Note: This article is an excerpt from a chapter of Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina by Dr. Tim Gray
The Word of God is the first source of all Christian spirituality. It gives rise to a personal relationship with the living God and with His saving and sanctifying will. It is for this reason that from the very beginning … what is called lectio divina has been held in the highest regard. By means of it the Word of God is brought to bear on life, on which it projects the light of that wisdom which is a gift of the Spirit. – Pope John Paul II
We have looked at the problem of prayer and revealed the secret of the saints (take and read!), but how do we begin to do it? Within the walls of the ancient monasteries a fruitful and powerful process was developed to help us all dialogue with God’s Word.
Lectio Divina: The Four-Rung Ladder
Contrary to what many believe, monastic life did not consist simply of prayer. The monks supported themselves and the small villages that formed around them by cultivating the soil, raising animals, and producing some of the finest wines and beers in all of Europe. Each day revolved around three indispensable activities: physical work, liturgical participation, and personal prayer. From these activities developed the monastic motto Ora et Labora—“Pray and Work.” The monks’ physical labors were often focused on the attentive cultivation of the land, while their prayer (both liturgical and personal) was focused on the attentive cultivation of their souls. In their spiritual endeavor they took up a tool that broke open the fallow fields of Scripture and the even harder ground of the human heart; this tool was the method of prayer known as lectio divina. Lectio (Latin for “a reading”) divina (“divine”) literally means “divine reading,” and refers to the reading of Sacred Scripture in the context of personal prayer.
One of the most popular works on lectio divina was written by a Carthusian monk named Guigo, who prayed and worked in and around one of the scenic mountain valleys of the French Alps, at the famous Carthusian motherhouse, the Grande Chartreuse. Many probably had never heard of this ancient sanctuary of prayer, still in existence today, until it was the subject of a documentary film that has become a phenomenon across both Europe and the U.S. This richly artistic work was called Into Great Silence. Its director, Philip Gröning, spent six months at this historic monastery, which is normally closed to visitors, collecting footage for his film. Though the screen time is more than two and a half hours, it is filmed in almost complete silence, the primary exception being the monks’ chanting the Divine Office. This silence reflects the lives of the monks who follow the Carthusian monastic tradition, living in silence the majority of their day.
The surprising popular response to this award-winning film speaks not only to the spiritual magnetism of this holy monastery, but more importantly to the deep spiritual hunger of our time. It was within this “great silence” that Guigo long ago took the already common practice of lectio divina and illuminated it. His reflections are largely found in his classic work on prayer, Ladder of Monks, which described with masterful insight four simple steps for praying with Scripture. Guigo begins his book recounting his deepening understanding of the pattern of prayer so central to his daily life:
One day when I was busy working with my hands I began to think about our spiritual work, and all at once four stages in spiritual exercise came into my mind: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. These make a ladder for monks by which they are lifted up from earth to heaven. It has few rungs, yet its length is immense and wonderful, for its lower end rests upon the earth, but its top pierces the clouds and touches heavenly secrets.1
Like the others in his tradition, Guigo kept silence even as he labored with his hands, allowing even his time of physical labor to provide an occasion for spiritual meditation. The fruit of Guigo’s labors proved not only to be a help to his own prayer, but will also prove a gift to our prayer as well. In fact, Guigo’s description of lectio divina is quoted in the fourth pillar of the Catechism, where it is invoked as a model for praying with Scripture (CCC 2654).
Icon of the Spiritual Life
At the center of Guigo’s method is the metaphor of a ladder that reaches to heaven. The image of a ladder was an ancient symbol for spiritual ascent, with deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The origins of this tradition are to be found in the book of Genesis, in the story of Jacob’s dream about a ladder that extended from earth to heaven.
In Genesis 28, Abraham’s grandson Jacob found himself far from home and alone. Wandering north on a road that would take him to his mother’s family, Jacob wondered whether he would ever return to the Promised Land again. Tired and exhausted, he fell asleep, and experienced a startling vision from God:
And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it (Gn 28:11-12, emphasis added).
