On a hot summer morning, as the story goes, sometime just before 1150, Guigo, a Carthusian of the Grande Chartreuse was hard at work in the garden of his cell when he was struck by the image of prayer found deep in the bowels of the Old Testament.
As he meditated on Jacob’s ladder from Genesis 28, Guigo began to think of monastic prayer as a ladder of four rungs, where you begin with your feet planted firmly on the ground, and taking each rung in order, ascended to heaven. Later that year, before the death of St. Bernard of Clairveaux, Guigo published his most famous work on prayer, Scala Claustralium, which describes lectio divina, a method of prayer that holds as much value for the lay Catholic as it does for the cloistered monks of the Grande Chartreuse.
Despite sounding intimidating at first, lectio divina is a simple and effective way to pray that has been part of the practice of the Catholic faith for nearly a millennium. A staple of the monastic tradition since being introduced by Guigo the Carthusian in Scala Claustralium, lectio divina is a contemplative practice that nearly anyone can make a part of their daily prayer life.
This ladder of prayer is climbed like any ladder, one rung at a time, in order, and from the ground up. Unlike any ladder that you might find at your local hardware store, this ladder stretches to the gates of heaven.
Step One: Lectio
Traditionally, lectio divina, or divine reading, is broken up into four steps, or rungs. The first rung, lectio, is a slow “snail’s pace” reading of a verse or two of Scripture until a word or phrase in the text grabs you. You may begin with a familiar passage, a favorite book like the psalms or simply start at the beginning of Genesis or the Gospels. It may take a few slow readings of these few verses for you to find your word. Once something grabs you, write it down. This will be the subject of your prayer.
Step Two: Meditatio
Next, in meditatio, like a cow chewing cud, you mull over that word or phrase, meditating on it, considering it, and like Our Lady, pondering it in your heart. This step is active consideration where you are exploring the subject of your mental prayer. Questions like “what does this phrase mean” or “what does this word make me think of” can be asked. Does this word or phrase bring to mind any episodes in your life? All of these can be important considerations that you can bring with you to the next step of prayer.
Step Three: Oratio
Our third rung is oratio. This is the step where most people try to begin their mental prayer, but in doing so, they are missing the first two vital rungs that set the on dictions for prayer. But having gone through both lectio and meditation, we have received food for thought from God in Scripture and we can respond with prayer. This is a good time to engage in praise, adoration, thanksgiving and petition in addition to talking with God about the subject of our meditation in the previous steps. While vocal prayers that we recite may be very formal, the Hail Mary, Acts of Faith, Hope and Love, and the Our Father, come to mind, mental prayer is usually much more informal. It is the prayer of a child speaking to their father or one friend speaking to another.
Step Four: Contemplatio
The fourth step is contemplatio, or contemplation. This is where we quiet our hearts and wait for God. He may speak to us in the quiet, or he may use this time to help us grow in silence. This part is dependent on the action of God and we are simply present at this stage. This is the stage where God is most active and we quietly wait for him. Sometimes he will speak loudly. Sometimes we will hear his still, small voice.
Unofficial Step Five: Resolutio
You might be saying, “I thought that there were only four steps”. And you would be correct. Saint Francis de Sales, the Doctor of the Church, concludes the steps of lectio divina with a fifth step that was not originally part of Guigo’s Scala. Resolutio is where we conclude our prayer with a concrete resolution that helps guide our day and continues our spiritual growth through our prayer. In his work, Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis advises his readers to use this prayer to collect a spiritual bouquet that they can return to throughout their day, bringing them back to the subject of their prayer.
Climbing the Ladder
Each rung of Guigo’s ladder will bring you deeper into the life of prayer that you were meant to have. By including a consistent 15-20 minutes a day in your prayer time to follow these steps, you can learn to climb the ladder of prayer. As this method becomes familiar you will grow closer to God in the time that you spend with him.
Looking for a bit of extra credit?
You overachiever, you. One of the easiest plenary indulgences that you can receive, and one of the very few that you can receive almost every day is given under the usual conditions, confession and Mass within eight days, prayers for the pope and detachment from sin and all it takes is 30 minutes of prayerful reading of scripture. This is an incredible grace, and one that you can share. Offer it up for souls in purgatory, for those who have fallen away from the faith, and those who may need it most. As the late Fr. Michael Sherliza would say, “grace is never wasted”.