David Stanley, S.J.


American Benedictine Review, March, 1972, vol. 23 , pp.439-455

THE resonances and similarities between the lectio divina of St. Benedict and the Ignatian contemplatio in the Spiritual Exercises have led this son of St. Ignatius to venture a closer examination of the earlier monastic practice.[1] That in fact the Jesuits of the mid-twentieth century have officially recognized such a relationship to exist may be gauged by a statement in the decree on Prayer issued in 1966 by the last General Congregation of the Society of Jesus.

In each of us, as the whole tradition of the Church attests, Holy Scripture becomes our saving word only when heard in prayer that leads to the submission of faith. Lectio divina, a practice dating back to the earliest days of religious life in the Church, supposes that the reader surrenders to God who is speaking and granting him a change of heart under the action of the two-edged sword of Scripture continually challenging to conversion. Truly we can expect from the prayerful reading of Scripture a renewal of our ministry of the word and of the Spiritual Exercises. . .[2]

Perhaps some readers may be moved to reflect that it is about time the Jesuits were catching up with the renaissance of biblical spirituality in the Church that has now for some decades had a deep and revitalizing effect upon so many religious families. Yet, if one who has been engaged in biblical studies for some years may be permitted a personal impression, it has appeared to the writer that, after the first flush of enthusiasm for the renewed reading of the Bible and praying from the Scriptures, not a few religious have experienced a sense of frustration and disillusionment. This is not the occasion to analyze the many possible factors contributing to this state of affairs. Yet I venture to suggest one that is germane to the subject which here concerns us: a lack of clarity about the aim and scope of this ancient Christian and monastic preoccupation with the Bible. In the mind of the author of the holy Rule, as will shortly become evident, the principal purpose is to have a spiritual experience, in other words, to be united with God through Christ in prayer.[3]

The distinguished authority on the religious and cultural history of twelfth-century Western Europe, Dom Jean Leclercq, who has thrown such light on the distinction between monastic and scholastic theology, has convincingly shown that the former is a development of lectio divina. “Monastic theology is a confessio; it is an act of faith and of recognition; it involves a ‘re-cognition’ in a deep and living manner by means of prayer and the lectio divina of the mysteries which are known in a conceptual way; explicit perhaps, but superficial. ‘To understand’ is not necessarily ‘to explain’ through causality; it can also mean the acquiring of a general view : comprehendere.” [4]Angelo Pantoni has made a similar point in an article not immediately available to the present writer. “Lectio is ... orientated towards prayer and life, not towards a quaestio.” [5]

The Cistercian abbot, André Louf, has discerningly remarked, “Not only is the spiritual reading of the Bible not identified with its scientific study, but one might even say in a certain sense it goes in the opposite direction. Scientific study reconstructs the past from the starting point of the present. The Christian with faith . . . listens day by day to what the Eternal Word wants to make known to him here and now, though he does this through that letter which comes to him from the past, clarified, prudently restored, illuminated with its original light .. . replaced finally in its own context by the efforts of biblical science.”[6]

This remark of Dom Andre Louf is significant because it draws attention to the important truth that if lectio divina is not “scientific study,” it most assuredly was never intended to be cultivated in any spirit of anti-intellectualism. To be specific, it cannot be expected to flourish in a mind-set dominated by biblical fundamentalism, that misguided refusal to employ man’s God-given spirit of inquiry (out of a fallacious sense of reverence for the divine origins of the Bible), in order to discover what the inspired human writer meant to say, that is, the ‘literal’ sense of Scripture.[7] The long and imposing intellectual tradition which is an integral part of the Benedictine heritage must surely derive its inspiration from the man who was author of The Holy Rule. “If the painter Spinello Aretino six times shows St. Benedict either holding or reading a book, it is not because the artist’s imagination failed to find anything better to put instead. Since Aretino is to the Dialogues what Giotto is to the life of St. Francis, we can assume that he has caught, in his Florentine murals, the authentic spirit of St. Benedict. The wonder-worker, the father, the judge, the man of prayer-he is there as each-and, as suggested, the reader and student.”[8]


WHEN one is aware of the importance attaching to lectio divina in Benedictine spirituality, one is astonished to discover how relatively rare are the references to it in The Holy Rule. It first appears among the instrumenta bonorum operum, in conjunction-most significantlywith prayer.[9] Dom Hubert Van Zeller in his commentary has rightly seized on the significance of this juxtaposition. “Prayer rises out of reading as song rises out of music. Reading is the most appropriate prelude to prayer. To the degree that ‘faith is from hearing’, prayer is from reading. Just as hearing does not complete the work of faith, so neither does reading complete the work of prayer.”[10]

