Lectio Divina: Reading the Book of Nature
As pioneers striking out to revive or reconstruct a spiritual heritage that has been broken and sometimes lost completely over the intervening centuries, we are hungry for regular practices that can help us connect more deeply to these wellsprings of authentic religious experience. Pagans and polytheists today draw on many different traditions and cultures from all over the world in search of helpful techniques and approaches to the spiritual life. One of the most popular forms of religious practice is the use of meditation to still the mind, seeking enlightenment or sacred union from a place of stillness and silence.
It is often assumed that the West has no equivalent to the Eastern religious practice of meditation. People living in modern Western cultures today increasingly look to the variety of spiritual practices of stillness and contemplation to be found in religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism: from zazen or “sitting” meditation, to yoga and Tai Chi. Community colleges offer classes in transcendental meditation, and local churches host group meditation sessions along with their usual Bible studies. Western medicine has even recognized the physical and psychological health benefits of regular meditation. Eastern meditative practices are no longer just for New Agers, Pagans and occultists — these days, everyone’s doing it.
What many enthusiastic practitioners might not know is that Western culture has its own heritage of contemplative meditation to be explored. One such practice is Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” an approach to spiritual study and prayer developed in the late twelfth century within monastic communities throughout Europe, and still practiced to this day by Catholics all over the world. Lectio Divina involves four stages of spiritual practice: reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. Within the Christian tradition, it is most often used as a way of studying the Bible as the Living Word of God, a key to intimate relationship with the Divine, rather than as a text to be analyzed from an historical or theological perspective.
The practice of Lectio Divina is not limited to the Christian Bible, however. Those of us who see the natural world itself as a place full of sacred beings and divine presence can adapt the techniques of “divine reading” to engage more authentically with Mother Earth. Moving gently and reverently through the four stages of Lectio Divina not only connects us with the uniquely Western traditions we’ve inherited from our ancestors, but it also helps us to open up and listen more deeply to the on-going story of wild holy earth.
But before we look at how we can adapt the practice of Lectio Divina as part of an earth-centered spirituality, let’s take a closer look at the four stages as they’re usually practiced within the Christian tradition.
The Four Stages of Lectio Divina
Originally, the practice of “divine reading” simply meant studying the holy scriptures with attention and reverence, making the sacred texts of the Christian tradition a foundation for both solitary and community prayer on a regular basis. By the late twelfth century, however, the term had taken on a more specific meaning as a form of methodical prayer used in monasteries, and by the sixteenth century the practice of Lectio Divina had been formalized into the four-stage approach still in use today. Each of the four stages has a unique role in preparing the practitioner to enter into the stillness and receptivity of contemplation.
• Lectio (Read) — The first stage of the practice is pretty simple and straightforward: reading the selected passage from scripture. Rather than reading scripture in order to gain an analytical or intellectual understanding of the text, however, a practitioner of Lectio Divina approaches the passage as a kind of mantra, to be read slowly several times, calming her mind and body so as to enter into a state of attention and receptivity. Unlike a mantra, however, the same passage or verse is not used every time, and so the experience of Lectio Divina is always changing, shaped by the nuances of the passage being read.
• Meditatio (Meditate) — The second stage is to meditate on or ponder the passage that’s been read. The term “meditation” here is not used in exactly the same way as it is when referring to, for instance, the Zen Buddhist approach to meditation. Instead of striving to quiet the mind completely, the meditative stage of Lectio Divina is a gentle exploration of the passage’s meaning and living relevance. Meditating on the sacred text allows the practitioner to seek out the personal relevance that the passage has for her, and how its message speaks to her in the moment, here and now.
• Oratio (Pray) — The first two stages of Lectio Divina — in which the practitioner first reads and then reflects on the passage — leads naturally to the third stage: response. In Christian tradition, prayer is seen as a conversation or dialogue with God. By reading and reflecting with receptivity, the practitioner opens herself to the promptings of spirit. In the third stage, she responds spontaneously and naturally to those promptings, guided by her own deepest longing for connection and authentic relationship with the Divine.
