The heart of lectio divina

The following is an experiment growing out of my post about 8 ways to get invited back. I talked about 8 different things to give away that may, because they are helpful, get people to invite you back.

I wrote the following while on a retreat a few weeks ago as part of a lengthy review of a book. The review hasn’t been published or even finished. As I was teaching from it this weekend, however, I realized that this is a sample of #4 on my list, giving away maps.

This lengthy essay is a map of spiritual reading, inthe context of Christian spirituality. Follow it and it takes you to places I can’t imagine, and neither can you.


I’ve been hearing about lectio divina, spiritual reading, since I first read The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris more than a decade ago. I’ve had the sense that I knew what it is. After this week of reading, I have a much better sense. And I know that it is a different kind of reading than I do, than most people do.

And I know a lot about reading.

When I was a child, we lived in a house with a hedge, a low growth of bushes along the edges of our suburban lot. Occasionally I was sent to pick the wind-placed scraps of paper and plastic from the hedge. On at least one occasion, my parents had to remind me to get back to work as I sat on the ground, reading the scraps of paper from the hedge.

I read cereal boxes. I read signs. I read instructions. And now I read hundreds of websites a week. But much of my reading is, I confess, skimming. I am looking for information rather than formation.

So what would a different kind of reading look like?

According to Eugene Peterson in  Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (and many others), there are four parts, four steps, to spiritual reading.

  1. Reading
  2. Meditating
  3. Praying
  4. Contemplating

Reading is, well, reading. It is literally reading through a passage of scripture. Maybe it’s a big chunk, maybe it’s a little chunk. For Peterson, reading is not about how much territory you cover but how attentive you are while you read.

It’s the opposite kind of reading you do for the test on Tuesday when it’s Monday morning.

Peterson differentiates between reading to form and reading to inform. He quotes C.S. Lewis who talks about receiving words and using words. The latter (informing/using) is skimming through scads of words to grab the information you need for the project at hand. It is looking for data to support what you are working on. It is plowing through a feedreader every morning, trying to move from 1000 unread posts to one. It is picking up Huckleberry Finn on Sunday afternoon with the study questions for an exam on Monday morning.

In contrast, forming/receiving is moving at a pace that allows the words to change you. You read through a familiar story and say, “Wait a minute. When did that sentence get put in there?” You read though the poems in the book of Psalms and say, “whoa, he sounds pretty bitter. I didn’t realize you could say that to God and not get hit by lightening.”

Peterson (and writers for the past thousand years), invite us to read slowly, reflectively, as if we were listening to someone talking.


There are lots of ways to meditate. As part of lectio, Peterson says “meditation is the aspect of spiritual reading that trains us to read Scripture as a coherent connected whole, not a collection of inspired bits and pieces.” (100). Rather than taking a phrase repeating it to allow us to empty ourselves of everything, this is taking a phrase or a story and moving into it.

I do this with some frequency when I write As I look at a couple of paragraphs telling a story about Jesus talking to his followers or to a paraplegic or the professional clergy, I try to see what is happening. I take what I know about the customs of the time. I take what I know about human nature. I take what I know about how people react when they are thinking and talking about difficult subjects. And I sit in the middle of the story.

It is meditation, this living inside the story. I am empty of me, perhaps, but I am full of the text, of the words.


A good friend co-wrote a book recently. When he was starting, we talked about the title. As he was moving through it, we talked from time to time about the ideas and about life. When I read the book, I hear his voice. And I still ask him questions about the book, about the ideas, about the meaning.

The book reveals Chris, but it also invites conversation with him as I try to understand what he means.

When we are looking at the Biblical text and trying to understand it, God invites us to ask questions about what it means. God give us suggestions (and commands) about how to talk with him and to him and about him. What prayer means in the context of spiritual reading is that kind of interaction with the author.

