Lectio divina: Emails from God By Sheryl Frances Chen, OCSO

At my 30th class reunion, one of the lectures offered was by a young psychologist doing cognitive research. He showed us a 3-minute video made by a colleague at the University of Wisconsin. Our task was to watch two basketball teams, one in white uniforms and one in black uniforms, and count the number of straight passes and the number of bounce passes made by the white team. He advised us to do this in complete silence, to help our concentration and in order not to disturb our neighbor. After the video was over, he said the correct answer was 12 straight passes and 2 bounce passes. Then he asked, 'Did you see the gorilla?' There must have been 200 of us in the room, who had earned a bachelor's degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, and we did not know what he was talking about. So he showed the video again. This time we watched without having to count the passes, and we clearly saw a student dressed in a gorilla costume walk into the scene, and even beat its chest in gorilla fashion in the midst of the two basketball teams, and then walk off. We had been so concentrated on our assignment that we did not see the gorilla!

I was very impressed by this research which shows that when we are focused on a task, our brain will ignore and exclude everything else. I took it as a parable on how our Christian life should be: if we really concentrate on Jesus and the kingdom of God, we will not see the many gorillas which clamor for our attention and seek to distract us.

When I came home and recounted this experience to my community, one of our novices pointed out that the professor had directed us to do it in silence, and this aided us in concentrating. She asked, 'Who will do this for us, so that we are reminded to focus on Jesus?' I answered that our practice of lectio divina (meditative reading) should remind us each day to keep on the path as we journey toward the kingdom. Every page of the scriptures can speak to us of Jesus, and keep us aimed at the goal.

Lectio divina is one of the mainstays of the Benedictine day. As novices we were trained to spend a half hour each day on scripture, and an additional half hour on another spiritual book. I admit that as a university graduate I did not take to it right away, and I still struggle (after 26 years) with the discipline of spending quality time with the scriptures. Those of us who have had to learn to speed-read just to complete course requirements, find it difficult to slow down and read meditatively, and to feel okay if we do not even finish the passage (see sidebar). I have on occasion been stunned by a line of scripture, taken out of the context of the passage itself, which has been so appropriate to my situation or my problem that it was like an email from God. It can also happen with one's secondary reading, when we read with the expectation that God has a message for us, and we are open to whatever form that 'word' might take.

Once when I was on retreat, I was grieving a relationship I didn't want to end. I was reading a book on the monastic vows. Like scripture lectio, the insight came from an unexpected place--not in the chapter on chastity and friendship, but in the chapter on poverty, where the author said our poverty consists simply in our not having what we want. Suddenly it was obvious, and I saw that I needed to accept in my poverty that I could not have this relationship, that being poor with the poor Christ meant not grasping after even immaterial things, but remain dependent on God. Then if contact with this person is granted me, it will be as a gift, and I will (I hope) be self-disinterested and unattached. It was a big turning point for me, and I ended the retreat in peace, confirmed in my vocation.

A friend of mine who was here on retreat has a 'method' of picking out one word from the gospel of the day's Mass, and repeating it during the events of her day. I have tried this recently, with surprising results. These were my Word-for-the-day during a recent week: quiet, deep, old, rub, touch, stretch, your.

The image of the apostles rubbing ears of grain to get something to eat on the Sabbath, led to other images of rubbing: if you rub a lamp, you might get a genie. We rub silverware with polish to make it shine. In order to rub something, you hold it in your hand. So I resolved to 'hold' each event of the day and 'rub' it to see what it might produce: something to nourish me, or a mysterious personality, or a flash of brilliance to marvel at.

The man who stretched out his withered hand (which took some courage) brought to mind other images of reaching out: Michelangelo's finger of God touching Adam, St Thérèse grasping both the red rose of martyrdom and the white rose of purity, St Thomas putting his hand into the still-open side wound of the resurrected Christ. Do I have the courage to allow God to stretch my capacity to meet others with an open hand and an open heart?

According to St Benedict, lectio divina has its place beside prayer and manual work. Separately and together, each is meant to direct our steps on the path of the gospel and bring us closer to God. Even in a busy workday, it is well worth setting aside 5 or 10 minutes a day to 'send and receive' emails from God. Regular lectio is like water dripping on stone: eventually the Word will penetrate our inner depths. It is one way to deal with the many gorillas who are ready to distract us from the one thing necessary.

Link to gorilla video: http://viscog.beckman.illinois.edu/djs_lab/demos.html


The classic 'steps' of lectio divina were described by Guigo the Carthusian in the early 12th century.

Lectio. READ. One begins by selecting a passage of scripture and reading it slowly, savoring each sentence and each word. Some monks stay with one sentence for a whole week! It can be profitable to use the readings for the Mass of the day, or do 'lectio continuo', that is, read an entire book of the Bible from beginning to end, a paragraph a day. It can be helpful to read the whole passage through once to get the gist of it, but this is not necessary. Read until a word or a phrase speaks to you.

Meditatio. FEED. Stay with that word. Ruminate on it, chew it like cud. Repeat it to yourself as you let it sink into your body. Let God's Word become part of you. Monks repeat the phrase throughout the day; this is especially easy while doing repetitive work when your mind is free, such as gardening, washing dishes, driving, or taking a walk. If the one word leads to free associations with other images, go with them, and see what God says to you.

Oratio. PLEAD. Let the meditation enter into your relationship with the God of love, and become a prayer. Often the word touches our moral sense, and the prayer is one of asking for mercy and forgiveness for failing to live out the gospel. Prayer has many other incarnations: pure adoration and wonder at God's goodness, thanksgiving for moments of grace and evidence of God's care, asking for help and healing for oneself and others in the wounded Body of Christ.

Contemplatio. CEDE. There can come moments when your prayer leads to an experience of union with God, with love, with the reality of all that is. These are indeed gifts of grace. Give yourself over to them, and when the moment of intense peace and silence is over, it remains as a treasure that can be re-tasted and savored later as a privileged time of entering into the fullness of life that Jesus is. When humdrum daily life returns, and you feel 'out of the flow', returning to these fruits of your lectio can restore your relationship with God and sustain you on the journey.

Sr Sheryl Frances Chen, OCSO,

liturgist and grill queen at Tautra Mariakloster in Norway.

U.S.CATHOLIC June 2011