Lectio Divina in Academic Development

Lectio Divina is a traditional contemplative reading practice that originated in ancient Greece, and became associated with monastic scholarship. The reader engages in slow deliberate reading (lectio), searches for deeper meaning (meditatio), and offers a spontaneous response (oratio), finally achieving wisdom (contemplatio). There is a growing body of evidence pointing to the value of Lectio Divina for university students (see, for example, Keator, 2017). I’m interested in what it has to offer academics who want to develop their teaching.

At first glance this may seem like a mismatch: contemporary academic development is largely secular and is considered to be rational and evidence-based; Lectio Divina is ancient, spiritual and mysterious. Of course it can be risky to take elements of an unfamiliar tradition and transplant them in a different context. But in my experience the rich rewards offered by this ancient practice are very much needed in what can be experienced as the impoverished environment of contemporary academia.

In particular, I identify five characteristics of Lectio Divina that seem particularly relevant:

• presence,
• slowing down,
• embodied response
• trust
• transformation

Whatever we understand presence to mean, it is unlikely to be immediately discernible. It requires a slowing down of our usual reading habits, giving time to reflect and respond. Nor is it discerned through the intellect alone, but through an embodied response that includes sensation and emotion. The disposition of the reader is one of trust: they approach the text with an attitude of openness and an understanding that their own judgement of its value is trustworthy. Finally, the act of reading is understood as a path to transformation: the reader, through deep engagement with the text may be profoundly changed.

I invite groups of colleagues to engage deeply with both literary and non-literary texts as a starting point for reflection on their teaching practices and teacher identities. For example we might read a poem together, and I will ask them to pay particular attention to a single word or phrase:

What strikes you as surprising or significant about this word/phrase?
What questions does it raise?
What ambiguities and contradictions are you aware of?
What resonates with you?

I then invite participants to make creative connections with their practice:

How can you relate this to something you already understand about your teaching?
Is there an important idea here that you can use in your thinking?
Have you any teaching experience that sheds light on this idea?
In this way we come to appreciate texts not as packages of information, but rather as rich opportunities for personal and professional transformation.

I find it helps to explain what I am trying to achieve and why I am suggesting activities that may at first seem mystifying or even pointless. It is also important to offer ideas and activities rather than to impose them. I accept that some individuals will find that these particular paths to development are not for them. But for many, it offers rich rewards.

Reference: Keator, M. (2018) Lectio Divina as Contemplative Pedagogy: Reappropriating monastic practice for the humanities classroom New York: Routledge

Daphne Loads
Institute for Academic Development
The University of Edinburgh

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