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Columns Pondering with God's Word

Praying with Scripture: message then meaning


In 1965, one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council, “Dei verbum (Word of God),” emphasized the use of lectio divina or divine reading, as a method of praying with scripture. Both Pope Benedict XVI and the Synod of 2008 reiterated the use of scripture for prayer and suggested this ancient practice of lectio divina. This ancient process is reading, meditation, prayer, contemplation.

More recently, Father James Martin, SJ, gives the steps as “Read, Think, Pray, Act,” adding “what do I want to do based on my prayer.” In my reading on lectio divina, I find an emphasis on the “action” part of Father Martin’s process, but little is said of the “read” part.

However, Pope Francis in his 2013 exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” refers to this lectio divina for those who would give a homily. “This prayerful reading of the Bible is not something separate from the study undertaken by the preacher to ascertain the central message of the text; on the contrary, it should begin with that study and then go on to discern how that same message speaks to his own life. The spiritual reading of a text must start with its literal sense.” Later, the pope applies this study to all those who undertake praying with Scripture.

In a similar vein, Warren Carter describes the “read, think” process as, first, what is the message the biblical author sought to convey, including the circumstances of the community? Secondly, how does this message speak to us today, that is, what is the meaning of the text for our circumstances?

Here are just two instances that confirm the need for such study of the message. First, most comments on both stories of storms on the Sea of Galilee ignore the direction of the boats toward gentile lands and the call to go out to others. Another instance is the glossing over of the command of God to “Listen to him (Jesus)” in the Transfiguration narrative, just before Jesus’ predicts his own death and sufferings for his disciples.

Church documents call for biblical scholarship at the service of the community. There are reliable materials available for lectio divina. One resource is The Catholic Prayer Bible, Lectio Divina Edition from Paulist Press. This bible has comments next to the passages, appearing in the form of read, reflect, pray, act. These comments are of sound scholarship and provide an excellent resource for study and prayer.