“We hear the Scriptures at Mass, and perhaps we read them for knowledge – but are we praying the Scriptures?”
Over the last few weeks, we have been looking at some practical aspects of cultivating a prayer life. It is important to remember that prayer is conversation. So often, my prayer time is filled with my list of petitions, maybe a few apologies, and more petitions asking God to help me be better, and then I’m out. What kind of conversation is that? I know He’s glad I’m showing up… but if I’m going to grow in relationship with Him, I think I need to treat prayer a little less like a vending machine.
So how do we have a conversation with Someone who is invisible and may seem pretty quiet? Last week, we looked at meditation. Today, we’re going to look specifically at mediation using Sacred Scripture.
The Second Vatican Council reminds us, “For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them” (Dei Verbum 21). The Bible isn’t just a story about people who lived a long time ago. God continues to speak to us through the Sacred Scriptures, which are living and active (Hebrews 4:12).
The practice of lectio divina has its roots in monastic life. Guigo II, abbot of the Carthusian Gran Chartreuse monastery in the Alps (famous for their bright green liqueur) formally outlined four steps to help the monks enter into prayer using the Scriptures.
First, after asking the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds, we begin reading Scripture. In particular, we begin with the careful reading of Scripture, in a focused manner. Reading today is a lost art. We tend to skim and lose concentration. This step must be done slowly. You aren’t reading to complete a certain chapter or section of Scripture. In fact, you don’t have a certain stopping point as your goal, nor a set number of verses to complete. As you read, certain things will come to your mind. Perhaps a key word or a theme strikes you.
If you are reading and something strikes you, do not be afraid to stop and linger there. If you are using the Gospels for lectio divina, you might place yourself in the story. What do you hear, see, smell, touch? How do the other people in the story react or look? You might ask the questions who, what, when or where. In addition, pay attention to repetition, allusion, or details – they’re there for a reason.
After something strikes you, sit with it. Now we are going to reflect on what we just read. Think of the ideas, themes, or key words that came to mind as you read. This meditation provides the language and subject matter for conversing with God. Guigo said, “Reading, as it were, puts the solid food into our mouths, meditation chews it and breaks it down.” Meditation turns to ask the question ‘why?’. It’s okay if this step takes awhile.
As we looked at last week, meditation is active. It is a quest. What is this passage saying? You are wrestling with the passage.
Next, you’ll move into a dialogue of prayer. Talk to God about the passage and about the ideas or themes that struck you. Maybe it was a prick of the conscience and you realized you need help working on a sin or a flaw. Perhaps it was a reminder of a gift in your life and you need to express gratitude. The passage might have raised more questions in your mind or stirred up concerns or wounds you need to take to Him. This is the heart of lectio divina. The steps are an instrument, but prayer is the goal. At times, we might wonder where to begin in prayer. With this process, we begin in prayer with what we were just meditating on!
You might jump back to meditation or reading, and that’s okay. This is about a conversation with God, a dialogue, and you shouldn’t allow the steps to be an obstacle or distraction. The framework should help, but the method is not an end in itself. No “method” is prayer – these methods are supposed to lead us to prayer.
Infused contemplation (contemplatio)
The final step is infused contemplation. After meditation, God may move us beyond interaction with Him through His Word to an experience of Him. While infused contemplation is difficult to describe, the saints describe this as a gaze of love. In fact, it can be hard to define the movement from meditation into contemplation because it’s not really up to you. Some people use the words meditation and contemplation interchangeably. But this step is talking about infused contemplation, which is not active like meditation. It is passive. It is a gift from God.
This last step is both effortless and beyond our abilities. We can make the conditions right for contemplation, we can’t make it happen. We become the receiver, and we rest in God. St. John of the Cross described the difference between meditation and contemplation “like that existing between toil and the enjoyment of the fruits of that toil; between the drudgery of the journey and the rest at its end.”
There isn’t pressure to go at a certain pace in lectio divina. Savor His word. Ask for the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to what He wants to say to us in the Word that day. Maybe some days we will find entering into conversation with God very easy. Other times we might spend a lot of time reading and find conversation difficult. A few days ago, I read one sentence and immediately felt moved to set aside the reading and enter into prayer. Was that wrong? Of course not. The steps are meant to aid that dialogue of prayer.
We might not receive the gift of contemplation at the end of lectio divina, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean we’ve failed. We might not “feel” anything during or after lectio divina. That’s okay too. As spiritual writer Matthew Leonard said, “The true litmus test of growth is how we’re living,” not how we’re feeling.
As we wrap up our time of prayer, we should end with a renewed commitment to living the Christian life. Many spiritual writers recommend making a practical resolution towards a specific action. They add the fifth step: operatio. As we leave this time of dialogue with God, how is that conversation going to change my life?
Go back to your prayer plan. We hear the Scriptures at Mass, and perhaps we read them for knowledge – but are we praying the Scriptures? How can you incorporate lectio divina in your daily or weekly prayers? Perhaps you set aside Sunday mornings to pray with the Gospel before you go to Mass. Maybe you end your day by praying with a Psalm. The Lord wants to speak to you, and He is waiting for you.
“Reading seeks for the sweetness of a blessed life, meditation perceives it, prayer asks for it, contemplation tastes it.” -Guigo II