The next mention, oddly enough at first sight, occurs in the chapter dealing with daily manual work.[11] Yet its situation in such a context reminds us that “lectio divina, like manual labour, is an ascesis.” [12]The fact that it is, together with physical work, proposed as a remedy for otiositas [apathy, laziness] indicates how much this exercise demands the full attention and energetic application of the monk. Moreover, “it is probable that in addition to the energy involved in the study of the sacred books, lectio divina in the mind of St. Benedict embraces unrestricted access to prayer and contemplation.” [13]It will in fact be recalled that the last paragraph of this same chapter of the Rule describes this religious activity as “meditare aut legere.” [14]Indeed, as has been suggested by Dom Anscari Mundo,[15] the phrase indicating the object of Lenten reading, “singulos codices de bibliotheca,” may refer to those manuscript volumes which contained a certain number of biblical books. Further proof of the sacred and prayerful character of this lectio may be deduced from its special cultivation during sacred times, viz., “Quadragesima” [Lent] and “Dominico die.” [the Lord’s Day = Sunday]

Among the principal Lenten observances listed in chapter XLIX we find oratio cum fletibus, lectio et compunctio cordis [prayer with tears, lectio, and compunction of heart]. The stress upon affectivity is instructive; in particular, St. Benedict’s use of the ancient Latin medical term compunction[16]  in conjunction with lectio. The passage, perhaps more than any other in The Holy Rule, reveals the intimate connection in its author’s mind between prayer and lectio divina. [17]St. Benedict would appear to presuppose as an essential component of this exercise that affectus inspirationis divinae gratiae [deep feeling inspired by divine grace] mentioned in chapter XX. The superlative value he ascribed to the reading of the Scriptures as the rule of Christian living is abundantly clear from his remark in the concluding chapter LXXIII: “Quae enim pagina aut qui sermo divinae auctoritatis veteris ac novi Testamenti non est rectissima norma vitae humanae ? [RB 73:3: For what page or what words are there in the divinely-inspired Old and New Testaments that are not a most direct norm for human life?]



IF we have correctly grasped the nature of lectio divina as it is understood by the author of The Holy Rule, it becomes plain that its proper functioning comprises (1) an inquiry with a mind illumined by Christian faith into the meaning which the inspired author has expressed through the sacred text (2) in order to comprehend [18]what the risen Christ is saying to me here and now and (3) to submit through “the obedience of faith” (Rom i.5) my entire person to God my Father in filial love and hope. Because I believe God “has spoken through the prophets” of Old and New Testaments, whose intuition of the divine activity from within the historical process has been recorded upon the sacred page, it becomes imperative that I endeavor to understand the message. At a far deeper level, that of faith, it is crucial that I also strive to comprehend (as far as that is possible) the mystery which confronts me in all its contemporaneity and relevance for myself.

Lectio divina is no mere academic exercise: it must issue in affectus and compunctio cordis. It must be engaged in cum omni humilitate et puritatis devotione [with all humility and purity of devotion].[19]

I venture to suggest that it is by reflecting upon the manner in which the Scriptures were created that we can discern how to conduct this spiritual exercise fruitfully. The procedure will appear to recommend itself at once if we ask ourselves why, from the viewpoint of Christian faith, the Bible was written.

We believe that the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, was sent into our world by the Father to assist man in making that response of faith and love and hope to the divine activity in history (at once infallible and infinitely efficacious) in which man’s salvation lies. For man’s redemption is not an impersonal, automatic process - even though it remains true that Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection accomplished in place of man what man himself, because of sin, was incapable of realizing. What was the nature of this human predicament in which by the sin of Adam and his own consequent personal sins man found himself inextricably enmeshed? It was, very simply and briefly, man’s culpable loss of self-identity. Man through sin lost the awareness of who he was, viz., the adoptive son of God. Jesus Christ’s mission was to reveal to man that “God no man has ever seen” (Jn 1.18), “in order that we might receive the adoptive sonship” (Gal iv.5). It was through the gift of that most filial attitude, “the obedience of faith,” that man recovered his lost identity as a son in the Son. For it had been by his total acceptance of obedience to the Father in all the concrete circumstances of his life, death and resurrection that Jesus Christ effected what man through Adam had made himself incapable of accomplishing, that is, offering a single act of filial love to the Father whereby man would acknowledge who he most truly was.

