by Rev. Jeffrey W. Ware

Presented to the Circuit 33 Meeting / Texas District Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 11-7-07


An age old devotional technique called Lectio Divina is gaining popularity  again here in the 21st Century. Its growing popularity has made it the subject of lay and clergy studies,  retreats, and literature, not only within Roman Catholicism but also in wider  Protestantism including the Lutheran church. But what, exactly, is Lectio  Divina and does it have a place within confessional Lutheranism?

Lectio Divina is “divine reading” or “holy reading.”  In its most basic form Lectio Divina  is simply a technique for learning, meditating upon, and praying the Holy  Scriptures.  Various other  definitions shed light upon the contemplative aspect that is most usually  thought of as the goal of Lectio Divina.

Lectio Divina… represents an early monastic technique of  prayer which continues in practice though less widely, intended to achieve  communion with God as well as providing special spiritual insights and peace  from that experience.  It is a way  of praying with Scripture that calls one to study, ponder, listen and, finally,  pray from God’s Word (Wikipedia).[Lectio Divina is] a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures which enables the Bible, the  Word of God, to become a means of union with God (Dysinger).

History ofLectio Divina

It was most likely Origin (185-232) who laid the groundwork  for Lectio Divina as he put forth the  idea of reading to discover a deeper meaning that lay beyond the literal sense  of the biblical text.  “He used the  Greek phrase thea anagnosis to  describe scriptural reading for the purpose of finding a hidden message from  God” (Hagan).  This tradition  continued into monasticism where it became an important part of the daily  horarium. “It was, by the 5th century pretty well an institution of  all monasteries.” (Hagan)

Benedict (480-543) extolled the value of “divine reading” in his Rule, making it a part of the  daily ritual of monks in the Benedictine Order.

Benedict envisaged his monks making about three hours a day  available for personal lectio. He  sees reading as one of the sources of spiritual energy, something that puts us  into contact with grace and thus makes possible an enhanced level of fervor and  unselfishness in daily living.  It  is clear that what Benedict has in mind is a very existential, life-related  reading and not just mindless paging through any volume that comes to hand  (Casey, 5).

He makes extensive mention of the specific times, during  each season of the church year, which are to be devoted to reading. Throughout the year he has at least two hours a day set aside for such  reading (Benedict).

Guigo II (1140-1193) was  the first to systematize Lectio Divina  into four steps or moments: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Sometime around 1150 he wrote his famousScala Claustralium, “The Monk’s  Ladder.”  In this writing uses the  image of a ladder, reminiscent of Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28) stretching from earth  into heaven.

This spiritual ladder is the means by which people “can climb from earth to heaven. It is a  marvelously tall ladder, but with just four rungs, the one end standing on the  ground, the other thrilling into the clouds and showing the climber heavenly  secrets.  Understand now what the  four staves of this ladder are, each in turn.Reading.   Lesson, is busily looking on Holy Scripture with all one’s will and wit.  Meditation is a studious insearching with the mind to know what was before  concealed through desiring proper skill. Prayer is a devout desiring of the heart to get what is good and avoid  what is evil.  Contemplation is the  lifting up of the heart to God tasting somewhat of the heavenly sweetness and  savour. Readingseeks, meditation finds, prayer asks,  contemplation feels.  The first  degree is for beginners, the second for those profiting from it, the third for  those who are devout, the fourth for those who are holy and blessed of God  (Guigo).

Guigo understands the four moments as a progression whereby  one ultimately achieves contemplative union with God. He “affirms that simple dedication to God’s word, if carried to its  logical conclusion, will conduct us to the lofty zones of contemplative intimacy  with God.  Thus it can be said that  the ultimate goal of lectio divina is  contemplation” (Casey, 59).

The Goal ofLectio Divina

Most understand the goal ofLectio Divina to be contemplation. That is to say, Lectio Divina  is radically different from the kind of reading that we commonly engage in  today.  “One does not engage in  Lectio Divina to acquire disinterested, intellectual knowledge. The intent of  Lectio Divina is to make the reading of Scripture a prayer, to create a two way  street for God and us” (Hagan).  This is a spiritual reading that has as its chief characteristic an attitude of  surrender to the word of God rather than the restless attempt to “get something” out of the text.

The gratuity of Lectio Divina is different from the utility of study. Study endeavors to master the word,Lectio Divina surrenders and yields  before it.  Lectio Divina also differs from  spiritual reading.  The last can  have as its end the acquisition of knowledge, the formulation of convictions or  the stimulus for generous self-giving. The aim of the former is union with God in faith and love (Olivera).

