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Pray by Reading

by Austin Newberry, O.S.B.

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 their capabilities.

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. Why?

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.

All-Purpose 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.

Possible Magic

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 changes.

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.

Austin Newberry, O.S.B., is an ordained Benedictine monk. He is director of spirituality and liturgy for St. Meinrad College in Indiana. St. Meinrad College specializes in preparing young men for roles of leadership and service in the Church and the world.

Kim Burnop (17), Erin Newsome (17), Drew Romes (15), James (Jay) Stull (16) and Josh Verdin (17) had a lively session applying this Youth Update to their daily lives. All are members of Prince of Peace Parish in Chesapeake, Virginia. Art Verdin, youth minister, took notes on their gathering.


What can I do if I find it nearly impossible to clear my mind enough to pray this way?


First of all, St. Benedict says in his Rule that every good work should begin with a prayer to God for help. This is true even of prayer itself. Prayer is God's work as well as your own and so you need to ask for the grace to be open to what God has in store for you. Secondly, begin where you are. What are those thoughts and images that fill your mind as you sit down to pray? Perhaps you might use the lectio method to pray about them before turning to the Scriptures. Since God is a part of every aspect of our lives, then there are no distractions, only invitations.


Why is it that the Scripture readings in Church just seem to go in one ear and out the other?

(I think this is a problem for lots of people.)


Have you ever studied a foreign language? Even after several years of classroom study, it is very difficult to understand a native speaker of that language in a conversation. In a sense, the same is true of the Scriptures proclaimed at Mass. They are not usually proclaimed in a foreign language, but the vocabulary and turns of phrase are often foreign to many people. That means you have to listen very closely. A small amount of preparation helps. If you get to church a little early, take time to look at the readings for that Mass ahead of time. Then, during the proclamation of the Scriptures, close the book and look directly at the reader. Listen with your heart. You might also volunteer to be a lector. The text really comes alive when you read it aloud yourself.


If I try this in my room, my parents will think I'm psycho, saying the words out loud. Any suggestions?


My suggestion is that you share this edition with your parents. Let them know what you are trying ahead of time. If you are uncomfortable sharing your attempt to pray with them, just mouth the words without actually speaking them aloud. This is almost as effective as reading aloud, but without the added complication of confused parents.


I want to order print copies of this Youth Update.


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