Prayer and Praying: May 2005 Archives

A few days ago Tom posted on the practice of prayer with reference to cultivating silence and stillness. In the course of it, he suggested the practice of Lectio Divina and as it was an off-hand reference didn't go much further than to suggest that frequent reading and mulling over scripture was a good thing.

But lectio divina is an acquired process, a kind of training in meditation. Tom's point was not to spell out how to do it, but he suggested, and I think rightly, that even spending a little time with Scripture was likely to be a help in cultivating interior silence so necessary to a productive prayer life.

But I thought that perhaps his brief description might have been inadequate for people who really wanted to extend their prayer time and needed a "method." And lectio divina itself isn't really so much a method as it is a context. Sometimes it is called "praying" the Bible. I like to think of it as training in listening. In reading the Bible we take as our cue and perhaps as a preliminary prayer Samuel's words to God in the night--"Speak Lord, your servant is listening." (Not, as Fr. O'Holohan was fond of pointing out, and we all too commonly are fond of practicing, "Listen Lord, your servant is speaking.")

In Lectio Divina we train ourselves to listen to scripture interiorly. We fill that noisy, echoing interior space with the Word of God so that what echoes within us is divine and the divine helps to silence the clatter of ourselves.

How might one go about doing this? First off, Lectio Divina is NOT bible study. It does not employ the same techniques and it is not meant to achieve the same ends. Bible study can make a very satisfactory prelude to Lectio but they are two different uses employed to two different ends (which, properly conducted should lead to the same End). In Bible study we come to understand the literal meaning of the text and the text as it would have been received by the people of the time. This base-level literal meaning of the text is important in Lectio, but it isn't the end toward which Lectio tends. If we have a less-than-complete understanding of the literal meanings of text, we can still, through the power of the Holy Spirit, pray the text and come to some greater familiarity with God and His ways.

Lectio divina is a form of meditation and prayer. Properly practiced, along with all the other requirements of maintaining a life in a state of grace, it can become a form of acquired contemplation. (If one follows the older forms of "classifying" prayer, acquired contemplation is the highest form of prayer in which our active striving can help to engage us. We must remember that all prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit, strengthened by grace.)

How does one go about it? First one takes a little time to let some of the nonsense of the day pass away. Some say to light candles, to sit in darkness, to find a regular time and place. All good practices for a start. As you continue your prayer, you will be brought to the practice that best aids it. But to start choose a time and a place and make proximate preparations to the event. That is, unplug or mute the phone, sit still for a few minutes, let your mind race, but always gently bring it back to a place of calm or focus. After a few minutes of calming time, pray simply to the Holy Spirit to guide your prayer and teach you what God would have you know.

Read and interact with the text you have chosen. This is not bible speed-reading. You don't need to get through a chapter in a night. When I was doing the Ignatian retreat I often had only one verse on which to meditate for an entire hour. (An Ignatian retreat is a excellent remote preparation for this entire exercise of prayer.) Often it is suggested that you use the text for Sunday Mass or daily Mass. Moreover, you might use the same text for the entire week. Familiarity might allow you to uncover subtle nuances that you might miss upon a preliminary reading. In addition, it operates to help train you in quiet. When we encounter something that is familiar, we are more inclined to interior noisiness than when we are exploring the unfamiliar. Our minds are lazy and we kind of stroll among the words and find our minds whirling off in all directions. If we have a familiar text to focus on, when can bring ourselves back to what is present. It operates as a kind of anchor.

After you read through the passage to get context, it is good to go back and read carefully. Upon ending your first reading pause and think about what you read and consider a word of a phrase that struck you. When you return to reading, return with this metacognition--acknowledge the word and read the passage in the context of that word. Hear what is said now from this new angle. Listen carefully aslant. What is it that God has prepared for you at this time in this passage?

Spend some time with the passage. If you have chosen a reading from the Gospels, spend time with Jesus, wherever he might be. If you read the story of the woman cured of an issue of blood, where are you in the story. Are you the woman, are you a bystander, are you Jesus Himself? What do you learn from being there in that capacity? This is the use of the imagination. Jesus is present to us in many forms, He is especially present to us in meditation upon the Word. But sometimes we must work to see Him. With time and practice this work becomes easier.

After you spend an appropriate amount of time with the scripture (a minimum of 15 minutes, and in most cases longer is better) come out of the reflection with a prayer. Ask God what he intends for you to take away from this passage. Ask Him what meaning it has for you.

Now, this is where some of the more timid balk. They will say, "But that's private interpretation." No, it's not. Interpretation means that you plan to take what you heard in the passage and spread it far and wide as the definitive understanding of the passage. When you interpret something you are providing an understanding for others. What you are doing in lectio is application to your present place in life. Application amounts to listening to the word in the context of the teaching of the Catholic Church and acting upon it in some way.

When you have completed the prayer time or as you approach its end, review it. What went well? What went poorly? What might you need to change next time to enhance the experience? This is another metacognitive exercise, the purpose of which is to enhance the discipline to more clearly place yourself in the heart of the Spirit. We are always seeking with the help of the Holy Spirit to find our way into the Heart of God. Thus we are always seeking to improve our prayer life.

This is only the sketchiest of introductions. I'd like to return to this topic and discuss in a great deal more detail means by which one can "engage" scripture. One is the meditative exercise I have suggested here, but there are other ways to encounter scripture and to deal with scripture in prayer.

As you can see Lectio Divina is not so much a "method" of prayer as it is a mode of praying. The difference may seem subtle, but a mode of praying is an entire school, where as a method is a single very structured class.

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Psalm 23 (NIV)

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,

3 he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

4 Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death, [a]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

Psalm 23 (KJV)

1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Psalm 23 (NAB)

1 A psalm of David. 2 The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me;
3 you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name.
4 Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage.
5 You set a table before me as my enemies watch; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.

Just three examples of one of the most widely known of the Psalms to show the difference translation makes.

You are probably all aware that Psalm 23 is prayed at many Protestant funerals. It is prayed as spontaneously as the Lord's Prayer, not because it is used as frequently, but because it falls into a regular rhythmical, if not metrical pattern. The NIV preserves some of this, but the NAB has the bland regularity of most free verse--nothing rhythmical, nothing metrical, nothing really accented. Just pure bland translation--there is no hook to grab you and keep you in the recitation of the psalm.

I suppose part of my contention is that if the Psalms are to be prayed, they should be easily memorizable. I think this was one of the function of Gregorian Chant. The Chant imposed a rhythm on the Latin that makes the words fall into place. The verbal mush which constitutes the NAB cannot possibly flow into a memorizable pattern. Now, this same verbal mush could very well be a much better translation for study--in those matters I am no expert. And I'm not necessarily claiming that the KJV is the very best for these purposes (prayer). However, I am saying that there is a distinct difference in the way things are translated and the use to which you wish to place the particular piece of scripture should govern the translation you use. If one is sufficiently more accurate to encourage clarity in study, then it should be used. If one works better as part of your "internal vocabulary" of prayer, then it should be used. I often find the Liturgy of the Hours a real chore, not because the prayers are difficult, tedious, or unimportant, but because the translation is so leaden it resists any urge on my part to enliven it. The words seem merely words on the page--they do not sing. My feelings about it do not inhibit my continuation of it, but they do make it more of a penitential exercise than it need be.

Yet another reason why poetry matters--God speaks to us in it.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Prayer and Praying category from May 2005.

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