• Contemplatio (Contemplate) — In the fourth and final stage of Lectio Divina, the practitioner at last enters a state of quiet stillness or “silent love,” in which prayer gives way to restful, silent contemplation of the Divine presence. This stage is most similar to the meditative states reached in many Eastern practices, in which the mind is stilled and the practitioner’s sense of self-identity becomes porous, transcended by an experience of mystical or ecstatic union. The first three stages help to prepare the practitioner to enter this contemplative state, but they also serve to ground her in the community (through reading and reflecting on a shared sacred text) and in herself (through the act of articulating her response through prayer). For this reason, the final stage of contemplation in Lectio Divina is not mere “navel-gazing” or escapism, but a culmination and fruition of the spiritual work done during the first three stages.
Practicing Lectio Divina in Nature
The four stages of Lectio Divina are simple enough that they can be readily adapted to many spiritual paths both within and outside the traditional Christian community as a way of engaging with sacred writings and exploring their deeper meanings. However, Celtic spirituality presents a unique challenge to the practitioner of Lectio Divina: the ancient Druids, priests of our Celtic ancestors, did not write down their holy texts but preserved them instead as an oral tradition passed on through the generations. What little of this sacred oral tradition that we’ve managed to preserve until today comes largely from tales and legends written down by monks, with glosses and layers of Christian interpretation overlaying the original myths. Of these we often have to rely on translations and reinterpretations in order to render relatively obscure myths a little more accessible to the modern reader. Lectio Divina can be a fruitful practice for engaging with these ancient Celtic stories and uncovering their personal relevance and power, but there will always be limits on how deeply we can delve into these texts passed down disjointed over a millennium or more of broken tradition.
Luckily, there is another approach we can take that will connect us with our Celtic ancestors through our love of the natural world, an essential aspect of Celtic spirituality both then and now. When we see nature itself as a constantly-unfolding story about the deepest, most sacred truths of life and death, we can adapt the practice of Lectio Divina as a creative approach to meditation that can strengthen our relationship with the earth. Here are just a few ideas about how to use the practice of Lectio Divina to engage with the stories of nature.
We can “read” the natural world in many ways. One of the simplest ways is to head on over to your local library and find an ecology book about the bioregion where you live — any book that includes basic information about the geology, flora, fauna, climate, weather patterns and some of the natural history of your area. Familiarizing yourself with some basic facts about the natural landscape that surrounds you and the other living beings who share the land with you can help you see the “bigger picture” and your place in it.
After you’ve done a bit of research, go outside and spend some time quietly observing the natural world around you. It doesn’t matter if you live in a secluded hermitage out in the woods, or in a busy urban center full of bustling people, or even in a carefully landscaped suburban neighborhood. Nature is not something “out there” beyond human reach — we are deeply embedded in the natural world all the time. Learning about your bioregion will help you to recognize the unique ways that human life has adapted to the natural patterns of the area where you live, and how the land, its animals, plants, and weather have changed and adapted in their own ways.
Of course, you don’t need to be an expert in ecology to be an attentive observer of the natural world around you. Although there is power in knowing the names of things, there are also many non-verbal ways of “reading” nature. One of my favorites is drawing or sketching while out in the field. Settling down to capture a breathtaking panorama in watercolors or sketching the expressive posture of a bird or the delicate gesture of a flower forces us to really look at what we are seeing, to be receptive and attentive to the subtle details and nuances of nature. With practice, the act of drawing and the act of observing become one and the same — almost as though our sketch is a kind of “reading out loud” to ourselves as we capture our observations on the page.
Once we’ve spent time in attentive, reverent observation of nature, we enter the second stage of Lectio Divina. Now is the time to ponder, to daydream, to explore the personal meaning that the natural world holds for you as a denizen of the land. In ancient times, seers and oracles studied the patterns of weather and bird flight in order to divine messages of guidance or warning from the gods. This was not just a code in which certain events corresponded one-to-one with specific interpretations or meanings, but a much more intuitive, receptive way of opening to the messages of the landscape itself. In the same way that the alarm cry of a single chickadee can put all the other birds in the area on sudden, silent alert as the hawk swoops by overheard, we can learn how the patterns of activity and attention in the natural world around us shape our perceptions and influence our own behavior.
One way of approaching this kind of reflection is what Druid author John Michael Greer calls “discursive meditation.” In discursive meditation, rather than attempting to quiet the mind and silence any stray thoughts that might arise, we set off on a hunt, pursuing a particular idea or impression wherever it might wander, allowing our minds to lead us deeper into the dark, forested recesses of the soul. As you spend time outside observing the natural world, you may find yourself captivated by certain images or experiences. Through discursive meditation, you can probe more deeply and reverently into the meaning behind these intriguing scenes or inspiring events, exploring the connections that weave you into the natural world and how they express themselves uniquely through your personal experiences and observations.
This kind of meditative reflection quite naturally leads to the third stage of Lectio Divina, the creative, spontaneous response of prayer. Poets, priests and shamans alike throughout the ages have been moved by the beauty and inspiration of nature to respond in kind, engaging in creative works of ritual, prayer and worship to express the reverence they feel for the world around them. Prayer can be a solitary act of praise or petition, or it can be a community ritual shared with others in a way that heightens our sense of how our personal relationship with nature is reflected in the relationships of those who live in this land with us.
Many of the gods of modern Druidry and Celtic polytheism are gods of nature, intimately related to the landscapes and natural forces of the earth. For some, even the planet Earth is herself a goddess, a fecund mother of all creation. Praying to these gods and goddesses of the natural world is an act of communion and connection — in fact, it can be hard to tell the difference between praying to the goddess of a river or a mountain, and praying to the river or mountain themselves. In the same way that Christians view their holy scripture as the Living Word of God, seeing the presence of Spirit in the text itself, modern Pagans see the unfolding story of the natural world as the manifestation of the gods’ presence in our lives.
Besides praying to the gods, there are other ways you can adapt this stage of Lectio Divina to a spirituality grounded in nature. If prayer is simply a form of reverent conversation, then you might feel moved by your observation and meditation on nature to converse with the many beings around you — even beings with whom you might not normally strike up a conversation. If you’re feeling inspired by your spiritual work, you can speak with the robins about the coming spring, or converse with the tree that stands tall and patient in your backyard to learn what lessons it has to teach you. You might even feel moved to speak out loud, to tell your own story to the waterfall or the evening breeze. There is a long tradition in indigenous and animistic earth-centered religions of speaking openly and devoutly with the plants and animals who share the land with us.
Verbal prayer is not the only form of prayer, either. Just as we can “read” the natural world by sketching or drawing it, we can also respond creatively through works of art: painting, sculpture, poetry, music and dance. These acts of self-expression can be a way of responding spontaneously and organically to a world that often defies our ability to describe it with mere words. As a practitioner of an embodied spirituality, you might try turning to ritual, dance and art as reminders that you are not merely an abstract mind trapped inside a meaty body. Your body is itself an aesthetic expression of who you are, and you can respond to the world through movement, color and sound as well as through language.
Finally, we come to the final stage of Lectio Divina: the stage of contemplative silence. After we have spent time in careful study and observation of nature, experienced the thrill of the wild hunt as we chased after its meaning for our personal lives, and responded with our own acts of creative self-expression as a way of connecting and conversing with the sacred beings and gods that dwell here with us — we come to rest at last in the still center of our being. We enter into the silence and solitude of attentive listening, receptive to the experience of loving union with the natural world in all its complexity, diversity and mystery.
Within the stillness and silence of contemplation, we discover that the boundaries of self-identity that usually appear so firm and solid are actually far more porous, flexible and fluid than we realized. From a centered place of calm, we lose our strict sense of separation and isolation from the rest of the natural world. We enter into a liminal space in which we can experience the myriad connections that weave us together with poignancy and clarity. This kind of contemplation is not an escape into a silent void of nothingness. Rather, it is the practice of communing with the sacredness of the Many, joining in the ecstatic dance of natural forces in a way that brings us more fully into our own truest self without destroying or subsuming our individuality.
We carry with us all of the work that we have done during the first three stages of “divine reading,” entering more fully and completely into the always unfolding, ever-evolving story of the world. In this way, we come to know nature as a living story of which we are an intimate, integral part.