There is another aspect of man’s redemption which comes into consideration here. Jesus Christ died and rose for man, not to excuse or exclude man from participating personally in this redemptive experience of dying and rising. In fact, Jesus died and rose to create the possibility of man’s dying and rising with him. Thus the mysteries of Jesus’ earthly life have been recorded in the New Testament to teach the believer how in his own life he can collaborate with this process of his own redemption (Jn xx.31). And what is true of the Gospel narratives holds true also (when they are read in the light of Christ with Christian faith) of the Old Testament books, since in them also is to be found that “truth which God has chosen to consign to the Sacred Books for the sake of our salvation.”[20]

Why then was the Bible written? In order to make available to the man of faith that truth, which is not historical truth, nor scientific truth, nor philosophical truth, by the assimilation of which alone man can be saved. One traditionally Christian method of assimilating this saving truth is lectio divina. Hence by reflection upon the dialectical process through which the Scriptures have come into existence, we may hope to perceive more clearly how to employ this ancient Christian approach to prayer.

This dialectical process consists of three moments which may be simply stated as


(1) experience,

(2) reflection,

(3) articulation, or verbalization,

first orally,

then in writing.


While the process will presently be exemplified from the history of Israel and particularly from the earthly life of Jesus Christ, it may be useful at this point to explain the precise import of each of the three stages for the creation of sacred literature.

All authentic Scripture takes its origins from a real experience of God by a ‘seer’ or prophet. It is the privilege of such a man to be granted an intuition of the divine activity through some concrete historical event, e.g., the Babylonian captivity, the Maccabean wars of independence. A prophet may be described as a man who has been accorded the great grace of looking at happenings in our sublunary world from the divine viewpoint.

For this experience, of course, faith is essential: the faith of Israel in the Old Testament, Christian faith after the resurrection of Jesus. It is through this faith the seer grasps what he has experienced of God’s activity through which he has deigned to reveal himself to men. Only by his reflection with faith can the implications of the prophet’s experience be grasped by him.

Because he realizes that this precious self-revelation on the part of God has been committed to him for the instruction of the community, the prophet accepts as a sacred duty the commission to proclaim the message. He is impelled to announce his experience ‘in the Spirit’ to those to whom he is sent. Ultimately, in the case with which we are concerned - the sacred books of the Bible - the message is set forth in writing, by the prophet himself or some other author guided by the Spirit of God. It becomes “scripture” (it is written down) under the divine impulse because the seer has come to see its value for future members of the community, its “usefulness for right teaching, for the correction of error, for the reform of manners, and discipline in right living” (2 Tim 3.16).

By way of anticipating what we shall suggest further on about finding a formula for lectio divina, we may state here that it is a matter of reversing this threefold process by which our biblical books were produced.

The believer must begin with the sacred text, endeavoring with an intelligence enlightened by faith to comprehend the message of the sacred author.

He must then react with faith, reflect with faith, upon what he has grasped of the message for himself here and now.

Finally, through the affectus inspirationis divinae gratiae he is given an experience in prayer of what God in Christ is saying to him.



IT may be helpful, before turning to the Gospels, to sketch rapidly the manner in which Israel’s sacred literature came to be written, in order to provide a concrete illustration of the dialectical process (experience, reflection of faith, articulation) which we already indicated to have presided over the composition of the Bible. Since it is obviously only possible to deal summarily with such a vast body of literature, I have chosen to review the way in which the record of Israel’s birth as a people, as the people of God, gradually came into existence.

Somewhere about the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C. a group of Hebrews under the skilful leadership of a man named Moses succeeded in escaping from their adopted country of Egypt (where their forebears had dwelt for generations) and from the galling corvée of the Pharaoh by eluding the task-force dispatched to recapture them. After their remarkable getaway they found a hideout to the east of the Red Sea in the Sinai peninsula, where they were granted, in the person of Moses, a mysterious experience of a God they had not previously known, or at any rate, whose covenant with their remote ancestor Abraham they had forgotten.

After living as nomads during the next two or three generations (the period of the judges), these Hebrews managed, by infiltration, border forays and guerilla warfare, to wrest the strip of territory at the eastern extreme of the Mediterranean from the Canaanites, and settle down as the people of Israel in what their new-found faith had told them was the land Yahweh had promised them.

This series of events, rather insignificant no doubt within the political, economic, cultural history of the ancient Near East, gave these Hebrews their sense of identity as a nation. From the viewpoint of the religion of Israel and (ultimately) of Christianity, however, this historical phenomenon, reacted to with faith in a unique, all-powerful God who had chosen them as his “acquisition,” was comprehended as the vehicle of that God’s self-revelation of his special relationship to his people, Israel, and eventually, through them, to the entire human race. It was thus in history that God “spoke through the prophets,” those “seers” who intuited and interpreted the meaning of the divine activity in the world.

The priests and prophets and wisemen of Israel through many centuries articulated their beliefs by means of creedal formulae, the cultus, legislation. These were preserved in large part, if not entirely, by oral transmission for countless generations, being modified and reformulated in the light of subsequent experiences in the national history (interpreted in their turn by Israelite faith). The monarchy arose with Saul, to be split in two after Solomon’s death and irreparably destroyed at the Babylonian exile. And during these half dozen centuries, it must not be forgotten, the Bible as we know it, specifically, the collection of Israel’s inspired writings, had not begun in any proper sense to be written. One element essential to its creation was missing: the eschatological hope in Yahweh’s definitive intervention in his people’s history. This key tenet of faith was hammered out under the cruel experience of the Babylonian captivity through the indomitable belief in their God by the great Israelite prophets. Only at this point in her national history, when Israel had learned that the divine election of herself and the covenant God had made with her was a responsibility as well as a privilege, did the composition of the Old Testament under the guidance of the Spirit of God become possible. For, as Roderick MacKenzie has discerningly remarked, these sacred writings present a unique phenomenon: “it is a national literature that does not glorify the nation,” but that nation’s God.[21]


BEFORE turning our attention to the creation of the four canonical Gospels,[22] it may not be inappropriate to remind ourselves that these were not the first books of the New Testament to be written. They were preceded, at least, by the entire collection of St. Paul’s letters. This chronological anteriority was, I suggest, no mere coincidence,[23] but a necessary stage in the effort of the apostolic Church to articulate, through its privileged representatives, the unprecedented experience of God’s definitive act of salvation in Jesus Christ. It fell to Paul particularly, with his unique mystical gifts and powerful religious genius, to provide the theological expression of his profound insights into the Christian mystery with the aid of “the Scriptures” and his acquaintance with the world view that inspired contemporary Hellenistic culture. The outcome of Paul’s struggle to assist the young Christian communities of non-Semitic provenance to apply the Gospel to the concrete circumstances of their daily living, his persistent effort to press into service the popular Greek language as a medium of articulating the apostolic kerygma, originally expressed in Aramaic thought-patterns, made possible the writing of our Gospels, which despite their seeming artlessness constitute unquestionably the supreme literary and theological achievement of the apostolic age.

In any discussion of the experience by “the Twelve” of the earthly career of Jesus Christ which underlies the composition of the Gospels, it is crucial to recall that this experience occurred at two distinct chronological moments and at two very disparate levels. There is firstly the disciples’ immediate involvement in what happened during Jesus’ public ministry “in the days of his flesh” (Heb v-7): they were, in Luke’s phrase, “the original eyewitnesses” (Lk 1.2), personally and collectively engaged in what Jesus did and said during his preaching career in Galilee and Jerusalem and through his passion. Secondly, this same group was privileged, with the women devoted to Jesus, to share in the post-resurrection appearances of the glorified Christ. What gives these latter experiences their singular quality is the fact that through them for the first time Christian faith was created in the hearts of those who had been disciples of Jesus of Nazareth during his mortal life.

At that earlier period, as the Gospel record attests, these men were attracted to Jesus by some winning, mysterious quality (Jn i.38-39). They were struck indeed by the original and independent traits perspicuous in his manner of teaching (Mk 1.27), so transcendently different from that of all other rabbis. As they lived with him, listened to his doctrine, witnessed his mighty “acts of power” (Mt xiii.54) or “signs” (Jn ix.16), they came to realize he was a prophet (Lk vii.i6) like those of old (Lk ix.8). At a privileged moment during the public ministry, which the Synoptic tradition has linked with Caesarea Philippi (Mk viii.27-29) they began to see in him the historical verification of the ancient messianic hope of Israel: he was in fact “the Christ,” the anointed of the Lord. This was the peak point of the disciples’ understanding of the mystery surrounding Jesus prior to his resurrection.[24]

This knowledge and attachment to Jesus, only gradually acquired by the Twelve, in the course of his public life, was not merely human. It was a reaction of faith, the traditional faith of Israel. Yet such faith was not sufficient, it would appear, to sustain the disciples through the traumatic disillusionment of Jesus’ sufferings and death. Indeed, he himself had predicted this tragic dénouement: “All of you will lose faith in me” (Mk xiv.27). This eclipse of his followers’ expectations is confessed by two disciples as they walk with the risen Jesus towards Emmaus, “We had been hoping he was the one who is to redeem Israel” (Lk xxiv.21). The author of the Fourth Gospel in the discourse after the Last Supper delineates the ineffectiveness of this pre-resurrection faith in the Master they knew so superficially (Jn xiv.8-10).

