Opening the Heart with Holy Scripture

Michael McClymond
Sunday, January 1st 2023
Jan/Feb 2023

“Apply yourself day and night to reading the Scriptures. Sleep should overtake you while your book is in your hand, and the sacred page will welcome your nodding head like a pillow.” —Jerome


The Why and How of Lectio Divina

The canonical Christian Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, is not only the most widely read book in the world today—the perennial bestseller, day in and day out, though not included in most bestseller listings—but it is also the most extensively interpreted book in the world. Some authors suggested—as a thought experiment—that a physicist, a Marxist, a psychoanalyst, and a theologian might come together and discuss the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. In something of an understatement, they noted that “we would not be surprised to find widespread disagreement among these interpreters about the best reading of Genesis.” They add that “once we acknowledge the plurality of interpretive interests, we need not treat alternative interpretations as failed attempts to discover the meaning of a text.”[1] There are indeed many approaches to reading the Bible, and it would be a form of intellectual imperialism to claim that only one of these approaches is valid. Though this chapter will highlight some weaknesses of modern biblical scholarship, with its so-called historical-critical method, the intent here is not to deny the value of this approach. Rather the point is to argue that the modern, academic approach is just one way of reading the Bible, that the ancient practice of lectio also has value, and that this traditional approach has fully proven its worth to Christian believers.

Lectio approaches the Bible differently than most biblical scholars do, because lectio has a different purpose in mind. Its ultimate goal is not to obtain information about the language, history, customs, etc., of the biblical era, but rather to experience communion with the God of the Bible. A first key assumption in lectio is that God the holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—indwells the biblical text. This means that immersion into the Bible is immersion into the God of the Bible. Reading the Bible is a sacramental act, in that the visible words on the page offer access to the invisible presence of God in and through the text. According to Exodus 17, the ancient Israelites had no water while they were in the desert, and Moses at God’s direction brought forth water for them out of the rock. The apostle Paul commented that the Israelites “all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4). But how so? How could Moses or the Israelites have had any relationship to Jesus, born more than a thousand years later? Once one grasps the apostle’s theological and metaphysical assumptions, what might seem nonsensical from a purely historical point of view becomes understandable. For the apostle, Christ was already present to Moses and the Israelites—indeed, eternally present in the world that God had created—and Christ manifested himself in innumerable though hidden ways prior to Christ’s earthly incarnation in Jesus. Christ is himself the substance of scripture and the content of God’s redemptive plan.[2]

The earliest author to articulate this point fully regarding Christ and scripture—and thus a founding figure in the lectio tradition—was Origen of Alexandria. In his Treatise on the Passover, Origen wrote that “[Christ’s] flesh and blood . . . are the divine Scriptures, eating which, we have Christ; the words becoming his bones, the flesh becoming the meaning from the texts, following which meaning, as it were, we see in a mirror dimly the things which are to come.”[3] There is therefore a real presence of Christ in the written scriptures no less than in the Eucharist and in the believing community. According to Origen, these three realities are all in some sense “the body of Christ”—the church, the Eucharist, and the Bible.[4] Origen stated: “You are . . . to understand the scriptures in this way: as the one, perfect body of the Word.”[5]

A number of consequences follow from recognizing God’s presence in the written scripture. It follows from this it is possible to read scripture in a unified or unitary way. For scripture, as Origen wrote, is “one body of truth” and “one perfect and harmonious instrument of God.”[6] This of course does not mean that every portion of scripture will speak with equal clarity concerning Christ or the message of salvation in Christ. Yet when scripture is, so to speak, properly chewed and digested—using our spiritual teeth and mouths and stomachs to consume it—then each individual book, chapter, and verse will yield a meaning consistent with the meanings we find elsewhere in scripture. If the primary point of modern biblical scholarship is to pry everything apart, and carefully to examine the separate pieces, then the aim of Origen and the early Christian authors was to seek and to find unity among the different parts of scripture.