Bringing It All Together
Although we can approach each of the four stages of Lectio Divina as distinct activities that we can do one at a time on their own, we experience the most benefit from this kind of spiritual work when we bring them together into a single coherent, continuous practice. After you’ve spent some time exploring each of these stages separately, set aside at least thirty minutes to an hour (or more, if you feel up to it) to explore different ways that you can bring these activities together. Find what works for you and helps you to connect more authentically with the natural world. Here are some ideas that you might want to try:
• Talking to a Tree — Find a comfortable place to sit near or underneath a tree, in your backyard or in a local park, anywhere where you won’t be disturbed. If you can, bring along a tree guide. Spend some time studying and observing the tree (lectio) — its bark, leaves and overall shape, along with any nuts, seeds, fruits or flowers it has. (If you don’t have a guide book, just take some time to carefully observe these details.) After ten to fifteen minutes of careful observation, begin to allow your mind to wander, following your thoughts and feelings as they meander through associations and memories (meditatio). Do this for another ten to fifteen minutes, but don’t get so lost in thought that you become distracted and lose sight of the real presence of the tree before you. When you’re ready, allow your meditations to inspire you to speak to the tree (oratio). You can speak the words silently to yourself, as though in prayer, but you might be amazed at how powerful it is to address the tree out loud, even if only in a whisper. You can tell the tree about a memory that has surfaced during your meditation or describe an experience or event that’s been troubling you, or you can simply express your praise and gratitude to the tree for its beauty and strength. You can even ask the tree to share its story with you. Finally, quiet your body and mind and enter into a calm, receptive state of attention (contemplatio) — spend another ten to fifteen minutes listening deeply to the tree, opening yourself up to its presence. Don’t expect to hear a response in words (though you might!), just allow yourself to sit in silent contemplative love with the being before you.
• Painting a Landscape — Head out with your sketch pad and art materials on a pilgrimage to find a quiet spot with an amazing view. The view might be of rolling hills and meadows, or an ocean shore, or a cityscape of buildings and treetops. Once you’ve found a good place, spend some time observing and sketching the panorama before you (lectio), sometimes examining the details of texture and contour, other times pulling out to see the “big picture” and notice the patterns of light and shadow, shape and balance. After you’ve finished your sketch, don’t move on to your final drawing or painting right away — instead, spend ten to fifteen minutes pondering the image you’ve created (meditatio), asking yourself how it reflects the physical, emotional and spiritual sensations that the landscape around you provokes. Once you’ve spent some time reflecting on your observations, begin the work of drawing or painting (oratio). As you work, think of your creative act as a prayer of thanksgiving and praise for the land to which you are a witness. After you’ve completed your work, set aside your colored pencils or paintbrush, quiet your body and mind and sink into a receptive, attentive state of listening (contemplatio). Allow yourself to release the work of your hands as something which is now complete and separate from yourself, a gift that you’ve given back to the land. Listen to the silent depths of the landscape before you as you sit in silent, contemplative love.
• Serenading a Waterfall — Seek out a place with falling water, whether it’s a waterfall in the woods, a small cascade in a creek that runs through the local park, or a desktop fountain in your home. As with the practice of tree-talking, spend some time observing and studying the waterfall (lectio), noticing how the light reflects and refracts off the surface of the moving waters and noting especially the myriad sounds the water makes as it rushes and sings over the rocks. After ten or fifteen minutes of listening and observation, allow your thoughts free reign to wander (meditatio), following the rhythm of the water as it moves as though dancing its way deeper into the porous recess of your soul. Drink in the insights that the water carries for you, pondering them, turning them over and smoothing them like round river stones. When you’re ready, begin to sing, chant or play music (oratio) — if you’ve brought along a flute, drum or guitar, you can use that instrument to try to micmic the sound of the falling water — joining your music with the sound of the waterfall in a kind of shared prayer. Your song doesn’t need to have words, but it can if you feel inspired. After another ten to fifteen minutes, fall back into attentive silence (contemplatio), listening to the music of the World Song as it sings through your own being and the being of the waters before you.
There are many other ways you can incorporate Lectio Divina into your practice of nature-centered spirituality; these are only a few examples. In each example, though, we see how engaging in the full, four-stage practice of Lectio Divina requires self-discipline and some preparation beforehand — for example, gathering together art supplies, learning a musical instrument, finding an appropriate spot out of doors. The preparation and intention put into this practice is an important part of the spiritual work, for it challenges us to take our work seriously as something worthy of devotion and attention. That attentive devotion is carried into the work itself, and we can draw on it as we meditate and engage with the natural world around us.
The fruits of regular practice of Lectio Divina is a soul-deep understanding of how attention, meditation, prayer and contemplative loving silence arise from each other in a sustaining, nourishing cycle. As with all cycles of nature, when we open ourselves to the fullness of such experience we discover that we are already a part of this turning, spiraling dance — and we can embrace our place in the dance with gratitude and joy.
This essay originally appeared in Aontacht Magazine, Volume 4 Issue 4, March 2012
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