I want a better prayer life. The first response to such a statement (at least among people of faith) is frequently, “Don’t we all.” This desire for better prayer lives is evidenced by the overwhelming number of books on prayer available in the popular press. A quick Amazon search this morning resulted in over 67,000 responses within the company’s book section. People want to know about prayer. People want to improve their prayer life. When people say that, what they typically really mean is that they want to see a change. The change that people frequently want is visible answers to prayers or a personally deepened life in Christ. In this article, I intend to address the latter – a personally deepened life in Christ.
Honestly, there is frequently a bit of skepticism when this matter is discussed. It is a bit like when Jesus asked the man at the Healing Pools of Bethesda – “Do you want to be healed?” With not near the same gravity as Jesus asking the man, I ask you – Do you honestly want a personally deepened life in Christ? I ask because what I am about to suggest to you is a discipline and disciplines take, well, discipline. Think along the lines of exercise. Two push-ups, two sit-ups, and a quick walk from the front to the back of the house is not the training regimen of a person looking to be a world-class athlete. It is not even the training regimen of a person who desires to be half-way competitive in a friendly match between friends. What remains of this article discusses the discipline, the exercise, the process of Lectio Divina.
You may have heard of Lectio Divina before. If you are like me, your exposure has been rather limited. I was told long ago to practice Lectio Divina and when I asked what the person meant he replied, read a passage of the Bible and then pray about the same passage. It did not take long before I gave up on the process. The concept seemed simple enough and in theory, was. The trouble was the instructions I received were incomplete at best. There are many things about Lectio Divina that he did not tell me that day. First, I was not told all of the steps (which are lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio). Second, I was not told that it would take time to do right – like exercise, you have to dedicate time to prayer if you want to see significant changes in your life. Lastly, I was not told how ground-shakingly powerful Lectio Divina could be when done properly. Based on the instructions I received I doubt the person who “instructed” me knew the last part himself. If you are ready to dedicate yourself to serious time in prayer with the expectation of exponentially improving your life in Christ, then continue reading.
First step – Pick a place and a time where you will not be disturbed. Lectio Divina is not a pray at the side of your bed process. For you it may be your study, your bedroom (if nothing else is going on), your comfy chair, it could be a place you enjoy being quiet outside, bottom-line – pick a place where can you pray uninterrupted for an extended period of time. Go to that location and make it your regular place for prayer. Get your mind used to the idea that when you enter the space that you are preparing to come in contact with God.
Second step – Read your Bible. Lectio quite simply is reading. From the same root, we get the word Lectionary – our readings for public worship. Pick a passage (and I do recommend a Gospel passage as the intent is a closer relationship with Jesus) and read it. Do not select a very long passage. Only enough to include a single scene. Looking at the birth of Jesus you may want just to focus on the angelic announcement to the shepherds or maybe just the arrival of the magi from the east. Start at the beginning of a Gospel and read just one scene and stop. The next day you may wish to read the same passage again if you want to explore it more thoroughly (we will discuss that idea shortly), or you may want to move to the next short scene. Eventually, you will have prayed through the entire earthly life of Christ. Read your selected passage. Read it out loud. Pay attention to the words. What is being said? What is being described? Are there any words which are repeated? Are there any you do not know? Is there a particular turn of phrase that strikes you? These are all questions you should be considering while you read the passage.
Third step – Mediate on the passage you have just read. Meditatio is the term from which we get meditate and meditation. Spend time pondering what it means. Why was it important enough for the writer to record? What was going on then? Where was it happening? Why is it still important today? Whether he realized it or not – the writer would not have included what you have read if it did not have a message to you today. In this portion of your prayer preparation, you may want to make use of a quality commentary on the text and a Bible dictionary. Remember, words change their definition over time so a word you think you know may not mean what you think it means from just an initial reading. By doing these things you can get a good understanding of the text.
Fourth step – Pray about the passage. Oratio is to pray. First, pray that the Holy Spirit will prepare you to receive God’s message from the text. Pray that the Holy Spirit illumine the text meaning to make it understandable to you. Pray that you experience the mood of the passage. Is it the celebration of the birth of our Lord? Then you should pray for the joy the shepherds felt. Is it the trial and wrongful conviction of Jesus? Then pray for the sense of betrayal or heartbreak or grief that Jesus felt at that moment. Pray for this grace of not just understanding the scene but knowing the scene described in your passage.
Final step – Enter the passage. Contemplatio means more than just to think about the passage. You did that in your time of meditatio. Contemplatio means to actually place yourself in the passage. You can do more than just understanding what is going on. Through your reading, your meditating (with the associated study needed), and prayer for illumination, you can actually enter the scene. Maybe it is as one of the people we know are there from the text. Maybe it is as “the fly on the wall.” Either way – enter the scene. Entering the scene can be difficult at first but, with discipline (there is that word again) and exercise of the practice; it can become a natural way of experiencing the passage. What was it like for Thomas to be told to put his fingers in the wounds of Jesus’ hands? What was it like for the woman at the well to finally be treated with kindness instead of judgment? What was it like for the lepers who Jesus cleansed of their disease? These are not academic questions – those were real people with real emotions. Be disciplined enough to enter into contemplatio and you can experience the moment. This is why you want to use short passages.
You want to use short passages because as you can imagine this process truly is an exercise and takes time. You also want to use short passages because in you attempt to experience the scene you want to be able to remain focused and too much information from a longer passage will be distracting. Lastly, even in a short passage, there may be “too much” to do all at once. Maybe you want to experience the grace Jesus extended to Peter when he had Peter repeat that he loved Jesus three times in the way of reversing the three denials Peter voiced just days earlier. At the same time, you want to know what it was like to see Peter through the eyes of Jesus – knowing that Peter had said his denials but is now racked with guilt and needs to know he is forgiven. In these types of passages that you wish to explore from multiple points of view – do a repetition. Do the same passage again tomorrow and maybe again the next day. There is no limit as to how long you may stay in any particular passage as long as you are being graced with a closer relationship with Jesus.
Lectio Divina is an exercise and takes discipline. Like other exercises, when you are disciplined enough to spend the time required you are strengthened. Push-ups, sit-ups, lifting weights and all the rest will strengthen your body. Lectio Divina carried out through lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio will strengthen your life within Christ.
Pax et Bonum,
the Rev’d Dr SG Rindahl