Prayer with Scripture
Lectio Divina is Latin for “Divine reading.” It is the spiritual practice and discipline of monks since the early Catholic Church. The tradition of praying with sacred scripture comes from the ancient Jewish tradition and continues with the first Christians and throughout the history of the Church. St. Benedict and many others made it part of the religious rules of monasteries. Conversation with God and praying with scripture is an essential part of the spiritual life of religious men and women, priests and lay people. In the lives of the Saints, contemplation and prayer with scripture gives life and assists us in living a life of holiness!
In the 11th Century, Anno Domini, a Carthusian monk named Guigo described the practice in a letter written to a fellow brother. This letter has become known as The Ladder of Monks and describes a four-step ladder to Heaven. We will walk through each of these four steps along with a short definition and brief quotes from Guigo’s letter.
Be Patient and Prepare Oneself to Pray
Like most activities in life – whether in athletics, academics or other worthy pursuits – patience and discipline is necessary. St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain. And every one that striveth for the mastery, refraineth himself from all things: and they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible one. I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I so fight, not as one beating the air: But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway. (1 Cor 9, DRB)
The analogy St. Paul gives is one of athletes or Olympians exercising and disciplining their bodies so as to win first prize in a competition. In ancient Greek, often it was olive leaves formed into a crown. Likewise he concludes, let us not just discipline our bodies so as to win a crown that will wither and die, but we should stretch ourselves, pray and discipline ourselves to receive the crown that does not fade. This crown is the glory and life in heaven as a saint! Therefore, like an athlete, be patient in developing the skills that allows one to enter into prayer. There will be times when we do not feel great about the time we give to God – there will be times when we wonder about our “exercise routine” – but patience and perseverance is necessary in growing in the spiritual life for it better opens ourselves to receive God’s grace and holy Word.
Furthermore, preparing oneself is necessary so we can better enter into times of prayer. If not at Church, we ought to arrange a place to pray that is restful and devoid of any things that might distract us (i.e. computers, TV, phones etc.). This may involve lighting candles, the presence of icons or having religious art, having a crucifix visible etc. Anything that can create an atmosphere that fosters quiet and peace. It is best if the place chosen for Lectio Divina (or any kind of prayer) is a comfortable area (i.e. a prayer corner) set aside just for this activity.
Once our environment is properly prepared, then we assume a bodily posture that is conducive to prayer and reading. As we consider our posture, we should do so with the recognition that we are entering into the presence of God. Our posture should reflect one that would be the same as if we were with Christ in the flesh or before him in Eucharistic adoration. This could mean sitting comfortably, kneeling, or a combination of both throughout your time of prayer.
We then turn our hearts to God, begin to breathe slowly and deeply, focusing on the Holy Name of Jesus until we are relaxed and able to focus our attention on scripture. If our minds wander, we should avoid any frustration or self-condemnation and gently bring our attention back to our Lord and the text. In our breathing in and out we strive to bring ourselves into the presence of God and be at peace with him. It is important to note that unlike in non-Christian forms of Eastern prayer which seek to empty the mind, Christian prayer seeks to fill our minds with an attentiveness to God. This gentle but purposeful effort will yield a constant aiming and re-aiming of our hearts and minds toward Him and His Word.
Once we are as calm and peaceful as is possible, we simply acknowledge that Christ is with us and we pray in this or some similar way:
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Lord, I know you are with me. Thank you for allowing me to recognize your presence. Thank you for being here with me now.
Then, we might offer a prayer to the Holy Spirit like the following:
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of Your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.
O God, by the light of the Holy Spirit you have taught the hearts of your faithful. In the same Spirit, help us to know what is truly right and always to rejoice in your consolation.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Four Steps of Lectio Divina
- I. Lectio – An attentive slow repetitious recitation of a short passage of scripture
It is always advisable to meditate on the scripture from the mass of the day, particularly the Gospel passage. However, any text of scripture will do. The key is not to rush. The goal is not to finish any particular portion of scripture but to purposefully delve into the depths of any passage that will lift our hearts to God. Just before we begin reading, we trace the sign of the cross on the scriptures, kiss the cross we traced, and then begin to read slowly, vocally, and gently, coming to an understanding of the words themselves along with the related ideas and images that surface. When a particular passage or word strikes us we pause to consider it more fully. At the first pause, we will then naturally move into meditatio. If you don’t seem to progress in this way, simply stay at each phase until you do. Don’t worry if you don’t progress. The goal is not to fulfill the method, but to honor and seek God.
- II. Meditatio – An effort to understand the passage and apply it to my own life
Now we meditate on what we have read, visualizing it and listening for His prompting or His guiding. We seek the deeper spiritual meanings of the words as we place ourselves in a gospel scene as one of the participants or simply hear God speaking directly to us as we read the words. We don’t strain or exert extreme effort here, we simply allow the words to penetrate our hearts and minds and follow where God leads us through the text. Sometimes it is helpful to slowly repeat the passage or word over and over again until the captivation and conversation with God on the passage subsides. It can also be helpful to read each word and to briefly pause before we read the next. As we do this, we allow for silence and careful listening. We break the normal frantic pace and cycle of life to be attentive to the Beloved. As we begin to respond or converse with God about our encounter with Him, we then move into oratio.
- III. Oratio – Engaging or talking with God about the passage
As we are drawn into the passage we begin to converse with God about what we are reading. Oratio is simply the response of the heart to God. It is important here to remember that God has revealed Himself as a person. When we talk with Him, it is sometimes helpful call this to mind. Our conversation should be as natural as with someone whom we deeply love and desire to know. In whatever manner we are led, we ask for forgiveness, we thank Him, we praise Him, we ask Him to for the grace to be changed by what we have read. We ask Him to help us more fully realize what He wants us to be and to help us apply His moral, spiritual, or practical guidance to our lives. As we engage with Him, He may choose to call us deeper, to become lost in this heavenly dialogue with Him. For those who tend to be very talkative in life and prayer, it might be important here to slow down our own words and to be attentive to Him rather than to what we desire to say. We will eventually find ourselves moving into contemplatio.
- IV. Contemplatio – Allowing oneself to become absorbed in the words of God and the presence of God as he calls us into deeper prayer
Here God satisfies our ultimate thirst and needs as the Holy Spirit prays with us, in us, and through us. Sometimes we recognize this work in our hearts; sometimes it is merely a matter of faith that He is with us and imparting His life-changing grace to us. Always we can know that He is changing us because he has promised that the “word of God never returns void” and that as St. Paul says, “faith comes from hearing the word of God.” It is important here to note that this phase of prayer is not always sensual. In fact, for those who are more advanced in the interior life, it may be a time of dryness and a dark silence. Regardless, we know by faith that he is true to His word. If we seek Him, we will find Him, even if He is found in ways that are difficult, or very different than we had anticipated.
To summarize Brother Guigo’s thoughts on the four elements:
I. reading seeks; II. meditation finds; III. prayer asks; IV. contemplation tastes