Teaching Poetry with Lectio Divina

While schools give students hundreds of pages of text and urge them to learn "speed reading" the monks dwell on a page or a passage or a line for hours and days at a time. They call it lectio divina, sacred reading, and they do it at a contemplative pace. This method allows reading to open, not fill, our learning space.

– Parker Palmer PhD, educator and Quaker

(not pictured to right)


I always hated poetry. I blame the way I was taught poetry in middle and high school. Poems were presented as puzzles, like verbal Rubik's cubes that I was supposed to twist and spin until I discovered their hidden meanings (and usually these meanings turned out to be trite). A poem was never presented as something to experience. It was always something to analyze. That is, until grad school when a colleague introduced me to lectio divina, a Christian monastic practice of slow, contemplative, non-analytical reading, and suddenly, at the age of thirty, I found myself enjoying a poem.

Lectio divina (Latin for divine reading) is a traditional practice of meditation and prayer used by Benedictine, Cisterian and Carthusian monks. It is a slow-paced, non-analytical method of study and contemplation very different from contemporary fast-paced study habits. 


Lectio divina traditionally has four separate steps: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate. With help from Paul Corrigan, I have adapted the exercise for a secular setting by removing the prayer, shorting it to the three steps listed below.


   1.  Lectio – Listening to the Word 

   2.  Meditatio – Reflecting on the Word

   3.  Contemplatio – Resting in the Word 


The basic process remains the same: a passage is read and then reflected upon. The goal is also similar: rather than dissect the work using analytical tools (the usual business of literature courses), the exercise is meant to promote a deeper experience of the literary work. Any type of passage may be used, as long as it is relatively short: a poem, part of a poem, a work of flash fiction, a paragraph from a longer work, or even a single sentence.


Using Lectio Divina in the Classroom

First, make sure everyone has a copy of the poem (et cetera) in front of them, then explain what lectio divina is. It's weird and unfamiliar and so students need an explanation of what is about to happen and why. Next, read the instructions for part 1 (below) and ask for a volunteer to read the poem. The student will read the poem, the class sits in silence for one minute afterward, and then the class is invited to say aloud any word or phrase that stood out to them. Do not discuss or analyze the words/phrases further. Next, read the instructions for part 2 and ask a different student to read the poem. Afterward sit in silence for a minute and then invite students to share any thoughts they might have. Again, do not discuss or analyze their thoughts. Finally, read the instructions for part 3 and ask a third student to read the poem. Afterward, meditate in silence for three minutes.


1. Lectio – Listening to the Word

As we listen to the passage read for the first time, be aware of any word or phrase that stands out to you. After a minute of silence, you will be invited to share it with the group.


2. Meditatio – Reflecting on the Word

As we listen to the passage read for the second time, be aware of any thought or reflection that comes to you. After a minute of silence, you will be invited to share the thought briefly with the group.


3. Contemplatio – Resting in the Word 

After we listen to the passage a third time, you will be invited simply to rest in contemplation. We will sit silently and meditate for three minutes.


You can also add a fourth step and ask the class to freewrite after the meditation. But as always, do not use the freewrite as a jumping off point for analytical discussion.


Students will find it weird at first only because it is so different than familiar class exercises. They will embrace it however. And the more you do it, the more comfortable they become with the process -- this makes them less self-conscious and allows them to experience the poem more fully.

When teaching a text with lectio divina, I like to print this handout and distribute it to the class: