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Lectio Divina

by Brant Pitre November 29, 2019 0 Comments


Check out the course this came from: Spiritual Theology >


Now, in order to give you an example of meditation, I chose the treatise by Guigo II, A Ladder from Earth to Heaven. It's just a beautiful piece for one thing, but also I suspect that you like because it's clear. It doesn't make it fuzzy. He makes it very tangible and also, it seems like, "Wait, I can do this," like this is something that's simple, that makes sense. It's a very clear exposition of how to do scriptural meditation. That's, of course, how the document was written.

It was composed by Guigo II, who was a Carthusian monk living in the 12th century. This is all on the footnotes to the document.  He wrote it for his brother monk, Gervase, as a way of describing how to do meditation, how to do, in particular, a certain kind of meditation, because there are kinds of meditation.  The one I'm focusing on now is scriptural meditation, praying the scriptures. 

How do we do that? Well, that's what Guigo was trying to show us in The Ladder from Earth to Heaven, or as it's called in Latin, The Ladder of the Monks. This is how the monks get to heaven—not get to heaven, but this is how they enter into the heavenly mystery daily. It's by praying the Word of God.

We in Catholic circles refer this kind of meditation as Lectio Divina. That's what we're talking about now, Lectio Divina, divine reading, meditation on scripture.  That's really what Lectio Divina means. Lectio Divina is divine reading. It's meditation on sacred scripture, and the Catechism actually refers to Lectio Divina, so this is not just something I'm giving you as kind of my opinion. 

This is part of Catholic tradition and it's also something that the Church teaches us to do in the Catechism. It's mentioned in 2708. The really interesting section of the Catechism introducing this practice is in 2653, where the Church says these very strong words—has very strong words to say about the role that the Word of God should play in the spiritual life of a Catholic, of a Christian—that the Word of God is not just something peripheral to the spiritual life. The Word of God is central to the spiritual life. 

The Church says in 2653 -- it's a strong statement:

The Church forcefully and specially exhorts some Christians, [those who have theology degrees. No, I'm just kidding.] All the Christians. All the Christian faithful to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ by [occasional] reading of the Scriptures.

Once a year, four, five times a year, if you feel like it? No? How much?

…by frequent reading of the Scriptures. [Frequent.] Let them remember however that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture…

That's the heart of Lectio Divina.

Prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scriptures, so that a dialogue takes place between God and man.

Here's an awesome quote:

For we speak to Him when we pray, but we listen to him when we read the Divine Oracles.

That's Saint Ambrose. "We speak to Him when we pray, but we listen to him when we read the Divine Oracles." You want to hear what God has to say? Pick up his Word and listen to it. That's the heart of Lectio Divina. So that prayer isn't a monologue, just you yapping, yapping, yapping and when you're done, "Thanks, God.  See you later. Back to work." It's a dialogue where you can listen for a while, and listen to his Word. 

The spiritual writers, paraphrasing Matthew 7:7, summarize in this way the dispositions of the heart nourished by the Word of God in prayer.

It's really cool, because in this paragraph, 2654, the Catechism actually alludes to "The Ladder from Earth to Heaven." If you looked at the footnote and you read it closely. In order to explain Lectio Divina, it picks this treatise to exemplify—and honestly, I didn't know that. I had assigned it after. I only noticed that in prepping for the class. The Catechism says:

Seek in reading and you will find in meditating; knock in mental prayer and it will be opened to you by contemplation.

The footnote there is Guigo the Carthusian, Scala Paradisi:PL 40,998.

That's what Lectio Divina is and in that breakdown, you can see the basic steps that Guigo's going to give you. Seek in reading, find in meditating, knock in prayer (mental prayer), and it will be opened to you by contemplation. Those four steps: number one, reading; number two, meditation; number three, invocation (or prayer -- let's say prayer); and number four, contemplation. Those are the four steps, the basic elements of Lectio Divina that Guigo defines, describes for us. Now those four steps, he uses Scripture to illuminate them.

Let's go back for just a minute to the Bible. It's fitting here—and this is one of the reasons I picked Guigo—that he uses a biblical text to describe scriptural meditation. When he calls this treatise "The Ladder of Paradise," he's alluding to Genesis 28 and the story of Jacob's Ladder.

Let's go back and read that story and help you get an idea why he's doing it.  Genesis 28 is a story of the Ladder of Paradise, that's where he got the title. It's where he got the image. The whole treatise is based on this and so in order to see what he's getting at, it's helpful to go back and read the Scripture itself.

In Genesis 28:10, we have the story of Jacob's Ladder. It's says this:

Jacob left Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.

No Sealy Posturepedic mattresses for Jacob. No Sleep Number beds for Jacob, just a nice rock will do for a pillow.

And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven…

Okay. Pause. Now, although your English translation says ladder, the actual Hebrew word is much more accurately translate as a staircase. What he's having here is a vision of a temple staircase, so it's a stairway to heaven—no allusions to Zeppelin, although they were alluding to it.

And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land”…

Do you remember that? Prayers of a return to the heavenly Promised Land? I'll bring you back to this land.

…”for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Okay. So what's going on here? Guigo chooses this passage of Scripture to exemplify what he thinks meditation is, scriptural meditation. What we have here is an image of -- let's draw. Here's Jacob, sleeping on his rock. He has a vision, not of a ladder like a painter would use, but instead of an ancient temple. These ancient temples were constructed kind of like a pyramid, but ascending staircases on either side so that the priest could go up and down the staircases and offer sacrifice at the top.  He has this vision of a staircase and he sees the angels ascending and descending down the staircase, which is essentially again -- it's a temple. They're going down and they're going up. And then, what's at the top? God. He sees the Lord at the top.

