return to cover

Lectio Divina: Sacred Reading at Mealtime
By Donald Altman

It is a breezy morning as I drive into the sun-drenched foothills above Santa Barbara, California. I’m on my way up a narrow, winding mountain road to Mount Calvary Retreat and Monastery. Today I will learn Lectio Divina, or sacred reading, an ancient form of contemplative prayer practiced during mealtime. As I approach the monastery—a whitewashed, Spanish-style structure with a spectacular birds eye view of the ocean and coastline—I cannot help but think back to my own childhood. 

A contemplative, spiritual meal sure wasn’t the case in my family while growing up. In fact, there was little, if any, meaningful conversation around the dinner table. As children, we were “seen,” but definitely not “heard.” Even as adults, don’t we face the same barriers to communicating deeply? There’s also the challenge of dealing with TV, Nintendo, and a hundred other distractions. That’s unfortunate, because with Lectio every meal offers us the potential for nourishing ourselves, families, and friends with love, understanding, and grace. 

After signing in, I make my way to the library. Here I join about twenty-five others who have come to learn about Lectio from Brother Timothy, our instructor. He enters, attired in white monk’s robes, and immediately sheds light on the secret of sacred reading. While Lectio is about sacred reading, he says, it’s really about sacred listening: listening to the divine, listening to our family, listening to our personal stories of the stories of others. Actually, it’s this shift of emphasis in meaning from reading to listening that makes all the difference in the world. As the discussion continues, I think to myself that this makes sense. True, we can invoke the presence of the divine, but we won’t know it’s there unless we first learn how to listen. We can be in the presence of loved ones, but never really hear what they have to say.

Basically, sacred reading begins by choosing a sacred text. Brother Timothy hands out to us a selection of Psalms. Of these, I decide upon Psalm 84. But other times when I have practiced Lectio, or when I conduct classes on Lectio—which I have done several times now—I prefer to use poetry from St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, and others. What’s really important is to read something that you like. For example, it could be a poem by Robert Frost, scripture from your religious tradition, or anything you find meaningful that’s about one page in length. Although you may think you know the selection, be prepared for another, deeper meaning to be revealed.

Brother Timothy gives us some further instruction. Now I am ready for my own experience of Lectio. A few moments later I find a vacant bench outside, behind the monastery kitchen. After a moment of centering, I begin to read the page-long Psalm at a volume only slightly louder than a whisper. Since I’m not reading for anyone else, I don’t worry about how I sound. At the same time, my voice is just loud enough so that I can listen to the words, not the voice. (Over the centuries this is how monks managed to practice Lectio in the same dining hall at the same time without disturbing one another!) 

After reading the Psalm through two or three times, a certain phrase catches my attention. Now, I narrow down my reading to that one paragraph. I read this short passage over and over. Each reading I go deeper, letting the words to speak to me without analyzing or judging my feelings. This is difficult because my mind wants to analyze the words, but instead I take a breath and just continue to feel the meaning that’s taking shape. This is totally different from the Vipassana meditation I learned as a Buddhist monk, where I would analyze and categorize all the feelings, thoughts, and senses in detail. Instead, Lectio is about surrendering to the heart and accepting the results, all without imposing any judgment or opinion. This acceptance is an important step. It means that whatever you experience—boredom, anger, frustration, bliss, impatience—is considered to be your experience with God. The idea here is not to try to fight it. Simply accept and have faith in the process. 

Finally, it happens. As I continue reading, the rhythm of my voice breaks with emotion. As tears stream down my face I recognize hope and meaning in the midst of my doubts. From the nearby kitchen a monk sings a joy filled hymn. By connecting me to my inner self, Lectio has helped me find that joy, too. Glancing at my watch I am stunned to find that almost three-quarters of an hour has passed. 

Back in the library after lunch, we compare our Lectio experiences. As each of us tells our story, another amazing aspect of this ancient prayer practice emerges. As I hear the personal experiences of others using the same Lectio process of listening and communicating—I feel a deep sense of acceptance among the group. We have learned how to listen to one another with respect, openness, acceptance, and compassion. 

