Following the line taken in the previous conference about "being liked" by another, we note, now, that the "next step" if one is interested, is to initiate some kind of contact, or dialogue. Relating from a distance, or through an intermediary, might precede such a move, but eventually we will want to have some kind of "face-to-face" meeting, perhaps even a "date."
I know the analogy doesn't completely satisfy when in comes to God, but the main point, here, is that interpersonal relationship just cannot really develop without communication. It is through the process of dialogue that we come to interactive and experiential contact with the other, and so become influenced and even transformed through this contact. Married couples and friends who neglect this imperil the quality of their relationship; just giving it even a few minutes a day can make all the difference.
So it is with God. We can study theology, reflect on the promises of faith, attend Church services, and engage in many types of religious activities, all the while keeping relationship with God at arm's distance -- or farther! It is not until we have that face-to-face encounter -- talking and listening, sharing and receiving -- that we begin to experience a sense of relationship with God. The good news, here, is that the process for doing so is just as simple as in a human relationship.
There are many ways of praying, and many contexts for doing so. What we will emphasize in this conference is the ancient process for prayer called Lectio Divina, or sacred reading. This is dialogical prayer par excellence, paralleling the same movements of communication we find in human relationships. Whether one is a beginner on the spiritual journey or a veteran pilgrim, this process is indispensable for growing in a faith relationship with God.
Lectio Divina (also published in Handbook for Spiritual Directees)
The approach to Lectio Divina I recommend is much less rigid than those you will find described in many places. In this approach, as in the classical one, we do identify the following movements:
Meditatio - repeating the word or phrase that speaks to you; considering what it's saying to you if such reflections arise spontaneously.
Oratio - affective prayer; intercessions, gratitude, praise, just telling God where you are.
Contemplatio - simply resting in God in loving silence.
Many teachers have emphasized these movements, and have taught them as a four-step process, beginning with Lectio and proceeding in step-by-step fashion to contemplation. That's too rigid and unnatural for many, however; we would never carry on a conversation with another human being like that, so this is what I suggest instead:
A. Set aside at least 20 minutes for the process. Pick out your passage. Be sure you're in a quiet place.
B. Begin with vocal prayer, dedicating your time to draw close to God. Invite the Holy Spirit to lead you in this prayer time.
C. Spend a few moments just quieting yourself, noting your breathing, the feel of your body, the sense of being where you are. Ask yourself which of the four movements you feel drawn to at this time - e.g., it's OK to begin by resting in God if such a grace is already given, or to voice prayers of petition or gratitude, etc. You might also just want to tell God "where you are."
D. When you feel ready to read the passage, do so, slowly, reverently. Let the words wash over you and sink in as they will. Take a couple minutes of silence afterward and then read the passage again, slowly, prayerfully. Silence. If distractions arise, just notice them and return to the practice.
E. If a particular word or phrase speaks to you, repeat it in your mind. Let its message really sink in until you no longer feel like repeating it. Silence.
F. Talk to God about how this word has spoken to you. What considerations . . . questions . . . feelings . . . concerns, etc.?
G. When you have expressed yourself to God, pause for a minute or two of silence. If you feel drawn to continue resting in silence, do so. If not, return to your passage and read from where you left off. If another word or phrase speaks to you, repeat Steps E and F.
H. Continue doing this until you feel you have completed your prayer time.
You can see how this is a free-flowing process, with lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio signifying movements in the dialogue that you enter into when it seems natural and spontaneous to do so. There are times for listening to God speak to you through the Word, times for responding, times for resting and so forth. With regular use of this method, you become increasingly adept in discerning the leadings of the Spirit in the process. You also grow in a sense of being in relationship with God.
During the past 20 years, the practice of centering prayer has become quite popular, thanks in large part to the writings of three Trappist monks: William Menninger, M. Basil Pennington, and Thomas Keating. In addition, Fr. Keating founded Contemplative Outreach, an organization whose mission is to spread the teaching on centering prayer and train people to do so.
Ideally, centering prayer is practiced in the context of lectio divina, in which case it can be understood as a refinement of step E, described above. Understood and practiced in this manner, it is similar to what the classical tradition called the prayer of simplicity, or simple regard. When practiced outside the larger context of lectio divina, however, it can still be beneficial, although it is difficult to maintain the sense of spontaneity and dialogue which the steps above on the whole both encourage and support.
