Friday, 26 November 2010

Pope Benedict XVI's Guide to REAL lectio divina: absorbing Verbum Domini II

Advent is almost upon us, and in that context many dioceses are encouraging Catholics to do some lectio divina.  So it seems timely to continue my series on the Pope's teaching in the recent Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Scripture, Verbum Domini, focusing on his 'how to' guide contained in the document.

Lectio divina needs to be grounded in the intellect, not just the emotions

I said in the last part of this series that one of the Pope's major concerns was the 'sterile chasm' between exegesis and theology, and the resulting spiritual dangers to the faith.

A classic example of this is the kind of instructions one typically sees on how to do lectio divina, which basically amount to nothing much more than, read the text aloud a few times, seize on whatever part of it gives you a good vibe, and tell everyone about your emotional response to it.

It's the kind of approach that might work well if you are a trained theologian with a good knowledge of the whole of Scripture.  But which is extremely dangerous for the typical under-catechized cafeteria Catholic whose acquaintance with Scripture is at best superficial.

Contrast that with the Pope's instructions on how to do real lectio divina, which reflect the real monastic tradition, not the pop version often propagated today under its name.

The stages of lectio divina

Pope Benedict suggests that there are five stages to the process:

1. Lectio (a terms that literally means reading, but in late antiquity and medieval usage also encompassed translating, thinking about studying the text): The Pope suggests that the fundamental question to be answered at this stage is, 'what does the text mean'?

2. Meditatio (meditation): 'what does the biblical text say to us'?

3. Oratio (prayer): 'what do we say to the Lord in response to his word'?

4. Contemplatio (contemplation): 'what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us'?

5. Actio (action; sometimes the term 'work' is used for this stage in medieval schemas for lectio): Putting it into practice.

Using all  of the tools at our disposal to get at meaning
It is at the 'lectio' stage that the Pope first proposes the integration of the tools offered by exegesis and theology into the process. 
He makes the point that Scriptural interpretation is not just a purely individual matter: we must read it in the light of the faith, and in accordance with the principles the Church as set out.
In particular he points to the importance of:
  • the way the New Testament definitively interprets the Old;
  • the witness of tradition:  we must read "in communion with the Church, that is, with all the great witnesses to this word, beginning with the earliest Fathers up to the saints of our own day, up to the present-day magisterium";
  • drawing on the tools of exegesis;
  • with attention to both the literal and spiritual senses of the text (noting that the spiritual is subdivided into three senses which deal with the contents of the faith, with the moral life and with our eschatological aspirations).
The lectio stage, in other words, is not just a matter of reading the text through a few times, but requires serious study.

Meditation through to action

And this intellectual orientation carries through into the other stages of the process.   At the meditation stage, for example, he suggests that "we must open ourselves to what God wants to say to us, ‘overcoming our  deafness to those words that do not fit our own opinions or prejudices’.  The theological implications of the text, in other words, should inform and be the subject of our meditations, prayers and consideration for action. 

It is not, of course, all a matter of intellect.  The Pope stresses that lectio divina must be a dialogue with God, involving prayer, as petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise, so that "the word transforms us".

Dialogue though, involves listening, and listening not just to what we feel personally here and now, but also to what God has said to us through his Church down the ages.  Sound advice indeed.


peter said...

hi, kate.....
my question is this?

according to fr. thomas keating, a cistersian monk, modern mind has a particular problem with discursive meditation, due to the in-grained inclination to analyse everything into detail, which is due to the world view depicted by dualistic Cartesian philosophy and Newtonian physics...

kindly advise how to overcome that difficulty.


peter said...



kindly comment on the following....

according to Fr. Thomas Keating a cistersian Monk, the contemporary mindset has a particular problem with discursive meditation, which could be the meditatio part of the lectio divina....
this is so due to the ingrained inclination to analyze everthing to the detail, a tendency influenced by dualistic world view pictured by Cartesian phyilosophy and Newtonian Physics,.......

my question is how to overcome such difficulty...

peter zhang-Philippines

Kate said...

Thanks for the question Peter.

With all due respect to Fr Keating, I don't agree with him.

Fr Keating is an advocate of centering prayer which has a number of problematic features to it, the dangers of which are set out in the Vatican document, Some Aspects of Christian Meditation:

In my view it is best avoided.

Instead take the Holy Father's advice, and look at how lectio divina has actually been done for most of the Church's history!

In fact,if you look at how monks and others have traditionally approached Scripture and lectio divina, it has always been deeply embedded in quite detailed analysis of the text. Have a read, for example, of St Augustine's commentaries on the psalms, or St Bede's commentaries on the Gospel.

In my view, it is actually vital to dig quite deeply into the words and context of the text first, read some of the patristic and other traditional commentaries on it. If you do that, in my experience, discursive meditation will flow quite naturally from it.

God gave us intellects and expects us to use them, aided by grace!

peter said...

hi, kate....
thank you for your comment.i highly appreciate it....

kindly check this out for further comments.

peter zhang

Kate said...

Individual bishops can of course give guidance on these matters within thier dioceses, but I would certainly take the warnings included very seriously indeed.

You can find more on my own views on this subject here: