Practical Spirituality – Lectio Divina, The Divine Reading
Our emphasis is on "practical". This is not about theology or ideas about God. It is about using tools, or exercises, thoughtful humans have developed over the centuries to improve their lives. They will be helpful to you.
This course flows from the teaching of Fr. William A. Meninger, a Trappist monk who lives in community at St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. I thought it would make sense to broaden the experience of Fr. Meninger's teaching by putting together this little course in practical spirituality.
(1) Scripture Meditation
These four practices will develop your spiritual muscles the way consistent workouts in the gym develop your physical body.
The second Exercise, Compassion Meditation, gives us practical experience in how to forgive our enemies. We are told to "love our enemies", but all of us find that very difficult at first. This exercise teaches our mind to quiet down, and opens our inner hearts to the experience of extending love and compassion - especially to those who have done us harm.
The fourth exercise, Welcoming Prayer, is focused on our physical as well as spiritual bodies. Our body tissues hold on to memories of hurts we have suffered and grievances we have against ourselves as well as against others. This exercise helps us release many physical pains by releasing us from the causes of those pains. And, in the process, we practice giving and receiving forgiveness.
Practice 1. Scripture Meditation
We'll begin with Scripture Meditation. The first, Scripture Meditation develops your spiritual mind. The ancient name for Scripture Meditation is Lectio Divina, or Divine Reading. This practice can be done alone or in a group. The practice has four steps to it. Very briefly, the four steps are:
The first step in Divine Reading is Reading. Let’s think for a moment about what’s really going on in our minds when we read. Reading is a mental activity.
There are four levels of mental activity:
What do we read? The first question is what do we read, what text do use for this exercise? The Bible is the best book. But, any book that is scripturally oriented is in essence a commentary on the Bible. Although the reading doesn't have to be from the Bible, the Bible is without peer as the best lectio book. So we open our Bible - it can be anywhere, randomly to any passage, or as the Spirit leads you. Or you can read the readings of the day and listen for a phrase or word that especially speaks to you. However you choose the text, this is the first step. Your intention is to listen.
Here are the four steps:
1. Reading or listening to the word. This is key. We do not listen just to hear what is being said aloud or read what is on the page. We listen deeply to the word in order to let it penetrate our mind. In a sense, we are listening to what God has to say to us. Typically a brief passage is read slowly and clearly three times, with a brief pause between reading. This step is called Lectio by the ancients. We'll try this in a few moments.
2. Thinking, or meditating on the word. The second step is a "chewing over" of what the word means to us, what message is being given to us. Think of it as ruminating, like a cow chewing its cud, slowly and carefully. This step is called Meditatio.
3. Responding to the word. After we have attentively listened to the word and thoughtfully mulled it's meaning to us over in our mind, we are ready for the third step, praying or speaking to God aloud - or silently - in response to what the word has done to us or evoked in us. This step, verbalizing prayer, is called Oratio.
4. Resting in the word. The final step in this exercise is a resting in the word. We've listened attentively - Lectio. We've meditated thoughtfully on what the word means to us and what thoughts, feelings and concerns it evokes in us - Meditatio. We've responded to God either silently or aloud as we feel led to respond - Oratio. Now we stop working and give it over to God. We close our eyes, sit silently in the presence of God and do nothing at all. This final step, resting in the word, is called Contemplatio.
This is why we say Scriptural Meditation is designed to bring about health of mind. Lectio, Scriptural Meditation, opens our minds to the experiences of others, to their wisdom, and we begin to apply their wisdom to our own lives.
During the reading or listening, you listen for the "still, small voice of God" speaking to you, personally. Remember how Elijah heard the voice of God not in the great events, the whirlwind, the earthquake, the fire - but he sat alone and finally listened to the still, small voice of God speaking to him, inside him - not outside. Similarly, in Mark's gospel Jesus called the disciples away to a secluded place to rest awhile. This is about hearing, or listening to the voice of God speaking to you through the Holy Spirit. He is always narrow-casting to each of us. We often don't know how, or don't make the time and space to tune in to Him. This is what Lectio Divina is about.
How do we do Lectio Divina? I'll explain one way for when you are doing Lectio alone at home, and then we'll look at another way for when we are in a group setting. Most of your Lectio Divina will be done at home, alone. There are some simple steps to have a successful prayer practice at home. That's what each of these exercises really is, a form of prayer.
