I have the privilege of teaching the Catholic faith to middle school students at my school (through daily religion class and seasonal retreats), as well as high school students and adults around our diocese (through my parish, through the Catholic School Office, and through the San Juan Diego Institute). One of my favorite ways to pray with them as I teach is through the use of Lectio Divina.
Lectio Divina literally means “divine reading.” It’s a way of praying with Scripture that stresses immersion with a small portion of text instead of theological interpretation or ministerial preparation of large portions of text. The method traces its roots back to the desert fathers of the 3rd century, and is enjoying something of a revival among different flavors of Christianity, not in the least among Catholics because our Pope has stressed this prayer form in his writing and in his audiences. Lectio Divina is prayed in several different ways. The method I prefer uses a four step process.
A preliminary step, though, is finding a comfortable place to pray. Someplace where distractions are minimal, and where you can comfortably stay seated for at least fifteen minutes is ideal. Turn off all electronic distractions, and ask all carbon-based distractions to give you some time and space. 🙂 Once you have your spot, take a minute or two to sit silently, asking the Spirit to guide you as you embark on a time of prayer.
The first step is choosing a small portion of Scripture (ideally 1-4 lines), then reading it several times. Some of the monks from the early part of our Church would read through a text 1,000 times for this first part, but if this is your first foray into Lectio Divina, reading through the text 5-10 times will suffice. 🙂
Some images may help explain why we read the same text over and over again. If you like to barbecue (or grill, as some areas of our country say it), marinating your meat makes it juicier and gives it a more flavorful taste. The longer you marinate the meat, the more the flavor can permeate and tenderize the meat. Lectio is the same thing – we’re trying to have the particular Scripture passage we’ve chosen sink deep into our hearts, souls, minds and spirits. Like a good steak, the longer we marinate in the Scripture passage the more flavor it will give to our lives.
Another image that’s helped me to understand lectio divina is watering my lawn. The best way (from what I’ve read) to water a lawn is to water infrequently but deeply. We want the grasses’ roots to stretch down deep, looking for water lower and lower, so that the grass is healthy and can resist drought, disease, wind and insects better. Reading a text over and over again, not for theological knowledge, but for spiritual insight, is the same thing. We want the text to go down deep so that we can put down spiritual roots that will stand the test of time.
As we read the passage over and over again (I prefer reading out loud, but quiet reading works as well) we look for one thing during this stage: we try to see what words or phrases from the text resonate with us; which words or phrases seem to have a particular emphasis for us at this time. These words or phrases will come into play in the second movement of this symphony of prayer.
Step 2 – Meditatio (Meditation)
If you’ve ever seen a dog enjoying a bone, or seen clothes tumbling in a dryer, you have an idea of what this next step entails. Taking the words/phrases that jumped out at you in the first phase of this prayer, you now tumble them around in your heart, mind, soul and spirit. Pay attention to your thoughts, memories, emotions and physical sensations as you go over the words and phrases. Try to draw out every last scrap of inspiration and insight from the words or phrases. In doing so, you draw the Scripture passage ever deeper into yourself.
Take at least 5 minutes for this phase, or more if you can manage it. This is where you meet the Scripture passage and allow yourself to be changed by it. Be ready for distractions if you’ve never done this kind of prayer. Our minds, the Buddha taught, are like wild monkeys – we jump from thought to memory to emotion to another thought with reckless abandon. It takes practice to learn to focus our mental energies into one train of thought, so be gentle with yourself if you find you’ve spent a few minutes reminiscing over the day, or thinking about the next day. Gently guiding your thoughts back to the Scripture passage by re-reading it will help, as will the practice of focusing all of your mental and spiritual energy on the task at hand. As you practice more, you’ll find that concentration comes easier, both during prayer and at other times in your life.
Step 3 – Oratio (Prayer)
Now comes the hard part, the scary part, the part where we give up control – we ask God in prayerful trust one simple question: What are you trying to tell me? Taking into account everything that came to our minds in the previous step, we allow God time to talk to us. This time of prayer is a dialogue, a conversation between us and God. While God probably won’t speak to us in an audible voice, we can hear echoes of God’s commentary in the thoughts, memories, sensations and feelings that came about in the second step. Like the prophet Elijah we listen for the still, small voice of God in the depths of our being. We may be comforted, we may be challenged to change our lives, we may be moved to change the world – but in any case, we strive to listen for the voice of God in the midst of our lives during this step.
Step 4: Contemplatio (Contemplation)
This last step may be the hardest for some. It involves simply resting in the presence of God. Think of a time when you just sat with someone you cared about – a spouse, parent, child, or friend. No words were needed. The silence wasn’t awkward. You merely sat and savored each others company. That’s what this step is all about. We hold Jesus to his promise to be with us always, and bask in the presence of his Spirit. Take as little or as long as you want. Praise God if necessary. But if possible, just let your time be the offering of prayer.
Once your time of lectio is complete, finish with an Our Father, a Hail Mary, or any other cherished prayer. Seal your time with the Sign of the Cross. I would suggest trying this prayer early in the morning (if you’re a morning person) so as to avoid interruptions. Late at night (if you’re a night owl) would work as well. If you must (I’m looking at you, parents of small children) carve out some private time in the bathroom (the most popular place to pray for many people, as it’s one of the only places in most homes where you’re guaranteed privacy!). Don’t get discouraged if you have trouble doing this at first – like anything new, it takes time to find your rhythm in this form of prayer. Above all, remember that any time spent in prayer is time well spent, so don’t worry too much about the results or the method – the time itself is already a prayer.
Blessings & Peace,