The affirmation of Christ’s real presence in scripture also led the ancients to read scripture in an intensive way. They assumed that nothing in the text was there by happenstance. This led readers to probe exhaustively and to search for hidden meaning in the details. John 21:11 states that Peter once caught 153 fish, and one might fill an entire book with the ancient and medieval interpretations as to why this number of fish is mentioned! Origen held that spiritual mysteries were concealed in every bit of the biblical text: “I, believing in the words of my Lord Jesus Christ, think that even an ‘iota or dot’ is full of mystery and do not think that any of these‚ ‘will pass away until all is accomplished’ [Mt. 5:18].”[7] For Origen, the longer one spends with the text of scripture, the more one discovers there, to the point that one might become frightened at the sheer immensity of revealed meaning: “The more we read on, the higher rises the mountain of mysteries. And as someone who sets out to sea in a small boat is less afraid as long as the land is near, but . . . is seized with fear and terror for entrusting a slender craft to such great waves; the same seems to happen to us who . . . dare to enter into so vast a sea of mysteries.”[8]

The ancients not only read scripture in a unified and an intensive way but also read scripture in a prayerful way. Origen insisted that a true spiritual understanding of scripture’s meaning could only come through God’s inner illumination: “No one can really understand the words of Daniel except the Holy Spirit which was in Daniel.”[9] This principle was later turned into a medieval maxim, stated by William of St. Thierry and others, to the effect that “the scriptures crave to be read in the spirit with which they were written.”[10] Theologically speaking, the assumption is that just as God’s grace is necessary for sinful people to understand who Christ is, and to respond to Christ in faith, so grace is also necessary for them to understand and to respond to the message of scripture. Origen stated that “human nature of itself does not have the wherewithal to search for God and attain clear knowledge of him without help from the object of its search who then lets himself be found.”[11] The lectio tradition involves an ethos of prayerful and persistent knocking at the door of scripture, asking God to open doors of understanding, and to reveal himself to the inquirer in ever-new ways. Origen wrote: “Devote yourself above all to knowledge of the holy scripture . . . with faith and God-pleasing readiness. . . . And it is not enough to knock and seek, for what is most necessary for understanding the things of God is prayer.” [12]

As the Latin word lectio refers to the ancient scripture-reading practice, another borrowed Latin word—namely theologia—describes the ancient attitude toward Christian learning. Just as lectio differs from “reading” in the contemporary sense, so too theologia differs from “theology” in present-day usage. When the word “theology” is used today, it refers to written texts in printed or digital format, or to an academic discipline—something that a college or seminary student might major in, and take examinations on, as they might major in history or economics. In contrast, theologia denoted an inner disposition—something inscribed on the soul and not on a page. Along these lines, the fourth-century author Evagrius defined the word theologian in terms of prayer: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly; and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”[13] In the contemporary context, this statement makes no sense. A “theologian” today is someone with academic degrees and knowledge of a scholarly discipline. Such a “theologian” might be a prayerful and believing individual, and yet could also be an intelligent person who read and learned about Christian beliefs without ever embracing such beliefs.

The Dominican Yves Congar commented that theologia refers to “that illumination of the soul by the Holy Spirit” that results in its “godlike transformation.” Theologia is “that perfect knowledge of God which is identified with the summit of prayer,” and that includes an “impulsion bolstered by grace to praise the sweetness and the glory of God in the communion of contemplation.” Theologia, wrote Diodochus of Photike, impels a person imbued with God’s grace to “praise the sweetness and the glory of God in the communion of contemplation.”[14] Where there is no perception of God’s grace, glory, and sweetness, there is no theologia. For more than a millennium, the practice of lectio led into theologia, whereby God and spiritual things became sweet and delightful, as truth was inwardly inscribed on a believer’s soul.


The Loss and Recovery of Lectio

How did the ancient practice of lectio, and the related notion of theologia, become marginalized?

A major shift away from lectio occurred in the thirteenth century, with the rise of the new universities in Western Europe and the rise of the so-called scholastic method of inquiry. The approach taken to the Bible in the monasteries had differed from that in the universities. In the monasteries, the emphasis lay not simply on the text, but on the personhood of the reader and the spiritual effect or benefit that he or she might derive from it. Monastic lectio was often irregular and spotty, since the reader’s goal was not to encompass or explain an entire portion or book of the Bible, but rather to extract insight and blessing from the text. In one notable example, the great monastic leader Bernard of Clairvaux preached no less than eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs over a period of eighteen years. Yet, after all this time, his commentary reached only the beginning of the third chapter. He had preached through the biblical book at the rate of two verses per year! The monastic historian Jean Leclerq commented: “The monastic lectio is oriented toward . . . wisdom and appreciation. . . . Lectio divina, which begins with grammar, terminates in compunction, in desire of heaven.”[15] Arnoul of Bohériss captured the monastic attitude when he advised: “When he reads [scripture], let him seek for savor, not science.”[16]

