Lectio Divina: How to Read the Bible

The Bible is kind of intimidating. It’s long, and often it seems like an endless repetition of rules or the speaking of prophecies that are scary irrelevant to us now. But it shouldn’t be this way. The Bible is God’s word to us, and it’s worth listening to once you know how to listen.

Before I proceed with the instructions promised in the title, allow me to answer the question: why should we read the Bible in the first place, especially since it isn’t up for personal interpretation?

Here’s the thing. Nobody is going to make you read the Bible. You should be listening to bits and pieces every Sunday, but no one can force you to hear more than that. But it is the word of God, and it is the record of salvation history. It’s the record of the life of Christ, and it was put together by the Catholic Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for our benefit. If that’s not a good enough reason to crack it open, I don’t know what is.

As for the second part of the question, we may interpret Scripture within the bounds established by the Church. For example, if you’re reading the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, you can’t claim that Jesus was being symbolic, because your interpretation violates the Church teaching that the bread and wine truly does become the Body and Blood of Christ. But where the meaning isn’t as explicitly defined as it is for that particular passage, you are free to interpret as you will, as long as you don’t contradict Church teaching. It’s like the St. Augustine quote- “Love God, and do what you will.” Except you might say, “Follow the Church’s teachings, and interpret Scripture as you will within those bounds.”

The purpose of limiting personal interpretation so that it must be in agreement with Church teaching is not to restrict the meaning in Scripture. The purpose is so that we don’t find meaning that isn’t there- so that we don’t come up with an erroneous meaning. Since the writers of Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit, it makes sense that the institution that put the Bible together under the guidance of the same Holy Spirit (aka the Catholic Church) should be the one to guide our understanding, since if we were left to it on our own, we would easily go astray.

That aside, I will now provide basic instructions for reading the Bible and actually gaining something from it instead of wondering why it matters that Bob was the father of Joe who was 607 when he became the father of Smith. These instructions aren’t mine- they are, in fact, much older than I am. By a couple hundred years. The method is called Lectio Divina, which means “divine reading.” It consists of four main steps (plus an introductory and concluding step), which I will present in their simplest forms.

1) Prayer to the Holy Spirit

It was through the Holy Spirit that the Scriptures were written, and through the same Spirit that they were compiled and interpreted by the Church. It only makes sense, then, that we should pray to the Holy Spirit to guide our reading so that we can hear the voice of God in His own words. Any prayer to the Holy Spirit will suffice to begin Lectio Divina with, but I’ll show you my very favorite one, written by St. Augustine:

Breathe in me O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart O Holy Spirit, that I love only what is holy. Strengthen me O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.

2) Lectio

This is Latin for “reading.” Read the passage two or three times, and use your imagination. Place yourself in the passage you have chosen, either as a bystander or as someone who is actually in it. For example, if you are reading about the resurrection of Lazarus, you could imagine yourself as one of the friends at the tomb, or you could imagine yourself as Mary or Martha. Imagine how they would feel in that event- if Jesus addresses your chosen person, how would you feel? What would it be like to see Jesus cry? Or to see the dead man walk out?

3) Meditatio

This is the “meditation” portion. Now that you have read the passage over a few times and had a chance to really visualize it, think about what particularly stood out to you. Stop imagining, and stop thinking. Now is the time to listen (listen and silent are spelled with the same letters, btw). Maybe it was a word or phrase, or maybe it was an image or feeling that accompanied your imaginative reading. Maybe it’s a call to action, or maybe it’s a consolation. Whatever it is, write it down and remember it. Cherish it. It’s God speaking to you.

4) Oratio

Now, through prayer, you must respond to what you have heard, since that’s generally the way a conversation works. Respond with thanksgiving, or a petition, or a plea for forgiveness- whatever would be appropriate and sincere given what you have just been told. If you don’t know what to say, tell God that. He’ll know what’s in your heart.

5) Contemplatio

Contemplate what has just happened. You have spoken to God and He has spoken to you. This is a chance for rest, and a chance to process what you have heard. Maybe this is when you will form your resolution to respond to a call to action. Maybe you just want to sit and feel God’s love for you. Whatever it is, this a time of rest and conversion, so that when you finish up your prayer time, you can return to the world with new grace and new purpose.

6) Concluding Prayer

When you’re talking on the phone with someone, you don’t forget to hang up when the conversation is over because they’ll be awkwardly waiting for you and you’ve already moved on. Don’t forget to do the same when you’ve been talking to God. Finish up with a prayer such as an Our Father or Glory Be.

And that’s pretty much it. As you can see, this guided way of reading Scripture allows you to go in with a purpose instead of aimlessly reading genealogies that are boring extremely comprehensive. Try it out with your favorite Bible passage the first time, but don’t forget to branch out. A good habit would be to read the Sunday Gospel or readings ahead of time every week using Lectio Divina. That way you don’t just keep picking your favorite stories and hear what you want to hear.

Happy reading! 🙂

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