What Guigo is doing here -- and here's Jacob. He's using this image, the Ladder of Paradise, to describe Lectio Divina and its steps. He says, "There are four steps." The first step is reading. You have to pick up the Divine Word and you have to read it first. You have to have some object of meditation. Second step, meditation. That's the next stage, pondering the Divine Word. Using the mind to search out the knowledge of the hidden truth in the Divine Word under the guidance of reason. Then, this third stage -- third step, prayer. Now, remember the whole process is prayer. What he really means by this is what? Invocation. In other words, you ask God of something. Prayer. Finally, fourth, contemplation.

The point I'm making in drawing this is that even though on the handout I have these as a series of points laid out linearly, it's really an ascending spiral. It's an ascending staircase. Step number one is at the bottom. Step number four is at the top. These steps are supposed to take you up the ladder into paradise, through the process of meditation. That's why he's using this Biblical image to describe it, because it's an ascending staircase. That's what scripture meditation does.

It starts with the things of earth, with the Divine Word as it comes to us, so to speak, inscribed in the Scripture, and then it takes us up those ladders, just like the monks who practiced this meditation daily, into heaven where at the apex is not just an idea. Remember this, it's not about an idea, even though ideas will play a role in it. Ideas though are only on level two. At the apex of the process of Lectio Divina is a person. It's a person and the person is the Lord. You see?

That's what it's about. It's really about communion with God. This is very different than study. This is heaven. Study is hell. No, I'm just kidding. Study is purgatory, it's not hell. No. The object of study is the acquisition of knowledge. The object of meditation is communion with God. Now, study can aid meditation greatly but it's not identical to it, so don't confuse the two.

These four stages, the four steps, the main thing you want to know is what the basic steps are. The four steps of Lectio Divina on the handout: Number one, reading. What does he mean by reading? Reading is the diligent examination of Scripture with attentiveness of soul. Notice, that does not include skimming. If skimming is bad for study, it's disastrous for meditation. You don't skim. You have to have attentiveness of soul, so it's not just attentiveness of the mind. It's the attentiveness of soul, a spirit of recollection, a spirit of quietness of soul by which you listen to God's work. Reading.

Second step, meditation. What is meditation? Meditation is the studious action of the mind as it searches out the knowledge of hidden truth under the guidance of its reasoning power. This is where the mind turns over what it encounters in the written Word and ask questions. What does this mean? What is the hidden truth behind this? What is it -- like we just did with the prayer, the Our Father -- what does it mean to say Our Father? Father. What’s a father? How am I a father? How is God a father? How is his fatherhood different than mine? See, that's what meditation does. It asks questions. It turns the Word over. It uses the intellect to penetrate the depths of the Word. It's like the guy digging the treasure out of the field. That's what meditations do, unpacking the Word.

Third step, prayer. Prayer is, Guigo says, "The heart's devout reaching out to God for the removal of evils or the acquisition of goods." That's what I mean by invocation. You invoke God in light of what you've learned, in light of what you've encountered, what you've heard from him in meditating on his Word, now you ask him for something. Lord, make me more like Christ. Help me to forgive like he forgave. Help me to endure in the trial like he endured in the garden. Some kind of petition to God for a good thing or deliver me from evil, deliver me from this habitual sin that I'm struggling with, deliver me from this imperfection. Whatever kind of invocation, that's step three. Now, you're getting higher up the ladder. You're not just using the intellect, your using the what? The will, exactly. Remember the spiritual life lives and dies in the will. It has to be sustained by the intellect and the body but the will is where it all goes down, where you're going to make those choices for or against God. Now, the will steps in and says, "Lord give me this good thing or deliver me from this evil."

Then, fourth and final stage, contemplation. What is contemplation?  Guigo defines it as "the elevation of the mind above itself, suspended in God as it tastes the joys of eternal sweetness." Sounds pretty good.  What is contemplation? To understand what contemplation is to say what it is not. All three steps on these levels of the staircase are actions that you engage in. You use the body, you use the mind, you use the will, but contemplation is when God acts in response to you, when he comes to you and fills you and floods you with his presence, unites himself to you. It's communion with Him. The first three steps are something you do. The fourth step is something God does.

Now, I'd like to give you analogies for all these, but we've come to the end. I won't be able to give you all of them, but let me just give you the one that's not on the handout. Guess where we read, meditate, pray and then have union with God? It's in the mass. This is the setup of the mass. The mass begins with Scripture readings. We have the readings: Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms.

Second, meditation, supposed to be the Homily. The Homily is a meditation on the readings, that's the function of the Homily. It's supposed to draw out the hidden meaning of the Scriptures.

Then, in reaction to the truths that we've learned, we enter into the Eucharistic Prayer. We ask for all the good things of God: the salvation of the world, we pray for the Pope, pray for the bishops, pray for each other, pray for the dead, pray for the sick, pray for everybody, ask God to shower us with his love. We say the Our Father and ask for the very things Christ taught us to pray for.

Then, when is contemplation? It's communion. Now God acts when he comes to his bride in communion. And you can't do that; He does that, but you can receive him and be united to him.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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