Introductory Note:

You may be familiar with the term lectio divina — traditionally, a Christian way of reading scripture slowly, repetitively, prayerfully. Here, Chris Hall recommends we take a similar approach with other books that we intend to read for spiritual benefit. To read in conversation with God means finding ways to savor the text and go slowly enough for God to speak to you as you read.

This excerpt comes from Chris Hall’s new book A Different Way, which has been selected for the 2023-2024 Renovaré Book Club. 

Renovaré Team
August 2023

We read a text slowly, allowing time for delight to develop. We’re in no rush. We simply gaze, much like the reader Rainer Maria Rilke describes. He does not always remain bent over his pages; he often leans back and closes his eyes over a line he has been reading again, and its meaning spreads through his blood.” 1

Rilke’s words perfectly describe a good friend of mine. Every Friday afternoon we spend an hour or so reading Thomas Aquinas together. Now, reading Aquinas is never a speedy affair. We read the Summa line by line out loud. To complete our reading will take us quite a few years, but as we often say to each other, Why rush?” Every now and then as we read, my pal morphs into the very person Rilke describes. He starts swaying, leans back, and smiles over a word or phrase. Who would have imagined reading Aquinas could be a form of lectio divina? I think Thomas would smile.…

Ancient Christians like Origen, Basil the Great, John Cassian, Gregory the Great, and Benedict of Nursia practiced lectio divina. Folks who joined Benedict’s monastic community were expected to learn to read if they couldn’t already, for Benedict wanted all community members reading texts. He not only wanted his monks to read texts; he wanted them to read slowly, to imprint what they read on their minds and hearts.

Reading in the ancient world was slow, demanding work, for few texts were readily available. Scarcity of reading material accentuated the importance of memory work as a monk read. Jean Leclercq refers to the phenomenon of reminiscence.” Reading out loud assisted this memory work and could be physically demanding, much like a good workout. They read usually,” Leclercq writes, not as today, principally with the eyes, but with the lips, pronouncing what they saw, and with the ears. Listening to the words pronounced, hearing what is called the voices of the pages.’”2 

Michael Casey explains, The monks tended to read slowly, probably vocalizing the words as they read. Often significant passages would be committed to memory; only a few scholars had the possibility of taking notes for permanent reference. With so few titles available, favorite works would be re-read many times. Because there were few reference books or commentaries, the monks had to learn to sit with difficulties and obscurities and try to puzzle out for themselves the meaning of the page before them. Reading became a dialogue with the text.”3 

Listening well to a text required the monks to be attentive, receptive, and trusting, a ready vessel to receive the feast offered by a text.

Like other areas of the spiritual life, lectio divina is an act of trust. We trust that the Holy Spirit desires to speak to us, even in those parts of the Bible we find boring or offensive. We trust that other writers are smarter, more gifted, and wiser than we; we trust that they are worth our time and effort. We trust that God has scattered jewels for us in the writings of an early Christian bishop like Ignatius of Antioch, a desert dweller like Antony the Great, or medieval saints such as Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Ávila.…

Don’t burden yourself with undue expectations for what you must accomplish during your spiritual reading. Lectio divina is a highly relational reading, a reading couched in love. Simply receive whatever the Lord offers you in a text, even if the Lord’s gift stings. He knows what is best. Devotional reading is a gift, not a task.

  1. The Rilke example comes from Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 90. ↩︎
  2. Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 1982), 15. ↩︎
  3. Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina (Liguori, MO: Triumph, 1995), 4. ↩︎

Excerpted from A Different Way by Christopher A. Hall and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2023

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Text First Published February 2023 · Last Featured on August 2023