Upon waking from the dream Jacob exclaimed, “‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’” (Gn 28:16-17). The name for “house of God” in Hebrew is Bethel, which became the name of the place where Jacob saw the ladder. The later rabbinic tradition claimed that the Temple in Jerusalem was the true Bethel, since it was the ultimate house of God, where heaven and earth intersected and where all the angels ascend and descend between earth and heaven. Thus, the rabbinic tradition spiritually relocated Jacob’s Bethel from the literal city of Bethel in the north of Israel to Jerusalem further south. Jerusalem, however, is not the last stop for Bethel and the stairway to heaven.
St. John records that Jesus referred to this very incident in the life of Jacob when he declared to Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (Jn 1:51). Jesus’ words to Nathanael seem rather odd if they are not read in light of the Jewish tradition concerning Jacob’s ladder. Just as the rabbinic tradition relocated Bethel to Jerusalem, Jesus’ seemingly strange words to Nathanael relocate Bethel once again. The true connection between heaven and earth is not to be located in a geographical landmark, but rather in the person of Jesus. Jesus bridges the chasm between earth and heaven, bringing God’s presence. Thus, the angels that ascended and descended on Jacob’s ladder do so now through the person of Jesus. In Jewish figures of speech Jesus was claiming to be the true and ultimate “Bethel,” or house of God. This is what St. John hints at in the prologue to his gospel, when he described how the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Greek verb translated as “dwelt” has the sense of “to pitch one’s tent,” “to tabernacle,” as God tabernacles in the Ark of the Covenant, which was first in the Tent of Meeting and later moved to the Temple. Jesus, in short, is the new Temple—but not one that is stationary, but rather on the move. Jesus is the Way, the Way is a ladder, and one climbs a ladder one step at a time.
Not surprisingly, the Christian tradition has long seen in the image of Jacob’s ladder an icon of the spiritual life. Jacob, wandering far from home, encounters God and receives a vision and a promise that God will be with him and provide for his return to the Promised Land. Ancient Christian writers (long before Guigo the Carthusian) such as St. John Climacus used this image as a metaphor for our own journey to heaven, a journey in which we must climb the ladder from earth to heaven. Our prayerful ascent to God must, as the ancient masters of the spiritual life point out, be taken one step at a time.
One Rung at a Time
Guigo believed that the fourfold method of lectio divina was like the four rungs of a ladder which, if ascended one rung at a time in proper order, would lead the soul to heaven. Here is one of the ways Guigo described the rungs of this spiritual ladder:
Reading is the careful study of the Scriptures, concentrating all one’s powers on it. Meditation is the busy application of the mind to seek with the help of one’s own reason for knowledge of hidden truth. Prayer is the heart’s devoted turning to God to drive away evil and obtain what is good. Contemplation is when the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness.2
There is an organic progression for these steps. The first rung we step on is reading Scripture (lectio) in a careful and focused manner. As one reads a particular passage of Scripture, key words, themes, or ideas come to mind. Following lectio is meditation (meditatio), which is a thorough reflecting on what emerged during reading. This meditation provides the language, vocabulary, and subject matter for conversing with God. Meditation leads to the dialogue of prayer (oratio) where one expresses how the matter of mediation moves one’s heart. Finally, prayer can dispose us to the gift of contemplation (contemplatio), which is the experience of God marked by joy and peace.
When I first read Guigo’s description of lectio divina and the ordering of the various rungs or steps, several things not only surprised me, but also opened my eyes to obstacles that had hindered my own prayer life. First, I was surprised to find “prayer” designated as just one of the four steps. In this Guigo echoes the Fathers of the Church, who teach that we hear God when we read Scripture (lectio), but we talk to him when we pray (oratio). Thus, prayer, technically speaking, is where we talk to God by expressing our thoughts and feelings. What was surprising for me was that this was the third step, for I had often thought of prayer as the starting place.
