human person is made up of emotions, will, body, relationships, and soul (Mark 12:30-31, see Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard for a detailed discussion). The Word of God needs to work it’s way into all the parts of our personality so that we are formed more and more into the image of Christ.
This is why the Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). For Scripture to interact deeply with our whole self requires that we read it reflectively, prayerfully, and in conversation with others. One way to let God’s Word dwell deeply in us to use the ancient practice of “Lectio Divina,” which is Latin for “Divine Reading.”
Lectio Divina was developed as a formal discipline for Scripture meditation in ancient times by Benedict of Nursia (480 – 547). It has been expanded further over the centuries by monks who follow Saint Benedict’s “Rule,” but it isn’t just for monks! Or Catholics. Anyone can benefit from this disciplined and delightful way of praying a Bible passage.
In Lectio Divina we read and re-read a Scripture passage (a story from the Gospels or a Psalm work especially well) slowly and prayerfully as a means of furthering our intimacy with Jesus and submitting to his kingdom rule in our lives. We approach the living Word of God ready to hear the Lord speak to us, anticipating that the historical and inspired text will be freshly applied by the Holy Spirit to the personal text of our lives today.
The underlying process of Lectio Divina engages the whole person before Christ as it flows through four R’s as we slowly read, silently reflect, prayerfully respond, and simply rest in God’s presence.
Lectio (Listen / Read)
Benedict’s way of reading the Scripture emphasizes listening deeply, “with the ear of our hearts” (Benedict’s Rule, Prologue). There is no hurry in Lectio Divina. Nor is there any intellectual strain to figure out the Scripture’s meaning. We simply wait quietly on the Holy Spirit as we read, listening for the still, small voice of the Lord (1 Kings 19:12) to speak personally to us through his Word. (See below for discussion on the importance of silence in Lectio Divina.)
Meditatio (Meditate / Reflect)
As God speaks to us we reflect on his Word by “ruminating” on it in our minds. We may focus on one phrase or one word at a time. Like the virgin Mary who pondered in her heart the message of Christ’s incarnation (Luke 1:26-38) we gently and slowly repeat the Word to ourselves over and over so that it interacts with and informs our thoughts and feelings, our beliefs and desires. We’re renewing our minds to be transformed in God’s wonderful ways (Romans 12:2).
Oratio (Pray / Respond)
Because God has come to us we can go to him and so we respond to his Word by offering our hearts to him in conversation. We express to our Loving Lord whatever feelings or longings are stirred up in us by the Scripture. We confess to him a sin, struggle, or hurt.
As we let the Scripture open our heart to God in this way we find that his arms of grace are open wide to embrace us. In his care our deepest selves find the acceptance, comfort, and healing that we long for.
Contemplatio (Contemplate / Rest)
The Lectio Divina process ends with resting quietly in God’s arms. No words are necessary at this point. God’s Word has focused us on Christ’s indwelling presence. So we simply stay there with Christ in love, joy, and peace. We’re tasting the Lord’s goodness (Psalm 34:8).
Benedictine monks (followers of Benedict) and many other devout Christians have continued the rich spiritual practice of Lectio Divina over the centuries, often modifying the process of how the Word is listened to and responded to.
The Crucial Demeanor
One of the most dangerous things in the world is to study the Bible without submitting to God. Lectio Divina cultivates an attitude of humility and submission to God. You get out of the way and you open yourself to be spoken to and transformed by God. And you find that he brings his life to your life through the Scripture. The disciplined way of reading slowly and prayerfully helps you to listen to the Lord.
Practicing Lectio Divina over time trains us in this demeanor of submission before the Lord which is the key to every aspect of our spiritual life in Christ.
How I Learned to Meditate Deeply on Scripture
I learned to meditate deeply and pray quietly on Scripture from being in a discipleship group with Ray Ortlund. He didn’t call this “Lectio Divina” — he’d just say to all of us in group with him, “Let’s open up God’s Word together and listen to what he has to say to us.” Then we’d be quiet together in God’s presence.
