History and development
Before the emergence of the Western monastic communities, a key contribution to the foundation of Lectio Divina came from Origen in the 3rd century, with his view of "Scripture as a sacrament". In a letter to Gregory of Neocaesarea Origen wrote: "[W]hen you devote yourself to the divine reading ... seek the meaning of divine words which is hidden from most people".
Origen believed that The Word (i.e. Logos) was incarnate in Scripture and could therefore touch and teach readers and hearers. Origen taught that the reading of Scripture could help move beyond elementary thoughts and discover the higher wisdom hidden in the "Word of God".
In Origen's approach the major interpretive element of Scripture is Christ. In his view all Scriptural texts are secondary to Christ and are only revelations in as much as they refer to Christ as The Word of God. In this view, using Christ as the "interpretive key" unlocks the message in Scriptural texts.
The "primordial role" of Origen in interpreting Scripture was acknowledged by Pope Benedict XVI. Origen's methods were then learned by Ambrose of Milan, who towards the end of the 4th century taught them to Saint Augustine, thereby introducing them into the monastic traditions of the Western Church thereafter.
In the 4th century, as the Desert Fathers began to seek God in the deserts of Palestine and Egypt, they produced early models of Christian monastic life that persisted in the Eastern Church. These early communities gave rise to the tradition of a Christian life of "constant prayer" in a monastic setting.
Although the desert monks gathered to hear scripture recited in public, and would then recite those words privately in their cells, this was not the same practice as what later became Lectio Divina since it involved no meditative step.
6th- to 12th-century monasticism
After Origen, Church Fathers such as St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Hilary of Poitiers used the terms Lectio Divina and Lectio Sacra to refer to the reading of Scripture.
According to Jean Leclercq, OSB, the founders of the medieval tradition of Lectio Divina were Saint Benedict and Pope Gregory I. However, the methods that they employed had precedents in the biblical period both in Hebrew and Greek. A text that combines these traditions is Romans 10:8–10 where Apostle Paul refers to the presence of God's word in the believer's "mouth or heart". It was the recitation of the biblical text that provided the rationale for Lectio Divina.
With the motto Ora et labora ("Pray and work"), daily life in a Benedictine monastery consisted of three elements: liturgical prayer, manual labor and Lectio Divina, a quiet prayerful reading of the Bible. This slow and thoughtful reading of Scripture, and the ensuing pondering of its meaning, was their meditation. This spiritual practice is called "divine reading" or "spiritual reading" – i.e. lectio divina.
- Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the brethren should have specified periods of manual labor as well as for prayerful reading [lectio divina]."
The Rule of Saint Benedict (chapter #48) stipulated specific times and manners for Lectio Divina. The entire community in a monastery was to take part in the readings during Sunday, except those who had other tasks to perform.
Early in the 12th century, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was instrumental in re-emphasizing the importance of Lectio Divina within the Cistercian order. Bernard considered Lectio Divina and contemplation guided by the Holy Spirit the keys to nourishing Christian spirituality.
Formalization during the late 12th century
Seek in reading and you will find in meditation; knock in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation — The four stages of Lectio Divina as taught by John of the Cross.
The progression from Bible reading, to meditation, to prayer, to loving regard for God, was first formally described by Guigo II, a Carthusian monk and prior of Grande Chartreuse who died late in the 12th century. The Carthusian order follows its own Rule, called the Statutes, rather than the Rule of St Benedict.
Guigo II's book The Ladder of Monks is subtitled "a letter on the contemplative life" and is considered the first description of methodical prayer in the western mystical tradition. In Guigo's four stages one first reads, which leads to think about (i.e. meditate on) the significance of the text; that process in turn leads the person to respond in prayer as the third stage. The fourth stage is when the prayer, in turn, points to the gift of quiet stillness in the presence of God, called contemplation.
Guigo named the four steps of this "ladder" of prayer with the Latin terms lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. In the 13th century the Carmelite Rule of St. Albert prescribed to Carmelites the daily prayerful pondering on the Word of God, namely to ruminate day and night the Divine Law. Lectio Divina alongside the daily celebration of liturgy is to this day the pillar of prayer in Carmel.
Lectio Divina was practiced by St. Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Dominican Order.
In the 14th century, Gerard of Zutphen built on "Guigo's Ladder" to write his major work On Spiritual Ascents. Zutphen warned against considered meditation without reading of scripture, and taught that the reading prepares the mind, so meditation will not fall into error. Similarly, he taught that meditation prepares the mind for contemplation.
By the beginning of the 16th century, the methods of "methodical prayer" had reached Spain and St. John of the Cross taught the four stages of Guigo II to his monks. During the century, Protestant Reformers such as John Calvin continued to advocate the Lectio Divina. A Reformed version of the Lectio Divina was also popular among the Puritans: Richard Baxter, a Puritan theologian, championed the practice.
20th- and 21st-century revival
By the middle of 19th century, the historical critical approach to biblical analysis which had started over a century earlier, and focused on determining the historicity of gospel episodes, had taken away some of the emphasis on spreading Lectio Divina outside monastic communities. However, the early part of the 20th century witnessed a revival in the practice, and books and articles on Lectio Divina aimed at the general public began to appear by the middle of the century.
In 1965, one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council, the dogmatic constitution Dei verbum ("Word of God") emphasized the use of Lectio Divina. On the 40th anniversary of Dei verbum in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed its importance and stated:
I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio Divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart [cf. Dei verbum, n. 25]. If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church – I am convinced of it – a new spiritual springtime.
In his November 6, 2005 Angelus address, Benedict XVI emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit in Lectio Divina: In his annual Lenten addresses to the priests of the Diocese of Rome, Pope Benedict – mainly after the 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Bible – emphasized Lectio Divina's importance, as in 2012, when he used Ephesians 4: 1–16 on a speech about certain problems facing the Church. Beforehand, he and Pope John Paul II had used a question-and-answer format.
One condition for Lectio Divina is that the mind and heart be illumined by the Holy Spirit, that is, by the same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures, and that they be approached with an attitude of "reverential hearing".
Since the latter part of the 20th century, the popularity of Lectio Divina has increased outside monastic circles and many lay Catholics, as well as some Protestants, practice it, at times keeping a "Lectio journal" in which they record their thoughts and contemplations after each session. The importance of Lectio Divina is stressed in the Anglican Communion as well.