Additionally, Guigo described contemplation (contemplatio), which is a pure gift in which our hearts are taken up in a loving gaze of God, as the final step. We often come to prayer looking for contemplation, but we begin without the divine dialogue that leads to contemplation. In doing so, we immediately reach for the third and fourth rungs of Guigo’s ladder. Unfortunately, our straining for the these higher rungs often makes prayer an exercise in frustration, as we can’t reach them without a foothold to assist our ascent. Instead of starting at the first or second rung, we want to skip ahead to the latter stages of prayer, and thus find what we are striving for out of reach. I think this explains why so many people find prayer so difficult. It only takes a few such failed attempts and we quickly surmise that prayer and contemplation are not for us.
When a child is learning to climb stairs for the first time, we teach them to take one careful step at a time. And they do this for quite some time, until their little legs grow in size and strength. But later, as they grow and become more agile, they may skip steps and ascend the staircase at a faster pace. But even as an adult, more often than not, the staircase is ascended one step at a time. Our prayer is like this. While God can lead our heart at times directly to oratio or contemplatio, most often it will prove fruitful to ascend one rung at a time. Even great saints like St. Teresa of Avila did not seek to enter immediately into contemplation, but approached prayer by making use of Scripture and books for meditation.
Such false expectations of instant prayer and contemplation, along with the assumption that they will come without much effort, may be the biggest obstacle to achieving a regular and fruitful prayer life. Upon reflection, the absurdity of such a notion is obvious. It is like someone thinking they could purchase a vineyard in the springtime and come back six months later to find bottled wine. We shouldn’t waltz into a chapel and expect instant contemplation any more than you would expect to walk into a vineyard and out the other side with a fine Cabernet Sauvignon. And yet, for some strange reason, we envision that we should be able to taste the rich fruits of contemplation without working in the vineyard of Sacred Scripture.
Working the Vineyard
I have friends who own a vineyard in Virginia. I have visited it repeatedly and watched how the vines grow and take shape to fill out the trellises. I have seen the effort put into tilling the earth, planting the vines, fertilizing, watering, nurturing, and dressing the growing plants, and tending the grapes during the growing period. I have walked through the wine cellar and smelled the enormous and handsome oak barrels that hold the liquid treasure.
When I first met my friends, they had just started their vineyard. One of the primary grapes they planted was the Norton, which many consider the only true (quality) red table wine grape that is native to America. It is a wonderful wine, with a dark purple color and a firm but velvety texture that puts forth a penetrating aroma and flavor. I thought the idea of a vineyard in Virginia rather novel until I learned about the Old Dominion’s wine history. In 1830, Dr. Norton, from Richmond, began to market “the Norton,” a great red wine with many virtues. The Norton grape grows vigorously, is one of the most disease-resistant varieties, and has almost twice as much reservatrol (the chemical in red wine that confers so many health benefits) as any other wine. The Norton was instantly a commercial success. Before the Civil War, Virginia, with its Norton grape, was the hub of American winemaking. But by the end of the war, almost all of Virginia’s vineyards were destroyed and its economy was in shambles, and California, now connected by rail with the East, quickly became the major supplier of domestic wine. Only in recent years is the Norton once again making a comeback with new vineyards all over Virginia.
So, it was with fascination that I watched my friends establish their vineyard. On the one hand, it is hard work starting a new vineyard, work that really takes years to pay off. On the other hand, God does all the really hard work of providing the sunshine, soil, and rain, and creating and sustaining the chemical processes that take place in each and every cell of the grapevine. Indeed, winemaking is one of those great arts in which man learns to work with the amazing gifts of creation.
The spiritual life is a bit like this. On the one hand, God needs nothing from us. He not only invented the universe without us, He invented us without us. Everything we have is a gift, including our very existence. Our ability to will, to work, to please God, to desire what is good, are all gifts from God that we merely give back to Him. That is why Jesus says, in a context in which He is speaking about vines, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (Jn 15:16). The same God who makes the vineyard fruitful, makes us fruitful too.
