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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette religion illustration. - Photo by Nikki Dawes

As the season of Lent begins next week, many Christians will give up something as a gesture of penitence. Others will delve more deeply into a spiritual discipline or take up a new one, such as fasting, journal writing or a specific prayer practice.

Another option is a spiritual discipline once common only in monasteries -- lectio divina.

Lectio divina is often called "sacred reading" and most often involves the reading of Scripture. But unlike reading the Bible for scholarly intent or for historical insight, lectio divina is a way of listening to God through His written word. The intent is to encounter God.

The word "lectio" means to read, while "divina" means divine.

Author and Catholic biblical scholar Stephen Binz, a former resident of Little Rock, has written much about this spiritual practice.

"Lectio divina teaches us to listen for the voice of God in Scripture," he said. "As we read the Bible, we listen, as St. Benedict said, with 'the ear of the heart.'"

Binz said instead of talking to God through prayer and waiting for an answer, lectio divina begins with listening.

"It's listening and praying in response," he said.

Binz said this type of reading the Scriptures dates back to ancient times, and the term itself is believed to have originated in the third century. St. Benedict incorporated it as the core of his Rule that forms the basis of Benedictine spirituality, and monks and nuns continue to practice lectio divina today.

Sister Stephanie Schroeder is a Benedictine nun at St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith. Now 83, she has been a nun for 62 years, and lectio divina has been a constant in her life.

"It's a special and unique kind of reading," Schroeder said. "It's slow, reflective reading. You are hoping to be touched, healed and transformed by the word."

The practice of lectio divina is much like strolling down a path and pausing along the way instead of rushing to the end. Schroeder said the goal is to read for quality, not quantity. She gets up at 4:30 each morning for lectio divina and slowly reads Scripture.

"You are reading under the loving gaze of the eye of God," she said. "It helps me to be open to the Holy Spirit."

As she slowly reads the text, a word or phrase might catch her attention. If so, she stops and reflects, asking what God might be trying to tell her. Then she thinks back to that message throughout the day and as she spends time in quiet contemplation in the monastery chapel.

For those trying lectio divina for the first time, she suggests reading Scripture from one of the four Gospels.

"Read it very slowly and let it hold you and stay with that word. What are you feeling? Talk to God about that," she said. "Relax, and don't rush."

Schroeder said lectio divina is not the same as Bible study. Rather, it's another form of prayer.

"It's so simple, so easy to do," she said. "It's not what you are thinking but what you are feeling [that matters]. You can do it on your own time. It's just prayer."

She said the goal for her is transformation and "forming a deeper relationship with God who is my beloved."

"It's what we all want to do -- to be transformed by the word," she said.

Guigo II, a Carthusian monk, organized lectio divina into four steps in the 12th century, and many practicing the spiritual discipline still follow that pattern. The steps include lectio (reading/listening), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer) and contemplatio (contemplation). If the reader's attention is caught by a word or phrase, he moves to the meditatio or meditative stage and reflects on what the words mean. Oratio is talking to and connecting with God through prayer, and that moves to contemplation, or resting in the presence of God.

Eventually the practice found its way to the people in the pews, and recent popes, including Pope Francis, have urged Catholics to embrace lectio divina "as a way of listening to what the Lord wishes to tell us in His word and of letting ourselves be transformed by the [Holy] Spirit."

The spiritual discipline has also been embraced by Christians of other denominations.

The Rev. Lowell Grisham, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, encourages his parishioners to practice lectio divina while reading and reflecting on the week's Scripture readings. He discovered the practice while learning about spiritual disciplines in seminary. He received further instruction from his spiritual director, Sister Macrina Wiederkehr (also a Benedictine nun), years ago while serving at St. John's Episcopal Church in Fort Smith, and from the writings of Thelma Hall, author of Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina. Lectio divina also goes hand in hand with centering prayer, one of Grisham's favorite spiritual disciplines.

"By nature I'm very active and extroverted in my being and in my thought so the invitation to enter into Scripture in a very active way, first through thinking and really working on it, and then allowing yourself to move into it with your heart and your gut works for me," he said. "The openness to silence and stillness became very precious to me in the second half of life."

Grisham said he finds a richness to lectio divina that makes Scripture come alive.

"It comes alive in such a visceral way that passages ring with new depth, energy and insight, so if I have ever spent a fruitful period of lectio divina with a Scripture, the next time I hear that Scripture or read it, it tingles," Grisham said.

Grisham said he most often practices lectio divina while on retreat or when he's preparing to preach on a particular passage of Scripture.

"In those cases it tends to really open up some wells of insight and depth," he said. "One of the things I like about it is it uses so much of our capacity. You use your intellect. You use your open heart and emotions and feelings and you can open to the depths that are below thought and feeling."

Binz said lectio divina shouldn't be used to the exclusion of reading the Bible for study or historical insight with an authoritative guide or biblical commentary. The text still matters. But lectio divina goes beyond a fundamental approach to the Bible concerned only with history or inerrancy to a way of being open to hearing the voice of God.

"We are trying to receive God's word in all of its transforming power," he said. "In other words, if we are just reading for information we are not going to open ourselves to the transforming power of the word."

Binz said he has been working in the field of biblical studies his entire professional life and has been trying to challenge Christians to learn to read the Bible in this way and understand it as a transforming experience.

"I've been working in this field for 30 years and have increasingly understood that the tradition of lectio divina is the best way for us today to read Scripture in that fuller way," he said.

Binz's latest book, Transformed by God's Word: Discovering the Power of Lectio and Visio Divina, was released this week. In it, he combines the practice of sacred reading with "seeing the word" through icons. He selected 20 icons with scenes from the Gospels and paired them with the corresponding Scriptures.

"The early spiritual masters taught the more of our five senses we can involve in any spiritual practice, the more power it has to transform us. Seeing these images as well as hearing and speaking the word involves many of our senses and is therefore a powerful spiritual practice," he said.

Religion on 02/06/2016

Print Headline: Praying the Scriptures

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