A Pauline Reflection on Lectio Divina

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— By John Kincaid, Professor of Theology —

Based on the title of this blog entry, you might be asking yourself: what is lectio divina?

In addition, for those who know what lectio divina is, you might be asking: where does Paul address the topic of lectio divina?

In this blog entry, I will attempt to answer these two questions, beginning with addressing the practice known as lectio divina.

What is Lectio Divina?

Lectio Divina (“divine reading”) is the practice of a prayerful, contemplative reading of Scripture. According to the Catechism, the primary place for this kind of prayerful reading of Scripture is the liturgy “where the Word of God is so read and meditated on that it becomes prayer…” (CCC 1177). This prayerful, liturgical reading of Scripture is done in the Eucharistic liturgy and the Liturgy of the Hours, thereby highlighting the primary place of Scripture in the Church’s perpetual worship of God.

Furthermore, as Scott Hahn has highlighted, the canon of Scripture itself is inherently liturgical, for

…the motives for establishing the canon were largely liturgical and that liturgical use was an important factor in determining what Scriptures were to be included in the canon. Put simply, the canon was drawn up to establish which books should be read when the community gathered for worship, and the books included in the canon were those that were already being read in the Church’s liturgy.[1]

As a result of the liturgical nature of Scripture, it seems to follow that if one desires to interpret Scripture in a manner that is fully consistent with the kind of text Scripture is, then lectio divina is more than a mere aid to prayer, but an important part of a comprehensive approach to biblical interpretation.

While lectio divina is properly liturgical, the practice of lectio divina is not limited to liturgical settings, for a contemplative reading of Scripture is a pivotal part of the life of prayer that all Christians are called to embrace (see CCC 2708).

As a result of these kinds of considerations, it is easier to understand why Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of lectio divina in his apostolic exhortation for which this blog is named, Verbum Domini. In paragraph 87, Benedict says:

The documents produced before and during the Synod mentioned a number of methods for a faith-filled and fruitful approach to sacred Scripture. Yet the greatest attention was paid to lectio divina, which is truly “capable of opening up to the faithful the treasures of God’s word, but also of bringing about an encounter with Christ, the living word of God”.

Benedict continues by describing the core activities that define the practice oflectio divina:

I would like here to review the basic steps of this procedure. It opens with the reading (lectio) of a text, which leads to a desire to understand its true content:what does the biblical text say in itself? Without this, there is always a risk that the text will become a pretext for never moving beyond our own ideas.

Next comes meditation (meditatio), which asks: what does the biblical text say to us? Here, each person, individually but also as a member of the community, must let himself or herself be moved and challenged.

Following this comes prayer (oratio), which asks the question: what do we say to the Lord in response to his word? Prayer, as petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise, is the primary way by which the word transforms us.

Finally, lectio divina concludes with contemplation (contemplatio), during which we take up, as a gift from God, his own way of seeing and judging reality, and ask ourselves what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us? In the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul tells us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2).

Contemplation aims at creating within us a truly wise and discerning vision of reality, as God sees it, and at forming within us “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor2:16). The word of God appears here as a criterion for discernment: it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). We do well also to remember that the process of lectio divina is not concluded until it arrives at action (actio), which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity.

In this rich passage, Benedict outlines the five practices of lectio divina: reading, meditation, prayer, contemplation, and action. In fact, he does so by drawing on Paul, for the Holy Father suggests that lectio divina can bring about our transformation through the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2) so that we are enabled to gain “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). Building on Benedict’s use of Paul regarding the practice of lectio divina, we now turn to the properly Pauline part of this reflection.

A Pauline approach to lectio divina?

It must be noted upfront that Paul does not refer to the practice of lectio divinain his letters.

However, as Benedict has already shown us, that does not mean that Paul’s teaching is unable to guide us in the practice of lectio divina. In fact, Benedict suggests that lectio divina can help us be transformed by the renewal of our minds so that we gain the mind of Christ. Yet how would Paul suggest we attain that goal?

While it appears safe to conclude that Paul would not object to the five practices of lectio divina highlighted by Benedict above, I would suggest that the heart of Paul’s guidance for the process of lectio divina would center on what Markus Bockmuehl has called “seeing the Word.”

In one of the most beautiful and important passages in all of his letters, Paul tells the Corinthians that by beholding the glory of the Lord, they are being transformed from one degree of glory to another through the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). In fact, the Greek term translated as “transformed” is present passive of the verb metamorphoō. As a result, one could paraphrase Paul by saying, “by beholding the glory of the Lord we are undergoing the process of metamorphosis.”

What does this mean? By beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus (2 Cor 4:6), we are being changed to become like Christ, or what Ben Blackwell calls “Christosis.”[2] While Paul was privileged to see the glory of Christ on the Road to Damascus, how can we see this glory and be transformed?

I would suggest that one important way to behold the glory of the Lord in the face of Christ is to behold His glory in Scripture, and to do this, lectio divina is a wonderful tool in helping us gain the eyes that are able to see the glory of the Lord.

Therefore, while Paul never mentions lectio divina, a Pauline approach to “divine reading” might go something like this:

“In coming to the pages of Sacred Scripture, our goal should be to behold the glory of God in the face of Christ; by means of this encounter, the Spirit transforms us from one degree of glory to another so that we are empowered to gain the mind of Christ.”

[1] Scott W. Hahn, “Worship in the Word: Toward a Liturgical Hermeneutic,”Letter & Spirit 1 (2005): 101-136, at 102-103.

[2] Ben C. Blackwell, Christosis: Pauline Soteriology in Light of Deification in Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria. (WUNT II/314; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011). This is also avaliable on line athttp://etheses.dur.ac.uk/view/creators/BLACKWELL=3ABENJAMIN,CAREY=3A=3A.html