I despair at the narrow blinkeredness of some of my Evangelical brothers and sisters, and not least their condemnation of the practice of ‘spiritual reading’ – a condemnation which I suspect has something to do with the popularity of lectio divina (i.e. spiritual reading) in the Roman Catholic Church. According to David Helms, a pastor in Chicago: “Lectio Divina advocates a method that is spiritual as opposed to systematically studious. It substitutes intuition for investigation. It prefers mood and emotion to methodical and reasoned inquiry. It equates your spirit to the Holy Spirit”. Similarly, the late Ken Silva, a ‘Reformed’ Baptist pastor, argued that “those who take this supernatural approach to the text can disconnect it from its context and natural meaning and use it in a subjective, individualistic, experiential, even name-it-and-claim it way for which it was never intended….Those who practice ‘conversational’ prayers, seeking a special revelation from God, are asking Him to bypass what He has already revealed to mankind, as though He would now renege on all his promises concerning His eternal word”.
What absolute bunk! The term lectio divina means nothing more than reading the Scriptures devotionally – listening to what God is saying to ‘me’. Is that not what Evangelicals have done for years in their ‘Quiet Times’? It is a bringing together of mind and heart. This was just what I was doing this morning. As I read the Scriptures at the beginning of the day, I was wanting to hear what God wished to say to me through his ‘Word’. As is often my custom, at one point I consulted a scholarly commentary so that I could understand the text a little better – and as a result be helped to hear what God might be saying to me.
What distinguishes lectio divina from other forms of reading, is that involves a conscious ‘chewing over’ Scripture. Instead of a hurried reading of God’s Word, time is taken to reflect on the text. There is nothing ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’ about reading the Bible in this way. Lectio divina arises from a love of God’s Word – and is simply a way of meditating upon God’s Word. What is more, it is an approach to God’s Word which is commended in Scripture: According to the Psalmist, the righteous are those whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1.1-2). Or in the words of Ian Stackhouse, the Psalmist calls us “to leave behind the light confectionary of the world and chew on the meat of God’s word”.
The other day I was taking part in a ‘well-being’ day for ministers. I was due to speak on ‘Sustaining ministry through prayer’, but before my presentation, we were led in an act of worship which included engaging with God’s Word through practising lectio divina. The Gospel reading for the day was the Parable of the Pounds (Luke 19.11-27). Three times the parable was read slowly to us, with space in-between given over to personal reflection. As it so happened, I had already read the parable at home in my ‘Quiet Time’, so that morning I heard the same Scripture passage four times over.
That morning there was no formal Bible study – God’s Word was not expounded. Instead we were asked to do the work of listening to what God was saying to each one of us personally. And as I listened and listened and listened again, I began to hear things which I had not heard the first time I read the passage. In a way which I had not anticipated, I discovered again that John Robinson, one of the pilgrim fathers, was right when he declared that “the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his word”. Yes, I acknowledge that this was a ‘subjective’ exercise – but then I would maintain that there is no such thing as an ‘objective’ listening to Scripture, for whenever we listen to Scripture we always listen within the context of our own lives. What’s more, I would maintain that listening ‘with the heart’ does not mean dispensing with the mind – for me lectio divina involves listening with both the heart and mind.
Lectio divina, rightly handled, is not about reading ‘happy thoughts’ into Scripture, but rather about letting God speak to us through Scripture. The one draw-back to this kind of ‘spiritual reading’ is that it demands time – time to ‘centre down’, time to listen!