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Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey

October 18, 2017

Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey, 
published by Liguori/Triumph, Liguori, Missouri, 1995.

Summary of the Book:

(1) The Spirit of Monastic Lectio

Western monastic practice is the matrix in which the art of sacred reading was formed. Monks would approach lectio as a disciple would come to his master: receptive, docile, willing to be changed (6). We must come to lectio defenseless and ready to be influenced. As a result, monks would do a continuous reading of the whole book (lectio continua) to honour the author & to value the internal dynamic of the text. The monastic tradition even favours readings that express the perennial faith of the Church (like writings of the Church Fathers).

The classic delineation of the 4 moments of prayer associated with lectio divina come from Guigo II’s 12th-century treatise, The Ladder of Monastics. 

Guigo II spoke of “four senses” of Scripture:

  1. Literal – historical meaning – what the author consciously intended to communicate in writing – most of the Fathers agree that until this level is adequately mastered, there is no point in progressing to the other levels.
  2. Christological – “allegorical sense” – an attempt to find added Christian meaning in otherwise arid passages of Scripture – relocating the text within salvation history – to build up the faith.
  3. Behavioural – “moral” or “tropological” sense – the way in which God’s word shapes our beliefs and values so as eventually to evangelize our behaviour. It was this sense that the monastic fathers favoured. The Scriptures are given to form our behaviour, to make us Christlike.
  4. Mystical – “anagogical” sense – referring to the Bible’s power to lift up the hearts to spiritual realities and to make us feel a greater desire for the things of God, to lead us ever deeper into prayer.

To some extent the 4 senses are sequential. This can be a helpful way of approaching lectio divina, so long as we remember that there is a lot of backing and forthing as well as overlaps between the stages.

SENSE                       FACULTY           FUNCTION                                     PRAYER

(1) Literal                 Intellect             Understanding the text               Lectio

(2) Christological    Memory            Contextualizing the meaning    Meditatio

(3) Behavioural      Conscience        Living the meaning                     Oratio 

(4) Mystical             Spirit                  Meeting God in the text              Contemplatio

“Reading without meditation is dry. Meditation without reading is subject to error. Prayer without meditation is lukewarm. Meditation without prayer is fruitless. Prayer with devotion leads to contemplation whereas contemplation without prayer happens rarely or by a miracle” ~ Guigo II, Speculum Claustrium 14

“Sacred reading will function creatively over a lifetime only if it is allowed to fulfill, at one point or another, all the functions that this diagram suggests” (57). Since the Bible is a place of encounter with God, extra meanings are not arbitrary impressions; they are prompted by the Spirit (53). The possibility of alternative senses in the Bible is the foundation of sacred reading.


(2) Lectio is a long-term project

We need patience – a patient receptivity. Wanting to grasp everything immediately is the best way to comprehend nothing. We can fiddle with their formulas if we like, but no substantial improvement is likely. Lectio divina is a sober, long term undertaking in a lifelong process of turning toward God: its effects are discernable only in the long term Perseverance – “there is no cheap grace” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Repetition is the soul of genuine lectio (24). The sense of divine absence makes us search more diligently. Authentic reading, therefore, has the character of dissatisfaction; we always want to go further and deeper. A spirit of reverence should make us assiduous and be persevering in our exposure to God’s Word. Lectio enlightens the mind and massages the will (31).

“The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the one who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God” ~ Abba Poemen, 10

“Brothers and sisters, here is a question for you: Which to you seems greater, the Word of God or the Body of Christ? If you want to give the right answer, you will reply that God’s word is not less than Christ’s body. Therefore, just as we take care when we receive the Body of Christ that no part falls to the ground, so we should likewise ensure that the word of God, which is given to us, is not lost to our souls because we are speaking or thinking about something different. One who listens negligently to God’s word is just as guilty as one who, through carelessness, allows Christ’s body to fall to the ground.” ~ St. Caesarius of Arles (d. 542)

3: The Purpose of Lectio Divina

The role of lectio divina is to shape our consciousness to agree with that of Christ. Lectio divina is the school in which we learn Christ. It helps us to encounter Christ and it initiates us into the way of Christ.

Lectio divina should evangelize our whole lives (72).

The best answer to the question “Why am I doing this?” is “I hope to find God in my reading.” Lectio divina is an expression of my search for God. Sacred reading can be considered “successful” only if it causes me to drop my defenses and allow God to touch my heart and change my life. To activate my latent faith and confidence in God by an act of the will is an ideal way to start (62).

Our sacred reading is not merely for the moment. We read with the purpose of evangelizing our lives – just as we eat not only to enjoy the taste of food but to nourish our whole body and generate sufficient energy to implement our ambitions. If lectio divina has no effect beyond the few moments of its exercise, then it is scarcely worth doing. It has been reduced to the level of devotional self-indulgence (72).


(1) Prayerful reading – this is the first moment of lectio divina. If prayer is not found then insert it. Begin the reading with a prayer, interrupt the text with prayer, even translate the text into prayer addresses to God. Fundamentally it is the atmosphere of prayer that penetrates every aspect of holy reading that makes it distinctive (61). Prayer is the meaning of lectio divina. If no prayer rises spontaneously from the text, we have to make a positive effort to add prayer. Reading Scripture for prayer should be like reading poetry: we need to slow down, to savour what we read, and to allow the text to trigger memories and associations that reside below the threshold of our awareness.

“It is our willingness to let the Bible stimulate prayer in us that makes our reading a dynamic factor in our ongoing conversion. Without prayer, lectio is less divina; it becomes mere reading” (83).

(2) Make it a habit – The best plan is to identify a brief daily slot that we could devote to sacred reading – with a backup plan, if necessary. The main thing is to be realistic. Lifelong exposure to God’s word is more like a marathon than a sprint. It makes more sense to get something started in an imperfect state than to procrastinate forever.

(3) Write it out – Write out the texts that seem to speak more eloquently to us. The act of writing is itself a meditation – a way of assimilating what we read. We write carefully and reverently as a means of staying longer with the text and exploring its implications. We can develop a “lectio journal” that chronicles the history of our devotion to God’s word.

(4) Engage with the text – Dialogue with the text as though it were a person, asking it questions and listening for responses within us.

Lectio divina is grounded on the intrinsic relationship between the Bible and the Church. The Bible is the dowry of Christ’s Bride (41). Scripture is not properly read except in the context of the Church as the primary sacrament of God’s presence among us (42). The Bible has communion as its goal: our being bonded with God and with our fellow humans. We can be sure that we have understood the Bible if it produces love in us and the fruits of the Spirit (44).

The silence of God in prayer and in lectio divina represents two complementary truths: on the one hand, the mystery of God, on the other, the radical incapacity of human beings. The Bible is more than a book; it is the revelation of ultimate reality. No matter how feeble the human language of the Bible, it is our faith that it mediates the self-disclosure of God (93).

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