Lectio Divina: What it is, What it is Not, and Why It is a Dangerous Practice

Lectio Divina – There’s a lot of talk about it today; umpteen books are published and more are on the way about lectio divina; and an increasing number of evangelical/Protestant figures are writing about it, endorsing it, and teaching it. Some people think lectio divina simply means to read a passage of Scripture slowly (or “praying the Scriptures”) then ponder or think on that Scripture. That can be a part of it. But if you ask mystics or contemplatives what it entails (And who would know better than they?), they will tell you that lectio divina (pronounced lex-ee-o di-veen-a) always includes taking a passage of Scripture (or other writings), reading it slowly, then working your way down until you have just a word or small phrase from the passage that you are meditating on (repeating over and over). Basically, you are coming up with a mantra-like word or phrase that has been extracted from a passage of Scripture, which, according to contemplatives, if repeated for several minutes will help you get rid of thoughts and distractions, so then, they say, you can hear the voice of God and feel His presence.

Contemplative mysticism pioneer Thomas Keating explains what lectio divina is not. It is not traditional Bible study, not reading the Scriptures for understanding and edification, and not praying the Scriptures (though praying the Scriptures can be a form of lectio divina when a word or phrase is taken from the Scriptures to focus on for the purpose of going into “God’s presence.”).1 Keating says that lectio divina is an introduction into the more intense practices – contemplative prayer and centering prayer.

While some people think lectio divina is just reading Scripture slowly, and what’s wrong with that,  it is the focusing on and repeating a word or small phrase to facilitate going into the “silence” that is the real danger. There is certainly nothing wrong with reading Scripture carefully and thoughtfully. Thoughtfully, we say. In eastern-style meditation (and in contemplative prayer) thoughts are the enemy. Eastern-style mystic Anthony De Mello describes this problem with thoughts in his book Sadhana: A Way to God:

To silence the mind is an extremely difficult task. How hard it is to keep the mind from thinking, thinking, thinking, forever thinking, forever producing thoughts in a never ending stream. Our Hindu masters in India have a saying: one thorn is removed by another. By this they mean that you will be wise to use one thought to rid yourself of all the other thoughts that crowd into your mind. One thought, one image, one phrase or sentence or word that your mind can be made to fasten on. (p. 28)

Spiritual director Jan Johnson in her book, When the Soul Listens: Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer also believes that thoughts get in the way, and the mind must be stilled:

Contemplative prayer, in its simplest form, is a prayer in which you still your thoughts and emotions and focus on God Himself. This puts you in a better state to be aware of God’s presence, and it makes you better able to hear God’s voice, correcting, guiding, and directing you. (p. 16)

Ray Yungen explains this silence that contemplative mystics seek:

When [Richard] Foster speaks of the silence, he does not mean external silence. In his book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Foster recommends the practice of breath prayer (p. 122)—picking a single word or short phrase and repeating it in conjunction with the breath. This is classic contemplative mysticism. . . . In Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, he [Foster]  ties in a quote by one mystic who advised, “You must bind the mindwith one thought” . . . I once related Foster’s breath prayer method to a former New Age devotee who is now a Christian. She affirmed this connection when she remarked with astonishment, “That’s what I did when I was into ashtanga yoga!” (A Time of Departing, p. 75)

With lectio divina, the word or phrase one repeats eventuallycan lose its meaning, and this repetitive sound can start to put the practitioner into an altered mind state. Yungen tells us that: “Keeping the mind riveted on only one thought is unnatural and adverse to true reflection and prayer. Simple logic tells us the repeating of words has no rational value. For instance, if someone called you on the phone and just said your name or one phrase over and over, would that be something you found edifying? Of course not; you would hang up on him or her. Why would God feel otherwise? And if God’s presence is lacking, what is this presence that appears as light during meditation and infuses a counterfeit sense of divinity within? (ATOD, p. 76).”

Yungen exhorts believers that “the goal of prayer should not be to bind the mind with a word or phrase in order to induce a mystical trance but rather to use the mind to glory in the grace of God.  This was the apostle Paul’s counsel to the various churches: ‘Study to shew thyself approved’ (II Tim. 2:15) and ‘we pray always’ (II Thessalonians 1:11) as in talking to God with both heart and mind. (ATOD, p. 75)

In order to help those you care about stay clear of contemplative spirituality and spiritual deception, it is important for you to understand how lectio divina plays a significant role in leading people toward full blown meditative practices. And we propose that this “presence” that is reached during the “silent” altered states of consciousness from saying a word or phrase over and over (or focusing on the breath or an object)  is not God’s presence. God has instructed us in the Bible not to perform “special kinds of process[es] or “formula[s], as Thomas Keating calls lectio divina, (source) to induce mystical experiences (Deuteronomy 18:9-11); thus, we believe ample warning about lectio divina is warranted.

Related Information:

Lectio Divina: Leading Sheep to a New Level of Consciousness by Wolf Tracks

When a Young Girl Meets a Mystic

Benedict XVI: Encourages Contemplative Practice Lectio Divina

Some authors read by Christians who promote lectio divina:

David Crowder in Praise Habit

Kyle Strobel at Metamorpha

Richard Foster (in several places)

Professor J. Budziszewski (author of How to Stay Christian in College) – tells students to practice lectio divina on a Focus on the Family website and also talks about it in his book, Ask Me Anything.

Dan Kimball in The Emerging Church

Tony Jones in Divine Intervention

David Benner in  Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer

Eugene Peterson in Eat This Book

Ken Boa in Healthy Spirituality

Eugene Peterson in Message Bible for Kids

Promoted by Mike Bickle

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