Now I understand how Lectio brings a new depth of unity into any family gathering. For the remainder of the afternoon we learn how to use Lectio in a group setting. The process is a little different than reading alone, but is easily adapted. Basically, it goes like this. Brother Timothy asks for three volunteers who will each read a selection from the Bible. After the first person reads, everyone is given the opportunity to describe the word or phrase that grabs their attention. I am surprised at the number of different responses the reading gets. But then, that’s the beauty of learning and accepting the diversity and unique voice that everyone in our family or community brings to the (dinner) table. After the second person reads the same selection, we comment on a deeper meaning of the words. Our responses to the third reading are answered in terms of what God wants each of to do. 

We sit in silence, experiencing the totality and uniqueness of what has been expressed. Though I have spoken only to a few of the participants, I feel like I know this community deeply through our shared stories. Yet how ironic it is that Lectio nearly disappeared! Originally practiced by the desert monks in the second and third centuries, sacred reading spread among early Christians and was a popular spiritual tool until late in the sixteenth century. It was then that the Church decided that Lectio was an exceptional grace not meant for the general public. Fortunately, this wonderful practice has been rediscovered. All of us can now appreciate and use mystical mealtime prayer to season any meal with the sacred presence of the Divine. 

Lectio Divina with the Family

With sacred reading, you’ll never have to experience another boring meal alone. Especially when you consider that you can invite the divine presence of God to join you through this mystical practice. If you want, you can also include your family or dinner guests. Here are two variations on how to make Lectio Divina part of your family mealtime gathering. 

The first variation incorporates responses and non-judgement from the family members or guests. First, let all participants know that they should listen attentively as soon as the food is on the table—but not yet served. After the designated “reader” recites the short sacred passage (scripture, poem, psalm, etc.) out loud, each “listener” has a chance to respond. Ideally, the passage can be read at least three times. After the first reading, listeners should briefly state what word or phrase touches them the most. After the second reading, they should state what they feel is the deeper meaning of what they hear. After the third reading, they should comment on what they think God asks of them as a result of their communion with these words. Let each person speak and move on to the next, without discussing, rejecting, or judging any of the responses. As soon as the final responses are in, you can begin eating. Allow the contemplative sense of Lectio to continue throughout the meal. If you want to have a family discussion of what was said, remember that the guidelines are that no one is ever criticized for their comments—whether they felt angry, bored, or frustrated. Rather, the discussion should center on the diversity of responses, or what Lectio reveals or says about the family’s story as a whole. After all, Lectio is a very personal experience. It is not one that should be subject to approval or disapproval. There is no right or wrong. Just acceptance and listening to what is present at the moment. 

The second Lectio alternative doesn’t require responses from the listeners. In this case, on or two designated “readers” recite the passage during the meal while all the others simply listen. At any time during the meal, individual family members or guests can leave the table and go off to reflect and contemplate that phrase or words that had special meaning for them. (Of course, they should respectfully clear off their dishes on the way out!)

Selected Readings: 
Art of the Inner Meal: Eating as a Spiritual Path, by Donald Altman or 

Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, by Father Thomas Keating

Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina, by Thelma Hall

Donald Altman Bio:
Donald Altman, author of the new book Art of the Inner Meal: Eating as a Spiritual Path, is a former Buddhist monk and EMMY AWARD winning TV and documentary writer. His prolific writing career includes work for television, film, video, numerous Fortune 500 corporations, and magazines—with articles appearing in The Los Angeles Times, Independent Business Magazine, and others.

Donald trained in Vipassana (insight meditation) and Theravada Buddhism with the Venerable U Silananda (author, Four Foundations of Mindfulness). Currently, Donald teaches seminars and workshops on how to use meditation, mindfulness, and ritual to create a personal and communal spiritual path through food. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at: