The medieval tradition was founded by St. Benedict and Pope Gregory I. Life in a Benedictine Monastery consisted of liturgical prayer, manual labor and Lectio Divina. This Scriptural reading formed a critical part of the monks’ daily lives, but it was not widely practiced outside of Benedictine monasteries. In the early 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux emphasized the importance of Lectio Divina in his Cistercian order. He considered it the key to nourishing Christian spirituality.
In the late 12th century, the four stages of Lectio Divina were first formally defined by Guigo II, a Carthusian monk, in The Ladder of Monks. According to Guigo, the stages were like rungs on a ladder in which reading (lectio) leads to thinking about the text (meditation) which leads to prayer (oratio) which leads to stillness in the presence of God (contemplatio). Gerard of Zutphen, writing in the 14th century, expanded on this, warning against meditation without reading Scripture first.
In the 16th century, Lectio Divina was promoted by both Catholics and Protestants alike. St. John of the Cross promoted it in Spain while reformers such as John Calvin also advocated it as a way to pray the Scripture. By the 19th century, however, Lectio Divina had fallen out of favor as a devotion as biblical analysis focused on the historical critical approach. This was just a temporary development, as the 20th century saw a revival of Lectio Divina among the laity. Dei Verbum emphasized the use of Lectio Divina following Vatican II, and the practice has increased ever since.
The four movements of Lectio Divina have been compared to “feasting on the Word.” First you take a bite (lectio, “read”), chew on it (meditatio, “meditate”), savor its essence (oratio, “pray”) and finally digest it and make it part of the body (contemplatio, “contemplation). During lectio, you prepare the mind by quietly reciting a prayer inviting the Holy Spirit to guide the Scriptural reading. You then slowly read the passage several times. In meditation, you mediate on the passage, but not with any particular thought in mind. Rather, you wait for the Holy Spirit to illuminate your mind. The focus should be on Christ and entering into Him rather than analysis of the passage. Oratio involves praying to God about what was meditated on and having a conversation with Him. Finally, contemplatio involves a silent prayer that expresses love for God. In contemplating, you sit with God and seek union with God in love.