How do we advance in holiness? This not an impractical question. The Church teaches us that we have three necessary means of salvation and, those same, according to degree, attain holiness: sacramental grace, prayer, and virtue. All three pistons have to be running in unison for the motor of the spiritual organism to advance.
By grace we:
- are elevated by God to participate in His nature (cfr. II Pet 1:4);
- made pleasing to Him (gratia gratum faciens)
- begin to enjoy a foretaste of heaven (gratia inchoatio vitae aeternae);
- and are put in an objective state of friendship with God (cfr. Jn 15:14);
Virtue orders our relations with God, others, and self;
And through prayer our relationship with God is solidified and deepened.
Laying the Foundation
With regard to the third means, the great Carthusian monk Guigo II (d. 1193) says in his Twelve Meditations: “The Scripture says: the words of the wise are as a prod to those who listen to them in silence. Let all my world be silent in your presence, Lord, so that I may hear what the Lord God may say in my heart. Your words are so softly spoken that no one can hear them except in a deep silence. But to hear them lifts one who sits alone and in silence completely above one’s natural powers, because he who humbles himself will be lifted up.”
Guigo provides us with the first witness to a particular methodology of mental prayer called lectio divina. In his famous Ladder of Four Rungs he instructs “soldiers of Christ (monks) and others in the world who are God’s lovers” on how to advance in holiness through this form of prayer. One of the conditions for people who come to me for spiritual direction is that they dedicate a half an hour to mental prayer each day; otherwise, we’re both wasting our time in spiritual direction under the delusion that one can advance without mental prayer. I always start directees off with Guigo’s method and for those who persevere, progress is not long in coming.
Before addressing the “how” of lectio divina let’s consider some prerequisites. Remote preparation implies:
- being in a state of grace,
- having a habitual attitude of repentance and penitence,
- displacing disordered attachments to creatures through attachment to the Heart of the Spouse of our souls.
Proximate preparation includes:
- Knowing beforehand when and where you will have your divine audience: routine is your friend here;
- Striving to have the same place dedicated for prayer. Some directees benefit greatly by having a room dedicated solely to meditation, set up with kneeler or chair, crucifix, image of our Lady, Bible;
- Knowing that you have sectioned off a particular time of day for this all-important endeavor means no other concerns should occupy your heart and mind during that time;
- Part of the proximate preparation includes having selected the Scripture passage to be used in your meditation beforehand. Some use the Gospel from the Mass of the Day, others work their way slowly through a particular Gospel. Whatever you use, remember that one of the more subtle enemies of mental prayer is volume of words read. Multum, non multa. Less is better;
- Regarding length of time, priests and religious ought to dedicate an hour to this every day. Other lovers of God should strive for 30 minutes. If you’re new to this, start small so as to avoid discouragement in the face of the initial difficulties that have to come. Do 10 minutes a day for two weeks, then advance to 20 minutes for the next two weeks. After a month 30 minutes a day will be easy. I remember one of my directees who at 12 years of age advanced to 30 minutes after a week and his perseverance in mental prayer through the years preserved him from mortal sin. He’s a holy and very effective priest now.
- With the above in mind, the only element left to determine is your interior disposition. Although not all of the above is under our absolute control (especially the time and place of our prayer), this aspect is. Let longing and desire for the Heart of Christ suffice.
How to Practice Lectio Divina
You’re about to have an encounter with your Creator, Redeemer, and Judge. Enter with trust and expectation. Know that He still speaks through His revealed word and what He says is for you and you alone. In other words, this is not a Bible study, nor something to do, but Someone to meet.
Place yourself in God’s presence, knowing that He sees you, loves you, and longs to spend this time with you more than you can imagine. Begin your prayer asking the aid of the Holy Spirit and your guardian angel. Then renew your faith, hope, and charity – in your own words.
Guigo presents the dynamic of lectio divina as an incarnation of the words of our Saviour: Seek and you shall find; knock and the door shall be opened to you (cfr. Lk 11:9).
First Rung: Lectio (reading) – seeking.
