Lectio divina
Barbara Melosh
 
 


A
fter an absence of some twenty years, I found my way back to formal religious observance. I began attending church and eventually made it official, joining that faith community as a member. In Sunday worship, I found challenge, solace, provocation, and bread for the journey. Gradually, though, it occurred to me that I was supposed to be doing something during the week.

Praying? I squirmed at the thought. The whole notion was vaguely embarrassing. How did you do it? Should you talk out loud, or say words to yourself? What was the format? Was it like a letter, with salutation and closing? A phone conversation, with no call waiting? What about the diction? Colloquial language felt irreverent, but the formal cadences of public prayer seemed fake. Any way I tried, it felt totally unnatural. After several weeks of this, I arrived at just one absolutely clear insight. Prayer was like sex: worrying about "doing it right" was the fast track to disappointment.

And then, I heard about lectio divina: holy reading, or devotional reading, a form of prayer used in monasteries since medieval times. Reading! I could do that.

But this was a strange new kind of reading, one that challenged and changed my usual reading habits. I'm an enthusiastic and eclectic reader (okay, I have no standards). A voracious consumer of print, I rely on an elaborate set of routines to maintain my supply. I trade paperbacks with other readers and regularly frequent a couple of neighborhood bookstores. A cards-carrying reader, I am an active borrower in seven library systems, including the modest one-room library at my church, the county and city public libraries, the specialized libraries of a local museum and a Philadelphia seminary, the Washington consortium with its pooled riches, and the library at the University of Delaware, among the top 100 university libraries. As I make the rounds to find new books and return ones I've finished, I often feel uneasy about the time I spend maintaining my habit. But in the end I'm remorseless, my qualms quickly forgotten as I anticipate the pleasures of a new stack of books. I read constantly and quickly. Eager to get on to the endless riches ahead, I almost never re-read.

Lectio divina, though, calls for a deliberately slow pace, a meditative reading. It involves pensive reading of very short biblical passages, a reading that gives weight to each word, so that the words might lead you into a deepening reflection. Lectio divina invites imaginative participation, opening a space for ancient words to speak over the centuries. In lectio divina, less is more. Virtuoso practitioners take it down to one word at a time, and spend years on a single sentence. By comparison, the medieval saint who devoted her whole life to reading the Lord's prayer was a short hitter.

Slowing down was hard work. It felt like dawdling or wasting time; restraining myself from plunging ahead made me impatient and anxious. But why? What was my hurry? Thinking about these questions led me to re-evaluate the restless energy that drives my usual reading. As I worked on slowing down with scripture, I found myself more open to the poetry of psalms, the strange power of Hebrew prophets, the compelling mystery of the gospels. Lectio divina also brought new appreciation of its secular counterpart, close reading. As an English professor, I've been doing this myself and teaching it for years, but I have to admit it always felt like work-- dutiful plodding, far less appealing than the freedom of flying through books. Now, I've found new pleasures in reading slowly, in savoring the words and stopping to reflect. More often, I read poetry for fun. Sometimes, I re-read a book I loved years ago, and often discover a whole new book in the return.

And in lectio divina, I'm reading for new purposes. For years, and still today, I read for delight, respite, encouragement, instruction, solace, catharsis. Now I also read as part of a spiritual journey. In lectio divina, reading is listening-a practice that draws me into the silence where God might speak.