If we wish to pray with confidence and gladness, then the words of Holy Scripture will have to be the solid basis of our prayer.Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I am teaching a 5-week class on prayer at my congregation, and as I do so I am sharing a version of my handouts here on my blog. In our first week together, we looked at prayer through the lens of relationship. You can find the blog post based on that handout here: What Is Prayer, and How Can I Grow in My Life of Prayer? I also introduced the Divine Office in our first week together, which I have introduced on my blog here: What Is the Divine Office? In our second week, we looked at the importance of solitude and silence in our lives of prayer. You can find the blog post based on that handout here: Silence, Solitude, and Prayer.
In our third week, we looked at praying with Scripture using lectio divina. Here is a version of the handout that I shared.
Okay. You’ve decided to spend more time in prayer. You’ve gone into your room and closed the door, as Jesus teaches us (Matthew 6:6). You’ve quieted yourself with a breath prayer or centering prayer. You are ready to hear God’s “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12). Now what? Some days, that will be enough, and it will be wonderful. Other days, most days if you are like me, you will need more. That is when the ancient teaching on how to pray with Scripture is so valuable.
There are many ways to pray with Scripture. The classic way of praying in this way is called “lectio divina,” which is Latin for “divine reading.” There are variations even of this, but here is the method that I typically use:
- Select a passage of Scripture to use, perhaps one of the readings for this Sunday. It should not be a very long passage.
- Pray, inviting God to be with you and guide you as you ponder this word.
- Read the passage slowly, prayerfully, until something that you read attracts your attention. It might be a phrase, or even just a single word.
- Ponder this word or phrase in light of your life. Why did this particular word or phrase or passage attract your attention? What’s going on in your life that caused you to be drawn to it? What is God trying to tell you here?
- Now, quiet yourself and listen. Talk with God about this word, phrase, or passage. Listen “with the ear of your heart” (St. Benedict) to what God might be saying to you.
- When you become distracted, turn back to the Scripture passage. Read it again. Memorize it, if that is helpful. Repeat it to yourself. Write it out. Journal about it. Write a prayer inspired by it. Be creative. Let the passage work its way into your heart.
There are many teachings on how to pray with Scripture. One that I have found especially helpful is this teaching from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on how to meditate with Scripture. This is an excerpt from “Meditating on the Word,” translated and edited by David McI. Gracie:
“In the same way that the word of a person who is dear to me follows me throughout the day, so the Word of Scripture should resonate and work within me ceaselessly. Just as you would not dissect and analyze the word spoken by someone dear to you, but would accept it just as it was said, so you should accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation.
Do not look for new thoughts and interconnections in the text as you would in a sermon! Do not ask how you should tell it to others, but ask what it tells you! Then ponder this word in your heart at length, until it is entirely within you and has taken possession of you.
It is not necessary every day to go through the entire text we have chosen for meditation. Often we will hold on to one word of it for the entire day. Passages that we do not understand we can simply pass over.
If during meditation our thoughts move to persons who are near to us or to those we are concerned about, then let them linger there. That is a good time to pray for them. Do not pray in general, then, but in particular for the people who are on your mind. Let the Word of Scripture tell you what you ought to pray for them. As a help, we may write down the names of the people we want to remember every day. Our intercessions require their appointed time, too, if we are to be serious about them. Pay attention, though, that our intercessions do not become another means of taking flight from the most important thing: prayer for our own soul’s salvation.
Whoever seriously undertakes the daily practice of meditation will soon discover great difficulties. Meditation and prayer must be practiced earnestly and for a long time. So the first rule is not to become impatient with yourself. Do not become confused and upset because of your distractedness. Just sit down again every day and wait very patiently. If your thoughts keep wandering, there is no need for you to hold on to them compulsively. There is nothing wrong with letting them roam where they will; but then incorporate in your prayers the place or person to which they have gone. So you will find your way back to your text, and the minutes spent in such diversions will not be lost and will no longer be any cause for worry.
There are many helps for special difficulties that each one may use. Read the same passage again and again, write down your thoughts, learn the verse by heart (indeed, you will memorize any text that has been thoroughly meditated upon). But in all this we soon learn to recognize the danger of fleeing once again from meditation to Bible scholarship or the like. Behind all our uncertainties and needs stands our great need to pray.
We dare not allow ourselves to cease from this daily engagement with the Scripture, and we must begin it right away if it is not now our practice. For in doing so we have eternal life.”