We would be remiss as well to neglect mentioning the importance of communal prayer in the Christian life. Ideally, the Sunday service is a time when we, as a people, are moved to pray together to our loving God. Indeed, many services are structured to provide a flow similar to the steps of lectio divina. There are times for listening to the Word, reflecting along with the preaching, praying for the needs of the community, and, hopefully, taking time to just be in God's presence in loving silence. Liturgical rituals don't always make room for the contemplative movement, although traditions that provide liturgy of the Eucharist do support something similar -- nothing approaching what one will find among the Quakers, however, or monastic services.
During the past few years, group lectio divina has become more popular. If there is an interest in learning more about how this might work, I'd be happy to discuss it on this thread.
We grow in a sense of relationship by relating; we grow in love by loving; we grow in prayer by praying. Lectio divina is a wonderful way to grow in all three of these movements, whether it be in our personal prayer or with our faith community. What's truly amazing is that relationship with God is possible, and that through such, we find ourselves becoming transformed by the Spirit of God.
Reflection and Discussion
1. What questions or comments does this conference awaken for you?
2. What is your manner of prayer? How does prayer contribute to a sense of relationship with God?
Yesterday, Trinity Sunday, I attended a Taize prayer service that was held in a Catholic Church in Mount Prospect, Illinois and hosted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, the Chicago Synod of the ELCA and by the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. Three denominations joined together to pray and relate to the God we all share in covenant as Christians. Three denominations sharing one faith joined to relate to the Love that stretched from the spot we were standing on to the colliding and exploding galaxies that are happening even at this very moment millions of light years into space.
I have known of the Taize community and about how it was founded in France in the early 1940’s during WWII, but I had never experienced the prayer service that is practiced there three times a day. The community gathers in the morning, at noontime and at dusk and conduct what seems to me to be a communal Lectio Divina.
When I arrived at the church I was given a small collared candle and a program that detailed well how the service was going to be conducted. Following is the opening paragraph:
"Taize Prayer is a meditative common prayer. Gathered in the presence of Christ, we sing uncomplicated repetitive songs, uncluttered by too many words, allowing the mystery of God to become tangible through the beauty of simplicity. There is no formal presider, no choir; those who gather are the ones who 'do' the prayer. The beauty of the voices united in song becomes a doorway to reflection and meditation."
Yesterday’s service began by engaging several minutes of silence. Then the music director of the Mount Prospect parish began to play the piano very softly as a cantor approached the ambo. The cantor began to chant the first refrain. Before she finished the first stanza all the pray-ers had joined in. The same refrain was sung 8 or 10 times. Another period of several minutes of silence followed. Then another short refrain was sung and repeated several times in a mantra fashion. Although there was no formal presider the event was carefully planned and well orchestrated.
Another period of silence followed after which a candle was lit and the light was passed to all in the congregation. We stood as a Psalm was read and the Alleluia was chanted several times. After another sustained period of silence there were two readings from Scripture. Following the readings another prolonged song was sung in mantra fashion and again followed by more silence.
The program alerted us to the many periods of silence that would be engaged by explaining that:
"When we try to express communion with God in words, we rapidly reach the end of our capacities. A fairly long period of silence to listen to the voice of God deep within, therefore, is essential in discovering the heart of prayer."
We concluded with reciting the Lord’s Prayer and processed out of the church chanting a final song.
Paradoxically, when I returned home I logged on and discovered the new thread had been posted and that I had just engaged all the movements of Lectio Divina. The Taize service offered me and all in the congregation Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio and Contemplatio in communion with each other. Can there be any doubt that yesterday’s prayer experience indeed contributed to a profound sense of relationship with God?
Peace and all good to everyone.
Thanks for sharing that, LJohn. The prayer process you describe does indeed seem to follow the movements of lectio divina; Taize prayer, in particular, is accessible to many people.
I think that when it comes to relating to God, those periods of silence you described between the movements are important -- not just for enabling attentiveness to the divine, but to also enable us to discern the movement of our own spirit. Are we moved to talk more, to listen, to simply rest? In the silence, we discern the answer.
I have practiced Lectio Divina on and off over the past year, but it was not until I made the committment to practice this daily that I noticed suttle changes in my thoughts and actions. I attended a retreat recently and we were challenged to engage in this practice daily, we were told we would see transformation within a year. I'm sure not complete transformation but it is a step in the right direction. Ann
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