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 really 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, and repeating it as you work your way down to where 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 (going into the silence).
There are said to be four steps in lectio divina. These four steps are:
Reading (lectio)—Slowly begin reading a biblical passage as if it were a long awaited love letter addressed to you. Approach it reverentially and expectantly, in a way that savors each word and phrase. Read the passage until you hear a word or phrase that touches you, resonates, attracts, or even disturbs you.
Reflecting (meditatio)—Ponder this word or phrase for a few minutes. Let it sink in slowly and deeply until you are resting in it. Listen for what the word or phrase is saying to you at this moment in your life, what it may be offering to you, what it may be demanding of you.
Expressing (oratio)—If you are a praying person, when you are ready, openly and honestly express to God the prayers that arise spontaneously within you from your experience of this word or phrase. These may be prayers of thanksgiving, petition, intercession, lament, or praise. If prayer is not part of your journey you could write down the thoughts that have come your way.
Resting (contemplatio)—Allow yourself to simply rest silently for a time in the stillness of your heart remaining open to the quiet fullness of God’s love and peace. This is like the silence of communion between the mother holding her sleeping infant child or between lovers whose communication with each other passes beyond words.1
Catholic priest and contemplative mysticism pioneer Thomas Keating explains what lectio divina is not in an article he has written titled “The Classical Monastic Practice of Lectio Divina.” He explains that lectio divina 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”).2 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.3
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.4
Mark Yaconelli, author of Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus, has this to say about lectio divina. Keep in mind that Yaconelli’s materials are used extensively in evangelical/Protestant settings (e.g., colleges, seminaries, youth groups):
In order to practice lectio divina, select a time and place that is peaceful and in which you may be alert and prayer fully attentive. Dispose yourself for prayer in whatever way is natural for you. This may be a spoken prayer to God to open you more fully to the Spirit, a gentle relaxation process that focuses on breathing, singing or chanting, or simply a few minutes of silence to empty yourself of thoughts, images, and emotions.5
Research analyst 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 prayer6—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, [Foster] ties in a quote by one mystic who advised, “You must bind the mind with one thought”7 . . . 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!”8
With lectio divina, the word or phrase one repeats eventually can 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?9
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’ (2 Timothy 2:15) and ‘we pray always’ (2 Thessalonians 1:11) as in talking to God with both heart and mind.”10
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],”11 as Thomas Keating calls lectio divina, to induce mystical experiences (see Deuteronomy 18:9-11); thus, we believe ample warning about lectio divina is warranted.
In conclusion, lectio divina is a bridge to eastern-style meditation. If indeed, this is true, then it will lead Christians away from the message of the Cross and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and thus Christians should not practice lectio divina. Do you know where practices such as lectio divina took Thomas Keating in his spirituality? When you read the statement by him below, you can see the answer to this:
We should not hesitate to take the fruit of the age-old wisdom of the East and “capture” it for Christ. Indeed, those of us who are in ministry should make the necessary effort to acquaint ourselves with as many of these Eastern techniques as possible.
Many Christians who take their prayer life seriously have been greatly helped by Yoga, Zen, TM and similar practices, especially where they have been initiated by reliable teachers and have a solidly developed Christian faith to find inner form and meaning to the resulting experiences.12
Q & A
IS THERE REALLY A DIFFERENT WAY OF
READING THE WORD OF GOD?
QUESTION: I live in South Africa and even here, the Dutch Reformed church is doing the contemplative route. Some writers have even written some books on the subject in which they actually encourage their members to explore that route! I put an enquiry to one of the blokes on this subject and he explained as follows:
In the years after Christ ascended to heaven, there were actually two ways of reading the Bible . . .
The school of Antioch read it as a historic/grammatical narrative and the school of Alexandria took the more ‘spiritual’ route of reading.
Both ways are/were apparently valid.
The Antioch model ensured that God’s Word was read with intellectual integrity and the Alexandrian model ensured that it was read as God’s Word (i.e. meditative and contemplative reading).
From the 12th century onwards, universities then created a platform on which the Word could be challenged or critiqued which led to the questioning of the “Godly Dimensions” thereof . . . lectio divina was then neglected; and by now starting the lectio divina method, the idea is to reclaim the ‘Godly Dimensions” of the Word!!”
Question? How could we as children of God ever have missed this (tongue in cheek), and is there really a different way of reading the Word? God’s Word is His Word, and we read it as it stands, right, with recognition of the metaphors that [are] used? (maybe I am missing something). Your comments on this will be appreciated, since people just accept this and follow it as if it is fine! If one does challenge them on this, he or she is [said to be] in the wilderness and should wake up and smell the roses [they say] . . .
ANSWER: The contemplative prayer (i.e., spiritual formation) movement has found its way into virtually every Christian denomination throughout the world.
In your question, you ask, “how could we as children of God ever have missed this . . . ?” That’s a good question. If lectio divina and other contemplative practices were so utterly vital to sustain our relationship with Christ (some Christian leaders state we must have the “stillness” to really know God), how is it that nowhere in the Bible is there any indication at all that we are to use God’s word as a tool to go into a state of silence to reach “‘Godly dimensions’ of the Word.”