Step 1. Build yourself a "church" within your home. This can be as simple as going into your den or picking a certain chair in your bedroom. But, do something different to mark this is a separate experience from your routine life. Light a candle, or move the chair to face in a certain direction. Or just sit in a chair you normally don't sit in. The idea is to prepare yourself for an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Some people kneel in private for a moment, whisper a brief prayer that you will be attentive to the Word of God, then prepare for his presence.
Step 3. Let God speak to you through his scriptures. Take your Bible. Open it to the Psalms, or to the Gospels. Read. Read slowly for a verse or two and listen to what God is saying to you through the verse. Read again and listen. Read until you wish to stop. You will know when to stop. When you stop, respond. God is speaking to you.
Step 4. Prayer is two-way. Prayer is a conversation with God. When God speaks, it’s polite to answer. As you respond, listen to what God is saying to you, either speaking to you through the verse, or speaking in your heart. Or both. Respond again. You are in a conversation with your maker. Respond as you would in any conversation.
When you are finished, rest in the Lord. Just sit quietly for a few moments. Give the Word time and a chance to work in your spirit. Quiet your mind. And rest. This is Contemplatio, contemplation.
Now we'll demonstrate a little Lectio Divina in a group setting. Lectio Divina in a small group setting is very similar to the private lectio we’ve just discussed. First let me emphasize that doing Lectio in a group is not a substitute for private Lectio. Group Lectio is a useful way to be introduced to the practice and get prepared for your personal and private encounter with the living God.
Here's how it works in a group: Ideally the group is four to eight people, but it will work here as a learning introduction. I'll read a brief selection from Scripture. I'll read it twice, slowly. Listen for a word or phrase that particularly touches your heart. We'll have a brief period of silence after the reading, during which you can silently recite the word or phrase that touched your heart and ruminate on it a bit.
The second reading is for the purpose of hearing Christ, the Word, in the text. Like Mary, we "ponder" the word or phrase and see where it might have touched you recently. Think on how God has touched your life. After a period of silence, you can share what you have heard - or seen.
The third and last reading in a group is to hear what God is calling us to do or be. Rather than quiet contemplation as in private prayer, in a group practice we focus on how God is calling us to change today or this week. After this last silence, people share for the final time as they are moved, and may pray in support of something spoken by someone in the group, and the session concludes with a brief prayer. Relax. I’m not going to ask you to share. This is a teaching session, not an experience, and our time is short.
Let me read it again. This time, focus on the word or phrase that you initially responded to. See what it means to you. I'll read again slowly...
Begin to let the word or phrase really speak with you. When I finish reading, we pause. Then see if you feel ready to respond...
Now let's pause a while. As you meditate, or let the word work in you, feel or see whatever the word calls to mind. ...wait on the word......do you have a thought or a feeling bubbling up...? This is spoken either aloud or silently spoken in your mind as a prayer to the Lord. For today, let it be silent.
In the summer, the leaves are bursting with chlorophyll. They are resilient, full of moisture and green. They are all green. They look alike - and seem alike. But, in the fall, the leaves approach death. And as they approach death, they dry, they grow more frail, brittle, but – they suddenly burst alive with color. Brilliant colors, different colors. The chlorophyll green of youth passes away and the true colors of the leaf emerge as death nears. As he spoke those words aloud, I personally also meditated on aging and approaching death, and viewed growing older and death differently than before. Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants. My aging friends in fact all were now showing the beauty of their colorful individual selves as the sap of youth gave way to the reflection and wisdom of age.
Q&A Addendum of Martin Luther's Lectio Experience: All scripture is inspired. The most important thing about Lectio Divina is it opens us to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. People have debated for centuries what inspired means. Does it mean God dictated the words of the Bible to the authors and used them like a computer? No. Martin Luther said it well for the church when he described inspiration as the presence of the Holy Spirit in the word of God inspiring listeners to believe, understand and apply the wisdom of God expressed in the Bible to their minds, hearts and lives. The Holy Spirit is present in the reading and listening to the words of scripture. This presence is as real as the presence in any sacrament of any branch or denomination of Christianity.