Live Classroom: 'Lectio Divina' (Spiritual Reading of John 11: 25-44)

I. The Artist

We will explore some artists' interpretations of this Gospel passage, so that we can appreciate the role of the spiritual imagination. Then we will explore methods of 'Lection Divina' (Spiritual Reading) so that you can use your own spiritual imagination to enter into the scripture.

1. Third Century Painting, Roman Catecombs

2. Giotto, Church of St. Francis in Assisi, 13th C.

3. Duccio, Disciple of Giotto, Sienna

4. Piombo, 1519

5. Carravagio, 1609, Messina

6. Rembrandt, 17th C. Dutch

6. William Blake, 19th C. British

II. The Reader: ' Lectio Divina'
Now we'll explore some methods of Lectio Divina, or Spiritual Reading, so that you can use your spiritual imagination to interpret this scene.

The Church Fathers honored three levels of meaning in scripture: (1) The literal/ historical; (2) The moral; (3) The spiritual. "Just as a man has a body, a soul and a spirit, so does the scripture: a literal meaning, a moral meaning, and a mystical meaning." (Origen of Alexandria, 1st C.)

1. Ignatian Method (St. Ignatius, founder of Jesuits)
As you slowly read or hear the passage, use your inner senses to imagine the scene in great detail: the sights, the sounds, the touch, even the smells. A specific but minor detail of the story may attract your attention. Even if this little detail doesn't seem meaningful to your analytical intellect, it may trigger significant feelings in your spiritual imagination.

Look carefully into this detail and let it unfold its energy and power to you.

One interesting way to do this exercise is to take the role of a minor character, like a person in the crowd. What emotions does this character feel? What does this character see and hear? What questions does he or she have about Jesus? Remember that these characters had no idea who Jesus was at the time.

This method is a good basis for creative writing. Your response paper could simply be recounting the story from this character's point of view.

Does this method of listening to a story remind you of the way you heard stories when you were a child? You can use this method of hearing a text, with all your senses and imagination, for any great literature, story, or poem.

Any questions?

You will have a chance to practice this method of hearing a story in a few moments.

2. Centering Prayer
(Benedictine Method)
This method is based on the 14th century classic, 'Cloud of Unknowing', written by an anonymous Benedictine monk. "Take a single word of one syllable and clasp it to your heart, with only a naked intent of your being toward God."

As you read the passage slowly, notice a moment when a single word or short phrase strikes your heart, causing a shift of attention to a deeper and more interior listening. It is as if this small detail of the text perks up your inner ear - the sense of hearing in your heart.

After you finish the passage, go back to this word or phrase. Without effort, repeat it silently in your heart. Repeat it very slowly. It may feel relaxing to repeat the word with each breath. Let the word settle in the space of your heart instead of analyzing it with your brain. Be open to any feelings or images that may come with this word or phrase.

Remember, the purpose of this exercise is not to analyze the word, but simply to let the word draw you into a deeper stillness, a deeper silence, a deeper sense of divine Presence.

Questions? Comments?


Stop here for a short writing exercise:
Please write in the space provided: Which one of these two methods might you want to try? Why?

III. Experiencing Lectio Divina

Use one of these methods to hear the following passage from the story. Relax and listen with eyes closed. Visualize the scene. Sense, Feel and See the details. Note any small detail that draws your attention. Note any single word or phrase that draws you deeper into listening. Notice if one character draws you into his or her perspective, and see the scene through their eyes. Just let your imagination guide you in any of these possibilities.

Now begin to listen...

"When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.
And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus wept. The people said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?"

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time the body will stink, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone.

Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I say this on account of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (ESV Translation.)

Now spend some time in silence, inside, reflecting on any detail of this text that drew you into it....


Stop here for a short writing exercise:
Write any reactions you wish to share about your experience. What detail, or character, or word attracted your spiritual imagination? What gift did that detail give you?

From Word to Silence
In the tradition of Lectio Divina, reading leads to meditative prayer, and prayer leads to pure silence. View the video (in the column at right). Notice how word and image join when you begin to relax. When the brain is calm, there is neural integration between the right and left hemispheres, between the verbal and visual centers of the cortex. The nervous system and the immune system receive healing in this restful awareness...

Extra Credit Writing Assignment
Go to the Papers/Projects site of your course and do the writing assignment for a possible 20 points extra credit. To do the assignment, choose either of the two methods of Spiritual Reading described in this class. Reread the passage using this method. Then write about the experience in a 250 word essay. The assignment is described further in the site.