The four moments in Lectio Divina are to be seen as a progression. “What begins as reading becomes reflection or meditation; this leads to  prayer and ultimately to contemplative union with God. The Latin terms used traditionally arelectio >meditatio >oratio >contemplatio” (Casey, 57). However, this progression is by no means a rigid “method” of prayer  intended to be mechanically performed in one session. Neither is it a progression in the chronological sense.

Sometimes the steps of the ladder are not chronologically  connected. The prayer latent in  meditation on Scripture is released unpredictably later when engaged in an  entirely different activity.  Some  people combine reading, reflection, and prayer in a single ‘exercise’; others  separate them in time and space.  Many experience a delayed reaction.  The impact of their lectio may strike  months later.  There is a lot of  flexibility here that takes seriously different characters, different vocations,  different opportunities, and the changing seasons of life (Casey, 59).

A Deeper Look at  Lectio Divina

The selection of reading material is very important inLectio Divina. “The earliest interpretations, and some current ones, see Lectio Divina  limited exclusively to Holy Scripture” (Hagan). This is the most conservative position. Most modern practitioners would include other Christian writings. For the purposes of this paper, however, we will limit our discussion to  the application of Lection Divina in  the reading of Holy Scripture.

It is also important to set a definite time for reading  each and every day.  Lectio Divina requires a time  commitment each day from as little as a half hour to three or four hours a day. “Saint Benedict insists that the monk’s day includes definite times for  reading.  This is to say that such  periods are known in advance they are not subject to whim…” (Casey, 23). Location is also important.  Lectio Divina should take place in an  area that is free from distractions. It also helps if the location has some kind of spiritual significance.

Engaging in Lectio  Divina should not be taken lightly. Commitment is key. “Spasmodic periods of a few minutes of spiritual  reading may be of very positive value, but it is notLectio Divina. Lectio Divina as a formal discipline contemplates reading an entire  book from beginning to end.  Not at  one sitting, but from beginning to end” (Hagan). The importance of this fact will be discussed later.

It is also important to prepare the heart and mind. Modern practitioners of Lectio  Divina stress the importance of engaging in “transitional activity” prior to  reading in order to achieve the proper state of mind.  Deep breathing, proper posture, and prayer prior toLectio Divina helps to give the  reader focus helps the reader prepare for the encounter with God.

Now that we have a general idea of what is involved in  Lectio Divina let’s take a closer look at what takes place in each moment. Casey  shows that behind the four moments of Lectio Divina lies the ancient teaching that there are multiple “senses” of  Holy Scripture.  Each sense is  apprehended with a different faculty of human consciousness.

The Four Moments of Lectio Divina (Casey, 57).


Literal/      Historical Intellect Understanding the text Lectio
Allegorical/ Christological Memory Contextualizing the Meaning Meditatio
Tropological/ Behavioral Conscience Living the Meaning Oratio
Anagogical/ Mystical Spirit Meeting God in the Text Contemplation

Lectio engages  the literal sense of Holy Scripture by use of the human intellect in order to  understand the “historical” meaning of the text. This moment of Lectio Divina  is characterized by study of the text. This may range from a mere reading of the selection multiple times to  full blown exegetical study. Of key  importance is the reading of complete texts rather than mere selections of  texts.  This helps to avoid  misinterpretation.  As one appliesLectio Divina to Holy Scripture this  means reading whole books of the Bible. However, there is an aspect of this kind of complete reading that may be  unfamiliar to our western mindset.

Lectio Divina is not reading in the sense that our society  has educated us to understand reading. Our western culture has taught us to consider reading as a purely lineal  progression.  We start on page 1 and  proceed consecutively to ‘the end.’ Lectio Divina does in fact begin at the  beginning and end at the end, but it presumes much wandering in between. Repetition is critical to Lectio Divina. Back and forth, up and down, savoring and balancing what is presently  being read with what was recently read (Casey, 7).

Another aspect of properlectio is an attitude of passive,  silent receptivity.  One is to  become quiet during the reading in order to hear the voice of God.

Lectio is reverential listening; listening both in a spirit  of silence and of awe.  We are  listening for the still, small voice of God that will speak to us personally – not loudly, but intimately.  In  Lectio we read slowly, attentively, gently listening to hear a word or phrase  that is God’s word for us this day” (Dysinger).

A sense of expectation accompanies this receptive attitude. The Bible was written for salvation, therefore, we approach the text  expecting to hear from God.

