Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lectio Divina

Homily from the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

New priests are often asked to share their vocation stories. People want to know how one hears the call to the priesthood. A few times, some people have actually asked me if I ever heard the voice of God telling me to become a priest.

I can honestly say that I’ve never heard the voice of God. But I hear Him speak to me everyday.

When I first arrived at the seminary, my spiritual director told me he wanted me to do something called Lectio Divina everyday. “OK," I said. "What’s Lectio Divina?”

He explained… Lectio Divina is Latin for “sacred reading” and it’s a method of prayer with Sacred Scripture. It was begun by Benedictine monks centuries ago. The monks would spend hours in prayer with the bible. However, books like the bible were extremely expensive. So, in order to pray with the Scriptures effectively, they would meditate on a very brief passage of Scripture, then pass the Bible on to the next monk, while they continued to meditate on what they had just read.

In our Gospel today, Jesus tells us that it is necessary “to pray always without becoming weary.” And in our second reading, St. Paul tells us that Scripture is good for “wisdom for salvation” and that it “is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Well, if we put these two together: to pray always and that Scripture is good for our Christian life; we quickly realize that we should pray with Scripture. We should do Lectio Divina like the monks.

Most of the time when we pray, we tend to just start telling God what we want, what we need, what we’re suffering or what we’re thankful for. Most of the time, we do most, if not all, of the talking and wait for God to respond. And those are all perfectly legitimate ways of praying.

However, Lectio Divina, is prayer where God starts off the conversation and we listen; then, we respond to what God is asking of us.  How does God speak to us? Through Sacred Scripture, the Bible. So in Lectio Divina, we listen to the Word of God very slowly and deliberately; and then we respond.

The Benedictine monks said there are basically four stages of Lectio Divina: lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio; Latin for reading, meditation, praying and contemplating. Or as the Catholic Youth Prayer Book calls them: The Four R’s of Lectio Divina: reading, reflecting, responding and remaining.

The first stage: reading.
First you choose a short passage of scripture and read it very slowly. You listen carefully to every word. There are no wasted words in Scripture. So you read the passage very carefully, listening for a word or a phrase that you may want to pray about. You may want to slowly read the passage 2, or 3, or 4 times until that word or phrase jumps out at you.

The second stage: reflecting.
You read the passage again, slowly. And now that you have that word or phrase in mind, you reflect and meditate on it listening to what God is saying to you through it. In this stage, you are ruminating on your word or phrase. There are animals classified as “ruminate” animals. These are animals like cows that chew on a cud. They chew and chew and chew and chew. That’s what you’re doing, you’re chewing on the Word of God, considering what God is saying to you.

The third stage: responding.
You read the passage again, slowly. And now, after you’ve spent time listening to the Word of God and chewing on it, you respond back to God. You pray to God in such a way that you say, “OK God, I’ve heard you say this to me” or “I’ve heard you ask this of me, here’s how I’m going to respond.”

The fourth stage: remaining.
You read the passage again, slowly. And now, after you’ve had this conversation with God in which He has spoken to you through His Word and you have responded, you remain there with him in silence. At this stage, you don’t even really say anything to God. You just enjoy sitting silently in his presence. This is, for many people, the hardest stage to get through, because we’re so uncomfortable in silence. But think about it: when you’ve had a good, deep, meaningful conversation with someone, you really shouldn’t just immediately hang up the phone or run out of the room as soon as the last sentence is uttered. You remain there with the person. You remain there with your friend. In Lectio, you remain there with your Father.

Another way I like to think about the four stages of Lectio Divina, is to think of them like four stages of a meal.

The first stage, reading, is like when you’re looking out at your Thanksgiving table. You’re checking everything out, looking over everything carefully, and deciding what’s going to be your first bite. Is it going to be the turkey or the stuffing? Green bean casserole or mashed potatoes?

The second stage, reflecting, is when you’re chewing on all that delicious food. You’re just taking it all in, enjoying every bite.

The third stage, responding, is like when you’re telling the cook how good the food is. “Mom, this turkey is amazing! You didn’t dry it out this year! Thank you so much. This makes me want to eat more.”

The fourth stage, remaining, is digestion. You don’t just get up and run from the table. You sit there for a while and let your food digest. Or, at the very least, you retreat to your cathedra: your favorite Lazy Boy recliner and you take yoru crozier in hand: the remote control, and you enter into a very deep, tryptophan-induced food coma in which you contemplate the deep mysteries of the Thanksgiving meal and it’s sublime, symbolic power as a sign of the Eucharistic feast!

So, how should you pick out your passage of Scripture? I suggest two strategies:

First, you could pray with the readings from the Mass of the day or the upcoming Sunday. You can find these by subscribing to Magnificat, or buying a Weekday Missal or Sunday Missal from a Catholic bookstore, or you can access them on the US Bishop’s website.

The second strategy is that you could pray an entire Gospel, from beginning to end, one small passage at a time. I like the New American Bible, because it’s the translation we use in the Mass and also because it divides the passages up into sections, each with a boldface header; which is a good way to divide up your prayer each day.

For how long should you pray Lectio? When I was in the seminary, I was asked to do an hour a day. This is still what I try to do, I pray with the Sunday readings for about an hour each day in preparation for the homily. I suggest, as you begin, to try to pray Lectio for 20 mins each day. If you can’t do 20 mins do 10. If you can’t do 10, do 5. Just start somewhere. Praying with the Scriptures for 5 minutes each day is far better than not praying with them at all.

Where should you pray?  Just as we need to carve out some sacred time for prayer, we also need to carve out a sacred space.  I have a chair in my bedroom that is for prayer and prayer only.  I try not to pray in the same chair I do my business work in or watch the TV from. 

I also suggest journaling: writing down your thoughts after Lectio.  When my spiritual director suggested I journal, I rolled my eyes.  "I don't keep a diary!" I thought.  But, he stayed on my case about it and eventually, I gave in and started journaling.  I quickly discovered how valuable a channel of prayer it is.  Today, my journaling becomes my homilies.

Interruptions: you'll need to eliminate distractions as much as possible.  Turn of the TV.  Turn off the cell phone.  If the doorbell rings, ignore it.  If you weren't home, you wouldn't be able to answer it anyway.  Now obviously there will be some interruptions that cannot be ignored.  One of your children might fall and skin their knee or the baby might need to be fed or rocked.  When important interruptions happen, do the charitable thing and help those in need.

And lastly, the four stages of Lectio Divina are more like guidelines than they are rules.  If you do 20 minutes of Lectio, that doesn't mean you have to stick with an orderly, regimented pace of 5 mins per stage.  Nor does it mean you have to follow the stages in the order given above.  A conversation is an organic thing.  Let your conversation with God happen naturally.

Click on this image and print it out to use as a Lectio bookmark for your Bible!

You and I come here every Sunday, to have a conversation with God. Isn’t it amazing that this conversation begins by listening to the Word of God and ends by entering into communion with Him by feasting on the flesh of His Son? We shouldn’t wait to have a deep conversation with God like this every seven days; it should happen everyday. God wants you to know Him. And to truly know someone means having intimacy with someone. And to truly have intimacy with someone requires regular conversation with them. God invites you to real intimacy with him by following the commandment of his Son, Jesus: it is necessary “to pray always without becoming weary.”

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