I have just come back to my room from a church service. It is 4:00 am. The black of the night sky is interrupted only by a narrow slice of a new moon, the panoply of stars, and the first hints of dawn’s light beginning to seep into the eastern horizon. I am a guest at a Cistercian monastery, here for a retreat.
Vigils begin at 3:30 each morning. We enter the church in darkness softened only by the light of a single candle on the altar. I stand with the monks in expectancy. Together we wait for the readings from God’s Word—for the first feeding of our daily bread. It comes in the form of an ancient way of engaging with Scripture known as lectio divina.
Lectio divina treats Scripture not as a text to be studied or a set of truths to be grasped, but as the living Word—always alive and active, always fresh and new. Literally meaning “divine reading,” lectio divina is designed to allow the Word of God to penetrate our hearts and lead us into an intimate relationship with the Lord. It does so as we hear (or read) a short passage, expectantly anticipating the word or phrase that is God’s personal word for us at this moment.
We all know the theory about the Bible. The Word of God is supposed to be a living thing (Hebrews 4:12), the breath of the living God. It is supposed to bring us into divine presence and relationship. It is supposed to be a happening that creates faith and sets people free for hope and abundant life.
But how easily we miss this reality! Too often we treat the Bible merely as a rulebook for settling arguments or a compilation of dogmas to be believed and defended. We revere it as a depository of revelation to be guarded, rather than engage with it as a catalyst for the living presence of God. We read it to confirm what we already know and believe, to enhance certainty and reduce the anxiety that is an inevitable companion of authentic life and faith. In short, we take the life out of the Word to keep it tame and ourselves safe. Allowing the wind of the Spirit to bring God’s living Presence into our tents can be extremely disruptive when we have gone to great trouble to get our religious lives and thoughts in order.
Properly received, the Word of God should be much more than a comforting religious teddy bear. It should be seriously destabilizing. When received in faith and with openness to the Spirit of God, it offers the possibility of precipitating change, of blasting through our habitual interpretive strategies and speaking to us in an independent voice of the living God that is clearly different from our own. It offers us the possibility of truly encountering the presence of this living God, not merely our own soothing thoughts and ideas. Anything less than this is idolatrous.
Lectio divina is not the only legitimate way to read or listen to Scriptures, nor is it a magical technique for encountering God. Any god that can be automatically and mechanically conjured up by technique—even Bible reading—is not the Christian God.
But the discovery of this ancient Christian practice has, for many of us modern Christians, revitalized our engagement with Scripture. It has helped us to take seriously the truth that the Word of God is always alive and active, always fresh and new. It encourages us to come to Scripture anticipating a divine encounter and God’s gift for us for today. The Lord who promises that if we seek, we will find is the Lord who waits for us within the Word. Learning to expect Scripture to nourish our souls and meet our present spiritual needs brings us back into contact with the Word behind the words.
Lectio divina is the prayer of listening, watching, waiting, and seeking the presence of God, who is closer than our next breath. It is the prayer of expectancy that the God who is present (“I will never leave you nor forsake you; I will be with you always”) is the God who is revelation. This is the God who awaits us in the living Word.