On the other hand, as St. Augustine says, “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.”3 Following St. Paul, Augustine understood that salvation is the free gift of God, which means not only that we cannot earn it (otherwise it wouldn’t be a gift) but also that it really is ours (because God really gives it to us). Yet it is our responsibility to avail ourselves of that gift and “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). We have to cooperate with God’s grace as best we can. God has given us all the resources we need. Now it is our task to cultivate the soil and care for the vine He has planted so that we bear the fruit He desires.
Such cultivation takes work, regardless of whether it is producing fine wine, holiness, or intimate prayer. The saints did not start out as experts in prayer but had to work at it, just as a great musician must work at his craft. Many think that Mozart was simply gifted with a prodigious talent for writing symphonies. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Mozart himself wrote to a friend: “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”4 Mozart was by no means exaggerating; his hand was crippled by the time he was twenty-eight years old from all the practices and performances and from gripping a quill pen to write and rewrite his music. Mozart became a great musician, like the saints became great friends of God, through the arduous effort that can be sustained only by love for what one pursues.
In the Vineyard of the Text
The process of prayer is strikingly similar to cultivating wine. The hard work of preparing the soil and planting the vines, is analogous to the equally arduous effort of breaking up the hard ground of our heart and planting the seeds of the Gospel. And the fruit that grows must be collected in the well-known stages of harvest.
At harvest time in the vineyard you first walk through the rows of vines and pick the grapes. Picking grapes is tedious and time consuming, done by hand so as not to damage the grapes. So too, the first rung of prayer, the reading (lectio) of Scripture, must be done with care and concentration. Readers must make their way carefully through the lines of the text, selecting key words and phrases that stand out to them.
After the grapes are picked, they are put in a large vat, and if you have friends who have a vineyard you may even get to take your shoes off, roll up your pants, and tread on the grapes! The juice must be squeezed out. Similarly, in the second rung of meditation, meditatio, we squeeze out the meaning of the text we have carefully read in lectio. Once the juices are collected they are given time for fermentation. This is like prayer (oratio), where the heart ponders and reflects on what the mind has meditated, and its feelings bubble up to a heartfelt transformation and dialogue with God.
The last and final stage is the finest. After the wine has had time to ferment, age, and find its balance, under the guidance of the expert vintner, one gets to taste the fine wine. It is striking how the biblical tradition describes contemplation (contemplatio) as something to be “tasted” and “savored.” This is expressed often in the Psalms, which call us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Ps 34:8).
Here is a simple outline to help visualize these vital steps to harvesting the vineyard of the divine text, a summary of the rungs of Guigo’s ladder of lectio divina:
Lectio In which the words of Scripture are examined closely, their connections and patterns noted. Similar to how the grapes of a vineyard are examined and collected with care.
Meditatio In which this reading of Scripture is squeezed to extract its meaning. Similar to how grapes are squeezed for their juice.
Oratio In which our conversation with God about the Word allows us to ponder it in our heart with a growing desire for the One who has spoken to us. Similar to how grape juice ferments over time in an oak barrel to produce the sweet wine.
Contemplatio In which we “taste the goodness of the Lord.” Similar to how the wine is opened and its sweetness consumed.
Following these four steps, and in response to them, we can add a fifth step:
Operatio In which we make operative some practical resolution to bring the wine of God’s Word to fruitfulness in our life and the world.
The monks who relished the idea of Scripture being a spiritual vineyard surely grasped just how analogous winemaking is to lectio divina. Perhaps this is why so many monasteries specialized in making wine. The monks found that lectio divina, like winemaking, was always worth the effort.
Taste and See
Some might say, “Lectio divina was invented by and for monks. Can it really be practiced by ordinary people living busy lives?” The answer to such a question is given by Pope Benedict XVI. Since the start of his pontificate in April 2005, Pope Benedict has strongly championed the use of lectio divina for everybody. Like Christ on the road to Emmaus, Pope Benedict’s first two synods emphasized Eucharist and Scripture—word and sacrament—as the keys to the New Evangelization. On September 16, 2005, the fortieth anniversary of Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s great document on Scripture, Pope Benedict said: “If [lectio divina] is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church—I am convinced—a new spiritual springtime.”