St. Paul perhaps more than any other New Testament author has underscored the truth that the “Jesus of history” is not the adequate object of Christian faith. “Even if we had known Christ in a merely human way, we now know him so no longer” (2 Cor v.16). The Apostle insists that his entire knowledge of Jesus, including his earthly career, was given to himself by “a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1.12). It is instructive to observe that when Paul alludes to a saying of Jesus he invariably speaks of them as “a saying of the Lord,” i.e., the glorified Christ (I Thes iv.15; I Cor vii.10). The authority of this teaching, for Paul, derives not immediately from its emanation from Jesus of Nazareth, but from Paul’s experience of it “in the Spirit,” as a “revelation of Jesus Christ.” We cannot afford to ignore Paul’s awareness that it was the confrontation with the risen Christ on the Damascus road upon which he based his claim to be an apostle (I Cor ix.1; xv.8), despite his never having enjoyed the experience of the Twelve of Jesus’ public life.


THIS all-important fact must be borne in mind in any attempt to assess the authority of the four Gospels, whose canonization by the Church was from earliest times based upon their apostolic origin. Modern critical studies of the Gospels have made it clear that none of these books was actually penned by any one of the Twelve; and in fact from the earliest days the Church was well aware that neither Mark nor Luke was among “the original eyewitnesses.” Accordingly, the authority of the Gospels derives principally from the fact that their inspired authors (while they had no personal experience of the “Jesus of history”) did experience his words and actions ‘in the Spirit. It is for this reason, and not for any mere historical accuracy, that these sacred books have always been treasured as a privileged locus for Christian contemplation.

What was the nature of the second moment in the experience of the first disciples? The post-resurrection appearances made Christians of the Twelve. The Gospel narratives of this supremely important event are intended chiefly to describe this genesis of Christian faith, and, in addition (where such appearances to the Twelve are recorded, (e.g., Mt xxviii.16-20; Lk xxiv.36-52; Jn xx.18-29; xxi.1-25), to record the risen Lord’s commission to “preach the gospel to all nations.” St. Thomas Aquinas has expressed with his usual admirable clarity the character of these experiences. “After his resurrection the apostles saw the living Christ, whom they had known to have died, with the eyes of faith (oculata fide),” he observes in the Summa Theologica. [25]The post-resurrection appearances were in the most profound sense an experience of faith, Christian faith, for the Twelve. This in no way implies that these appearances were merely a subjective phenomenon induced by some kind of group hysteria. And the comment in Jn xx.9 categorically excludes the possibility of any explanation in terms of an expectancy based upon “the Scriptures.” Nor can St. Thomas’ remark be taken to imply that the risen Lord was not bodily present on these occasions. It does mean, however, that any natural explanation of these experiences in terms of mere sense perception is inadequate. It was not enough to have one’s eyes open in order to see the risen Jesus: Christian faith was a sine qua non. Whatever Mary Magdalene may be thought to have seen when she mistook Jesus after his resurrection for a gardener (Jn xx.14-I5), she did not yet see the glorified Lord, because she had not, at that moment, been given the grace of Christian faith. She was only able to recognize the risen Master when, through his own gracious intervention (v.16), she was given the great grace of faith.

While these post-resurrection appearances were of a unique character (cf. 1Cor xv.4-8)-since it is upon the apostolic testimony arising out of them that our faith reposes (Jn xx.31)-still, for all that, they remain experiences of Christian faith, in some way analogous to our own faith-experiences of the presence of the risen Lord in our own lives (Jn xx.29). They were also similar, in a very real sense, to the experiences by the inspired evangelists (who had received the data concerning Jesus’ earthly life from apostolic tradition) of the words and deeds of Jesus “in the Spirit.” For through the gift of Christian faith these writers received the Holy Spirit “to lead them into the whole range of truth” (Jn xvi.13). Indeed, as Jesus had promised the disciples, it was for this purpose that the Spirit was sent to them. “Everything he makes known to you, he will draw from what is mine” (Jn xvii.24).

I should like to direct attention to another aspect of this question. It was only when the Twelve, in the light of their new Christian faith, reflected upon the words Jesus had uttered, the deeds he had performed in their presence during his earthly life, that they came to perceive their true, saving significance. The author of the Fourth Gospel is aware of the crucial relevance of this apostolic reflection, which he denominates as remembering. Jesus had promised that the Paraclete “will teach you everything and cause you to remember all that I have said to you” (Jn xiv.26). “When therefore he was risen from death, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken” (Jn ii.22); “these things his disciples did not understand at first, but when Jesus had been glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written concerning him and that they had done these things to him” (Jn xii.16).

