When the clergy of our Diocese gathered for retreat before Lent this weekend, Bishop Michael invited us to practice Lectio Divina over four sessions with various readings focusing on worshiping God “in the beauty of holiness.” Lectio is a favorite practice of mine, in case you’re interested, here’s my own breakdown of how it works…
Lectio Divina is a spiritual practice of holy reading. There are tons of books and web pages out there to help you learn how to cultivate this practice for yourself, which many trace back to the rule of Benedict and which took the shape I’ll describe below among the Carthusians. Like a meal with good ingredients, I think it’s best prepared simply, and so I have just a few of my own words to describe what it’s like.
As a preparatory stage, it’s a good idea to begin with looking at where we are right now. Our Daily Office is built like this, beginning with an exhortation to prepare ourselves spiritually by confessing our sin and silence which may be kept after. This silence can be a time to notice. What physical sensations do I notice in my body? Where is there pain? Where is there pleasure? What am I feeling? Am I angry about anything? Afraid? Sad? Joyful? Is there anything I’m craving? Anything I’m avoiding? We note the things which rise without judgement, simply placing all of them on the table before the One who made us as an offering of ourselves, mess and all.
From here we read. Perhaps you read the cycle of psalms, passages, and canticles laid out in the Daily Office. Perhaps you use a devotional of shorter passages. Perhaps you have a collection of poetry you turn to each morning. Either way, read until something leaps out at you. Or perhaps something in you leaps out at a particular word or verse. What’s speaking to you today? My recommendation is that you read until you find that something, and when it finds you, dwell with it for a moment.
Dwelling with the word or verse we find is the meditation. In lectio meditation, the word or verse is the object of our heart and mind, we focus all of our attention on it. Perhaps that verse triggers a whole chain of related thoughts. Perhaps is reminds you of something wise you heard, something you’ve learned and long since forgotten, something you know to be true about our maker and what she requires of you, or of what she wants to give you. Turn the verse over in your thoughts. Look at it from a different side. You may wish to take a long time dwelling on this object, you may wish to take a minute.
After dwelling on the verse or word, speak to God. Sometimes the easiest way to begin speaking to God is simply by saying, “You-” or “Hey-” Sometimes the prayer may be the verse itself- if Psalm 31 v. 9a were your object, “Have mercy on my, O Lord, for I am in trouble,” it could also be your prayer if you are directing it at God with your own voice. Or the prayer may be more conversational. Perhaps after the “Hey, you-” there comes a flood of things you’ve been meaning to say to God. Perhaps this takes a while, maybe you write it down in a letter. Maybe it takes less than a minute.
Are you done speaking now? At least for a little bit? At least long enough to listen? Because that’s what the contemplation part is. Contemplation is receptive the way listening is receptive. Contemplation is the silence which falls after we’ve emptied ourselves of the words we’ve been carrying around. Whereas in lectio meditation, the Word of God is the object of our hearts and minds, in lectio contemplation, we are the object of God, known by God as “anyone who loves God is known by God” (1 Cor 8:3). Contemplation is receptive the way acupuncture is receptive, or yin yoga, where gravity does all the work. In contemplation the work is God’s. Yours is to sit there, or walk with it if you’re kinetic.
Or at least that’s all I think it needs to be. You could say, “thanks” if you want some closure. You can work lectio into a pre-existing prayer practice. Say you pray the Daily Office. When you get to a verse in the office that hits you, take a minute and go through the steps. Or spread them out throughout the whole office, do the meditation between reading and canticle, pray with the prayers, be still in the silence which may be kept after them. Or do it with the portion of the bible you’re currently reading. Or do it with your favorite poem. Or do it with a tree or something else you discover outside. Do it with the sensations and emotions you noted in your own body at the beginning. Just invite God to do it with you, to guide each step and fill the impress they make with his presence like puddling rain. Ok, I’m getting florid now, time to stop.