How long has it been since you had an experience with God while reading Scripture? If you are like many who come to us for spiritual direction, it may have been a very long time. Instead of igniting a holy flame in you, your current reaction to the Bible may be better described as a cooling ember.
At one time or another, each of us was told that the Bible is a unique and privileged book through which God seeks to communicate truths that are important for us to know. And yet for many of us, this journey with God and the Bible has been a lot like marriage vows—for better or for worse. It’s at this crossroad where we must discover a more prayerful approach to this sacred text in order to hear God whispering through it again.
That’s where Stacey, one of Beth’s directees, found herself.
For two decades, Stacey and her husband had been deeply rooted in a very dynamic, evangelistic and authoritarian church. After several “wake-up” calls to the parental nature of the leadership, she and her husband finally disentangled themselves and left. Though this happened nearly ten years ago, the power this unhealthy church exercised over them still affects Stacey's thoughts, motivations, and relationship with God. And it certainly has inhibited her ability to hear from God through the Bible.
One day, during a spiritual direction session, Stacey apologetically confided in Beth that she couldn’t read the Bible anymore. She felt bad. Really bad. And very guilty. And yet every time she tried to engage with Scripture, she either glazed over or was triggered by what she read.
At this point, Beth took a little time and shared briefly her own journey with the Bible, one that has been impacted by her own church wounds. She then described to Stacey a different way of coming to Scripture; one that is less about getting answers from it and more about opening to God through it. She introduced Stacey to a spiritual practice called Lectio Divina.
Lectio Divina: A Posture of Engaging with the Living Word
It has been one of the great rediscoveries of our times to experience the resurgence of an approach to Scripture reading known as Lectio Divina. The phrase is from Latin and essentially means “sacred reading.” This approach to Scripture is not a technique, nor a prescription. Rather it’s an internal posture of engaging with the Living Word in the written word as we seek to “listen with the ear of our heart.” It gently moves us to respond authentically to God who is addressing us through this sacred text.
Briefly, in its classic form, Lectio Divina has four movements. Each movement is introduced by a single Latin word.
1. Lectio (Reading). In this movement, you simply read the Scripture and gather in the facts. As you listen or read, you pay attention to the word or phrase that stands out and seems to speak uniquely to you. You may be curious about the word or phrase, drawn in, as if that particular word or phrase lifts from the page, or even shimmers to you.
2. Meditatio (Meditate). In this movement, you open yourself to be addressed more personally. You read the Scripture again and rest on the word or phrase you’ve chosen, noticing where it intersects with your own life right now or what its message might be suggesting to you. A simple question to ask is, “God, what do you want to say to me?” Or “God, what in me needs to hear this word from you?”
3. Oratio (Prayer). This third time, you read or listen to the Scripture passage again, slowly and thoughtfully. You seek to let your heart open and allow yourself to respond to God. If you have had a growing sense of God speaking to you, what do you want to say to God? How do you want to respond to Christ’s words to you? Trust the Spirit as you become emotionally engaged and share with God, as with a friend, whatever is being stirred.
4. Contemplatio (Contemplation). You read the Scripture a final time. By this time, you should be familiar with its rhythms, its repetitions, and its drama. Simply receive the words as if your heart is rich, fertile soil in which a gardener is lovingly placing a seed. Contemplation is the room where you simply are invited to be; to be with God, to be yourself, to be loved and in love.
Let’s pick up with Stacey, Beth’s directee, as she experienced Lectio Divina for the first time.
“So, Stacey, how about if I lead you through a Lectio Divina and see what it’s like for you to listen to Scripture through a different approach? What do you say?” Beth asked. Stacey was more than willing to give it a try. They sat in silence for a couple of minutes.
“Okay. I think I know what passage I want to read.” Beth turned to Mark 10:17-21, the account of the rich, young ruler, and before she read the passage, she asked Stacey to listen attentively for the word or phrase that stood out to her. She encouraged Stacey not to censor what she noticed, but to speak it out once Beth finished reading it.
As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Mark 10:17-21
When Beth finished, Stacey paused, looked a little uncertain, and said, “I don’t know why, but the phrase that stood out was ‘since I was young.’ That seems kind of strange.”
“That’s okay. Let’s see if it becomes clear as to why.” Before Beth read the passage a second time, she suggested that Stacey keep pressing into the phrase, “since I was young,” as she listened, and then ask herself, “Where does this phrase connect with my life right now? What in me needs to hear this phrase?”
Beth read the passage again and Stacey sat in silence for a few minutes. She appeared quiet and captivated. Finally, she broke the silence and said, “I feel like Jesus is reminding me of our history together. I’ve known him ‘since I was young.’ He’s been faithful to me and has never given up on me.” Stacey seemed to relax a bit as her confidence that she could hear from God grew.
Beth suggested that she listen a third time and reflect on how she desires to respond to what Jesus is saying. “Ask yourself what prayer is forming in me? Is there something I want to say or do to respond to Jesus?”
After the third reading, Beth and Stacey sat for several minutes in silence. Stacey shifted her body a few times as though she was wrestling a bit. She was concentrating, listening deeply, to her own heart as she listened to God’s heart for her. Finally, when Stacey spoke up, she explained more of what “since I was young” has come to mean over the process of this meditation.
Stacey recognized Jesus affirming her history with him. She also reflected on how she related to Jesus when she was young. She was bold and certain and ready to change the world. She told him she didn’t feel that way anymore and sensed Jesus being okay with that. Stacey realized that her youthful zeal didn’t have as deep of roots as she thought. And she felt like Jesus was inviting her to trust him to be with her now, in this place, at this stage of her life.
Beth read the passage one final time and invited Stacey to sit with Jesus, perhaps imagining him looking at her the way he looked with genuine love at this young man. She did and then Beth ended this time of prayer, aware and grateful for the holy flame of love that lit up Stacey’s face.
Pause for Reflection
Seeking to encounter God in Scripture is an invitation to read differently. We could even say to read without aim, without agenda, to read slowly, leisurely, and prayerfully. Why not turn to one of your favorite Gospel stories or Psalms and read it as you practice Lectio Divina. Linger with each movement, journaling your responses, and notice what happens within you as you listen for God’s word for you.
What word or phrase stands out to you?
Where does this word or phrase intersect with your life right now?
How is God inviting you to respond?
What word from God has made its home in your heart? Sit with God and savor it.
Adapted from the forthcoming book When Faith Becomes Sight by Beth A. Booram and David Booram. Copyright (c) 2019 by Beth A. Booram and David Booram. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, www.ivpress.com.