Lectio divina, or divine reading, is an ancient practice of praying with sacred texts. Christians adapted it from the Jewish haggadah, an interactive way of freely interpreting scripture. To engage in lectio divina is to listen to a chosen passage with the “ear” of the heart, to enter into conversation with God and cultivate a sense of God’s presence. It is not Bible study — receiving knowledge about history, structure, or doctrine — but rather conversation with God through the text, opening oneself to listen for personal meanings and to hear and respond to God’s leadings.
Traditionally, lectio divina moves through four phases: 1) reading and noticing words and phrases that stand out, 2) reflecting on what these words and phrases are telling you, 3) responding to God’s voice, and 4) resting in the feeling of the divine presence. Often instructions invite us to read the passage in each of these stages to encourage ever deeper conversation. These traditional phases have been adapted for different contexts. Originally used for private devotion, Christians have used lectio divina in small group settings for individual contemplation followed by group sharing and discussion.
I have experimented with lectio divina by adapting it to any situation that requires listening with the heart as well as the mind, and I have discovered that this classic spiritual practice can be very useful in situations that involve conflict. Its phases of guided reflections are a flexible tool for short-circuiting immediate responses and defense mechanisms. Though designed for use in religious contexts with sacred texts, this essentially contemplative practice can be used in non-religious settings and with materials other than scripture in order to connect to whatever seems beyond our grasp — including a difficult idea or a difficult other.
Viewing Conflict through Lectio Divina
I first used lectio divina as a high school teacher in a secular school. After the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, I was planning a unit on structural racism for my predominantly white, upper middle-class students. I thought very carefully about how to engage students in ideas and realities that would be unfamiliar, challenging, and perhaps threatening to them. I wanted to avoid the reactivity I had observed before in discussions about racism. I was looking for a practice that could both invite their voices and encourage the discipline of listening so that reflection and quiet preceded discussion. I wanted to create a space for curiosity and openness to discomfort. A priest friend of mine suggested lectio divina, and I knew immediately that the quiet reflection structured into the practice was just what I needed.
I used it as the framework for our first lesson. We viewed and discussed a short film about racial segregation and conflict in Portland, Oregon, where a mural depicting police brutality had angered white business owners in the neighborhood, who complained and painted over the mural. I showed the video three times.
For the first viewing, I asked the students simply to note and reflect on what struck them. For the second viewing, I asked them to reflect on what the things they noticed taught them about themselves. For the third viewing, I asked the students to reflect on what the video was calling on them to do.
After each viewing, they reflected in writing but were not allowed to respond until they had watched the video three times. The discipline and contemplativeness allowed the students to respect and open to the material and to outlast their initial impulses/reactions.
In the discussion that followed, many students were able to find themselves in their discomfort, to name their own social location, and to acknowledge their segregated world. Some students questioned their blind faith in equality and freedom of expression. Others concluded that discomfort seemed to be a necessary step in social change and admitted that “We live in a sheltered environment.” A few students were brave enough to recognize that the video was unsettling because “We could have been the business owners that censored the mural”!
The lectio practice helped students say “yes” to the challenging material the film presented, and use the film to reflect on themselves and their world.
Healing Conflict through Lectio Divina
Because I'm interested in spiritual practices that bridge inner work and outer action, I kept adapting lectio divina. I wanted to make the practice interpersonal, to add other people to the conversation between me and God. I thought lectio had potential as a communal act that would bring me closer to people through God and to God through people.
In particular, I wanted to use lectio divina to heal conflicts, so I asked someone with whom I am often in conflict to share his favorite Bible passage with me. He agreed readily and, as immediately, I grew hesitant: he and I disagree on just about everything, and he has often made me feel overpowered and voiceless. Our history is filled with hurt; because of this, though I love him, he is also a kind of enemy: in his presence I feel my humanity diminished, and scripture has often been bent towards that diminishment.
He told me his favorite was “the ‘love’ passage from Corinthians” and later gave me the chapter and verses. I figured there would be something “tough” about this love, love with a stick, a “love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin” kind of love.
I settled in to practice, and felt no tension or resistance, only resonance with the words and phrases. I felt welcomed into the text, consonant with it, affirmed and charged.
I reflected on the fact that this man whose power makes me feel diminished holds this passage about love closer than any other scripture. I reflected on the paradox that God gave me this passage through this man, and I have needed this kind of love because of this man. The “exchange” of scripture in this lectio divina drew a circle around me and him and God (for the first time).
I saw his intentions as separate from what he often demonstrates in his relationship with me. But I also saw his choice of scripture as a manifestation and wondered if there were other manifestations I might be missing. At the least, the language of love in Corinthians became a commonality I knew we both could draw on.
It has been several months since this practice, and in that time, he has shared theological observations with me that are compassionate and even embracing of God’s mystery (rather than fundamentalist). Did he change so much in those months? Of course not. I did. I had been holding on to historical conflicts and letting them continue to shape our relationship.
I suspect he had, too. I wish I knew how my invitation affected him. Our worldviews and sensibilities are so different that I can’t say how it felt for him, but a quote from Thoreau comes to mind as a safe guess: “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” Perhaps the force of that compliment opened him to lessen his grip, too, on our competitions and conflicts.
Conflict-healing lectio divina can mediate conversation via scripture that seems impossible to have directly. It can reframe conflicts within community and provide a first step in stuck relationships — building empathy by confronting, in the vulnerability of the lectio process, the reality of the other’s dearest-held (though perhaps never or imperfectly expressed) truths.