Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina

It is my practice to prepare for Advent by reading through the beginning of Luke, specifically everything leading up to and including the birth of Christ, before Advent actually begins. The kind of reading that I do is called Lectio Divina. I thought this might be the time and place to discuss it.

There are so many books written about this ancient practice. Theologians of many denominations and God-followers for well over 2,000 years have engaged in and attempted to teach lectio divina. I suspect that might be the problem. Lectio Divina is very simple but it is remarkably deep and I think that theologians with over 2,000 years on their hands have perhaps given the impression that this technique is either difficult or irrelevant. It is neither.

So here it is, all you need to know about lectio divina:

In order to successfully engage in lectio divina it is necessary to believe these things:

  1. The Word of God is alive.
  2. God has something to say to you.

And it is necessary to do these things:

  1. Read with alert attention.
  2. Listen for God's heart speaking to your heart through His Words.

This type of reading is different from studying in that the goal is not to pick apart the text, to analyze or explain it. The goal is to listen. When I start, I settle myself prayerfully. I let go of distractions so that I can listen with alert attention. I bow my heart and whisper, "Speak Lord, your servant is listening." Then I begin to read. I am reading with alert attention, looking for something that jumps out at me. Christine Valters Paintner says, "listen for a word or phrase that beckons you, addresses you, unnerves you, disturbs you, stirs you or seems especially ripe with meaning--what I describe as a word or phrase that 'shimmers.'"  I am asking the Lord to teach me this Advent by giving me some aspect of the season on which to focus, meditate and grow.

When I am finished reading, I usually sit silently before the Lord waiting for Him to make connections for me. Then I read the text a second time and tuck the stirrings into my heart to ponder throughout the season. Henri Nouwen says, "A listening heart therefore means a heart in which we stand open to God with all we are and have." This is how I want to spend my Advent, standing open to God with all I am and have so that on Christmas Day my heart will be a manger-throne.

At this point, I commit myself to learning the lesson I am asking the Lord to teach. Throughout the season I will go back often to that part of the story that called to me to see if I notice anything new. I will live alert to any lessons He might have for me. I will also consider ways to incorporate what God is teaching me into Christmas this year (as decor? family devotions? gift­ giving? in interactions with family?).

Everything else written about lectio divina is extra stuff meant to help define the experience, or help you to enter in and process the experience more fully. It's all good stuff. St. Benedict organized the practice into 4 steps that basically emphasize the give and take of divine conversation. He (and many theologians after him) recommend reading the text 4 times and listening in a different way each time. Perhaps we will look at those in the future.

For now, the bottom line is that:

  1. Lectio divina=reading with a listening heart.
  2. Advent=readying my heart to receive God-With-Us.

The Word Speaks in Pictures

I was in distress. For almost two years I struggled with a pervasive, all-consuming fear. It kept me from approaching God. I still attended church, continued to go through the motions, but I couldn't talk to God. I couldn't find relief from the weight of my fear. But then...

During church one Sunday, our pastor led us in a lectio divina. Lectio Divina is a reverent reading of God's Word. It is about listening to the Living Word speak. My strongest experiences with lectio divina tend to be when someone else leads it. I find I am often distracted if I have to lead myself into this experience. I know it can be done and I have had good experiences with it, but by far my strongest interactions with imagination and God's Word happen when I can be completely available to the Holy Spirit without thinking at all of the "next thing." On this occasion I remember the moment, but not the text. I remember that I was sitting in fear-induced darkness and that God's Word exploded in me. The pastor's voice began to read and a picture formed in my imagination. I saw God as a Father, arms outstretched, welcoming me home. I saw myself run to Him and I felt His delight at my coming. I felt safe. I felt Home.

But in the silence after the first reading, the fear in me rose up again and I questioned this picture. "How can I come home, Father? There is so much between us and I am scared." The pastor's voice took up the reading again. Another picture formed in my imagination. I saw a little boy standing at the edge of a pool, aching with anticipation. He was so excited he couldn't stand still, yet so fearful he couldn't jump. His father, in the pool, stood with arms ready to catch his son. The little boy kept reminding his father, "Don't let go, Daddy." But it was clear from the smile on the Father's face, and I knew in my own mother-heart, that the child was truly in no mortal danger. The parent didn't need to be reminded. There was absolutely no possibility of real harm coming to that child.

Those mental pictures helped in the days ahead as I continued to struggle with fear. When I was able to pause and hold those pictures in my head as wordless prayer, the grip of fear loosened. The problem I had was that those pictures were fleeting and my fear was persistent. I needed some way to process the images God had given me. I needed to digest the truths, to take them into my bones.

My need to understand grew bigger than my pride. I asked my family to pose as figures in my mental pictures. I took photographs from every angle. We had no pool, but I had my nephew and husband pose on the back porch as if they were near a pool. Then, I asked my nephew to run over and over again in my husband's arms. They had lots of fun with this and the delight that everyone felt in this exercise was affirming to me. These mental images expressed a Truth.

See what I mean about delight? Those guys loved the running, love-crashing, nose smashing, bone crushing, hug marathon. (copyright 2014 Michelle Winter)

See what I mean about delight? Those guys loved the running, love-crashing, nose smashing, bone crushing, hug marathon. (copyright 2014 Michelle Winter)

I began to use my sleepless nights to prayerfully pour over the photographs. One particularly anxious night, I sat in the dining room whispering, "Where is the story here?" Suddenly, I saw it. In one photograph early in the photo session, my nephew was feeling nervous. He gripped my husband's thumbs tightly, a silent "Don't let go." 

Nervous thumb-gripping and tentative little smile. I can relate! (copyright 2014 Michelle Winter)

Nervous thumb-gripping and tentative little smile. I can relate! (copyright 2014 Michelle Winter)

I made a pattern from the photo, gathered fabrics and thread and began to quilt. My studio became a sacred space, a place for me to sit with the questions. The cutting was meditative, and God met me there. The piecing was an opportunity for solitude and partnership with the Holy Spirit. Each breakthrough became a celebration of co-creators. By the time the piece was stitched, embroidered and bound, I knew. I knew that God was holding me and that we could face the fear together. I was even beginning to believe we could conquer it together.

And there was something else. Something I knew in my bones. God was waiting for me in the solitude, and meeting Him there was the only necessary thing.


If you are interested in exploring lectio divina, Christine Valters Paintner has written an interesting book on the topic. I own it and revisit it often:

The Lectio Divina - The Sacred Art: Transforming Words & Images into Heart-Centered Prayer (The Art of Spiritual Living)