Pray by Reading
Bob and Marybeth meet regularly for lunch in the
school cafeteria. They've been friends since they were little
kids. Marybeth is beginning to wonder about the quality of their
friendship because Bob never listens. He expects Marybeth to listen
to him, but he never stops talking long enough for her to get
a word in edgewise. It seems to Marybeth that she and Bob are
no longer communicating.
That's too bad because it will probably mean the
end of their friendship unless Bob changes his ways while Marybeth
continues to support him. There can be no relationship without
communication, which is always a two-way street: talking and listening.
Hanging With God
At its most basic level, religion is another word
for friendship with God. Almost everyone would agree that prayer
is an important part of what it means to be a religious person,
a Christian. But if you were to ask people for a definition of
prayer you would probably get a variety of answers. Everyone would
agree, though, that prayer is a way of communicating with God.
Communication, the basis for friendship with other people, is
also the basis for our friendship with God.
Remember Bob and Marybeth? What would happen if
you substituted your name for Bob's and God for Marybeth's? Is
it possible that God might feel the same frustration in relation
to you that Marybeth feels with Bob?
In relating to God, most of us are used to doing
all the talking. Without ever saying so, we act as if God's only
role is to be quiet and to listen. That is, of course, an important
part of what prayer is all about. But it's not the whole picture.
God also has something to say to us which we can't hear until
we get quiet and listen.
The Monastic Connection
With the recent success of several recordings of
chant, people are becoming more familiar with Benedictine monastic
life. As a Benedictine monk, I'm often amazed to discover that
people are fascinated by the monastic life-style. Personal prayer
is a very significant part of that tradition.
Back in the early sixth century, when Benedict wrote
his Rule for Monks, most people assumed that the monastic life
was only for extraordinary people. Monks of that time were much
like the athletic superstars of today. These spiritual athletes
were the heroes of ordinary men and women who never hoped to achieve
the same greatness. Benedict turned all that around by writing
a rule for such people.
Prayer was not just for those folks who might earn
a gold medal at the spiritual Olympics, but for everyone. Practice
and endurance were still important, but nothing was required beyond
The key to prayer, for Benedict, was holy reading.
At a time when it took a great deal of hard work just to have
enough to eat each day, Benedict's desire for reading takes on
a special significance. This is all the more extraordinary when
you consider that many people, including those who came to join
the monastery, couldn't read.
A monk, then, was (and is) obliged to spend a good
part of the day reading even though this might be a burden for
both the monk, who has to spend time learning how to read, and
for the community, where there is always much work to be done.
Benedict was convinced that God would speak to the
monk through reading the Scriptures. Since the purpose of the
monastic life was to communicate with God, it is only natural
then that Benedict should choose reading as an essential element
of a monk's daily life of prayer. This practice of daily spiritual
reading came to be known as lectio divina.
In its section on prayer, the Catechism of the
Catholic Church speaks about two ways of quieting ourselves
so that we can listen: the rosary and lectio divina. The
rosary, a special form of prayer to Mary, may be familiar to you,
but what about lectio divina?
A little Latin lesson may help. Lectio comes
from the Latin word for "reading." You might already be familiar
with the word lector, for example. That's the person who
reads the Scriptures aloud at Mass. The word divina is
fairly obvious. If you've decided that it probably comes from
a Latin word which means "divine," you're right. So lectio
divina means "divine or holy reading." In practice, it's a
prayerful way of reading the Bible.
The Bible is God's word to us, both to the Church
as a whole, and to each of us as individuals. It has been the
experience of countless men and women down through the ages that
if you read the Scriptures slowly and prayerfully, God speaks
and the reader is able to listen.
Out of that listening, then, the reader is able
to respond. That is real communication. Lectio divina provides
an easy-to-remember method for engaging God in this kind of communication.
Four Steps Inward
The process involves four very simple steps: 1.
Reading or lectio. 2. Meditating or meditatio. 3.
Praying or oratio. 4. Contemplating or contemplatio.
While these four steps, especially the meditation and contemplation,
might sound difficult, they are really not hard at all.
1. To anyone in school, reading sounds a lot like
homework. Reading in this context is, however, something altogether
different. The difference is both in the goal and in the style.
When you read an assignment for class, you have a certain amount
of material to plow through. Your goal is to finish as quickly
as possible with as much retention as possible.
A confident student might even just read the first
and last paragraphs of each chapter while just looking at the
first and last sentences of all the others. Speed, comprehension
and retention of information are the goals.
The goals of lectio, however, are much different.
First of all, there is no assignment. You're simply reading for
your own spiritual benefit. You want to communicate with God.
You're not going to be tested on what you've read. No certain
amount of reading has to be done at any one time. So, from the
very beginning, you're a whole lot more relaxed than when you
read a school assignment.
Select a passage from the Bible. There might be
something you are particularly interested in, or you might just
choose something at random. Most Bibles provide helpful titles
to those sections of chapters dealing with particular issues or
events, and many also offer an index in the back.
For starters it's probably best to choose something
from the New Testament. Start reading. Read slowly. Move your
lips and, if you're alone, say the words out loud. Read until
a word or a phrase strikes you.
2. Stop reading. Spend some time with the word or
phrase that stands out. What does it mean? Why does it ring a
bell? You might want to use your imagination to see yourself in
the particular scene or story. Repeat the word or phrase over
and over for a minute or two. Does it remind you of something?
