GROW Deeper in Christ: Praying Scripture

(Note: This blog post is an edited and updated version of a previous blog post found at Cannon Beach Log on March 23, 2020, titled Contemplative Spiritual Disciplines: Lectio Divina.)

Another way to GROW deeper in Christ (GROW spells out a four-fold way of spiritual growth, including God’s Word, Relationships, Outward Living, and Worship), is to pray Scripture. The Denomination that I am affiliated with, the Evangelical Covenant Church, is committed to the centrality of God’s Word and I am grateful they promote this ancient way of spiritual growth, known as lectio divina, or praying Scripture.

What is lectio divina? Literally, this Latin phrase can be translated as divine reading, or sacred reading. Practically, lectio divina combines reading and praying, inviting a reader to listen to the voice of the Lord and draw near to Christ through a time of slow, meditative reading. Though practiced by many contemplative Christians, lectio divina, in its essence, is an evangelical spiritual practice, centering our lives upon Scripture and upon Jesus Christ present through God’s Word. 

As Adele Ahlberg Calhoun writes in her beautiful book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, “Praying Scripture allows God to direct the content of prayer. It opens the heart to praying particular prayers, psalms, teachings and hopes found in the Bible. It allows God to shape our prayer life through the words of Scripture.” (see Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, Intervarsity Press, 2005)

Within the local church a few practical ideas may be helpful for entering into the daily habit of lectio divina, based upon Jesus’ instructions on prayer. Jesus taught his followers this approach to prayer: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). First we must ‘go’. We leave behind the ordinary duties and demands of daily life, and remove ourselves from the company of others to spend time in solitude. This ‘going’ involves moving into a new rhythm of life, including choosing a regular place, a non-drowsy time of the day and a comfortable posture in which we can stay alert and attentive as we prepare to meet with God.

Second, we are wise to ‘close the door’. This act creates an enclosure, or a cloister [1] in which a person can enjoy unbroken time of intimacy with God. This act of ‘closing the door’ includes dealing with distractions, removing interruptions, as well as creating a space that is conducive to personal time alone with God. This may mean lighting a candle, playing meditative music and sitting in a comfortable, alert posture. We are also wise to have a good reading lamp, several books within easy reach, including a Bible and other classic spiritual readings, a journal and a pen. Each of these objects assist in developing the sacred habit of lectio divina.

Third, we enter into personal time alone with God, ‘who is unseen’. Once we are seated in silence and solitude, we open a text of Scripture or some other spiritual writing and begin our time of lectio divina, a spiritual discipline which has been divided into four movements of grace: reading, meditating, praying and contemplating. Though these four movements are given in a specific order, the practice of daily lectio divina is a dynamic spiritual practice allowing a person to flow among these four movements without being restricted to following the exact pattern as listed here. [2]

In the first movement, we read (Latin—lectio) the passage of Scripture, using our intellect to observe the meaning of the text. The selection we choose should only be a paragraph or two. The pace of the reading is slower than normal reading as we pause upon a word or phrase to think about what’s being read. Many people have found it helpful to quietly mouth the words aloud as they read to allow their ears to hear the passage as their eyes see the passage. The purpose of this movement is to understand the text and the context in which these words are set. If the total time allotted is fifteen minutes, the first three or four minutes are for reading. 

In the second movement, we reread the passage aloud in order to mull over or meditate (Latin—meditatio) upon what we’ve read.[3] During these five minutes, we think through the passage, reciting aloud various words and phrases as we reflect inwardly upon the spiritual meaning of the words in relation to our life. We are mindful of God’s presence, attentive to the Holy Spirit, listening for God’s voice in the passage. We seek to meet Christ in the passage as we meditate on the word, wrestling in our hearts with the intent and purpose of the passage for our spiritual formation.

The third movement involves prayer (Latin—oratio). Once again, we read through the passage, but this time, allow the words to carry us to God through verbal or mental prayer. We talk with God about the passage, asking questions, considering together with the Holy Spirit how the text could spiritually form our lives into the image of Christ. Allowing three or four minutes for this portion of Lectio Divina, we offer our spoken prayer to God, using the words and meanings of the passage to draw us into God’s presence.

Finally, the fourth movement of the ancient art of Lectio Divina  invites us to contemplate (Latin—contemplatio) God’s heart through God’s word by surrendering our body, mind and spirit into God’s care. We move past words, thoughts and prayers and simply relax in God’s presence, being alone with God in silence. This time may last several minutes and can be closed with a quiet recitation of the Lord’s Prayer to conclude the fifteen minute time of Lectio Divina. [4]

Such an outline for this spiritual discipline can be practiced individually or in a small study group. [5] When practiced in a group context, we have the added potential for loving accountability, something Benedict values highly in the monastic practice of lectio divina. Others offer us encouragement as the small group shares their struggles to learn this new approach to an ancient practice. No new spiritual practice or habit comes easily. Benedict points out common problems of apathy, neglect and distractions when attempting something as basic as a daily time with God in the Scriptures. Other duties easily take precedent over this sacred task. We love to divert ourselves, spending hours at computers or watching television programs, yet often find obstacles in the way of spending ten or fifteen minutes soaking in the glorious presence of God. “Brothers who are sick or weak should be given a type of work or craft that will keep them busy without overwhelming them or driving them away” (RB 48:24). Benedict takes into account the weakness and sickness of the human will and body. We are wise to offer such a gracious approach to daily spiritual disciplines including presenting alternatives to those who find the task of prayerful reading to be overwhelming.

[1] In Latin, claustra, is defined by Timothy Fry as “any sort of space set off or closed to access by some sort of a barrier, natural or otherwise.” Fry, The Rule of St. Benedict, 289. For more ideas on the practice of the cloistered life within the family, see The Christian Family Toolbox: 52 Benedictine Activities for the Home (New York, NY: Crossroad, 2001).

[2] Historically, these four stages are traced to a twelfth century treatise by Guigo II, The Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations, in which he describes these four movements as rungs on a ladder connecting earth to heaven, where humans are united with God through the contemplative discipline of lectio divina.

[3] In RB 48:23, Benedict uses the word meditare, translated by RB 1980 as study. Benedictine scholar, Terrance Kardong, O.S.B., writes of this practice, “For the monks of this period, meditatio was not the silent intellectual exercise it is for us, but rather the verbal repetition of a memorized text.” See Kardong, Benedict’s Rule, 170.

[4] In this section, the author is indebted to Michael Casey and his book Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina (Liguori, MO: Triumph Books, 1995), 51-100.

[5] For a small group guide to lectio divina, see Richard Peace, Contemplative Bible Reading: Experiencing God Through Scripture (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1999).