Since nearly 40% of the world’s population is still illiterate and writing itself is not all that ancient (some attribute its invention to Moses), lectio divina is not widely known. Many religious people undoubtedly practiced it and we do have examples of it in the Bible as in the case of Nehemiah (Chap 8) and the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:28). It is distinct from study (which is often done for a degree) as it is a religious phenomenon and until recently was usually associated with the enclosed religious orders.
It is not listed in the index of the 1995 edition of the New Catholic Encyclopedia or in The Modern Catholic Dictionary. It was usually referred to as ‘spiritual reading’ except in monastic circles and is now often equated with that reading. A better English term for it is ‘prayerful reading’ or ‘holy reading as only spiritual beings can read’. Lectio divina normally consists of the meditative reading of the Bible, though the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and other spiritual writers can be included in it. Since the saints knew Christ best we also come to know Christ by reading what they have written or said about him. The Lives of the Saints have always ranked highly in monastic circles and people like Saint Ignatius of Loyola have been converted by reading them.
The Rule of Saint Benedict recommends ‘the conferences of the Fathers, their Institutes and their Lives’, ‘there is also the rule of our holy Father Basil’ and calls them ‘the true guides for human life, nothing less than tools for the cultivation of virtues’ and ‘the loftier summits of teaching’ (Chap 73). In the middle ages reading was done in the cells or if there were no cells in the Reading Cloister (usually the northern cloister) running parallel to the church, because it was the brightest and warmest cloister. It was also the quietest as silence is essential for lectio.
An essential characteristic of lectio is that it be done slowly. Speed-reading spells the death of devotion. Quality not quantity applies to lectio as to many other things. Quality time is also necessary for our reading so it is always better to set aside some time in the morning for it, the earlier the better. Like all else in the spiritual life, perseverance in the practice of reading is absolutely essential. It is not for nothing that Religious used be called Regulars. So a definite time must be set aside for it and faithfully adhered to. As much time as possible should be devoted to it, a minimum of 20 minutes daily is necessary.