I have dwelt upon this point at some length because it is of paramount importance for distinguishing this manner of comprehending Jesus’ words and deeds “in the Spirit” from the previous “eyewitness” experience accorded the Twelve of these words and deeds during Jesus’ public ministry. In the case of our evangelists, who (like Paul) did not have the immediate, personal, collective experience of Jesus in his earthly life, these data had been transmitted to them by “the original eyewitnesses.” Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these writers enjoyed a specially privileged experience, of what Jesus had said and done, “in the Spirit.” And it is this Spirit-filled experience that they have intended to record in their Gospels. Because of this, each of the four evangelists has presented in his book his personal approach to the risen Lord, his own “spirituality.” Accordingly, it becomes necessary (as we shall now attempt to show) that in the practice of lectio divina the reader attend to the very individual manner, characteristic of each Gospel-writer, in which he depicts the mysteries - for these accounts are of far greater significance than mere historical narratives - of the earthly life of Jesus.


IT remains to describe the suggested approach to lectio divina which, as was stated earlier, amounts to a reversal of the process through which the Bible came into being. One begins with the inspired text, the sacred writer’s articulation of his experience which issued from his reflection with faith (the faith of Israel for the Old Testament, Christian faith for the New). And here perhaps it may not be inappropriate to remind ourselves that the desired experience in which lectio divina is calculated to issue is one of Christian faith. The believing Christian does not read the sacred text of the Gospels, for instance, in order to be able by some effort of the imagination to reproduce in himself the “eyewitness” experience of the Twelve. Lectio divina has little, if anything, to do with historical reminiscence. One of the salient features of our Gospels is their perspicuous lack of nostalgia for “the good old days” of Jesus’ earthly life - notwithstanding their almost exclusive character as the record of what Jesus said and did “in the days of his flesh.” The Gospel narratives, far from representing any mere return to the past as a vanished golden age, are orientated to the present and the future. This is to say that their authors’ primary aim and concern is to foster and fortify the interpersonal relationship with the risen Lord Jesus, which constitutes the life of Christian faith. “These things have been written,” says the author of the Fourth Gospel, “in order that you may deepen your faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name” (Jn xx.31). Luke in his dedicatory preface gives the convert Theophilus as his reason for writing, “that you may gain a profound knowledge of the sound basis for those things that you heard in the catechesis” (Lk 1.4). Paul has exposed his “gospel” to the Roman community in his letter for a similar purpose. “I have written to you somewhat boldly at times in order to recall to your memory the favour bestowed on me by God, that is, my role as a minister of Christ Jesus to the pagans, my function as a priest [in preaching] the gospel of God, in order that the oblation of the pagans be an acceptable sacrifice, made holy by the Holy Spirit” (Rom xv.i5-16). It is the deepening of this same Christian faith which is the purpose of the lectio divina of the Old Testament, those books (as Vatican II has declared) “which express a lively sense of God, contain sublime teaching about God and salutary wisdom about man’s existence . . . in which finally the mystery of our salvation lies hidden.”[26]

As one begins the exercise of lectio divina, the first concern must be the comprehension of the sacred text insofar as that is possible. The point of departure for any sound and fruitful reading of the Bible remains always the understanding of the meaning which the words are intended to express. To approach the text with a fundamentalist mentality is to imperil the whole enterprise. One must make an effort to grasp what the inspired author is saying by discerning the type of literature in which he enshrines his message, by acquiring some sense of his idiom, of the historical and cultural background out of which he speaks. All this however is but the point of departure for the man of faith. He seeks above all to become impregnated with that “truth which God has chosen to consign to the sacred books for the sake of our salvation.” [27]

Accordingly (and this is the second step) one must reflect with faith upon the literal sense already uncovered, in order to hear what the risen Christ is saying through his Spirit as one reads a particular passage at a given moment. St. Paul has asserted that “faith comes by hearing, while hearing comes through the utterance of Christ” (Rom x.17). The assimilation of the Gospel is not a matter of communications, rhetoric or philosophy (cf. 1 Cor ii.4; i Thes i.5) in the mind of Paul. He employs auditory sensation as an image of the opening of man in his innermost, truest self to that divine dynamism effecting man’s salvation, which is the Gospel (Rom i.16). Such “hearing” signifies the “obedience of your faith” (Rom i.5; cf. xv.i8).