In contrast to this, the scholastic approach to the Bible examined the text in its entirety, analyzing the individual parts as well as the whole. It treated scripture objectively, by analyzing word use, comparing commentators, and raising controversial issues in the form of the quaestio. The quaestio method of reasoning arose when two authoritative texts appeared to be in contradiction. Opposing positions were laid out as an either/or question, or as a set of interrelated questions. Each question and sub-question would be argued for, or against, by appeal to earlier texts or opinions, and then be approved (sic) or denied (non). Gradually the university lectura (lecture) replaced the monastic lectio as the basic mode of teaching and learning in Christian Europe.

Through its relentless questioning and questing after the truth, the argumentative methods of the scholastics bore fruit, and they arrived at a deeper understanding of many subjects. During this era a foundation was quietly being laid for the rise of modern science, in which an experimenter proposed a hypothesis on natural phenomena and sought to confirm or disconfirm it. Yet the argumentative approach to the Bible had its drawbacks. It carried European scholars ever further away from the monastic practice of lectio and the pursuit of theologia. Moreover, in the 1500s, arguments over biblical interpretation proliferated because of divisions between Catholics and Protestants, and the intra-Protestant conflicts among Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, and other groups that broke off over the course of centuries. With many opposing groups claiming to possess unique insight into the correct interpretation of the Bible, there was much theological argumentation about the Bible, and yet less spiritual appropriation of the Bible through lectio.

Following medieval scholasticism, and the Catholic-Protestant conflicts over the Bible, there was a third major blow against lectio that came with the rise of modern biblical scholarship. In his book The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (2010), Michael Legaspi examined the historical-critical methods of biblical study that arose in Germany during the 1700s and 1800s and noted the growing chasm between devout reading and critical approaches to the Bible. Academic biblical study, he writes, “has produced . . . an astonishing amount of useful information. It has become clear, though, that academic criticism in its contemporary form cannot . . . [say] what this information is actually for.” The vast proliferation of data regarding the Bible, and the shifting scholarly hypotheses regarding the stages in which the biblical books may have been written, show no clear relationship to lectio or theologia. While academic study of the Bible often challenges or weakens belief in the Bible, devout reading “edifies and directs it.”[17]

From the early 1500s onward, the Jesuits popularized the so-called Ignatian method of meditation, involving the reverent visualization of biblical scenes. Ignatius Loyola “emphasized the prior assignment of ‘subjects’ and ‘points’ for studied reflection as well as a concluding resolution by the practitioner to act on the basis of what had been learned.” The Jesuit “techniques of ‘spiritual reading’ or ‘meditation’” were nonetheless “less flexible than the more freewheeling lectio divina of old.” As a result, “what had previously been an exercise in prayer facilitated by biblical texts now became a series of carefully-focused mental exercises intended to . . . emphasize neglected virtue.” From the sixteenth century up to the early twentieth century, much of monastic meditation, and the instruction in manuals of spiritual formation, was devoted to meditative “exercises” rather than to an open-ended reflection on the biblical texts.[18]

Despite the hindrances to lectio that appeared in the modern period, devout reading and meditation on the text of scripture never really died out. Sometimes it flourished outside of the monasteries, and among believers who had no direct link to the ancient church and who did not refer to their practices as lectio. The Protestant New Englander Jonathan Edwards described his youthful spiritual experiences in this way: “My mind was greatly fixed on divine things; I was almost perpetually in the contemplation of them . . . year after year. And [I] used to spend abundance of my time, in walking alone in the woods, and solitary places, for meditation, soliloquy and prayer, and converse with God.”[19] Edwards devoted his solitude to reflecting on the Bible. He commented that “I have sometimes had an affecting sense of the excellency of the word of God, as a word of life; as the light of life; a sweet, excellent, life-giving word: accompanied with a thirsting after that word, that it might dwell richly in my heart.”[20]

Edwards added that “sometimes only mentioning a single word, causes my heart to burn within me: or only seeing the name of Christ, or the name of some attribute of God.”[21] These comments suggest a practice of lectio shifting in the direction of prayer, meditation, or contemplation—that is, an instance of the classical pattern of monastic reading, prayer, and contemplation.

