(Note: In this presentation, I talked about Lectio Divina, a contemplative prayer practice that is based on Scripture.)
By now, you may have guessed that an interesting thing happens when you use Scripture-based prayer in your life – the Word of God takes up life within you. You’ll find you don’t have to be sitting down to prayer or have a copy of the Bible in front of you to begin meditating on or mulling over a passage of Scripture. You’ll be driving down the road or working and a story or phrase will come to mind, and you’ll find yourself spontaneously opening to what it might have to say to you.
When you think about it, it isn’t all that surprising that God works in this way. He tends to be pretty consistent in some ways. He created us so that those activities we practice regularly become part of us. An athlete practices so that he or she can compete without thinking about every move. A musician practices so that he or she can become one with the piece of music and can allow it to flow freely without intention. Similarly, when we make a practice of using Scripture-based prayer, the living word of God becomes part of us and slowly, bit by bit, it starts to reshape us.
Unfortunately, in my case, the shaping process is more like water dripping on stone than like the hand of the potter working with malleable clay, but over time, I have come to trust in the slow work of God. And because I do see that it is the Word of God, as well as the love of God that I have experienced through the sacraments and through those who love him which are shaping me, I want to share one more Scripture-based prayer practice. This morning we looked at Ignatian contemplation, which uses our imagination to lead us into a more intimate relationship with God. Then, we looked at meditative writing, which uses writing to lead us into a more intimate relationship with God.
Now, let’s look at Lectio Divina. I first learned about Lectio from this small book by a Trappist monk named Basil Pennington: An Invitation to Centering Prayer. It was the first Scripture-based prayer practice that I encountered and it radically changed the way in which I prayed. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said it changed my relationship to Scripture and my relationship with God as well.
Before I encountered Lectio, I’d studied Scripture and I’d memorized passages, but I’d never meditated on it. It wasn’t alive to me. I saw it as a puzzle I needed to figure out, as a rulebook I needed to apply to my life, as a story I needed to know, but essentially it was all about me doing something. Intellectually, I knew God could speak to me through his Word. The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically says, “In the sacred books [of Scripture], the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children and talks with them” (CCC 104). However, that knowledge didn’t translate into experience.
The interesting thing is that I didn’t know what I was missing until after I had made Lectio part of my spiritual life for several months. Before I learned about Lectio, I felt intimacy with God when I received the Eucharist, but my prayer life was kind of dry. I prayed because I knew the discipline of prayer was important, but it didn’t really nourish me very much. I might be intellectually stimulated by a Bible study or an inspirational book that I read, but I didn’t experience friendship with God in prayer. With 20/20 hindsight, I think it’s probably because I did all the talking. I didn’t really know how to listen to God. Lectio very intentionally creates a place to listen, and when we start listening as well as talking, we also learn to simply be in the presence of God which adds another degree of intimacy to our relationship with him.
I’m going to explain it as Basil Pennington explains it in his book, primarily because it’s the way I practice it. If you already practice Lectio and do it differently, that’s OK. The goal is to meet God in Sacred Scripture. The specific steps to getting there are no more important than the route you take to get from Custer to Pierre. The only suggestion I would make is to be consistent. Don’t do it one way one day and another way the next. Consistency enables us to recognize the whisper which is God’s voice.
The first step is to read slowly and attentively a passage of Scripture. Maybe you want to choose a book of the Bible and slowly work your way through it, reading a short passage each day. Perhaps you have a spiritual director who suggests you meditate on a specific passage. Maybe you want to choose one of the daily readings, which you can find in the Magnificat, in the bulletin, on the website for the USCCB and probably in half a dozen other places as well. I use a devotional called Sacred Space, which is published annually by the Irish Jesuits. It includes a portion of one of the daily readings each day.
While you’re reading, you listen with what St. Benedict called “the ear of your heart.” You are essentially opening yourself so that God can draw your attention to a word or a phrase. Sometimes, you may find you read the same passage two or three times until your awareness is attracted to a specific portion of the passage. It’s important to understand that this is not an intellectual selection process. You’re not reading so that you can pick out the main idea for a quiz. You are listening for God to say, “Here, right here. This is my gift for you today.”
When you do this over time, you will discover that even if you read the same passage on two or three consecutive days, which you may do if a spiritual director has you meditating on a passage, God will give you different words on different days. This is not a place where there is one right answer. This is a place where the richness of the living word is revealed in an intimate way to you.
Once God has revealed to you his word of the day, you move to the next stage, which is meditation. In describing this stage of Lectio, Basil Pennington makes reference to Nativity story in Luke’s gospel. After the shepherds visit, Luke writes, “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting upon them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). That’s what this kind of meditation is. It’s a gentle turning things over in our minds and hearts, allowing God’s word to pick up associations in our lives.
One thing I’ve discovered is that if God is working with me on something, various Scripture passages will lead me to consider the same idea over and over from different angles. For example, when I opened last night, I talked about expectations – about letting go of expectations so that God can work in our lives. When I was meditating on this passage, the same idea came up. The woman bent over by the burden of her expectations about what life should be. The leader of the synagogue outraged because Jesus did not act as he was expected to act. I’ve figured out by now in my head that God wants me to let go of my expectations about something in my life so that he can do something new, but the fact this motif continues to show up in Lectio suggests to me there’s an even deeper lesson regarding expectations that I need to learn or there’s a way in which I need to live this lesson to which I’m still not open.
Meditation is followed by prayer. This movement from meditation to prayer is almost always spontaneous. You’ll be mulling over the word or phrase God gave you and the next thing you know, you’ll be talking to God about it.
This prayer is not like intentional intercessory prayer or the prayers of the church. This prayer is more like a conversation. God has spoken to you with his word. You’ve thought about what he said, and you’re responding. Basil Pennington compares it to the consecration of bread and wine during Mass. He writes, “In this consecration-prayer, we allow the word that we have taken in and on which we are pondering to touch and change our deepest selves. Just at the priest consecrates the elements of bread and wine at the Eucharist, God invites us in Lectio Divina to hold up our most difficult and painful experiences to God, and to gently recite over them the healing word or phrase God has given us.”
This leads to contemplation, which is just resting in the presence of God. This is a wordless place. It’s like a good hug from someone after having had a good conversation with them. It doesn’t have to last long, if stillness is hard for you, just a minute or two will suffice, but it is important not to just rush away from this experience. If stillness is easy for you or natural for you, then you can stay for as long as you would like.
One final comment I would like to make about Lectio is that if you doubt insights you gain, you can use the same criteria for evaluation you use with meditative writing. Ask God for external confirmation. Consider whether or not your insight is consistent with the teachings of the Church and what you know about God. Consider whether your insight leads to greater intimacy with God and enables you to better reflect his love into the world.