THE LIFE of Mary, mother of the Word of God, can show us how to read the Bible in a personal,
prayerful and transforming manner. This way of listening to God’s word in Scripture is traditionally called lectio divina, an ancient practice by which prayerful listening to the text leads to a transforming encounter
with God. The ancient practice of lectio divina is experiencing a revival today throughout the worldwide church. Pope Benedict has said: “If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the church — I am convinced of it — a new spiritual springtime. … The ancient tradition of lectio divina should be encouraged through the use of new methods, attentively pondered, adapted to the time.” Because this ancient approach to Scripture is rooted in the Judaism of Mary’s time, she can show us the way to enter an intimate relationship with God through the sacred pages. In the synagogue, Jewish teachers taught their disciples to immerse themselves in prayerfully reading the sacred scrolls. Because the text itself is sacred, the ark containing the biblical scrolls is sacred space in the synagogue, with lamps burning around it, proclaiming God’s holy presence. Through reading, meditation and prayer of the Tanakh — the Torah, prophets and writings of Scripture — the faithful open themselves to God’s presence. This way of reading Scripture was then nurtured throughout the centuries of Christianity, especially through the desert fathers and mothers, the patristic writers and the monastic tradition. Though there have been many expressions of lectio divina through the centuries, the practice is usually presented in five movements: lectio, meditatio,
oratio, contemplatio and operatio — each of which is exemplified in the heart-centered life of Mary.
Listening Carefully, Making Connections
Lectio is a deep listening to the inspired page of Scripture. It is best to read the text aloud, listening with “the ear of the heart,” as St. Benedict described it in his Rule. Once we give our full attention to the text, lectio urges us to create a space within us for the new wisdom and understanding that God wants to give us through the sacred page.
As a child, Mary learned to listen to the word of God. She learned the Hebrew Scriptures from her parents, and the words of those texts resonated in her mind and heart as she matured. In the temple of Jerusalem and the synagogue of Nazareth, she heard the word of God; she chanted it and sought to live according to its guidance.
Her attentive listening to the divine word prepared her to receive the angel Gabriel’s revelation: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28, New Revised Standard Version; all citations are from this source). As Mary listened, she heard the words of ancient texts resound: “He will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David.” In time, she would see that those sacred texts were fulfilled in Jesus’ life and her own.
Mary’s whole life with Jesus, from Nazareth to Cana to Jerusalem, was a careful reading and an attentive listening to the divine Word, her son, Jesus. As a woman of the word, Mary teaches us how to listen with receptive and expectant devotion.
Meditatio aims to bring the biblical passage into the sphere of our own lives, seeking to understand how a Scripture passage speaks to us today. The challenge is connecting the text of ancient times and our own lives, moved by God’s Spirit today.
Throughout her life, Mary listened to God’s word and then reflected on it. Luke’s Gospel says, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (2:19). Treasuring and pondering the word of God are the essence of meditatio. Mary was a faithful disciple because she heard the word, treasured it and pondered it in her heart.
To “ponder” suggests that the word has enough weight and power to expand our heart’s understanding. The word of God can form our heart when we allow it to rest within us and gradually mold our thoughts, desires, insights, judgments and yearnings.
Later in Luke’s Gospel, as Mary and the brothers of Jesus approach him, he says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21). Not only Jesus’ mother, Mary is also a faithful disciple, a model for those who listen to the word and keep it. We can receive God’s word faithfully, as Mary did, when we allow the word to move from our minds into the depths of our hearts.
Praying the Text With Words and Silence
Oratio is our prayerful response to God’s word. After we have carefully listened and reflected on the text, God enters into our hearts and inflames them with the grace of his love. And there, at the core of our being, we naturally want to respond to the One whose voice we have heard.
Because Mary had listened to God’s word from her youth and learned to meditate on that word, she could respond in oratio with her whole heart, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Mary’s attentive listening had opened her heart and made her totally receptive to God’s will. She responded directly, honestly and confidently with her simple “let it be.”
During Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, she continued to reflect on the Lord’s words to her. She responded to God again in her prayer of praise and thanksgiving: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … .” The remarkable character of the Magnificat is the way that she wove verses from the psalms and other Old Testament prayers into her own prayer. Mary had obviously learned Israel’s prayers as a young girl while listening to them recited at home or in the synagogue.
Phrases from these ancient texts spontaneously rose from her heart to her lips. But she did not simply repeat the prayers of her ancestors; she prayed a completely new prayer that embodied both those ancient texts of Scripture and the new divine word she had heard. Allowing God’s word to interact with her own thoughts, feelings, memories, hopes and desires, Mary responded in a beautiful biblical prayer originating in the depths of her heart.
Contemplatio is the heart’s wordless prayer that remains once words are no longer necessary or helpful in responding to God. Simply enjoying the experience of quietly being in God’s presence, contemplatio requires that we let go of any effort to direct the process. When we feel God drawing us into a deeper awareness of his divine presence, we gradually abandon our intellectual activity and let ourselves be wooed into God’s embrace. We no longer have to think or reason, listen or speak.
This experience resembles that of lovers holding each other in wordless silence or a sleeping child resting in its mother’s arms.
From her nurturing womb to his rock-hewn tomb, Mary nurtured a contemplative experience of God through her relationship with the Word of God, her son, Jesus. After his resurrection and ascension, she waited with the other disciples for God to send the Holy Spirit: “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with … Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14). This expectant waiting for the Holy Spirit’s transforming work is the model for the contemplative life.
Through her relationship with the earthly and the glorified Christ, Mary shows us the prayerful union that leads to contemplation. By cultivating her prayer through an active relationship to Jesus throughout his life, Mary prepared for the silent and receptive waiting of her contemplative prayer.
As a woman of the word, Mary reveals that her whole life is rooted in the Trinity. She is the beloved daughter of the Father, tender mother of the Son and loving spouse of the Holy Spirit. Simply resting in trustful confidence that God would send the Spirit with its transforming powers, Mary shows us how to move into the prayer of contemplation.
Acting on the Text
Operatio is our lived response to the biblical text. We cannot prayerfully read Scripture in this way without being changed in some way. As we deepen our relationship with God through the movements of lectio divina, our actions become vehicles of God’s presence to others. We become channels of God’s compassion and mercy, becoming “doers of the word, and not merely hearers” (Jas 1:22), bringing about God’s loving purposes in our daily lives.
Mary’s entire life was a response to the word of God, from her youthful reply to the angel at the annunciation to the end of her earthly life. From Nazareth to Jerusalem, she was a faithful witness to the word, to which she had given her “yes, let it be.” Even in her most difficult moments, standing beneath the cross of her son, Mary never retracted her commitment to live in total openness to God.
As a model for our operatio, Mary offers words of trust for our task of witnessing to the word. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in John’s Gospel, Mary was with Jesus at a wedding feast in Cana. When the wine ran out, she instructed the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5). She knew that Jesus would transform their ordinary water into the vibrant wine of God’s kingdom.
As mother of all disciples after the Resurrection, Mary tells us to prepare to do whatever Jesus asks of us. She knows that being “doers of the word” and responding to that work with trusting obedience will lead to our wellbeing and happiness. Through operatio, Jesus takes our ordinary lives and shapes them into instruments for building his kingdom. Through faithful witness to the word, we live as his disciples today.
Christian theology describes Mary as the Theotokos, the “God-bearer.” Holding her son in her womb and in her heart, Mary gave birth to him. As the icon of lectio divina (Word Among Us Press), Mary invites us to gaze prayerfully and with wonder at this divine gift — and then to bring forth the Word into ur world.
Resources on Lectio Divina
The Bible and Prayer Themes by Michael D. Guinan