However, we also recognize that God works in ways that we  often do not expect.  “What we  sometimes forget is that this gift of salvation often runs counter to our own  perceptions and expectations.  The  disposition that makes us capable of receiving salvation includes a willingness  to be guided and to be changed” (Casey, 6). Submission is an important aspect ofLectio Divina. We are to approach the  reading defenseless and ready to be changed and influenced. “We open ourselves to the text, we approach it in a spirit of faith and  obedience, ready to perceive in what we read the word of God, the will of God,  the action of God coming to save us.… We approach our reading as a disciple comes  to a master: receptive, docile, willing to be changed” (Casey, 6).

The lectio inLectio Divina lays the groundwork for  the three moments which follow and yet it is only the beginning. “The literal meaning of the text is always the point of departure: the  letter reveals the deeds and presents the persons, history is the foundation. The Spirit takes us beyond the letter, our theological life opens the  door of meaning to us” (Olivera). Meditatio  naturally flows from this first moment.

Meditatio  engages the Allegorical sense of Holy Scripture by use of the human memory in  order to contextualize the meaning of the biblical text. In this moment human memory is used to discover Christ and the Church  within and behind the biblical text in order to build faith.

In its most basic sensemeditatio could be described as  reflection and application. “We must take in the word – that is, memorize it – and while gently repeating it to ourselves, allow it to interact with our  thoughts, our hopes, our memories, our desires” (Dysinger). The individual engages the biblical text in a new way by beginning to  focus on a word or words that are of particular import. These words are repeated multiple times in order to commit them to  memory.  In the process the memory  is used to call forth prior knowledge and experiences. The individual applies the text to himself as he begins to see himself  within the context of Christ’s passion and as a member of the Church.

Meditation is not to be confused with exegesis. Rather, it is an intensely personal reading of Holy Scripture with  application to one’s own life. “To meditate is to chew and ruminate, for it is  to: repeat, reflect, remember, interpret, penetrate… One who thus meditates on  the Word is transformed according to the Word and becomes a mediator of the  Word.  When the text speaks to your  heart, you have reached and received a precious fruit of meditation” (Olivera).

This personal application of scripture inmeditatio serves two purposes. It effects both moral and experiential change.

Memory is more than the ability to recall information. In the traditional sense it involves living in the presence of what is ‘remembered,’ just as mindfulness of a loved one may accompany all our  activities.  This is what Jesus  meant when he spoke about ‘abiding’ or ‘remaining’ in his word (John 8:31; 15:7). To live in the presence of God alters our behavior and also effects a  qualitative change in our experience. It is a dynamic element in ongoing conversion.” (Casey, 72).

Oratio engages  the Tropological or behavioral sense of scripture by use of the human conscience  as the individual begins to live out the meaning of the text. The first expression of this is prayer. Oratio may simply be described  as praying the text, using the words of the text itself to form the words or  theme of one’s own prayer.  It has  also been described as opening one’s heart to God or even as conversation with  God. “Prayer understood both as dialogue  with God, that is, as loving conversation with the One who has invited us into  His embrace; and as consecration, prayer as the priestly offering to God of  parts of ourselves that we have not previously believed God wants” (Dysinger).

The application of the text to oneself inmeditatio reveals our lowly sinful  condition and creates in us a desire for a clean heart that we might know God. In this situation the heart itself is enflamed and led to pray for these  things.  In the midst of such prayer  God grants contemplatio.

What does God then, whose help is ever upon the righteous  and our ear at our prayer?  He  doesn’t wait until the prayer is fully ended, but he pierces in the midst of the  burning desire of that thirsty soul, and with a secret balm of heavenly  sweetness softens the soul and comforts it, and makes it be so overcome with  delight and joy that it forgets all earthly things for that hour, and he makes  it to lose itself in wonder, as if it were dead from knowing ourself. And as in fleshly works we are so overcome that we lose the guidance of  reason and so become all fleshly, right so in the ladder of contemplation our  fleshly stirrings are so cancelled out that the flesh does not win over the  spirit but is become all spiritual” (Guigo).

Contemplatio  engages the Anagogical or mystical sense of scripture by a special gift of the  Holy Spirit applied to the spirit of man such that God is met and personally  experienced as one reads text.  Contemplatio has been described in  various ways.  Central for most  authors is the concept of subjective experience of the divine. It is sometimes described as mere listening to God as one gains freedom  from one’s own thoughts as one’s mind, heart, and soul is opened to the  influence of God.  The idea of “resting” in the presence of God is also a common theme. It is perhaps best thought of as an indescribable experience of the  divine characterized by silence and feelings of delight, thirst, knowing, etc. The following two definitions attempt to get at the heart ofcontemplatio:

