LECTIO DIVINA (3) — Contemplation and action


In our third and final piece on lectio divina, we focus on the fourth classical step of lectio divina, that is, contemplation. We shall add a fifth step!




The fourth moment of lectio divina is contemplation (contemplatio). It is described as a return to paradise (Guigo). It is a silent and loving admiration for what has been read and what is being suggested by the Holy Spirit” (D. de Pablo Maroto). Mental prayer ends up in an act of love, a simple loving gaze, a faith vision of God: “The contemplative sees the resurrection in the cross, life in death, the Risen in the Crucified Lord” (Bernardo Olivera). “Trinitarian doxology is the goal of all Christian contemplation” (St. John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae).

The word contemplation scares some of us a bit! What is contemplation? An expert, Thomas Merton answers thus: “Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, and expectancy. True contemplation is… a theological grace. It is sharing through the Holy Spirit in the infinite charity of God” (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer). Contemplation is like returning to the maternal womb, but without forgetting the world and history. Contemplation is a deep experience of the presence of God – the words have taken us to the Word, to the Crucified and Risen Lord. It is interior silence of the heart, where God speaks – silently -, where He is adored. It is a paschal experience: “I have seen the Lord.”

After passing through penance and meditation, and being already substantially detached from external things and from discursive reasoning, the soul is introduced in “simple contemplation of intelligible truth” accompanied by spiritual joy. “The ultimate perfection of the contemplative life is the Divine Truth not only seen but also loved” (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II). Hence, “At its heart, prayer is contemplative, a pure looking at God, a pure acquiescence to his being as to ourselves, to his quality as Father and to our condition as his children” (S Pinckaers, OP, Passions and Virtue). I remember this lovely story. One day St. John XXIII seemed to have disappeared from the Vatican quarters. The secretary looked for him. Nowhere to be found. Finally, he found him in one of the private chapels. The secretary asked the Holy Father what he had done so long a time. The Pope answered him smiling: “I sat here and said: ‘Dear Lord, You are there and I am there’. The secretary: “Only that?” Pope: “Only that.” Contemplating God: You are there, I am there! (In Anselm Grun, The Art of Aging)

Contemplation integrates the contemplation of the crucified Lord and of the neighbor. It is intimately connected with action. “Contemplation is not an evasion from history, but the capacity to look intensely at Christ crucified, and afterwards to recognize him in the history of each person and of the entire world.” To separate contemplation and action, Mary and Martha is not good at all: “Faithful to Christian tradition are St. Thomas, with his well-known ‘contemplata aliis tradere’, and St. Ignatius of Loyola: ‘contemplativus simul in actione’” (Fabio Ciardi, OMI).


Although implicit, a fifth step is often explicitly added today by some authors, namely action.

Contemplation leads necessarily to mission, to evangelization – to apostolic action: “The contemplatives are the true Christian missionaries, precisely because having been transformed themselves they see in all the presence of the Word, the Logos. Truly, the contemplatives are the only ones who can dedicate themselves to the mission.” Gargano adds: “If one does not change before evangelizing others, he or she ought to be very careful, so that she or he will be able to give to others the good news instead of merely human words. If mission and contemplation are not one thing, then this one thing is not the exousia (key) which the Word of Jesus possesses; then the only thing left is work, the noise of an agitation that gives us the illusion that we are working for the glory of God and the good of the Church” (Inocenzo Gargano, Iniciación a la “Lectio Divina”).

Lectio divina is today for many people a serene path to happiness, holiness and perfection. It is not, however, the only path or the best path for all. It has been said that one of the greatest texts written by Saint Teresa of Avila is the following: “If contemplating, and doing mental and vocal prayer, and healing the sick, and serving him in the house chores, and working in a low job; if everything is serving the guest (Jesus), does it matter doing one thing or another?” Teresa asked herself this: “What must we do?” She answered: “Do what most awakens you to love” (Fourth Mansion: “Lo que más os despertare a amar, eso haced”). As La Santa of Avila shows in her life and writings, good prayer, including lectio divina, is always source to love God – and neighbor.

Contemplation, as the mystics make clear to us, is above all a question of love – of loving God and neighbor, principally the needy neighbor. As someone said, “The great friends of God have been crazy for God and crazy for their brothers and sisters” (Cassia M. Just). According to Thomas Merton, a prayer, a contemplation that is true goes hand in hand with compassion, “the sympathy with and love for other people.” St. John writes: “This is the commandment we have received from him, that whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 Jn 4:21). Jesus keeps telling you and me: “I was hungry, and you gave me food” (Mt 25:35).

Thus, today another step may be explicitly added to the four classical ones: action. We have to practice what we have just read, meditated, prayed for and contemplated. We have to try hard to turn our contemplation into action, to turn God’s word into life – into compassion.



On the matter of prayer, I give to myself three simple advises: first, be faithful to your spiritual reading, and (as a general rule) stick to the book you have begun and continue reading until you finish it. Second: read with attention, for a distracted reading helps you little. Third, pass from reading to meditation, to prayer and to contemplation. And, of course, do not end there: go on to action, to the performance of good deeds of love of God and neighbor – and principally the poor and needy neighbor.

Divine reading or lectio divina is a wonderful way of prayer to love, to holiness – to happiness here and hereafter. It is a way to the Father through Jesus in the Spirit. It is truly worthwhile to try it. One who does it time and again will never regret it!

Lectio divina, Cistercian monk Guigo II tells us, may be summed up as follows:

Now reading consists in the attentive observation of the scriptures with one’s spirit applied. Meditation is the studious action of the mind, which seeks the discovery of hidden truth by means of one’s own intelligence. Prayer consists in a religious application of the heart of God in order to dispel evil and obtain favors. Contemplation is in elevation into God, from the mind attracted beyond itself, savoring the joys of eternal sweetness.

In summing up, I recall the words of a modern author, Juan José Bartolomé: “Reading is the moment of understanding; meditation, the moment of personal appropriation (what the text says to me); prayer gives way to dialogue with God; contemplation makes present silence and adoration.”

Lectio divina ends with personal discernment and practical resolution. The Word of God calls us to action – to be carried out in our lives. If well done (and repeated), lectio divina will flourish in virtues. People around us will notice it by the way we treat them – with humility and compassion. Indeed, lectio divina is a well that satiates the thirst of many persons today (Pilar Avellaneda, ccsb). We are invited to draw water from this inexhaustible fountain.




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