Book review – Lectio Divina: The sacred Art

Lectio Divina: The Sacred Art. Transforming words and images into heart-centred prayer.

Christine Valters Painter
SPCK, London 2012

9780281067114

This book was not read slowly, carefully and reverently – but in short bursts on noisy trains. It was a good read; one that has made me stop and think about my own lack of spiritual practice and how this can be addressed. It’s structured so that the first part of the book gives a broad overview of the practice, the next section considers the four steps in detail, and it closes with a yet broader outlook.

There have been other books I have read that have intimidated me by their success. Not quite ‘get rich quick’ or perhaps in this context ‘get blessed quick’ – but the kind of thing that lays down a formula and describes the results ‘successful Christians’ can achieve. What I liked about the description of beginning lectio divina as a practice was the lack of this kind of expectation. It will be difficult, it will need practice and it won’t lead to overnight success or enlightenment. It’s less a formula and more a set of signposts down a well-trodden path, pointing out the tricky bits along the way. The four parts to a session are described in the book as:

Reading – Lectio – ‘settling and shimmering’
Meditating – ‘savouring and stirring’
Praying – oratio – summoning and service
Contemplating – slowing and stilling

This takes one along a path based on deliberate reading of a short passage; seeing how it speaks to us though significant words, taking that to God in prayer and then a time of ‘resting in God.’

I completely empathised with the author’s understanding of perfectionism, of that little voice that nags us that we are not doing something right. I was heartened by this; I have always assumed this kind of spiritual activity was not the kind of thing for me – I’d prefer a prayer run to a prayer walk, and a prayer walk over sitting quietly any day of the week. So naturally I’d get something else wrong, and be rubbish at it, so there is no point in trying…

I did mostly appreciate the etymological explanations for the terms being used, although once or twice it became a little wearing, and felt like a springboard or justification for using a different interpretation of a word. I also skipped hastily over the more touchy-feely explanations about what being ‘heart-centred’ means.

This is more a book about spirituality than about Christianity. The author brings in readings and experiences from other faiths. Interesting in places, but I think I found that a little too much of a catch-all; I’d have preferred to see more emphasis on Christian readings. Having said that it has done me good and no harm to expand a little my thinking about spirituality as a concept divorced from its vaguer ‘spiritual but not religious’ sort of thing.

The things I’ve taken away from the book are

  • that although lectio divina is a four-step process, it’s not linear
  • there are no hard and fast rules about what should happen at each session
  • finding sitting still with a clear mind is difficult for many people

I’m tempted to try this as a Lent discipline this year. The book spoke to me in particular in its description of ‘stability’ as a Benedictine value; of finding stability and routine in our busy lives. Let me quote you something that had me nodding along, completely recognising myself:

Often our frustration arises from a subconscious ‘task-oriented’ approach to lectio, where it is only ‘successful’ if we receive something of measurable value from the experience (p33)

There are also suggestions – once one has mastered the art of reading the written word – for using art and nature as a focus for meditation. Perhaps I will get my prayer run in after all.

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