What is contemplation? It is a change in the consciousness  marked by two elements.  On the one  hand, there is a recession from ordinary sensate and intellectual awareness and  all the concerns and programs that depend upon it. At the same time, more subtly, it is being possessed by the reality and  mystery of God.  Having emptied  oneself in imitation of Christ (Philippians 2:7), one is filled with the  fullness of God. ‘Of his fullness we have all received, grace for grace’ (John  1:16).  The endowments of Christ  become ours – in particular his relationship with the Father. In graced living Christ becomes the doer of our actions; in contemplation  we become the subject of Christ’s prayer. There is a mysterious interpenetration of subjectivity in the realm of  supernatural existence.” (Casey, 39)To contemplate is to take silent delight in theTemplewhich is Risen Christ.  To  contemplate is to encounter the Word, beyond words. To contemplate is to live in the Risen One, rooted in the now of this  earth, reaching out to the beyond of the heavens. Contemplation is vision.  The  contemplative sees the resurrection in the cross, life in death, the Risen One  in the Crucified. Contemplation is the thirst caused by the seeming absence or  the satiety of mutual presence.  The  contemplative is at a loss for words, simply because he knows (Olivera).

Contemplation is, therefore, the final goal. Incontemplatio the individual finally  makes actual contact with the divine by ultimately transcending the text itself. “He who has revealed truth engraven in the innermost depths of his heart,  does not depend on the sacred text and is for others a living Bible” (Olivera).

Luther andLectio Divina on the Word of God

John Kleinig has shown that Luther’s life in the monastery  most certainly exposed him to the practice ofLectio Divina.

“Luther distinguished his own practice of spirituality from  the tradition of spiritual foundation that he experienced as a monk. This tradition followed a well-timed, ancient pattern of meditation and  prayer.  It’s goal was ‘contemplation,’ the experience of ecstasy, bliss, rapture, and illumination  through union with the glorified Lord Jesus.” (Kleinig, 4-5)

This “pattern of meditation and prayer” was none other thanLectio Divina. Luther’s reformation discovery of the Gospel led him, finally, to reject  this brand of spirituality.

Oswald Bayer shows how Luther’s “reformation discovery” led  him to a new understanding of Language. In his early years Luther dealt with the Word in terms of Augustinian and  Stoic theology, namely, that “language is a system of signs that refer to  objects or situations or of signs that express an emotion. In either case the  sign is – as a statement or as an expression – not the reality itself” (Bayer,  76).  In the case of holy absolution,  for instance, the word of absolution was understood to be a declaration of that  which has already happened in heaven. The absolution, in this case, is not the reality itself, rather, the  words signify or point to a reality that already exists.

Luther’s theological breakthrough was his discovery that  the word of God is the reality in itself. “That the linguistic sign is itself  the reality, that it represents not an absent but a present reality, was  Luther’s great hermeneutical discovery, his ‘Reformation Discovery’ in the  strict sense” (Bayer).  Luther had  discovered that the word “does what it says” and “says what it does” (Bayer).

It is clear that Luther’s fully developed understanding of  the word would have conflicted with the basic premise of Lectio Divina. Kleinig proposes that Luther’s Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio was his corrective toLectio Divina.

In contrast to this rather manipulative method, Luther  proposed an evangelical pattern of spirituality as reception rather than  self-promotion.  This involved three  things: prayer (oratio), meditation (meditation),  and temptation (tentatio). All three revolved around ongoing, faithful attention to God’s word” (Kleinig,  258).

It has already been demonstrated that the ultimate goal ofLectio Divina is contemplation  whereby one comes into an experiential encounter God. In this encounter one is enabled to transcend the text of scripture and  achieve direct communion with the divine. The fundamental presupposition behind this is the idea that the word is  merely a sign.  The word is a  mediator between God and man which, while certainly important and useful, is not  the thing in itself.  True, actual,  communication with God cannot take place until one, by prayer and meditation, is  finally by God’s grace, enabled to go beyond the text to establish mystical  communion with God.  It is for this  reason that, in Lectio Divina the  word can only be the point of the departure or necessary beginning which leads  ultimately to the true goal of true communion with God on a purely spiritual  level.

In Luther’s Oratio,  Meditatio, Tentatio there is no room forContemplatio. The direct encounter with God happens in the word itself. The word does not merely signify God’s speaking to us. The word is, in fact, God speaking to us. There is no reality to be sought beyond the word of God.

Therefore if you want to be certain what God in heaven  thinks of you, and whether He is gracious to you, you must not seclude yourself,  retire into some nook, and brood about it or seek the answer in your works or in  your contemplation—all this you must banish from your heart, and you must give  ear solely to the words of this Christ; for everything is revealed in Him  (Luther, AE 24:257).One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian  life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God,  the gospel of Christ, as Christ says, John 11[:25], “I am the resurrection and  the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live”; and John  8[:36] (Luther, AE 31:345).

