10 Sep 2010

Lectio Divina III – Scripture as transforming personal prayer


"Lord, teach us to pray" has been the cry of the followers of Christ from the time of the apostles to today; both a prayer and an exhortation, a longing which was expressed by St Augustine as that restlessness that exists at the centre of the human person where "our hearts know no rest until it may repose in thee". We are constantly seeking to pray, where we recognise that prayer is a relationship with God. But "the wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God's desire for us. Whether we realise it or not, prayer is the encounter of God's thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him." "Prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit. The life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice holy God and in communion with him".


Prayer is the most fundamental of the spiritual practices that cultivate mindfulness of the divine presence, this communion that has been opened up to us, and "the many forms of prayer, both communal and private, centre on the biblical Word". When we use scripture to pray, it must be with the aim of entering into the Word of God in such a way that one is transformed in the process.

The model of prayer who is often held up as an example for Christians across all denominations is that of Mary "who held all these things in her heart;" the vessel through who the ultimate revelation of God was made, the incarnate Word through whose sacrifice the communion between humanity and the Godhead was renewed. We are encouraged to take the words of Scripture, the revelation of God's reaching into a renewed relationship with us throughout salvation history and ultimately through the Incarnate Word, to reflect and pray- to even ruminate on this Word - using this communication of God to humanity so that "while on the outside the hands are occupied with work, on the inside the heart becomes sweet through meditating the psalms with the tongue and remembering the scriptures".

One means of biblical prayer is lectio divina where, "in psalmody we speak to God; in lectio God speaks to us through the Scripture. In the first we ask him about things; in the second we understand the answer". As a discipline, the practice of lectio divina has as many interpretations as people who practise it and "is sometimes presented as a method or technique of prayer, but could be regarded as a kind of anti-technique, a disposition more than a method".

Thomas Keating describes lectio divina as not being Bible study or the reading of Sacred Scripture for the purposes of private edification, encouragement, or getting acquainted with the many-sided aspects of revelation, nor is it spiritual reading or praying the scriptures in common. He sets out an understanding of lectio divina as private and consisting in following the movement of the Holy Spirit in regard to the time one might devote to each step of the process of lectio divina, as well as passing from one step to another during the same period of prayer.

Keating describes the practice of lectio as being formed of two schools of practice, that of the scholastic version and that of the monastic way of viewing the interaction of prayer and life. The scholastic version sets to graduate the process, almost reducing it to an intellectual exercise where following the reading of a passage of scripture, the first step is allow a phrase or word to arise from the text and to focus on it (lectio). The next step is to reflect on the word, to meditate (meditatio) on the word and see if lead in the Spirit to oratio or affective prayer. Then when these reflections and acts of will simplified the reader, moved them from time to time to a state of resting in the presence of God, and was called contemplation (contemplatio). This graduated process - almost step-by-step - is very characteristic of the period when it developed which led to the compartmentalising of the spiritual life and to rely on rational analysis in theology.

Keating and Russell contrast this rational methodology to that of the monastic form of the lectio which although using the same degree of terminology shifts the focus from a set step-by-step practice like that of a ladder to the schema of an ongoing circular relationship between the Word and the reader which uses the same terminology and idea of lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio. They draw a distinction between to the two methods where the monastic form is more orientated toward contemplative prayer than the scholastic form from which latter developed the discursive meditation of latter centuries. In the monastic way of doing lectio divina, the reader listens to how God is addressing them in a particular text of scripture. The reader enters into this conversation as onto a circular relationship and can come at it from any point. One can begin one's prayer at any moment on the circle according to the inspiration of the Spirit. This 'monastic' approach to the process of approaching scripture gives scope to the imagination and senses of the reader, who breathes life onto the Words being read and reflected on.

Both these forms of lectio encourages one to read slowly and stop at a verse long enough for it to nourish the heart or the spirit, if not the emotions, and pass to the following verse when the feelings have cooled or when the attention is lost.

