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
I always hated poetry in school. 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. 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.
A secular version of a religious practice
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 (or other short piece) in front of them, then explain the lectio divina reading process. It's weird and unfamiliar and so students need an explanation of what is about to happen and why.
If you have high-energy students or the class is chatty, it's a good idea to first have the class meditate for five minutes in silence. Five minutes of silent meditation can calm the room, make disruptive students more focused, and set the tone for the rest of the lesson. Meditation phone apps are handy for this.
I print this handout and distribute it to the class.
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."
Begin by reading the instructions for part 1 (the quote above) and ask for a volunteer to read the poem. After the student reads the poem, have the class sit in silence for one minute. After a minute of silence invite the class to say aloud any word or phrase that stood out to them. Do not call on anyone. Let them speak when they are moved to speak and be comfortable with silence. Do not discuss or analyze the words/phrases they say. There is no time limit for the sharing. Move on to part two when you get the sense they have nothing left to say.
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."
Read the instructions for part 2 (the quote above) and ask another volunteer to read the poem. After the student reads the poem, have the class sit in silence for one minute. After a minute of silence invite the class to share any thoughts that were triggered by the poem. It can be any thought at all, even a question. Do not call on anyone. Let them speak when they are moved to speak and be comfortable with silence. Do not discuss or analyze their statements. There is no time limit for the sharing. Move on to part two when you get the sense they have nothing left to say.
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."
Finally, read the instructions for part 3 (the quote above) and ask a third volunteer to read the poem. Afterward, meditate in silence for three minutes.
4. Optional Additional Steps.
a. Ask the class to freewrite after the meditation. But as always, do not use the freewrite as a jumping off point for analytical discussion.
b. Begin the process again with a second poem.
Students will find it weird at first only because it is so different than familiar class exercises. 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.
For a lectio divina lesson to be successful, the class needs a certain level of maturity so no one intentionally disrupts the lesson with melodramatic sighs, inappropriate comments, noises, et cetera. Surprisingly, my best experiences have been with college freshman in an introductory gen-ed literature class. The students were 18-19 years old and not English majors so I suspect Honors, AP, and IB high school students are probably mature enough for lectio divina as well.
In my gen-ed class, I saw students with tears in their eyes during readings. There have been times when a poem emotionally affected the whole room. Richard Blanco's "Looking for The Gulf Motel" seemed to have left no one unmoved. I could not have been happier.
Unexpectedly, my worst experience has been with graduate students. While maturity is a basic necessity for the lesson, students also need to turn off their analytical brains in order to experience the emotions of the poem or its speaker. Many grad students just aren't earnest enough to disarm themselves and be open to emotion. They shield themselves in layers of intellectual or ironic detachment. Also, by the time they reach grad school, English students have been thoroughly trained in analytical methods but lectio divina asks them to let go of all the things that have made them successful academically. Its unfamiliarity makes them reach for more comfortable strategies.
As a result, during meditatio (the second part), they did not share questions provoked by the poem or thoughts originating in self-reflection. Instead, they shared their analyses. So the lesson became a very slow version of a regular class discussion. They also wanted to analyze the lesson itself, questioning its assumptions, approach, purpose, et cetera.