Praying the Word (Lectio Divina)
Mark Vernon of The Guardian lamented the loss of corporate silence in the church recently. Once a month we have a morning service where we wait on God in silence. We call it an Open Book service. It could be called The Open Book because the idea is that we pray the Word of God that is the passage of the day. For example on Sunday 8th July it is Daniel 6.
This form of praying is called Lectio Divina, and at one time every Christian used to pray in this way. This is something that should appeal to contemplatives because of the silence. It is something that should appeal to Evangelicals because of the Word. It is something that should appeal to charismatics because you begin Lectio by praying to the Holy Spirit ‘that the eyes of your heart may be opened.’ (Enzo Bianchi). It should also appeal to those outside the Church seeking silence and stillness because neuroscience tells us such practices are good for the brain!
The other reason for doing this is the biblical witness of 2 Corinthians 14:26, ‘What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.’
This comes out of deep listening to God and is deeply counter-cultural because it is about us letting go of control. When we read the Word in this way ‘as the Word which comes from God and leads to God’ (Enzo Bianchi) we are in the words of St Jerome, ‘opening our sails to the Holy Spirit without knowing on what shores we will land.’
Lectio Divina is a form of biblical meditation which enables the living Word of God to dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16). The problem today is that most people have information about the Word in their heart and mind but not the Word itself. This is not memorizing by rote but creating a living memory of the Word within. Lectio comes out of the Jewish emphasis on the Word being ‘upon your hearts…Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home..’ (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). This emphasis entered into the New Testament quite naturally as all the first disciples were Jewish.
Of course, this was before the days of commentaries, and study aids, and blogs and Twitter feeds. You only had the Word, and maybe only a section of it. Today, too often, we stand over the Word picking it to bits in sterile Bible study, instead of allowing the Word to stand over us. I am all for Bible study but it should not be for information only. As Rick Warren says most Christians are already educated well above their level of obedience!
In our Open Book service we encourage people to read the Bible passage slowly. This is not the fast inattentive reading of modern culture. It is repetitive and slow, with silence in between, listening with the ears of the hear to the still small voice of God.
A word, a verse, another Scripture might leap out at us and we begin to meditate on that. This is the second traditional step of Lectio, meditatio or meditation. There is an opportunity to share it, because God’s Word becomes His Word for me and for us. There may be the forms of revelation mentioned in 2 Corinthians 14.
The third step is Oratio, or prayer. This is not just intercession but ‘allowing our real selves to be touched and changed by God.’ (Fr Luke Dysinger) We need to live it out. There is also an opportunity for the fourth step, Contemplatio or contemplation. This is simply resting in the presence of God, being not doing.
We are just beginners at this but we are putting ourselves in the place where we can receive the embrace of God through His Word and our silence. In the silence we are aware of our wandering minds and afflictive thoughts. We learn to return our attention back to God and to be openly aware of what He might say or do. These things change our brain for the better – making us more empathic, relational and less angry and stressed. They also help us to listen and freely obey.