Praying with the Bible

Editorial, July 2009

At the Roman Synod on the Bible in October 2008, which I covered for HPR, the most common topic mentioned was the need to recommend “Lectio Divina” as a pious practice among the faithful. You have probably seen the phrase mentioned in recent articles about the synod.

“Lectio Divina” (LD) literally translated means “divine reading.” What it really means is praying with the Bible by selecting a passage and meditating on it. It can be done alone by an individual and it can also be done in a small prayer group. LD has a long history of being practiced in monasteries by monks, especially the Benedictines. The bishops of the world, represented by those in Rome, are now recommending this practice to the faithful.

One problem with this is that many Catholics do not have a Bible. One of the proposals at the synod was that bishops should try to get a Bible into the hands of every Catholic. Almost everyone has a rosary—why not also a Bible, which contains the Word of God which is a love letter addressed to each one?

The practice of “Lectio Divina” is not complicated. In its most simple form it involves four steps. The first step is to select a short passage from the Bible as the basis of the time of prayer. As an example, let us take the beautiful account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35. At the synod this text was quoted more often than any other. The two disciples are downcast because of the death of Jesus and are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about seven miles away. Jesus joins them on the road and asks them what they are talking about. They tell him about the death of Jesus and the claim of some women that he is now alive. St. Luke says that Jesus then explains to them how the Scriptures of the Old Testament predicted that that would happen. When they reach Emmaus he joins them for a meal and they recognize him in “the breaking of the bread.” Then he disappears from their sight. This is a wonderful account of reflecting on the Bible. I have often wished that the disciples had a modern recorder to capture for us Jesus’ own explanation of the Bible since, as the infinite Word of God, he is the author.

The chosen text should be read slowly twice. The next step is to meditate on the passage by examining each phrase and sentence in order to clarify the meaning of each word. Here also one can apply the passage to oneself and consider if one’s own life is in conformity with the truth expressed. The third step is to pray in one’s own words and respond to what God is saying to me in this part of the Bible.

The fourth step is to contemplate the mystery being considered. Here it helps to try to visualize the word or event contained in the Bible and to wonder at the beauty and truth and love of God contained it. Because St. Luke gives us so many details in the Emmaus event, it is easy to do it in this particular case because it is so concrete. The “Lectio Divina” concludes by praying the “Our Father” slowly and with attention to the meaning of the words.

St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, added a few points to the LD in his famous book of “Spiritual Exercises,” which was composed in the first half of the sixteenth century. The saint recommends making an act of the presence of God before selecting a passage to pray with. He also suggests visualizing the scene, for example in this case, the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, the two disciples, the time of day, and so forth. In order to get some practical result from the prayer, St. Ignatius recommends asking for some favor as the result of the prayer, for example, an increase of faith or hope or love or any other virtue that will bring a person closer to God.

The Carmelite spirituality promoted by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila is very similar to what is said above.

It would be a great plus for the Church if many Catholics would heed the call of the Pope and the bishops to seek closer union with the Word of God in the words of the Bible by taking up the religious practice of “Lectio Divina.” This must always be done, however, under the guidance of the Magisterium of the Church. After all, the Church came first and it is the Church that produced the New Testament and recognized the Old Testament as inspired. It is her book and she is the only authentic interpreter.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.