When Ray opened his Bible he opened his heart. He’d read the passage deliberately and then he’d listen silently. Then we’d each talk about what we noticed and how the passage interacted with our lives. Then he’d ask me (or someone else when we were in his discipleship group) to read the passage again in a different translation and we’d listen and mediate and share some more.
Finally, we’d talk to God together about his Word and what he was speaking into our personal lives.
When my wife Kristi and I went through our two year certificate training program in spiritual formation and spiritual direction with The Leadership Institute we participated in Lectio Groups, which gave us additional training in opening our hearts deeply to God’s Word.
I have also spent time at the Prince of Peace Abbey with the Benedictine monks there and learned further insights on Lectio Divina from Father Basil and Brother Daniel.
Kristi and I have found it especially meaningful to share Lectio Divina with others in the spiritual formation groups we lead for pastors, pastors’ wives, and other ministry leaders and church groups. The way that we were mentored in Lectio Divina for groups comes out of the approach used at Saint Andrew’s Abbey.
Lectio Divina Groups can facilitate a very rich and deeply personal sharing of souls. It’s important for the leaders of Lectio Divina Groups Leaders to learn the process from a spiritual mentor and to use it personally in their own lives before leading other people. As you absorb the quiet spirit and gentle rhythm of Lectio then you can naturally share it with others. (In the spiritual life you can’t very well pass on what you haven’t personally experienced and integrated into your life with God!)
It takes time for new members in Lectio Divina Groups to participate effectively in the purpose and pacing of the Lectio process. The conversation in a Lectio Group is different than is typical in Christian small groups. Lectio is not a time to analyze the Bible passage or give opinions on what it means like we may do in Bible study. Nor is it appropriate for lengthy sharing of personal needs or giving advice like may be done in some support groups.
One way to do Lectio Divina Groups is for the community to read together through a particular Bible passage three times. Each reading is offered by a different member out loud (which is the way the Scriptures have been experienced by most people for most of our history) so that we can literally hear God’s Word ministered to us.
Each reading is guided by a focus question to help us engage deeply with God’s Word. The leader gives the focus question before each reading of the text.
Typical focus questions are:
1. 1st Reading: Listen to the Holy Spirit minister God’s Word to you. What one word or phrase especially touches your heart?
2. 2nd Reading: Enter the passage. What emotions do you have? What personal struggle or longing in your life today is God speaking into? (Be specific.)
3. 3rd Reading: Receive what Christ has for you today. What is your personal invitation from the Lord? What do you sense God might be saying to you?
After each of the three readings there is a period of silence of about three to twelve minutes for further meditation, prayer, and resting in God’s presence. (Kristi’s article, “Guiding the Lectio Divina Process” includes further explanations on using silence.) In the quiet we learn to hold our thoughts and feelings in the flow, images, and experience of the Bible passage. We’re following the advice of the ancient spiritual writers: “Let the Word of God descend from your mind down into your heart.” (Our heart is our will, not our feelings; it’s where we make our choices.)
As we quietly marinate in the juices of God’s Word we’re absorbing God’s grace and truth, training our will to attend to his presence, listening to him speak into our lives, and submitting ourselves to be formed in the image of Christ.
In Lectio Divina Groups the silence is an opportunity for group members to hold one another before Christ who is actually present in the person of the Holy Spirit. The group’s quiet concentration on Christ and prayerful attentiveness to what he’s saying through the Bible passage assists individuals in learning to “be still and know” that the Lord is God (Psalm 46:10).
Some group members will struggle with the silence at first. Many of us in our culture today fill our lives with noise and activity. Being quiet and still in a group our bodies may feel antsy and jittery. Our minds may wander. We may not feel connected to God. It takes mentoring from experienced group members and practice to learn how to use silent prayer to connect deeply with God, your own self, and the others in your group.
Participants may wish to journal their reflections during the silence. This helps with being still and attentive to God. And it provides a record of your meditation and conversation with God that you can refer back to.
In Lectio Divina Groups the verbal sharing is brief, personal, and prayerful.