Peterson writes:

“God’s word is personal address, inviting, commanding, challenging, rebuking, judging, comforting, directing. But not forcing. Not coercing. We are given space and freedom to answer, to enter into the conversation. From beginning to end, the word of God is a dialogical word, a word that invites participation. Prayer is our participation in the creation, salvation, and community that God reveals to us in Holy Scripture. (109)


According to Peterson, this is the most misunderstood of the four. Contemplation sounds like leaving the world, joining a monastery. But it is more finding out whether the words that we read and meditated on and prayed about actually work, whether they are livable.

It is, I think, like deciding to buy a particular kind of car. You research it, you shop around, you decide that you are interested. But you have to wait a bit.

While you are waiting, you see that car everywhere. Every parking lot is full of them. Every street has 50 cars of that color. You are aware of the car in a way that makes you wonder how you ever missed it.

Or contemplation is reading a chapter of a novel by a favorite author before you head to work in the morning and spending the day wondering how the pieces will fit together based on what you know of the character who was standing at the edge of a cliff when you had to fold the corner of the page and head to work. You think of how it would feel, wondering how it will turn out.

Or contemplation is climbing the scale and realizing that you finally have to do something. And you walk through your day answering the question you always do, but also thinking that you could park farther from the door and walk up the stairs and not eat the donut. You are taking the truth of needing to change something and considering all day how that applies to your particular life.

Or contemplation is reading that you are supposed to love your enemies and weighing those words as irate customers holler at you.

What would this look like?

I read Matthew 20. It is a simple story about Jesus, the disciples, two men, and a crowd. I hear two men saying “Jesus, have mercy on us.” The crowd tells them to be quiet. The men shout louder. Jesus has compassion on them. He asks them what they want. They want to see. He heals them.

I meditate on the story.

What was it like to be blind in that culture? Was sickness viewed as punishment from God? If someone is asking for mercy, they are asking for relief from what they deserve (as opposed to grace which is receiving what you don’t deserve.) So how did these men view themselves?

Why did the crowd stop them? Was it related to how the men were viewed? Did the crowd worry about the reputation of the city?

Why did Jesus make them say what they wanted? I mean, he knew, right? What would be the value of making them speak?

I pray about the story

Jesus, what were you seeing when you looked at those men? Why did you make them speak? Is there some healing that you are willing to do that you are waiting for me to name? What is it?

I contemplate the story

Where am I driving past people on my way to work–at a church–who are asking for help, who want to be healed? In my twitter stream are there any hints of struggle that I am completely ignoring, that I am trying to silence by filling my tweet stream with my own comments.

Spiritual reading takes time, yes, but more than that it takes space. It means carving room for conversation and reflection out of our lifestream. Or, perhaps, adding that space into our lifestream. Start anywhere in the Bible (except maybe with Leviticus). If you want some help, start reading I’m learning to practice lectio divina, spiritual reading there every weekday.


6 responses to “The heart of lectio divina

  1. Started reading the book you sent on Friday afternoon and even though I had a million things to do (in laws were coming for the weekend for a visit) I couldn’t put it down…not because it was a great literary piece…I’m not sure why, actually…perhaps becaue he writes like I think…and I sat there thinking…why can’t I write like this.

    Similarly…why can’t I draw what I picture in my head? Why can’t I translate what is in my head…and my heart to a place where it matters? Or maybe where all that stuff sits is where it matters and what needs to come out actually does come out.

    That is cyclical thinking…I know, and it doesn’t seem beneficial to me right now, but perhaps it is, more than I know.

    Maybe I have more to learn from my process than from reaching a conclusion. Hmmm…sounds like the $125/hour therapy I used to pay for.

  2. You should also check out the Message Remix Solo.
    It is an excercise in Lectio Devina written by Eugene Peterson. really good stuff, i am about ready to finish reading through the bible in a year through lectio devina. Check it out.

  3. the problem, perhaps, is that he writes like i think, too.

    You can write like this, I happen to know. The challenge, if writing is what you wnat to do, is to write. Plain and simple.

    And, by the way, conclusions are overrated.

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