Another Protestant proponent of something like lectio was Reuben (R. A.) Torrey, who served as president of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and was a well-known revival preacher in his day. In a book published in 1900, How to Pray, Torrey distinguished the devout reading of the Bible from purely academic study by saying: “Mere intellectual study of the Word of God is not enough; there must be meditation upon it. The Word of God must be revolved over and over and over in the mind, with a constant looking to God by His Spirit to make that Word a living thing in the heart.”[22]

Lectio reemerged during the middle part of the twentieth century, in part because of a return to the reading of early church authors in the Catholic movement known as ressourcement (“return to the sources”). Such scholars as Jean Daniélou and Henri de Lubac rejected scholastic manuals of theology, to read instead the original texts of the Greek and Latin fathers, and in the process they came to realize that ancient approaches to the Bible were strikingly different from modern methods. This renewed Catholic interest in lectio began to be more widely diffused into mainline Protestant contexts in the 1970s, and then among evangelical and Pentecostal Christians from the 1980s onward.

A newer approach that brings together scripture reading with prayer is called “listening prayer.” One recent author says that this approach “requires that we ask God questions and wait for him to respond. . . . It’s far more art than science, and practice does help. . . . We need to get in the habit of asking God more questions and then expecting his response.”[23] The idea of not only reading scripture and praying to God, but also of “hearing God” or “hearing from God,” may be an indication of the growing influence of Pentecostal and charismatic spiritualities. Works in this broad genre include LeAnne Payne’s Listening Prayer (1994), Dallas Willard’s Hearing God (2012), and Mark Virkler’s Hearing God through Biblical Meditation (2016). Such books as Enzo Bianchi’s Praying the Word (1998) and Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book (2006) remain more closer tethered to the lectio tradition, in stressing the biblical text rather than the perceived voice of God.


Principles for the Practice of Lectio

Much can be learned about meditation by paying close attention to what the Bible itself has to say on the subject. The Latin terms meditari and meditatio translate the Hebrew word hagah, “to contemplate, to talk, to mumble.” Hagah refers not merely to a mental process, but also to an audible phenomenon—a murmuring or muttering of words under one’s breath or sotto voce. In one biblical text the Hebrew word refers to the cooing of a dove (Isa. 38:14). This is not of course the usual mental image of a meditating monk, kneeling in a chapel in absolute silence. One notices too that the biblical instruction given to Joshua implies a spoken and audible 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. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful” (Josh. 1:8). The text does not say that the book should not depart from Joshua’s “mind,” but not from his “mouth.” In other words, Joshua was constantly to be speaking God’s word aloud to himself or to others.

The book of Deuteronomy gave such instruction not only to Israel’s leader, but to the whole nation, who were to “recite them [i.e., the biblical words] to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7). The Israelites were to be gossiping the good news of God wherever they went and during their daily chores. The “meditation” on God’s written word in Psalm 1 and other texts thus denotes “the half-audible murmur of a person who is praying.”[25] Such meditative recitation was multidimensional. It involved not only seeing written words on a page, but also the speaking of those words, and the hearing the words thus spoken. It involved a thinking mind, a feeling heart, a speaking mouth, and a listening ear. No wonder that the written scroll of God’s word is presented in scripture to the prophet as something to chew and swallow (Ezek. 3:1–4; Rev. 10:8–11). The command to “eat this scroll” indicates that God’s word must be consumed and digested to yield its full effect and benefit.

Meditation in scripture is connected to specific times—occurring “in the night” (Ps. 63:7; 77:7), and yet stretching through “day and night” (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2). The subject or content of meditation may be God himself (Ps. 63:7), the works of God’s hands in nature (Ps. 143:5), God’s deeds in history (Ps. 77:13; 143:5), God’s justice (Ps. 35:28; 71:24), or God’s miracles (Ps. 105:2; 119:27; 145:5). As noted already, the written scripture or some portion thereof is often a focus of meditation (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2; Ps. 119:15, 23, 48, 78, 97, 148). A number of psalms link meditation with remembrance (Ps. 63:7; 77:4, 7,1 2; 143:5). In Psalm 77, there is a shift from lamentation (vv. 1–10), toward the praise of God (vv. 12–21), through the remembrance of, and meditation on, God’s past deeds (vv. 12–13). In Psalm 143, the psalmist’s meditations on God’s former deeds and God’s creation of the world bring a transition from lamentation (vv. 2–4), to pleading with God (vv. 6–10), and finally to a confession of confidence in God (vv. 10–12). Psalm 1, writes Kathrin Liess, is “a beatitude of the praying person who constantly ‘mumblingly’ recites . . . the Torah and internalizes it so much that their life’s journey succeeds.” Psalm 1 is a preamble to the entire book of Psalms and has “programmatic significance for the book of Psalms as a whole, since this introductory Psalm instructs the reader to read the Psalms from a ‘meditative’ perspective.” In this way the Psalms are “a ‘book of meditation,’ to be meditated upon and read in a specific way called lectio continua in the monastic tradition.”