The order in oratio,  meditatio, tentatio is important. In contrast to Lectio Divina  which sees the word as a means to an end, Luther’s list continually leads one  back to the word.  Oratio, meditatio, tentatio “describe  the life of faith as a cycle that begins with prayer for the gift of the Holy  Spirit, concentrates on the reception of the Holy Spirit through meditation on  God’s word, and results in spiritual attack. This in turn leads a person back to further prayer and intensified  meditation” (Kleinig, 258).

For Luther everything is focused on the word. Prayer does not stand above the text as a more spiritual exercise  divorced from the word.  Luther does  not see the believer seeking for something beyond and above the text in prayer. Rather, true prayer (oratio)  directs believers toward the Scriptures. In prayer the believer asks for understanding and steadfastness as he  approaches God’s word.  Furthermore,  the very words of scripture form the language of prayer itself.

Luther also completely redefinesmeditatio. Whereas in Lectio Divina  meditation is focused on the human memory and its ability to make the text  personal through the recollection of past events, Luther’s understanding of  meditation focuses on God’s word.  For Luther, meditation is simply the continual study of scripture. God’s word is not a mere sign that needs to be internalized in order to  be heard properly, it is the very voice of God that comes with power both to  kill and make alive.

Finally, Luther replacesLectio Divina’scontemplatio withtentatio. The goal is no longer subjective, experiential contemplation with God. Rather, in his addition of tentatio he refocuses our attention on the word as the goal. Tentatio (sufferings and  temptation) is a form of spiritual attack which drives the believer away from  the internalized self to the external word. Tentatio is not a goal. It is not the highest rung on a spiritual ladder to heaven. It is God’s way of turning self-seeking men back to the word and  therefore back to himself.


We must applaud Lectio Divina for its high respect for the word of God and for it’s many  helpful suggestions on how to approach it’s study. However, we have seen that, in the final analysis,Lectio Divina merely pays lip service  to the word in favor of its much loftier goal, namely, contemplation. It was finally unable to stand up to Luther’s full blown theology of the  word and was therefore rejected by him in favor of a new approach that kept the  word as the focal point and goal.  Lectio Divina’s growth in popularity  seems to be in line with certain trends within pop-Christianity that focus on  subjectivism and experientialism.  Luther’s oratio, meditatio, tentatio  is deserving of a much greater hearing in our Lutheran churches as a truly  faithful substitution and corrective for the kind of spirituality being promoted  in the church today.


Bayer, Oswald, “Luther as Interpreter of Holy Scripture,”TheCambridge Companion to Martin Luther, Edited  by Donald K. McKim,CambridgeUniversity Press, 2003.

Casey, Michael, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina,Liguori,MO, Ligouri/Triumph Publications,  1996.

Dysinger, Luke Fr., “Accepting The Embrace of God: The  Ancient Art of Lectio Divina,” St.  Andrew’s Abbey [website]; http://www.valyermo.com/Id-art.html; Internet;  accessed 22 December 2006.

Guigo II, “The Ladder of Four Rungs,”U.M.I.L.T.A [website];  http://www.umilta.net/ladder; Internet; accessed 22 December 2006.

Hein, Steven A., “Tentatio,”Logia (Eastertide, 2001), 33-41

Kleinig, John, “Meditation”Logia (Eastertide, 2001), 45-50.

Kleinig, John, “Oratio,  Meditatio, Tentatio: What Makes a Theologian?”Concordia Theological Quarterly; Vol.  66:3 (July, 2002), 255-267.

Luther, M. (1999, c1961). Vol. 24: Luther’s  works, vol. 24 : Sermons on the  Gospel of St. John: Chapters 14-16 (J. J. Pelikan,  H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works.Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Luther, M. (1999, c1957). Vol. 31: Luther’s  works, vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H.  T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works.Philadelphia: Fortress  Press.

Luther, M. (1999, c1960). Vol. 34: Luther’s  works, vol. 34 : Career of the Reformer IV (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H.  T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works.Philadelphia: Fortress  Press.

O’Hagan, John, “Lectio Divina,”Monastery of the Ascension [website];  http://www.idahomonks.org/sect810.htm; Internet; accessed 22 December 2006.

Olivera, Bernardo, “Bernardo Olivera on Lectio Divina,”The Order of St. Benedict [website];  http://www.osb.org/lectio/olivera.html; Internet; accessed 22 December 2006.

Wikipedia, “Lectio Divina,”Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia  [website]; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lectio_Divina; Internet; accesses 22  December 2006

Republished with permission. The original appears at Sound Witness.org right here.

See also: