I must be doing it wrong–detractors of lectio divina criticize the practice for substituting personal experience for knowledge, for using Scripture as a mystical device, and they argue that lectio divina is actually contrary to Scriptural teaching.
Really? I find that the prayerful reading and re-reading of Scripture adds to my knowledge as I notice details that I may have missed at first. And meditating on Scripture can also be very practical: When God chooses Joshua to lead the Hebrew people into the promised land, Joshua is given this word: “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:8). Far from being other-worldly, for Joshua meditating on Scripture is very much about leading and living in this world.
The psalmist says, “I treasure your word in my heart” (Psalm 119:11), and “I revere your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes” (Psalm 119:48). While it’s true that the words “lectio divina” never appear in Scripture, such texts seem to support sustained, personal, and prayerful reading of Scripture.
And yet, I have to admit that the nay-sayers have a point. Lectio divina as it’s practiced today can be overly subjective–how do I know that it’s God and not last night’s black bean garlic chicken that is speaking to me? How do I distinguish between the voice of God and my own imagination? That’s one reason to practice lectio divina in community–as it has been practiced in the monastic tradition–and to practice it also along with other disciplines of Scripture study that take seriously the historical, social, literary, and other aspects of the text as well as our own context today. As a check on my own wayward heart, the subjectivity of lectio divina is wisely also subject to community discernment and other study.
My other caution about lectio divina is the way it reduces Scripture to a single word or phrase. I appreciate that kind of focus and the way it helps me explore the richness of a particular word or phrase. But I also need to remember that any text of Scripture is more than that. When Jesus heals a desperate woman in Mark 5:21-43, the text is about more than “Jesus Interrupted.” When Jesus tells a parable of a divided house in Mark 3:20-35 , he’s talking about more than my feelings of being a divided house. The word of lectio divina at any given time is never the whole word, but just one part.
With these cautions in mind, I still practice lectio divina, and appreciate the way it helps me to slow down, to focus on my reading of Scripture, and to hear a word from God.
The lectionary gospel text for this week is John 6:24-35. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus had multiplied a simple lunch of 5 barley loaves and 2 fish to feed an entire crowd. Then as we might expect and as this text describes, on the next day the crowds were looking for Jesus. People were so eager to find him that they even got into boats and sailed to the other side of the sea. “Rabbi, when did you come here?” they ask Jesus when they find him. But Jesus ignores their question to address their motives: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
There is much more to the story, but I am drawn to focus on the way the crowds were “looking for Jesus.” How far would I go to look for Jesus? Do I keep looking and coming back to him because of what he has done in my life? And is there something wrong with that? After all, Jesus seems to admonish the people for this, and he turns them around from focusing on their own satisfaction to consider the work of God. Where do I need to be turned around today?
Once again, the open-endedness of lectio divina leaves me with more questions than answers, but I’m always glad for that. These are the questions I carry with me today.
Your turn: Is lectio divina a helpful spiritual practice for you? Why or why not?