The practice of lectio divina is calculated to effect my confrontation by God in Chris;. and my response implies that I confront my God in Christ. What is God saying to me today in this passage of Holy Scripture ? -that is the question I must endeavor, with the grace of Christ, to answer. “Et apertis oculis nostris ad deificum lumen,” [and open our eyes to the deifying light] St. Benedict urges in the prologue to the holy Rule,  “attonitis auribus audiamus divina cotidie clamans quid nos admoneat vox.” [attune our ears to the voice that daily calls out to us]

God’s dynamic power, unleashed through the prayerful reading of the sacred text, elicits my cooperation in producing the experience of the mystery symbolized by the text. Through my reaction of faith and love and hope the mystery becomes an event for me. It happens to me. This experience is described in an ancient Christian document, which speaks of Christ as “he who appears as new, is discovered to be from of old, is daily born anew in the hearts of the faithful.”[28] The goal of lectio divina is actually what St. Ignatius has called “an interior knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love him more and follow him more closely.”[29] Israel’s deep sense of how through the Scriptures the event of the past becomes a contemporary experience has been articulated in a striking way by the author of Deuteronomy. This writer composed his book five or six hundred years after the striking of the covenant on Mount Sinai. Yet he can represent Moses as speaking through the centuries to his own (the author’s) contemporaries: “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances which I am delivering in your hearing today. . . . The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our forefathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with ourselves, who are all here alive today” (Deut v.1-3).

It is just such a contemporary experience, personal to me as a member of the people of God, that lectio divina was designed to create.


Regis College,

Willowdale, Ontario.


[1] See David M. Stanley, S.J., A Modern Scriptural Approach to the Spiritual Exercises (Chicago, 1967), p. 85: “We have become accustomed to represent divine revelation as a conversation between persons (God and man), with all that that implies of interpersonal reaction. . . . By means of what St. Benedict in the Rule has called lectio divina, or Ignatius in the Exercises calls contemplation, I attempt to live my ‘spiritual’ life, that is, existence under the divine domination of the Holy Spirit, by integrating myself into this conversation or dialogue.”

The present article represents the reworking of a paper read at the workshop of Benedictine Abbots and Priors, March 13-17, 1972, at New Subiaco Abbey, Arkansas. The interest shown by the participants in the presentation has furnished the speaker with an additional reason for publishing it.

[2] Documents of the Thirty-First General Congregation (Woodstock, 1967), 1 #14 Prayer, p. 42.

[3] See Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: a Study of Monastic Culture (New York, î96o), p. 264. “A certain experience of the realities of faith . . . is at one and the same time the condition for and the result of monastic theology. The word experience, which has become equivocal in meaning because it has been abused in a certain recent period, should not, in this context, imply anything esoteric. It simply means that, in study and in reflection, importance was granted to . . . that grace of intimate prayer, that aflectus as it is called by St. Benedict, that manner of savoring and relishing the Divine realities which is constantly taught in the patristic tradition.”

[4] lbid., pp. 267-268.

[5] Angelo Pantoni, “La lectio divina en suoi rapporti con la Bibbia e la Liturgia,” Vita Monastica, 14 (1960), 167-174.

[6] André Louf, O.C.S.O., “Exégèse scientifique ou Lectio monastique,” Collectanea O.C.R., 22 (1960), 225-247.

[7] Perhaps the greatest achievement of Pius XII’s encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu, published September 30, 1943, is its insistence upon the primacy of the sensus litteralis of Scripture, with its consequent rejection of biblical fundamentalism. See John L. McKenzie, “Problems of Hermeneutics in Roman Catholic Exegesis,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 77 (1958), 198: “The sword of central authority is two-edged; if it could halt the entire Modernist discussion, it can also, ,s it has done, unequivocally repudiate fundamentalism in Catholic exegesis.”

[8] Dom Hubert Van Zeller, The Holy Rule: Notes on St. Benedict’s Legislation for Monks (New York, 1958), P. 75.

[9] See the discerning comment of Dom Odilon M. Cunill on “Lectiones sanctas libenter audire” in San Benito y Su Regla (Madrid, 1954) PP. 351-352: “El estudio y penetration de las cosas sobrenaturales es la ocupaci6n predilecta del monje. No basta la renuncia a las cosas temporales; la mente precisa nutrirse de la verdades eternas, saturarse de ellas. Las lecturas santas tienen cabida en el plan de S.B., de una manera sumamente notable.”

[10] Van Zeller, p. 75.

[11] Chapter XLVIII: “Otiositas inimica est animae; et ideo certis temporibus occupari debent fratres in labore manuum, certis iterum horis in lectione divina.” This combination of manual work and reading would not seem so strange to St. Benedict’s contemporaries, who normally read aloud; see Leclercq, p. 19.

[12] Van Zeller, p. 305; see the comment of Cunill, p. 563: “Aunque esta lectio haya podido ser origen de tantas actividades y estudios de caracter intellectual como ban emprendido los monjes a través de las generaciones, parece ser que el pensamiento de S.B. es que esta lectura constituye mas bien el sondeo que hate el alma en la verdad sobrenatural a la luz misma de Dios.”

