Written by Tonya Stanfield, this is Part 2 of our 4 part series, “Christian Practices that Transform” exploring different contemplative practices and how they deepen your spiritual foundation.
This Week’s Contemplative Practice: Lectio Divina (Divine Reading)
Did you know language is not your first language?
Check this out: A newborn’s sight is limited to 8 to 10 inches from her face. So, Mommy or Daddy (or primary care-giver) has the privilege of being the first image to imprint on baby’s mind! Images are part of our first language.
What’s the other part? To give you a hint…there was a whole year I couldn’t take my toddler to the beach because he ate sand until he got sick. I’ll admit it was less than adorable, and I wondered if there was something wrong with him. Turns out, he was (rather voraciously) exploring the world just as he was designed … through the other part of his first language: his senses! Spoken language comes much later.
You might wonder, as adults, how greatly we are still impacted by our first language of images and senses?
Greg Boyd does a fun exercise when he teaches on Lectio Divina. He asks the participants: “What did you have for breakfast?” Think about your answer for a second before reading on.
Did you picture your answer? (Cereal or sausages?) Or, did you taste your answer? (Coffee or Orange Juice?)
Our brains process information through a series of subconscious images and senses rooted in our own experiences. Scientists say we have about 50 – 70,000 of these “thoughts” per day; 3,000 per hour; 35 per minute. Each one has a corresponding chemical reaction which shapes our brains…even if our conscious mind does not register them.
We do not think in words or concepts. We think in images and senses and then convert a small percentage to language.
My husband co-leads a South African ministry called Sound of the Nations whose mission statement is to release worship in heart languages and authentic cultural sounds. I love Hillsong choruses, but something explodes within an African’s heart when he can praise God in his own rhythms and dialect. I’ve seen it time and time again… all across the world.
Doesn’t it make sense that God would want to speak to us in our original heart language too?
What is Lectio Divina?
Simply put, it’s imaginative Scripture reading. Its origin began with Origen! He was a Church Father from the 3rd century. Later, it became part of the monastic tradition. Lectio Divina is not an analytical reading of Scripture. You don’t put your theology on hold, but the goal of Lectio isn’t to draw theology from it. The goal is to experience Scripture.
“You know that you are to get into the scriptures, but it is even more important that you allow the scriptures to get into you. In this sense, lectio is not a spectator sport.” Tony Campolo
Is it Transformational?
Humans are mimicking beings. We have more mirror neurons in our brains than any other creature. From birth, we mimic what we see. This explains the return of ‘mom jeans’ and the global hair-style phenomenon of ‘man-buns’. But, most of all, we mimic desire. I want what you suggest is desirable to me.
I saw an advert featuring Bradly Cooper, who is both cool and hot. He sped through the desert on a shiny, vintage motorcycle, mastering death-defying turns. Finally, he arrived at a dusty airstrip and pulled a tarp from a pristine bi-plane. The tarp sailed away as the wind ruffled his hair; he looked out into the distance; you could taste the adventure. I didn’t desire Bradly Cooper’s watch… I wanted his way of being. Maybe buying that watch would help me be just a little more like him? The advertising agency gets this facet of our human design, and Scripture often implies it gets it too.
We desire what we behold.
We become like what we desire.
We were designed to behold God.
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 3:18).
“Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you (shape, transform) the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
The human race desperately needs practices which train us what is worth beholding and what is not. Lectio is a practice which beholds the Worthy One.
Is it Scriptural?
Yes! We’re encouraged to meditate on God’s Word day and night. Lectio Divina is one practice of biblical meditation. (Psalm 1:1, 119:97; Joshua 1:8)
Is it Biblical?
For some, using your imaging center (imagination) to spend time with God raises questions. Most definitely, the Lectio Divina experience should be guided by Scripture and not in conflict with it. Scriptures were written to engage the imagination and provoke the senses. It’s impossible to read Psalm 23 without picturing still waters and green pastures or the story of the prodigal son without almost smelling the pig sty. The Bible is purposefully rich with image creating metaphors (Lamb of God), and when we sing worship, our imaging centers are hard at work:
“On Christ the solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand…”
I can confidently say there is never a moment we are not using our imaginations when we are engaging God…because God is simply too big to be fully contained in human language.
So, how exactly does one dwell on what is excellent (Philippians 4:8) or set one’s mind on things above (Colossians 3:1-2)? How on earth do we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8)? Lectio Divina gives us one way to practice these commands.
How Do I Do Lectio Divina?
1) Pick a short Bible passage. (Ten verses or less.) For today, we’re going to meditate on this:
“Even before He made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in His eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into His own family by bringing us to Himself through Jesus Christ. This is what He wanted to do, and it gave Him great pleasure” (Ephesians 1:4-5).
2) Lectio (Reading): Quiet yourself, both, in mind and body. Invite Holy Spirit into this silent space. Read the passage slowly, reflecting on its meaning.
3) Meditatio (Meditation): Read it slowly again. Identify each character. For our passage, the characters are Father God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit (implied), and you (humankind)! Pick one character to experience the passage through. Then, close your eyes and reconstruct the scene in your imagination. Read the passage through the eyes of your chosen character. Use your imagination and engage with all five senses. (This is where you will spend the bulk of your time.) What is the Father’s expression as He decided to adopt humankind… you? Was there a sound in the heavens? A shout of joy or laughter? Pay attention to any word or phrase Holy Spirit highlights for you; reflect on it; linger over it.
“You are a participant, using your God-given imagination to enter into the Scripture and to come to Jesus as the Spirit speaks into your heart and mind.” Tony Campolo
4) Oratio (prayer): What can you say to the Lord in response to His Word?
5) Contemplatio (contemplation): Ask yourself: What conversion of the mind, heart, and life is the Lord asking of me?
“To the extent the imaginative story in my mind is one where I am drinking in the love of God, I no longer need to get it from anything else. The Bible calls this freedom.”
– Greg Boyd
In the Meantime:
Here are some suggested passages for your next Lectios: Luke 7:11-17 and Genesis 3:8-9
Pray as You Go App: Imaginative Contemplative Exercises
Julie Canlis ‘Lent to the Rescue Series
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also has a teaching, writing, and speaking ministry. Her heart is to raise, deepen, and challenge disciples of Jesus. She's part of the Center for Christian Formation and Discipleship and lectures at both a Masters and Undergraduate level for YWAM's University of the Nations. She's also training to be a spiritual director and is an enneagram coach. We thought you might enjoy some of her blogs...