Oblate Program at Belmont Abbey, NC

Lectio Divina as School of Prayer

2. What does "lectio divina" mean?

Before going any further, I would like to make clear at once that when I speak of lectio divina among the Fathers of the Desert in this conference, I do not understand the expression lectio divina in the technical (and reduced) sense which has been given it in spiritual and monastic literature in these last decades.

ghirland_webThe Latin word lectio in its first sense means a teaching, a lesson. In a second, derived sense, lectio can also signify a text or a group of texts transmitting this teaching. Thus we speak of the lessons (lectiones) from Scripture read during the liturgy. Finally, in a still more derived, and later sense, lectio can also mean reading.

This last sense is obviously the one in which this expression is understood today. In our days, in fact, lectio divina is spoken of as a specific observance; and we are told that it is a form of reading different from all others, and that above all we must not confuse true lectio divina with other forms of simply "spiritual reading". This is a completely modern vision, and as such, represents a concept foreign to the Fathers of the Desert, and to which I shall return presently.

If we consult the entire early Latin literature (which can be done easily in our day, either by means of good concordances or with the CDRoms of CETEDOC), we notice that each time we find the expression lectio divina among the Latin writers prior to the Middle Ages, this expression signifies Holy Scripture itself, and not a human activity on Holy Scripture. Lectio divina is synonymous with sacra pagina. Thus we are told that lectio divina teaches us such and such a thing ; that we should listen attentively to lectio divina, that the Divine Master, in lectio divina, reminds us of such and such a demand, etc.


Cyprian: "Sit in manibus divina lectio", (De zelo et livore, cap. 16)
Ambrose: "ut divinae lectionis exemplo utamur", (De bono mortis, cap.1. par.2)
Augustine: "aliter invenerit in lectione divina", (Enarr. in psalmos, ps.36, serm.3. par.1)

This is the sole meaning of the expression lectio divina during the period of the Fathers of the Desert. It is thus the sense in which I shall use it in this conference, except when I make allusion to the contemporary approach. I shall not speak of a particular observance having Scripture as its object, but of Scripture itself as School of life and therefore School of prayer of the first monks.


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