Scriptural music provides a welcome route to Lectio Divina prayer

St. Teresa of Avila's wisdom about prayer suggests: "If the way you pray is making you a more loving person, it’s the right way for you to pray.” (Image: public domain, Wikipedia Commons)

By Peter Oliver, Olive Branch Marriage and Family Ministry

There is a quote from Teresa of Avila the tenor of which is, “If the way you pray is making you a more loving person, it’s the right way for you to pray.” Behind this thought is a wealth of experience that is rooted in a multitude of prayer experiments. Her wisdom spoke to me in a wrestling match I’ve been having (and losing) with Lectio Divina.

From what I can recall, I was introduced to Lectio Divina at the junior seminary in the early eighties.  Those were heady days, filled with philosophy, moral discussions, and a heck of a lot of youthful angst.  The four movements of Lectio Divina (‘read’); Meditatio (‘meditate’); Oratio (‘pray’); Contemplatio (‘contemplate’) were attractive but I couldn’t bring them to life.  Over the years I revisited the process, but the trail looked a bit like this: tried it; dropped it, tried it; dropped it, tried it; dropped it, etc.

We are all built special. My “special” is an overdeveloped appetite for analysis that fuels a wheel spinning gerbil that lives in my mind. The psychological term used to describe this reality is rumination. Facebook, the news and pretty much anything that triggers “Mr. Opinion” gets the ruminative thinking going. Unfortunately, so does the process proposed by Lectio Divina. I can do without Facebook and the news but, as Mother Teresa once said, “Prayer is as necessary as air to breathe, as blood in our bodies”. So, what to do?


Lectio Divina is an ancient prayer form that goes back to Saint Benedict and the beginning of monasticism, and I was confident that the process had much to offer.

What I needed was a way to enter its store of treasures. A step in that direction came when I noticed the similarity and difference between Taizé chant and ruminative thinking. The hallmark of both Taizé music and rumination is repetition. The difference is that rumination is a never-ending and self-perpetuating loop of thoughts and Taizé chant does the opposite. It stills my mind. YouTube makes it easy to access the songs from that wonderful ecumenical community and I started to use it to pacify the unruly rodent.

That breakthrough helped me to connect some dots. Behind the music of people like Bernadette Ferrell and Paul Inwood is a rich tradition of liturgical theology that is rooted in the scriptures. What if I incorporated their music into my prayer life? So, instead of trying to meditate on the written scripture passage, I used music to inform the four steps of Lectio Divina. It worked.

I chose a song and listened to it once.  Then I gave voice to a word or phrase that stood out.  Attending to it a second time, brought awareness to nuances and utterances that I had missed the first time. Listening to the song a third time invited dialogue.

For instance, the line “Your Word alone has power to save us,” from the song “Christ Be Our Light” by Bernadette Ferrell, jolted me. I offered the Lord this thought, “I’m shocked by the definitiveness of this statement.  I take it as truth, but more than that I cannot say.”  A statement such as this is characteristic of what began to happen. The tendency to analysis had stopped.

Having named my response to the words in the song, Lectio Divina invited me into contemplation.  I find the word contemplation intimidating but really it just means listen.  Sometimes “listening” is helped by hearing the song again but most of the time that is not necessary. Once I have heard the song three times and said a few words about what touched me, I am open to spending a few minutes with the Lord in silence.

What matters mightily in all this is the breakthrough. Replacing reading with listening to liturgical music has created a point of entry into an ancient prayer form that was previously inaccessible. As my days unfold these prayer times are encouraging me to live more deeply a loving response to the people in my life and that is a good indicator that the experiment has been fruitful.


Peter Oliver and his wife Madeline work with Olive Branch Marriage and Family Ministry at Queen’s House of Retreat and Renewal, providing programming and support for people going through separation and divorce.