If indeed such practices were vital for the Christian believer, surely Jesus Christ or the apostles (especially the apostle Paul) would have explicitly instructed us on this. In Ephesians 2, we are told that the “saints” (i.e., “the household of God”) are “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone,” and that it is through Christ that we become a “holy temple in the Lord . . . for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (vs. 19-22). But the contemplative prayer movement says we must draw from the ancient Catholic mystics and desert fathers in order for us to become all that Christ desires for us. Basically, the foundation that was laid out in Scripture (which is the Gospel) with Christ as the chief corner stone (the sacrificial Lamb for our salvation) was not enough, but the foundation of the ancient mystics is laid down instead. As Ray Yungen points out, one mysticism proponent admits that the practices these earliest monks drew from were so strongly similar “to those of their Hindu and Buddhist renunciate brethren several kingdoms to the East” that “the meditative techniques they adopted for finding their God suggest either a borrowing from the East or a spontaneous rediscovery”13
With lectio divina (as with other contemplative practices), the Word of God is used as a tool to perform a ritual that will bring on a mystical experience. We contend that it is a misuse of Scripture where God’s word is actually used in a way contrary to God’s intent and purposes. A word or phrase from a passage of Scripture is turned into a mantra-like practice, where it is repeated over and over. No longer do the words have the meaning intended by the authors (the apostles and prophets inspired by the Holy Spirit) but rather an experience to “feel” closer to God is sought.
The contemplative says we must seek after a “deeper” relationship with God. But for the born-again believer who has been united with Christ through faith by His grace and “sealed unto the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30), a method or ritual is not needed to draw near to the Lord for He is already in our hearts established and “we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). Being indwelt by the Holy Spirit and being in the body of Christ is all that is necessary to fulfill your relationship needs for God. There is no esoteric tradition that will give you more of the Holy Spirit.
In answer to the question, no, we as believers did not miss anything. Contemplatives such as Richard Foster say that Christians are missing something, that our lives are empty and lacking in vitality, and thus we need, they say, these meditation techniques. But if we truly do have a relationship with Jesus Christ, if we have allowed Him to be Lord and Savior of our lives, then He promises to live in our hearts and commune with us. Surely, if we needed to repeat words and phrases over and over in order to have that fellowship with Christ, He would, at some point, have told us in His Word and laid out these contemplative instructions. But rather, the Word tells us that His “grace and peace” have been given to us “through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord” and that His “divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness” and that through “exceeding great and precious promises” we can be “partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Peter 1:2-4).
The biblical way to draw near to God is one in which we acknowledge the work has already been done at the Cross and is offered to “whosoever believeth,” with a free and clear invitation of communion with God, a communion that is ours for the asking. The contemplative way to “draw near to God” is riddled with man’s efforts, mystical eastern practices, altered states of consciousness, an eventual change in attitude toward the atonement, an exaltation of man (as having divinity), and a growing view that the Bible is more of a ritualistic tool and a poetic piece of literature rather than an authority (unchanging, solid, and trustworthy) for our spiritual lives. Just look at the views of the emerging church (which is propelled by contemplative prayer) to see the “fruit” of contemplative spirituality. Or consider what the occult prophetess Alice Bailey said:
It is, of course, easy to find many passages which link the way of the Christian Knower with that of his brother in the East. They bear witness to the same efficacy [efficiency] of method.14
Or the words of Thomas Merton’s biographer and advocate, William Shannon:
If one wants to understand Merton’s going to the East it is important to understand that it was his rootedness in his own faith tradition [Catholicism] that gave him the spiritual equipment [contemplative prayer] he needed to grasp the way of wisdom that is proper to the East.15
Simply put, what these quotes reveal is that these “dimensions” of God are not really dimensions of God at all, but pathways to the mystical occult practices and teachings of the East. Ironically, lectio divina will lead practitioners away from the very thing it claims to embrace: the Word of God.
When we use the Bible, let us use it in the way it is intended. As Paul succinctly puts it, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Now, if one would like to use the Word of God as a “tool,” the Bible offers its own suggestions:
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. (Psalm 119:105)
And take . . . the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:17)
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
By its own claims, the Bible is useful for gaining understanding and receiving instruction, but never is it offered as a hypnotic tool or as a mind-altering device. Now, while lectio divina is promoted as a devotional technique, the methods employed ultimately lead one to the “silence.” Thus, as believers, let us reject this practice, and let us cling to and “contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3).
To order copies of LECTIO DIVINA-What it is, What it is not, and Should Christians Practice it? in booklet form, click here.
1. Taken from: http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/lectiodivina.htm.
2. Thomas Keating, “The Classical Monastic Practice of Lectio Divina” (http://web.archive.org/web/20120201174238/http://www.crossroadshikers.org/LectioDevina.htm).
3. Anthony de Mello, Sadhana: A Way to God (St. Louis, the Institute of Jesuit Resources, 1978), p. 28.
4. Jan Johnson, When the Soul Listens (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1999), p. 16.
5. Mark Yaconelli, http://web.archive.org/web/20080724110254/http://www.ymsp.org/resources/practices/lectio_divina.html.
6. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1992), p. 122.
7. Ibid., p. 124.
8. Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing (Eureka, MT: Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2006), p. 75.
9. Ibid., p. 76.
10. Ibid., p. 75.
11. Keating, “The Classical Monastic Practice of Lectio Divina,” op. cit.
12. M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, Thomas E. Clarke, Finding Grace at the Center (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Pub., 1978), pp. 5-6.
13.Daniel Goleman, The Meditative Mind (Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher/Putnam Inc., 1988), p.53.
14. Alice Bailey, From Intellect to Intuition (New York, NY: Lucis Publishing Co., 1987, 13th printing), p. 193, as cited from A Time of Departing, 2nd ed., p. 28.
15. William Shannon, Silent Lamp, The Thomas Merton Story (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), p. 281.
To order copies of LECTIO DIVINA-What it is, What it is not, and Should Christians Practice it? in booklet form, click here.
(photo from 123rf.com; used with permission)