Lectio divina: thinking about the text

In the last post in this series on lectio divina I talked about reading – which in a previous era really also included what we would think of as learning it and studying Scripture.

Now I want to turn to the second stage in the process, thinking about it (cogitatio). Bear in mind, of course, that while I’m talking about each of these stages as if they were separate entities, in reality they don’t necessarily happen in a linear sequence!

A lot of lectio guides suggest you should read a text over until something leaps out at you, or the voice of inspiration strikes. Sometimes that does happen.

But as Mother Cecile Bruyere, first Abbess of Solesmes said:

“It is absolute presumption to expect to obtain, by immediate light from God, that knowledge which we can and ought to acquire for ourselves as part of our work in this world. We must not voluntarily rest satisfied with vague notions about the truths….”

Approaches to thinking about the text

When you are doing lectio, you are really looking for what God is trying to say to you personally – what you need to think about, change about yourself, or understand. It is also a jumping off point for meditation and contemplation. So as you go through the lectio process, my suggestion is to jot down a few notes as you go to help structure your thinking.

I like to think of the ‘cogitatio’ stage of approaching the text as in large part working out what I need to fill in by way of study (the next stage), and what I’m going to focus on in meditating on the text.

Do remember though that the point of lectio is not to produce an academic understanding of a text (well, OK, it can be, but that isn't the objective). In thinking about it, the aim is in part to work out where to focus. There are really three key strands you can look at:

§ Understanding the context of the verses under consideration;
§ Understanding the meaning – literal and spiritual – of the text; and
§ Identifying themes or ideas that are important for you personally.


In terms of context, I’m talking about both things about the text itself (like the genre, the human author, time it was written) and the context of the events being described (for the Gospel, what part of Jesus’ life, is it a parable, a discourse or description of events, etc). If you aren’t familiar with this, you might need to take a quick look at a commentary (such as the Navarre), or an ‘Introduction to the Bible’ book (there are several around – the ‘Inside the Bible’ by Fr Kenneth Baker is one of my favourites).

Literal and spiritual meaning

The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes a nice medieval couplet that summarizes the four senses of Scripture: The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”

Throughout history there has been something of a tug of war between those who focus primarily on the literal sense of Scripture, and those who focus primarily on the spiritual.

At the moment the literal is winning.

And it does need to be in there, being the foundation for all the other senses of Scripture.

But I won’t spend much time on it. I’ll just note that the Ignatius Study Guides (and there are other similar resources around) provide useful notes on people and technical terms, as well as maps (as recommended by commenter Felix yesterday), and these are tools designed to be used for lectio.

One book I quite like as a crib because it provides a reasonably straightforward summaries of key parts of the Bible (and for the Gospels, gives one amalgamated version of each key event, parable, etc), and in each section gives a very helpful summary of the doctrinal points it illustrates (with a nice cross reference to catechism) is Krecht's Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture. It is also very good on the spiritual meanings, particularly typology.

So in summary….

The cogitatio stage is about working out how to tackle the text, which gaps in your knowledge need to be plugged the most.  Above all, it is about starting to pick out the things that you might meditate or pray on.


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