Lectio Divina: Sacred Reading as a Path to Contemplation

Lectio Divina is the monastic practice of sacred reading. It is a prayer method which uses specific steps to allow us to penetrate more deeply into the spiritual meanings of scriptures and be transformed by them. Undoubtedly, the master of lectio divina, who first codified it and created the four stages we are familiar with today, is Guigo II. Guigo was a French monk in the twelfth century. He wrote a book called The Ladder of the Monks which was widely read and is perhaps the first example of methodical prayer in the West.

In this book he describes the spiritual work of a monk as a ladder with four rungs which has its foundation on the earth and its summit in Heaven. The imagery comes from the scene in Genesis where Jacob had a vision of a ladder stretching from Earth to Heaven. Angels were ascending and descending going about their angelic business. This ladder, for Guigo, was a symbol of the path of prayer by which we may join the angels and climb up towards heaven. It is from this book that the four stages of lectio divina which are commonly used today come. Those stages are: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Guigo described them like this, “Reading seeks for the sweetness of a blessed life, meditation perceives it, prayer asks for it, and contemplation tastes it.” 

The process usually begins by reading the text slowly and several times through. You want to be sure that you really understand what it says and that it is imprinted fully on your heart before continuing. Guigo uses the passage from the sermon on the mount which says, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” as an example text and then describes how to understand it from each rung of the ladder. In the simple act of reading the text we learn that there is such a thing as purity of heart and that those who obtain it are permitted the beautiful and unsurpassed grace of seeing God. This realisation is incredibly important because without it we will not know that we should strive towards this goal. However, the knowledge of this goal is not sufficient in itself, and so we must climb from there to the next rung of the ladder.

By meditating on this verse we are able to discern many things. For instance, it does not say blessed are the pure in body. From this we can deduce that it is not enough to live a life free from outward violence and corruption but that we must also be free from violent and corrupt thoughts if we wish to see God. We can also see that this short phrase gives us what Abba Isaac referred to as a goal and an end (read more about that here). Our goal is purity of heart but the end for which this prepares us is a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven and of God. Now this little spark has kindled a much greater flame within us. What was at first only a potential and an invitation has become something so much more.

Now that we have taken the time to meditate on the reading and tease out the hidden meanings of the text beyond the simple literal meaning of the words, we must take to prayer in order that we might fulfil what we have found. The spark which was kindled must now be fanned with our fervent prayers. We must seek God’s help in finding this purity of heart. We must ask God to guide us and show us what work needs to be done. We must admit in sincere humility when we face obstacles that seem insurmountable. By our devout words and petitions we fan this flame so that it may grow into a blazing fire.

Once this flame has been fully ignited, we are consumed by it. The final rung of the ladder is contemplation. Up until this point our own efforts have been necessary to the success of this sacred endeavour, but contemplation is completely beyond our control. God is the eternal fire who burns with intense heat but is never extinguished. This was symbolically shown in the burning bush which appeared to Moses. While the flame of loving desire does not consume God, it does consume us. Like Moses, we must simply remove our sandals and relish in the presence of this eternal flame.

These four rungs of the ladder are completely dependent on one another. Although God may choose to bring a person to any of these for whatever reason God chooses, these are the steps which must be followed if we wish to arrive there by our own intention. People have a tendency to find one activity and name it as the best and therefore try to only practice that one thing. But Guigo warns us that this is not a balanced and healthy approach. He concludes his treatise by saying,

“From this we may gather that reading without meditation is sterile, meditation without reading is liable to error, prayer without meditation is lukewarm, meditation without prayer is unfruitful, prayer when it is fervent wins contemplation, but to obtain it without prayer would be rare, even miraculous.”

And so, lectio divina includes all of these aspects together in one. We begin by reading the words of scriptures, writings of sages, or the lives of saints. We then meditate on their deeper meanings. Then we turn to God in prayer that we might be able to apply these deeper meanings. Finally, if we are so blessed, we are allowed to see God and to know God by being consumed in the eternal fire of Heaven. Of course, we can only carry ourselves as far as the first three rungs of the ladder. If we find that after our prayer we are not given the gift of contemplation, Guigo assures us that this too is the will of God. We are not able to withstand the heat of God’s love for extended periods in this life and so God gives to us only that which is good for us. Yet, even the apparent absence of God’s grace is itself a blessing for in that aridity we find that we grow in our faith, patience, and humility.

If you would like to do lectio divina with historic Celtic poetry (and other texts) there is a large collection in my book Psalter of the Birds, which you can purchase from our Books page by clicking HERE.

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