Lectio brings faithful readers into an awareness of the “now-ness” of God and God’s Word. Whether gradually or suddenly, in a shock of recognition, one sees that the biblical words do not pertain merely to a time and place there-and-then, but also to the here-and-now, and to one’s own life situation. The Gospel of Luke records that when Jesus came to preach in his hometown of Nazareth, he chose a passage from the book of Isaiah on the preaching of good news to the poor, and he surprised his hearers by saying: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). God’s word is “fulfilled,” Jesus says, “today.” Those who are gripped by the force of God’s word are faced with a choice: they may say no as well as yes to what they hear. The Old Testament warns: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 97:7–8). The word today once again is a reminder that God’s word causes the hearer to experience its power and pertinence in the present. Jesus’ words have lost none of their force since he spoke them, and so Jesus is a contemporary to everyone who is alive today. His call to “follow me,” and his summons for hearers of the word to become disciples of the word, is not limited to his own time but applies to all persons of all times and all places. It is the task of lectio divina to bring to the awareness of the person the “here-ness” and “now-ness” of God’s Word.

Michael McClymond (PhD, University of Chicago) is professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University.

Material in this article is adapted from the forthcoming book by Michael McClymond, Martyrs, Monks, and Mystics: An Introduction to Christian Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2023). Copyright 2023 Paulist Press.

1. Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 15–16.
2. For more on this point, see Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).
3. Origen, On the Passover, 33.20–21; cited in Raymond Studzinski, Reading to Live: The Evolving Practice of Lectio Divina (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 30.
4. See Studzinski, Reading to Live, 3, 30, where Hans Urs von Balthasar is shown to have mediated this insight from Origen.
5. Origen, commentary fragment; as cited in Hans Urs Von Balthasar, trans., Origen: Spirit and Fire; A Thematic Anthology of His Writings, trans. Robert J. Daly (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1984), 88.
6. Balthasar, trans. and ed., Origen, 88.
7. Balthasar, trans. and ed., Origen, 89.
8. Balthasar, trans. and ed., Origen, 90.
9. Balthasar, trans. and ed., Origen, 97.
10. Martin F. Connell, Luke Dysinger, et al., “Lectio Divina,” in Christine Helmer et al., eds., Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception; Volume 15 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2017), cols. 1214–18, citing col. 1216.
11. Balthasar, trans. and ed., Origen, 84–85.
12. Balthasar, trans. and ed., Origen, 94.
13. Evagrius of Pontus, Chapters on Prayer, 60; in Robert E. Sinkewicz, trans., Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 199.
14. Yves M.-J. Congar, History of Theology, trans. Hunter Guthrie (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1968), 31–32.
15. Jean Leclerq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, trans. Catharine Misrahi (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996), 72.
16. Leclerq, The Love of Learning, 73.
17. Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 169.
18. Luke Dysinger, in Connell, Dysinger, et al., “Lectio Divina,” col. 1219.
19. Jonathan Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” in George Claghorn, ed., The Works of Jonathan Edwards; Volume 16: Letters and Personal Writings (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 790–804, citing 794–95.
20. Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” 801.
21. Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” 800.
22. R. A. Torrey, How to Pray (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1900), 72–73.
23. Seth Barnes, The Art of Listening Prayer: Finding God’s Voice Amidst Life’s Noise (Gainesville, GA: Praxis Press, 2005), 32.
24. LeAnne Payne, Listening Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994); Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, updated by Jan Johnson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012); and Mark Virkler, Hearing God through Biblical Meditation (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 2016); Enzo Bianchi, Praying the Word: An Introduction to Lectio Divina (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1998); Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2006).
25. Kathrin Liess, “Meditate, Meditation,” in Christine Helmer et al., eds., Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception; Volume 18 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2020), cols. 421–23, citing 422.
Photo of Michael McClymond
Michael McClymond
Michael McClymond (PhD, University of Chicago) is professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University.
Sunday, January 1st 2023

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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