To love God is something greater than to know Him.Thomas Aquinas
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: Silence, Solitude, and Prayer. In our third week, we looked at praying with Scripture using a form of lectio divina: How to Pray with Scripture.
In our fourth week, we looked at how prayer leads us on a journey from the head to the heart. Here is a version of the handout that I shared.
Prayer calls us to a journey, the journey from the head to the heart. This is the journey from believing in God to trusting in God. It is the journey from knowing God to loving God. Thomas Merton wrote that “Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.” This is the journey of prayer.
But how do we make this journey? How do we journey to the heart with God? In this class, we have been exploring together some of the ways to do this: Through daily prayer with the psalms. Through silence with God. Through the practice of lectio divina, prayerfully pondering God’s Word to us in Scripture. But we can also learn from those who have gone before us, the “great cloud of witnesses.” They can guide us on our way.
I remember, for example, being transformed by St. Augustine’s simple, life-changing statement at the beginning of his Confessions that “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” There was a time when my restless heart needed those words! St. Augustine helped me to realize that I would not find rest in this life until I rested in the grace and mercy of our loving God.
I also remember taking another step on this journey when I first read these Spirit-filled words from the Quaker author, Thomas Kelly, in his “A Testament of Devotion.”
“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life.”
Words like these can open our hearts to God in new ways. Scripture does this like nothing else, and so its word will always be the most important on this journey. But words from St. Augustine, Thomas Kelly, and others can help us too. And so, in this session I want to explore with you the practice of “spiritual reading” beyond lectio divina, and share a sample of some passages to read in this way.
“Spiritual reading” is not easy for most of us, for a very simple reason: We have not been taught to read in this way. We have been taught to read for information, not transformation. We have been taught to read with the mind, not the heart.
The Christian writer Macrina Wiederkehr points out that “We do not always realize what a radical suggestion it is for us to read to be formed and transformed rather than to gather information. We are information seekers. We love to cover territory.”
So, how do we read in this way, and listen “with the ear of our heart”? The first reminder has to do with the attitude we bring to reading in this way. Marjorie J. Thompson explains it in this way:
“What makes our reading spiritual has as much to do with the intention, attitude, and manner we bring to the words as it does with the nature and content of those words. Spiritual reading is reflective and prayerful. It is concerned not with speed or volume but with depth and receptivity. That is because the purpose of spiritual reading is to open ourselves to how God may be speaking to us in and through any particular text.” (Soul Feast, p. 30 and p. 20)
Henri Nouwen writes something similar: “The issue is not just what we read, but how we read it. Spiritual reading is reading with inner attentiveness to the movement of God’s Spirit in our outer and inner lives.” (Here and Now, pp.70-72)
Macrina Wiederkehr offers these guidelines: “Read with a vulnerable heart. Expect to be blessed in the reading. Read as one awake, one waiting for the beloved. Read with reverence.”
Thomas Merton offers some practical wisdom on spiritual reading, and specifically on what to do when a particular passage speaks to us. Thomas Merton:
“When you find some paragraph or sentence that interests you, stop reading and turn it over in your mind and absorb it and contemplate it and rest in the general, serene, effortless consideration of the thought, not in its details but as a whole, as something held and savored in its entirety: and so pass from this to rest in the quiet expectancy of God. If you find yourself getting distracted, go back to the book, to the same sentence or to another.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 242)
But what should we read in this way? There are many possibilities. Our primary source, again, is scripture. But devotional classics can also help us on our way, and deepen our encounter with Scripture. There are also many contemporary books that can be read in this way. And finally, good religious poetry can be invaluable.
Spiritual reading in this way has been a rich blessing to me. When my prayer life gets a little dull, I pull out one of my favorite devotional books, or a book of poetry, and read a passage at the beginning of my devotional time, listening with the ear of my heart. There are countless books that can be read in this way. I shared a few of my favorites here: My Favorite Books for Spiritual Reading (Apart from the Bible).
Our fourth session ended with a “Group Lectio Divina” exercise using a poem by Jessica Powers (from this collection of poetry: Kenneth Christopher, editor, A Sampler of Devotional Poems). Here is her poem:
The Garments of God | Jessica Powers
God sits on a chair of darkness in my soul.
He is God alone, supreme in His majesty.
I sit at his feet, a child in the dark beside Him;
my joy is aware of His glance and my sorrow is tempted
to nest on the thought that His face is turned from me.
He is clothed in the robes of His mercy, voluminous garments
not velvet or silk and affable to the touch,
but fabric strong for a frantic hand to clutch,
and I hold to it fast with the fingers of my will.
Here is my cry of faith, my deep avowal
to the Divinity that I am dust.
Here is the loud profession of my trust.
I will not go abroad
to the hills of speech or the hinterlands of music
for a crier to walk in my soul where all is still.
I have this potent prayer through good or ill:
here in the dark I clutch the garments of God.