Turn to the text and read it slowly: no rush. Savour each portion of the reading. In lectio divina, God is teaching us to listen to him, to seek Him in silence. He does not reach out and grab us or speak to us with a loud voice that can snap cedars (cfr.Ps 28:5); rather He allows His loving presence to be perceived by those with ears to hear Him. The Father spoke once and Christ is the Word He speaks, never ceasing to resound throughout all of creation. The eternal Logos who inspired the Sacred Authors uses them to communicate Himself to your interior in this moment. These are actual graces created and granted for your needs right now, never to be repeated again. We owe Him all of our attention and receptivity. Guigo writes: “Lord, you are rich, and your storehouse never fails. Feed today this poor servant with the crumbs that fall from the table of your children. I am your beggar, crying at your door that I have had nothing to eat today. Lord, I am so feeble that I cannot open my mouth to speak.” This first step asks one question: “What does the text say?”
Second Rung: Meditatio (meditation) – finding
If the first step of lectio divina regards a simple question, this second step allows the question to become a personal one. The movement is from the text to the heart of the lover of God: “What does the text say to me?” Which word or phrase most spoke to you? Perhaps it inflamed your heart, stung your conscience, or strengthened your resolve. Good. You’re listening. Now interiorize it, let it penetrate your heart through deliberate repetition of it to yourself and to Him, allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, wounds, memories, and plans. See what it has to say to you about your on-going conversion, your commitment to Christ, His place in your life and your place in His. As Guigo says in his Twelve Meditations: “Speak, Lord, to the heart of your servant, so that my heart may speak to you: speak to this orphan, abandoned by all but you. For you are the Lord of hosts, who judge justly and see down into the depths of everyone’s heart.”
Third Rung: Oratio (prayer) – knocking.
God has spoken, He has spoken to you. He invites you to join Him in loving and trusting conversation. Here, the question is: “What does it make me say?” “Conversation” is the perfect term, a “turning towards someone.” And this Someone is an attentive listener. You can’t surprise Him with what you say, but He longs to hear it from you nonetheless. Speak to God about that which He has spoken to you in the second step – meditatio. Avoid using big words or speaking in a way that is foreign to you. Just speak to Him as a trusting child does to the best of fathers. Avoid speaking quickly or saying too much, or just speaking to fill the silence. Think of your words as kindling that keep the fire going – just enough to maintain a healthy attentiveness and not fall into distraction. Too many words will smother the fire. About this Guigo says: “This is the state of my soul, my God, this is the state of my soul: It is a land waste and void, it is invisible and formless, and there is darkness upon the face of the abyss. Yet even this abyss lends me its voice. This abyss, deep and dark, calls to an abyss which is far above it. The abyss of my mind cries out to you, Lord, who are beyond all that sense can perceive, asking you to create out of me a new heaven and a new earth.”
Fourth Rung: Contemplatio (contemplation) – opening:
Here we do not ask anything, nor do we read or speak. We are loved and return love to its Source. We simply enjoy God’s presence with a simple loving regard. This is a privileged moment that our Lord uses to purify our affections.
Here, rest in God’s embrace. The duration of this step is more in our Divine Lover’s hands than ours. And when He invites you to return to your consideration of his word or to your inner dialogue with him, do so. Learn to use words when words are helpful, and to let go of speech when it becomes cumbersome. With time and practice you’ll discover what to do in each moment of mental prayer. Rejoice in the knowledge that God is with you in both words and silence, in spiritual activity and inner receptivity.
Sometimes in lectio divina, you may return several times to the printed text, either to savor the revealed word or a phrase that God has given in order rekindle the fire or to overcome distraction or perhaps to seek a new word or phrase to ponder. At other times, only a single word or phrase will fill the whole time set aside for lectio divina. It is not necessary to assess anxiously the quality of your lectio divina, as if you were “performing” or seeking some goal. Lectio divina has no goal other than that of loving and being loved by Him who is Love Itself (cfr 1 Jn 4:8).
Guigo, once again: “Return, my soul, return to your source. Sigh for God, the living fount, constantly recalling the words, No one can rest unless his heart keep watch. In true peace shall I sleep and take my rest, the Psalmist says. Christ said to his disciples: Sleep now and rest. Sleep from worldly affairs, rest in the inner places of your heart.”
Fr. Cliff Ermatinger is an author, spiritual director and retreat master. He was ordained in Rome and has lived, studied and worked all over the world. He is an expert on the subject of spiritual warfare. His graduate degrees are from Rome and Salamanca and his many books have been published by Padre Pio Press.