- Brief. Members have three chances to share with their group. In the first round they limit their sharing to literally one word or phrase. In the second turn they may share an emotional struggle in about a sentence or paragraph. Then for the last sharing each member usually has a couple of minutes or more to share.
- Personal. Listen for the Holy Spirit apply a Scripture passage to your life today. Pay close attention to your experience with the text – how you feel, what personal struggles you become aware of, or what hopes or longings are stirred for you. Then when you are prompted by the leader you may share your experience with your group.
- Prayerful. All of the Lectio process is meant to be prayerful. The slow reading and re-reading of Scripture, focus questions, silence, brief sharing, and unhurried pacing are each aspects that are designed to help group members be conscious and appreciative of God’s presence.
It’s very special when people share openly with one another what God seems to be saying to them or how things are going in their relationship with Christ. As members listen to one another they can feed off of the fruit of others’ meditations. Soul talk like this promotes spiritual friendship as members draw closer, not only to one another, but also to Christ in one another!
Variations on Lectio Divina Groups
There are as many ways to lead Lectio Divina Groups as there are to do Lectio Divina! Kristi and I have found the approach above seems to work best for opening our hearts to the Word of God in a way that facilitates intimacy with Jesus for group members. Instead of three readings of the Bible passage you might do two or four. The focus questions can be changed up. You can make more explicit use of the imagination, as is done in Ignatian Meditation. Also, you can integrate Bible Study methods into the meditation.
Four Readings and Focus Questions
Occasionally in my personal devotions and Lectio Divina Groups I have used four readings and focus questions, one for each of the four ancient rhythms of Lectio Divina. (Keep in mind though that each of the four aspects of Lectio overlap and flow throughout the whole Lectio process).
- Lectio: Notice the theme of the Bible passage. What title would you give to this text?
- Meditatio: Listen to the Holy Spirit minister God’s Word to you. What is the one word or phrase that especially touches your heart?
- Oratio: Enter the passage and offer a prayer. What emotions, personal struggle, or longing in your life is stirred by the Scripture? What do you need share with God in prayer? (Be specific.)
- Contemplatio: Receive from the Lord. What personal invitation does Christ have for you to receive and rest in? What does God seem to be saying to you from the Bible passage?
Here’s a handout using these four questions: Advent: Luke 1:26-38 Lectio Divina.
Here are some inspiring and deep words on the four rhythms of Lectio Divina written by the monk Guigo centuries ago: Ancient Words on the Sweetness of Meditating on Scripture.
Different Focus Questions
Another variation for Lectio Divina Groups that I have used emphasizes what I consider the three-fold purpose of our lives as Christ followers (focusing on one for each reading): worship God, grow in Christlikeness, and serve others:
1. What do you appreciate and admire about God in this passage? (Worship)
2. How is God inviting you to grow spiritually? (Grow)
3. What is God calling you to do with him for others? (Serve / Mission)
Lectio Divina Guides with Bible Passages
People often ask us what Bible passages are best to use for Lectio Divina? Generally, a story from the Gospels or a Psalm work quite well. But all of the Bible is fruitful for meditation and prayer! The key is opening our hearts to Christ through the Word of God.
A great way to use Lectio Divina is to go through a book of the Bible one passage at a time. For instance Kristi has been leading a group of pastors’ wives and women in ministry through the Gospel of John. And recently I enjoyed reading through the Gospel of Mark in my personal devotions. I filled up a journal with my sense of how God was speaking into my life through the Scriptures. What a treasure it has been for me to refer back to this record of my journey with the Lord!
Our Soul Shepherding Lectio Divina Guides are one page handouts using key Bible passages. They’re free, easy to use, and great for Lectio Divina Groups.
How to Begin Lectio Divina is a basic guide with some sample prayers from Scripture for starting a Lectio Divina meditation experience. These brief prayers will help you begin your Bible meditation with your heart open to the Word of God.
“Soul Shepherding is for you and your ministry”
Bill & Kristi Gaultiere ~ Soul Shepherding ~ Irvine, CA