A lot of lectio guides suggest you should read a text over until something leaps out at you, or the voice of inspiration strikes. Sometimes that does happen.
But as Mother Cecile Bruyere, first Abbess of Solesmes said:
“It is absolute presumption to expect to obtain, by immediate light from God, that knowledge which we can and ought to acquire for ourselves as part of our work in this world. We must not voluntarily rest satisfied with vague notions about the truths….”
I see the contemporary emphasis on direct inspiration as part of the general dumbing down of our faith.
Approaches to thinking about the text
When you are doing lectio, you are really looking for what God is trying to say to you personally – what you need to think about, change about yourself, or understand. It is also a jumping off point for meditation and contemplation. So as you go through the lectio process, my suggestion is to jot down a few notes as you go to help structure your thinking.
I like to think of the ‘cogitatio’ stage of approaching the text as in large part working out what I need to fill in by way of study (the next stage), and what I’m going to focus on in meditating on the text.
Do remember though that the point of lectio isn’t to produce an academic understanding of a text (well, OK, it can be, but that won’t be the objective for most of us!). So make sure that the bulk of the time you have set aside for your lectio each day doesn’t get sucked up with purely intellectual approaches to the text – at least half your time should be spent on meditating, praying and contemplation!
So in thinking about it, the aim is in part to work out where to focus. There are really three key strands you can look at:
§ Understanding the context of the verses under consideration;
§ Understanding the meaning – literal and spiritual – of the text; and
§ Identifying themes or ideas that are important for you personally.
In terms of context, I’m talking about both things about the text itself (like the genre, the human author, time it was written) and the context of the events being described (for the Gospel, what part of Jesus’ life, is it a parable, a discourse or description of events, etc). If you aren’t familiar with this, you might need to take a quick look at a commentary (such as the Navarre), or an ‘Introduction to the Bible’ book (there are several around – the ‘Inside the Bible’ by Fr Kenneth Baker is one of my favourites, and he covers much the same ground in an EWTN TV series which you can download for free if you prefer!).
Literal and spiritual meaning
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes a nice medieval couplet that summarizes the four senses of Scripture: The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”
Throughout history there has been something of a tug of war between those who focus primarily on the literal sense of Scripture, and those who focus primarily on the spiritual. At the moment the literal is winning. It does need to be in there, being the foundation for all the other senses of Scripture. But I won’t spend much time on it. I’ll just note that the Ignatius Study Guides (and there are other similar resources around) provide useful notes on people and technical terms, as well as maps (as recommended by commenter Felix yesterday), and these are tools designed to be used for lectio!
Felix also suggested using a Child’s Bible if necessary, just to get the storyline. One book I quite like (but I know Felix may not), is Krecht’s Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture (reprinted by Tan Books). It is a bit out of date now in places (having been written in the 1890s), but provides a reasonably straightforward summaries of key parts of the Bible (and for the Gospels, gives one amalgamated version of each key event, parable, etc), and in each section gives a very helpful summary of the doctrinal points it illustrates (with a nice cross reference to catechism). It is also very good on the spiritual meanings, particularly typology.
So in summary….
The cogitatio stage is about working out how to tackle the text, which gaps in your knowledge need to be plugged the most! And above all, on starting to pick out the things that you might meditate or pray on.
For the next stage of the process, study, go here.