Let God’s Word open the door to your heart

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I’VE ALWAYS WANTED to know how to pray with the Bible, but I never knew how to start," Jenny told me after a retreat I had helped lead. She was so moved by her new experience of praying with scripture, she had tears in her eyes as she thanked me.

Jenny is not alone. There is an increasing desire among youth and young adults of the church to learn how to approach scripture in a personal, prayerful way. I sense the Spirit stirring inside our hearts, inviting us to break open the Bible in order to come to know God more personally.

What Jenny learned on that retreat was the ancient practice of lectio divina. These Latin words simply mean “holy reading." The practice of prayerful reflection on the Word of God has been around as long as men and women have known the Word of God. In time, however, a particular practice evolved and came to be known as lectio divina.

There are four “movements" of this prayer: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.

Preparing for holy reading
Before taking up these four specific movements, it helps to mention some basic preparation pointers for the prayerful reading of scripture:

  • Place. Find a quiet time and place to pray. It helps when you can be consistent.
  • Posture. Be relaxed and comfortable, but not in a posture conducive to sleep.
  • Passage. Prepare your scripture passage before you begin.
  • Prayer. Ask for the light of the Holy Spirit. This prayer can be as simple as: “Come Holy Spirit; open my heart to hear the Word of God."

The four movements of lectio divina
Lectio, “reading," is the first movement of lectio divina. One begins by the slow and mindful reading of the scripture passage. It is usually better not to attempt to read large passages but rather to take only some verses. As you read, be alert to any word or phrase that seems to “come forward" for you.

I’ll never forget one day I was reading from Matthew 10 about the missioning of the 12 apostles. Because this passage is well-known, I proceeded without a lot of expectation—“Cure the sick," and so on. Then, without warning, nine words seemed to light up in neon: “The gift you have received, give as a gift." It was as though I had never seen those words before! It felt as if they were placed there just for me to see. This was clearly the place to pause and look more deeply.

Meditatio means “meditation." We pause our reading to have time to reflect and ask, “God, what do you want to tell me in this?" Meditatio involves listening and requires desire and an intentional openness of heart. As soon as the words mentioned above came forward for me, I listened and realized, “Yes, I have been untrusting and insecure about my new assignment in campus ministry." I found God telling me to believe that I have been gifted for the mission and that I should move ahead with trust.

Oratio: “prayer." Once I became aware of God’s message for me, I broke into prayer. “God, why do I focus on my shortcomings? I want to trust your call and your gifts in my life. Help me to believe and share these gifts with others." This prayer can be spontaneous or it can be formalized. The Spirit will speak in you.

Contemplatio. Contemplation begins once you enter a kind of wordless resting in God’s loving presence. For me contemplatio is the quiet peacefulness I feel when I become aware of God’s total, unconditional love and acceptance of me. Rest in this space until you feel drawn to return to your reading.

Looking at the whole
These four movements of the lectio divina experience do not necessarily happen each time I pray with scripture, nor do they always follow in that sequence. There are times when the minute a word comes forward, the message is clear and I immediately move into prayer. Other times the reading calls me to reflect deeply and I stay predominantly with meditatio. So, these four aspects are experiences that the Spirit guides you through. Most important, be supple and trust the movement of the Spirit.

Sometimes when I pray with scripture, I feel intensely inspired. Other times I walk away not feeling particularly touched in any way. When I walk away uninspired, it does not mean I have failed, nor has God failed me. Whether I am aware of it or not, God’s grace is always present and active in the Word.

Silvia, a woman considering religious life, has recently begun the practice of lectio divina. Even though she sometimes “feels nothing," she realizes the particular grace of praying with scripture. She wrote this about her experience: “No human being can teach me what God tells me. The dialogue is personal. Before, I was following the signs of God. Now I have started to talk with God. . . . To talk with God is so simple. He is waiting to talk with you. Reserve some moments. He wants to tell you something important."

Choose a simple plan
A simple plan for your reading helps you begin to stay focused. For beginners, I suggest the New Testament. In particular, the gospels are the central part of Christian scripture, and the Gospel of Mark is a wonderful starting place. It is the shortest of the gospels and is sometimes called “the gospel on the go" because of Mark’s brief telling of the events of Jesus’ life. Mark is the first gospel written, and both Matthew and Luke borrowed from it when writing their accounts.

One option I suggest for regular lectio divina is to take up “continuous reading" of a book in the Bible. Day after day simply take up your reading where you left off yesterday. I like this way of doing my lectio; it provides continuity for me, and I can go at my own pace. When I complete a book, I date it with a sticky note and choose my next book.

Another plan for lectio divina, one that many of my friends use, is to take up one or more of the readings from the daily scripture readings for Mass. Many sites list the daily readings. One such example is from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: www.usccb.org/nab. This site allows you to print out the actual scripture passages for any day of the month so there’s no need to look up a citation in the Bible.

A distinct advantage of using the daily readings is that eventually they include selections from almost all the books of the Bible. It is also helpful because the readings are chosen to reflect the celebration of each day’s particular feast or season of the church year. Some who pray with the daily readings also appreciate that it unites them with the worldwide church.

Listening to the voice of God
We believe that scripture is the Word of God. This belief is a certainty that we cannot have with any other reading. But still, we realize that scripture was written in the context of a particular time, place, and culture and is to be approached with this awareness. You might ask, “How does a beginner approach scripture without being misled?"

  • Begin with a prayer to the Holy Spirit. Scripture is the Word of God and can only be opened with the help of God.
  • Believe that God wants to communicate to you. Enter your lectio with desire, openness, and readiness to listen, rather than a pressing personal agenda. This opens you to let the Spirit be in charge.
  • In your lectio divina, let God speak to you about you. A common trap on the spiritual journey is to get caught up in solving the problems of others rather than being personally open to hearing God’s call for oneself.
  • You will know when you are on the right path when you find yourself becoming more peaceful, joyful, loving, kind, patient. Jesus said, “You will know a tree by its fruits" (Matthew 7:16). You will begin to see the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26) growing in your daily experience. The transformation may be as slow and imperceptible as that growing tree, but also just as sure.

God’s desire
“Here I stand, knocking at the door. Whoever hears me calling and opens the door, I will enter their house, have supper with them and they with me" (Revelation 3:20).

We sometimes forget that God desires to come close to us, to enter intimately into our hearts. But God will not force a way. God will knock and wait. Sometimes the first step we have to make in opening the door is to set aside time and quiet ourselves enough to listen. With lectio divina we open the door and give God space in our hearts.

Another retreat participant I met recently, Anne, writes of her experience of this meeting. “I can best summarize prayer in my life as trial and error. Looking back, my error has revolved around not allowing myself to be with Christ. . . . .

“In the past I have failed to let him initiate attention to the deepest needs of my heart. . . . [Then] I met a group of beautiful and inspiring sisters who showed me how to pray in the lectio divina style. The first time I really tried it, I felt like my spirit was truly united to God! . . . Every day now I know I’ve been given new life when I pray with lectio divina, and I offer praises of gratitude that there is a better way to pray!"

May God’s Word open doors for you toward better ways to pray.

Sister Rosann Ocken, O.S.B. is vocation director for the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Norfolk, Nebraska.




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