In those words, the Holy Father is echoing Vatican II:
The Church forcefully and specially exhorts all the Christian faithful … to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ (Phil 3:8) by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures … Let them remember, however, that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that a dialogue takes place between God and man.5
And the Council is simply echoing Catholic teaching that stretches back to the greatest biblical scholar of antiquity, St. Jerome:
The Lord’s flesh is real food and his blood real drink; this is our true good in this present life: to nourish ourselves with his flesh and to drink his blood in not only the Eucharist but also the reading of Sacred Scriptures, is real food and real drink.6
If we are to know Christ more and experience the eagerly awaited spiritual springtime, we will need to be nourished by the Scriptures, and what better way than by practicing the ancient method of lectio divina.
Jesus once remarked to His disciples, “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor” (Jn 4:38). What did He mean? Think about the time Jesus changed the water to wine at Cana. The steward of the feast remarked, “Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now” (Jn 2:10). John records that remark because it has a double meaning for the Church. The “best wine” is the Eucharistic wine of the New Covenant. Instead of pouring it out on Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, God chose to make it a gift in “the fullness of time”: the last days, which were inaugurated by Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “[A]ll these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb 11:39-40).
This New Testament pattern of “saving the best for last” is still true today. As medieval scholars pointed out, we see further than our ancestors because we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Therefore, what the monks brought to birth with great labor over many centuries is given to us freely by Mother Church so that the gifts of God may be multiplied and the Church can grow in unity not only across the world but down through the ages.
Thus, Pope John Paul II addresses the following words to all of us:
It is especially necessary that listening to the Word of God should become a life-giving encounter, in the ancient and ever valid tradition of lectio divina, which draws from the biblical text the living word which questions, directs and shapes our lives.7
Pope John Paul II’s passionate call to practice lectio divina is made in his heartfelt letter to the universal Church issued at the end of the Jubilee year in 2000. This letter is a beautiful summary of the fruits of the holy year and was presented by John Paul II as a spiritual blueprint for the new springtime for the Church and the world that he hoped would emerge in the new millennium. In other words, lectio divina is an integral part of the Church’s game plan for the renewal of faith in our times.
The Way Up
For a new springtime to emerge in our own prayer life, in the life of the Church, and in the world around us, however, we will have to cooperate with the work the master vintner desires to do in our lives. If we are going to climb the ladder of lectio divina, this will mean work, something will be required of us. Nobody climbs a ladder without effort, and nobody climbs a ladder to heaven without sustained effort. It is not necessary to have a doctorate in Scripture or know Greek or Latin to practice lectio divina, but neither is it for the lazy. One needs to be willing to exercise some self-discipline, to make the time and interior space necessary to really focus on a deep reading and learning of the Word of God.
We cannot keep this potent method bottled up and stored in the ancient wine cellars of the Church’s traditions. It is time to uncork the power of prayer in our daily lives, so that we can “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Ps 34:8). The best place to start is the first rung of Guigo’s ladder to heaven, lectio, and so we now turn to the art of reading Scripture well. As the Spirit said to St. Augustine, so He says to us: “Take and read.”
1 Guigo the Carthusian, Guido II: Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1979), pp. 67-68.
2 Guigo, A Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations, p. 68.
3 St. Augustine, Sermo 169, 11, 13:PL 38, 923
4 As quoted in Twyla Tharp’s, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life
5 Dei Verbum 25; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2653
6 St. Jerome, Commentarius in Ecclesiasten, 313: CCL 72, 278
7 John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineuente (6 January 2001), 39: AAS 93 (2001), 293.
Dr. Tim Gray is the president of the Augustine Institute, and a professor of Scripture at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver. He holds a Ph.D. in biblical studies from Catholic University of America. Dr. Gray is the author of several books, has filmed numerous series for EWTN, and partnered with Jeff Cavins in developing The Great Adventure Bible Study Series. This article was an excerpt from his book, Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina published by Ascension Press. To order a copy, go to: http://www.ascensionpress.com