Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book

Often, when teaching college undergraduates, I have found that my students are hiding a guilty secret: they don’t really know how to read. Now that doesn’t mean that, if I were to give them a book or newspaper and asked them to read a particular sentence they would be stymied. No, they would be able to make out all the words, and even comprehend entire sentences or paragraphs, so they are not “illiterate” in the most basic sense. But many of them don’t know how to make sense of what they read: to be able to discern the most important ideas in what they read, and see how the ideas fit together; to put these ideas into context with other assigned readings (to see connections or contradictions); to assess or apply the significance of what they have read, once they understand it; to judge the value of what they have read, taking into account its merits and deficits; and other tasks that allow them to get some value out of what they have read. Once I discovered how universal this “guilty secret” was, I worked out a 4-point reading method (distilled and adapted from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book) that I required them to apply to each assigned reading — a method that students found very profitable, and easily adaptable to reading for other classes or purposes, as well.

I happen to know that many Christians (and perhaps Catholics in particular) have a similar “dirty secret,” only this one has to do with reading the Bible: they know they should be reading the Bible, they want to, but they just don’t know where to begin or how to go about it. Most feel that they should have some plan or program to follow, so they wait for a Bible study class to be announced in their parish, hoping that the right curriculum, the right teacher, the right set of videos will give them what they need, and in the meantime they just … feel guilty. Now, I would never belittle the value of group study or a knowledgeable instructor, but it so happens that there is one quite excellent, very ancient and adaptable method of Bible reading that has been practiced profitably in the Church for millennia, which is both simple and profound, requiring no teacher, curriculum, or grand plan. Like the reading method I devised for my college students, this one has four steps, but unlike that method it requires no real intellectual effort; it is accessible to any Christian, requires very little practice to master, and can pay bountiful benefits. You don’t need anyone or anything besides a Bible to use this method, either.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalene Reading
Rogier van der Weyden,
The Magdalene Reading

The ancient method to which I refer is called lectio divina, “divine reading.” Most Catholics have heard of it, but may think of it as something for monks or saints, not ordinary believers. This is a mistake, for several reasons. First, it requires very little time carved out of an ordinary day to profit from this method, and uses only very short Bible passages for meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Second, the method requires only prayerful attention, not great erudition or sanctity. (If practiced regularly, however, it certainly can help the practitioner grow in holiness.) And then, this method does not require you to work your way through the whole Bible, or to read scholarly commentary or take copious notes. On the contrary, it concentrates on short passages and simply requires prayerful attention. Once one becomes familiar with the method, can become quite a natural way to respond to Scripture whenever you encounter it (in the liturgy or elsewhere). In other words, lectio divina is suitable for anyone and accessible to everyone.

I’m not the person to give detailed instruction in how to practice lectio divina — this is done much better by others than I could do. For instance, here is a nice introduction to the method by a Benedictine monk, along with some discussion about how to adapt the practice to groups. An even simpler explanation recently was given by a Brazilian bishop who wanted to introduce lectio divina to the faithful of his diocese. I’ll quote most of it here, since it’s short. You can read the rest at In square brackets, I put the traditional Latin term for each of the four steps.

[Lectio] First, one reads the passage. “In this first instance, one attempts to understand the text exactly as it appears, without pretending to extract from it immediately messages and conclusions,” he said.

[Meditatio] Meditation on the text comes next, in response to the question “What is God saying to me, or to us, through this text? Now we really do try to listen to God who is speaking to us and we receive his voice.”

[Oratio] Then comes “prayer. In this third step, we respond to the question: What does this text bring me to say to God?”

“Let us always remember that a good biblical reading is always done only in the dialogue of faith: God speaks, we listen and accept, and respond to God and speak to him,” the cardinal explained. The text “might inspire several types of prayer: praise, profession of faith, thanksgiving, adoration, petition for forgiveness and help.”

[Contemplatio] The fourth and final step of lectio divina is contemplation. In this step “we dwell on the Word and further our understanding of the mystery of God and his plan of love and salvation; at the same time, we dispose ourselves to accept in our concrete lives what the Word teaches us, renewing our good intentions and obedience of the faith.”

By the way, Pope Benedict very frequently recommends this method to all and sundry, and frequently uses it as the basis of many of his weekly public addresses.

If anyone should still hesitate, asking, “Where do I begin?” I would like to suggest that he begin with one of the Scripture passages from the lectionary for the daily Mass, or from the propers of the Liturgy of the Hours (a.k.a. the breviary or the Daily Office). Here is the daily Mass lectionary, on the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. This link will take you to, a very nice website that provides the daily propers for each of the daily offices. Many non-Catholics have the mistaken notion that the Catholic Church does not place much emphasis on the authority of the Bible or promote Scripture reading, but Catholics should know that is just not true: not only is the Catholic liturgy is a densely-woven tissue of Scripture references, but each day the lectionary for the Mass presents three (and on Sundays four) substantial passages from the Bible for the faithful to meditate on. Lectio divina provides a way to use the daily liturgical readings for personal devotional meditation.

Carmelite monk reading
Carmelite monk reading

Having said all this, since this is a blog about reading (not about why you should read), I will leave it to my reader to decide whether or not to try this method of spiritual reading. I will suggest, however, that since lectio divina is a practice that turns reading into prayer, then to ask the question, “Why should I practice lectio divina?” is pretty much the same as asking, “Why should I pray?” I hope you already have a good answer to that! If praying is something you already do, and would like to do better, you should try lectio divina.

Now, off you go! Happy reading (& meditating,  praying, and contemplating)!