[13] Cunill, p. 564. Van Zeller, p. 306, observes in this connection that “nothing so destroys the prayerfulness of spiritual study as rush and fuss. Tension is the enemy of lectio as St. Benedict conceived it.”

[14] Leclercq, pp. 80-91 remarks: “The monastic lectio is orientated toward the meditatio and the oratio.... The meditatio consists in applying oneself with attention to this exercise in total memorization: it is, therefore, inseparable from the lectio. . . . This way of uniting reading, meditation and prayer, this ‘medi

tative prayer’ as William of St. Thierry calls it, had great influence on religious psychology. It occupies and engages the whole person in whom the Scripture takes root, later on to bear fruit.”

[15] Dom Anscari Mund6, “ ‘Bibliotheca.’ Bible et lecture du Carême d’après saint Benoît,” Revue Bénédictine, 6o (1950), 65-92; the conclusions 3 and on p. 89 are particularly noteworthy.

[16] Cf. Joseph Pegon, art. “Componction,” Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, tome II, 2e partie (Paris, 1953), 1312-1321.

[17] See William Yeomans, S.J., “St. Bernard of Clairvaux,” The Month N.S., 23 (196o), 273: “This enables us to see why Bernard attaches importance to the reading of Scripture, the lectio divina of St. Benedict, that reverent, prayerful search for the Word in the word. Reading the Scriptures is not merely an exercise of the memory and intellect, though it implies a careful study of the text and of the patristic commentaries on it. It is a work which engages the whole man, all his faculties and all his affective powers. The Scriptures are known only when they are lived, when they are translated into terms of one’s own experience.”

[18] Pius XII iû the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu insisted repeatedly upon the crucial importance of recovering the ‘literal sense’ of Sacred Scripture, because “it is evident that the chief law of interpretation is that which enables us to dis

cover and determine what the writer meant to say ...” Tr. Canon G. D. Smith (London, 1963), #38

[19] Ch. XX of The Holy Rule: de reverentia orationis.

[20] See Dei Verbum, #i1: “. . . veritatem, quam Deus nostrae salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit....” - A fuller discussion by the present writer of the character of the redemption proclaimed in the Gospel may be found in Faith and Religious Life: a New Testament Perspective (New York, 1971), pp.6-30.

[21] R. A. F. MacKenzie, S.J., Faith and History in the Old Testament (Minneapolis, 1963), P. 35. The writer adds: “With extraordinary consistency and heroic honesty, Israel glorifies its God at the cost of belittling herself.”

[22] The reader might find it helpful to study the decree of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, issued 21 April 1964 on The Historical Truth of the Gospels. The text is available in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 26 (1964), 299-312; a discerning commentary on the document by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., “The Biblical Commission’s Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels” may be found in Theological Studies, 25 (1964), 386-408; a briefer treatment by the same author, “The Gospel Truth” was published in America, 11o (1964), 844-846. An Anglican New Testamet t scholar, Dr. F. W. Beare, presents his view of the decree, “The Historical Truth of the Gospels: an Official Pronouncement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission,” Canadian Journal of Theology, 11 (1965), 231 237. “The Historicity of the Gospels” by Msgr. Myles M. Bourke is to be highly recommended; it appeared in Thought, 39 (1964) 37-56.

[23] “Contemplation of the Gospels, Ignatius Loyola, and the Contemporary Christian,” Theological Studies, 29 (1968), 417-443.

[24] See “The Divinity of Christ in Hymns of the New Testament,” Proceedings: Fourth Annual Convention o f the Society o f Catholic College Teachers o f Sacred Doctrine, 4 (i958), 17.

[25] “Apostoli potuerunt testificari Christi resurrectionem etiam de visu: quia Christum post resurrectionem viventem oculata fide viderunt, quem mortuum sciverant,” Summa Theologica, III, q. 55, 2, ad i.

[26] Dei Verbum, #5: “Unde iidem libri, qui vivum sensum Dei exprimunt, in quibus sublimes de Deo doctrinae ac salutaris de vita hominis sapientia mirabilesque precum thesauri reconduntur, in quibus tandem latet mysterium salutis nostrae, a christifidelibus devote accipiendi sunt.”

[27] Ibid., # 11.

[28] “Ille est qui novus apparet, qui vetus invenitur, et denuo cotidie nascitur in cordibus fidelium,” Epistula ad Diognetum, i r, 4.

[29] The Spiritual Exercises #104.



FOR we have not a high priest who  is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every  respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence (παρρησίας) draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Hebrews 4:15-16



1. experience 2. reflection 3. articulation, or verbalization
first orally
then in writing


This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2001....x....  .