Meditatio is a way of letting God teach.
During this time you learn about God's word and, in so doing,
you learn about God and about yourself. This is the "getting to
know you better" part of the relationship. And as you've probably
experienced in your own friendships, it's something you have to
do over and over again. Continue to ponder the word or phrase
until the well dries up.
3. Oratio is the part of this process that
will seem most like what you normally think of as prayer. Talk
to God about your experience. Be as honest as you can in letting
God know how this whole thing is going and how you feel about
it. If the word or phrase you have been savoring brings to mind
some prayer, poem or song that you know, use those words now.
Your meditation may have reminded you of something you need to
ask of God. Ask.
Pray out of the experience you have just had. Pray
out of your heart. At this stage, you need to be open to God,
not just in your head, but also in your heart.
4. Then, just be quiet. Shut everything out of your
mind except the word or phrase. In our culture it's always important
to be doing something. This sounds like a waste of time and, in
a sense, contemplatio is like daydreaming. Listen.
This listening is the hardest part. Be patient with
yourself. To enter into contemplation means letting go of being
in control. You're not in charge.
Distractions happen when the mind wants to move
back into control of the situation. When you find yourself distracted,
notice the distraction and then return to the quiet. Do this for
as long as you can, but no longer than a few minutes. You might
be surprised, after a while, at what you experience.
Then, return to the text. Repeat the four steps
of the formula for as long as you feel the desire. In the beginning,
you probably don't want to spend more than a half hour.
How Does It Work?
It might help to make use of an example. Your friend
Mike has decided to try this lectio divina and he's chosen
the famous story of the Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Luke.
Pretend now that you are a spectator, an observer inside Mike's
head and heart. You can hear Mike speak and you can feel his feelings.
Mike's experience follows the steps that have already been discussed.
Don't be afraid to refer back to them if you have the need.
1. "A man had two sons...." "Two sons...." "Two
sons...." "Two sons...." "Two sons...."
2. I know what it's like to be someone's child.
I've also got brothers and sisters. I love my family, but sometimes
they really get to me. There are times when I wish that they would
all just go away. I learned in religion class that I am a child
of God. That sounds nice, but I really don't know what being a
child of God really means. Is it the same thing as being the child
of my parents? If so, how will I ever grow up and become my own
person? "A man had two sons.... "
3. Dear God, thank you for making me your child.
I know that you love me. Help me to love you in return. Help my
parents, Lord, because they seem so busy and far away. They need
you. Be with my brothers and sisters too because I take them for
granted. Lord, I love you. I feel an emptiness in my life which
I want you to fill. I often feel lost and alone. Help me to know
that you are like a father or mother who loves me. I'm growing
up and my life is changing. Help me to learn what it means to
be both your child and an adult.
4. I now sit quietly, listening. Deep inside myself,
as if from very far away, I hear a voice which says, "You are
my child and I love you!" I hear it again and again and I enjoy
it. Then I suddenly remember that my favorite TV show comes on
tonight. I catch myself and return to the distant voice. "You
are my child and I love you!"
Soon even the voice is gone. I hear nothing. I feel
peace. I feel God's presence. I sit back and relax, enjoying the
peace and quiet until I feel ready to move on.
It is as simple as that. Simply return to the Bible
passage and continue reading. Your experience isn't going to be
identical to Mike's. Each of you is a unique individual. Your
age, gender and life experiences are all going to make this a
one-of-a-kind adventure. But sharing in Mike's experience might
help you to enter into this new kind of prayer.
Lectio divina is especially suited for use
with the Bible, but it has other uses as well. There might be
times when you have the opportunity to read a spiritual book other
than the Bible.
This method works perfectly well with any written
text that is meant to inspire or motivate. You might even use
it with some novel, short story or poem that struck you when you
studied it in your literature class!
Early monks called nature God's book. The next time
you see a beautiful sunset, or go for a walk in a park or in the
woods, you might turn that experience into an opportunity for
communication with God by using the lectio divina method.
This could provide all sorts of wonderful experiences of prayer
even when a book is nowhere to be found.
Finally, lectio divina is a helpful way to
engage God in prayerful conversation about the book of our own
lives. Every day is filled with experiences that are of great
interest to God. Frequently, God has something to tell you about
those life events.
Begin by narrating the event to yourself, just as
you might tell it to a friend. "I heard a new song today...."
"A stranger did the nicest thing for me...." "Missy ignored me
and I slammed the door...." Then allow lectio divina to
lead you into prayer.
Knowing how to do lectio divina will not
make prayer happen. That kind of prayer is magic. We cannot force
God's response. God enters into our lives freely. A prayer form
like this puts us in touch with God and opens us to hear God's
word in response. Lectio divina, like any form of prayer,
assumes our desire for God as well as God's desire for us. God
will respond, but not always at a time or in a way that you expect.
Lectio divina isn't something that you have
to "get right." The formula is offered as a help, not as a law
in itself. Your experience isn't always going to follow the pattern
that has been laid out here. Both you and God are free to make
Sometimes you might be moved to follow the stages
in a different order or even skip a stage. That's fine. The point
is that we enter into communication with God. Just let it happen
and be open to all the possibilities.