Keating argues that the scholastic and monastic distinction in forms of lectio arises due to the first work which explicitly dealt with monastic lectio, The Ladder of Monks by the Carthusian Guigo (1198), which appeared only after the new mode of scholastic knowing began to assert itself. Keating argues that Guigo's ordering of the stages of lectio reflects the rationalist mentality of the time where "the simple act of reading could not altogether escape the systematizing passion of the era even when it was done behind monastery walls". Lawrence Cunningham on the other hand argues that from a close reading of Guigo's The Ladder of Monks that he never conceived of these formulaic steps in a purely mechanical or systematic fashion. He goes on to suggest that Guigo may have thought that "the encounter with scripture was a dynamic and holistic exercise. What makes the exercise fruitful is not going through "steps" but the disposition with which we encounter the scriptures". His posits the position that Guigo's notion of reading as, "a kind of dialogue in which we read scripture and, in the process, scripture reads us". Cardinal Martini of Milan has encouraged a synthesis of the two methodologies of prayer which reconciles the tradition of the second millennium with that of the first; a creative synthesis of these two traditions required by the Catholic principle of a living tradition. During guided communal sessions of lectio divina in Milan in the mid-1990's he uses Guigo's method in its most beneficial sense and takes it further and deeper into the communion created by the Word through the example of his Ignation formation as a Jesuit. He argues that the contemplatio should lead people to a moment of discernment (discretio) and to an understanding of how to act (actio) upon which has been discerned from a prayerful encounter with the Lord.

Armand Veilleux makes the point that these 'reduced' forms of lectio are not true to the traditions of the Fathers but are rather too narrow in scope. When one is praying with and through scripture, what is above all important for the Fathers of the Desert is not just to read the Bible, but to live it. The first monks, for their part, stayed with a verse as long as they had not out it into practice.
"Someone comes to Abba Pambo asking him to teach him a psalm. Pambo begins to teach him Psalm 38: but hardly has he pronounced the first verse: "I said: "I will be watchful of my ways, for fear I should sin with my tongue? ..." then the brother does not wish to hear any more. He tells Pambo, "this verse is enough for me; please God I may have the strength to learn it and put it into practice". Nineteen years later he was still trying.."

"The tradition of what is now called lectio divina, that is to say, the desire to allow oneself to be challenged and transformed by the fire of the Word of God, would not be understood without its dependency, beyond primitive monasticism, from the tradition of Christian asceticism of the first three centuries, and even from its roots in the tradition of Israel. From the catechesis received in local Church, the monk learned that he was created in the image of God, that that image was deformed by sin and must be reformed. For that he must let himself be transformed and reshaped to the image of Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit and his life according to the Gospel, his resemblance to Christ is gradually restored and he is able to know God". "The goal of the Christian life as expressed by Cassian, is continual prayer which he describes as a constant awareness of the presence of God, realised through purity of heart. It is not acquired through this observance or that, nor even through reading or meditating on Scripture, but through letting oneself be transformed by Scripture".

"To allow oneself to be questioned by God, to allow oneself to be challenged, formed, throughout all the elements of the day, through work and encounters with other people, throughout the harsh ascesis of a serious intellectual work as throughout the celebration of the liturgy and the normal tensions of life. The danger is that, lectio may be viewed purely as an exercise among others. To relegate this attitude of total openness to one privileged exercise which is supposed to impregnate the rest of our days is perhaps a too facile way of running away from this demand".

However one approaches the practice of lectio divina one must always bear in mind St Benedict's advice in dealing with approaches to the Lord in prayer.
"If we do not venture to approach men who are in power, except with humility and reverence, when we wish to ask a favour, how much must we beseech the Lord God of all things with all humility and purity of devotion? And let us be assured that it is not in many words, but in the purity of heart and tears of compunction that we are heard".
The drama of prayer is fully revealed to us in the Word who became flesh and dwells among us. In the light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of his promised Spirit, prayer has been radically recast. No longer do we have to see prayer as petitioning a transcendent power to intervene on our behalf or to manipulate the supernatural to achieve our natural desires. In the experience of the indwelling spirit prayer is no longer restricted to communication. It has achieved the state of communion. This communion is a response to the fact that God is always seeking us, is always waiting for us to return, who seeing us at a distance has compassion on us and "runs and embraces us".

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