Lectio Divina Part IV: Contemplation

Read and meditate; pray and contemplate. “Contemplation” is the fourth and final component of Lectio Divina. It is the passive and receptive dimension, and the ultimate good fruit that emerges, as God takes over and does what he wills. He is the one who knows our hearts so much more intimately than we do. He knows our joys and delights, our sorrows and struggles. He tunes in to our wants and needs, and to our deepest desires. He is the one who placed those needs and desires there in the first place!

Contemplation is the highest human experience. It is our ultimate destiny and the deepest perfection our humanity can attain. Aristotle understood this. Even without the benefit of divine revelation, he explained that we humans will either sink down to the level of the beasts, mired in selfish and vicious habits, or we will rise up to the level of the gods, contemplating the fullness of truth.

Aristotle understood that being is prior to doing. This truth is a challenging one for our pragmatic American culture, with its Puritan roots. We tend to see value in achieving or accomplishing far more than abiding or receiving or contemplating. We forget that the most precious blessings in life, by their very nature, are “useless.” Whether listening to our favorite music or enjoying a sunset or spending time with the ones we love, we do not engage in the highest human activities because they are “useful” for obtaining something else. Rather, all that is good or true or beautiful is worth delighting in for its own sake!

As Christians, we can take it a step further. Our ultimate destiny is the Beatific Vision. We will see God face to face and live. Not only that, the experience we will transform us into him. Nor is this simply an individual experience, for God is love. He is a communion of persons and invites us to abide forever together in that eternal love and truth. The one Body of Christ will be perfected in glory. We will fully share in his humanity and his divinity, as every tear is wiped away.

You can sense the awe and the eagerness in the Beloved Disciple’s heart as he explains not only how blessed we are in the present – as beloved children of God – but also how truly blessed will be our final destiny in the eternal contemplation of God: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are … Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-2).

If we wish to appreciate “contemplation,” then, we may need to renounce some of the lies of our culture.

The first lie, already exposed, is exalting doing over being. Our dignity as a human person comes not from what we do, but from who we are. We are beloved children of God and already share in a communion with him. As we grow in prayer, contemplation allows us just to “be” with God, to abide in his presence, and to receive from him whatever he wills to give us. We may or may not understand what he is up to. We don’t need to – any more than a little child needs to understand the delight and nurture and care and protection that his parents are providing. We just need to be receptive and open.

The biggest lie, indeed the original lie to our human race, is that we can “create” the experience, seizing and grasping rather than depending and receiving. The devil enticed Eve, “You will be like gods…” (Genesis 3:5). With this fruit, you can rely on yourself. You can be strong enough not to need God.

Not needing God. It is perhaps the greatest spiritual sickness today. More and more, humans in the affluent nations of the world try to live as though God didn’t exist, as though we can sustain ourselves by our own efforts. And somehow we are stunned at the results. Year by year, month by month, we witness the unraveling, the disintegration, the chaos, the hatred, the confusion, the descent into darkness. The isolation and despair of hell have become daily news. It need not be so.

Herein lies the greatest difference between Lectio Divina and some of the alternative versions of “meditation” that are out there today. It is the difference between the golden calf and the living God. Are we creating the object of our own worship, like those impatient Israelites growing restless in the desert? Or are we learning to abide, to wait upon the Lord, and to receive, like Moses on the mountain or Elijah in the cave?

Yes, we are called to do our part, eagerly and actively, carving out space for the Lord to do his work. We can cut the wood, split the wood, and arrange the wood – but God alone provides the fire. We can plug in the radio, turn it on and tune it in – but God alone decides when and what and how to broadcast. Receiving is so much different than taking or seizing, grasping or manipulating, dominating or controlling.

Over time, for God’s saints, prayer tends to become more and more passive and receptive – much like a truly happy marriage. Couples married 60 or 70 years need not say much or do much to cherish each other. Their presence is enough. Married love is but a sign and symbol. Jesus teaches that no one will be married in heaven (Matthew 22:30). The eternal communion of heavenly love will be infinitely greater. Our contemplative prayer is the next closest thing here on earth. If we are faithful in our daily prayer, we will come to experience that heavenly reality more and more, and even now experience the eternal love of God.

Lectio Divina Part III: Prayer

We continue our exploration of Lectio Divina, the classic Christian method of meditative prayer. By now, you recall the four chief components: 1) Reading, 2) Meditation, 3) Prayer, and 4) Contemplation.

The whole point of reading and meditating is to allow prayer and contemplation to well up within our heart. Our disciplined commitment will begin to pay off. God will beckon us beneath the surface, where most of us prefer to spend our time. If we allow it, he will plunge us into the deep places of our heart, and the real praying can begin.

Scripture uses the word “heart” hundreds of times. So do the Saints. Authentic prayer is always prayer of the heart. The heart is where we encounter the living God.

Isn’t it interesting how a bodily organ becomes so symbolic? Our “heart” represents the seat of all our relationships, the core of our being, and the inner sanctuary in which our truest self is found. Literary experts might refer to this usage of “heart” as metonymy, but it also somehow resonates with our everyday experience! We feel our heart racing when we are attracted or aroused. We feel our heart ache when we are spurned or rejected. We feel our heart go numb when we are ignored or abandoned. We know what it feels like to “open our heart” or to “harden our heart.” We know what it feels like when others do the same to us.

Sometimes people think of “head” and “heart” as opposites. Not so. Scripture speaks of “thoughts of the heart” just as much as it does of rejoicing or groaning or sighing. In the biblical sense, “the heart” integrates all that is core to our humanity: thinking, feeling, imagining, remembering, desiring, hoping, and willing. Our fallen world and fallen human condition keep tempting us to be fragmented and compartmentalized. Our heart is where the integration is meant to happen.

The head and heart need not be opposed, any more than “the gut” and the heart are opposed. Both Scripture and our everyday experiences speak of our guts as the locus of our strongest emotions. We have a “visceral reaction” or a “gut feeling.” We feel emotions intensely there – but do not always know how to handle them.

I know, I know, you scientists in the group will tells us that it is the human brain that generates our emotions and sensations as well as our thoughts. But tell that to a man with a toothache or an ingrown toenail! For everyday purposes, we can definitely understand “the heart” as the core of our being, the seat of our relationships, and the inner sanctuary in which we encounter the living God. It is there that authentic prayer happens.

In that sense, yes, one extreme is to be overly cerebral in our meditation – to stay at the level of thinking only, and never allow our heart to be touched or moved. I have known many Christians who feel comfortable having ideas about God and faith – perhaps even talking about God and faith – but they struggle to describe any actual encounter or conversation or relationship with him. In some cases, a real relationship is there, and shows its good fruit in their lives; they just struggle with self-awareness. In other cases, there are adamantine walls around the heart, protecting the dark or painful places that we long ago compartmentalized in a spirit of self-protection.

At the opposite extreme, we find sentimentality. We can prefer to live in the realm of emotions only, and avoid any seriousness in our relationships. Prayer is not predominantly about good feelings any more than it is about lofty thoughts. Yes, it is common to have our emotions inflamed when we begin to pray in a serious way. We are falling in love with God. But  genuine prayer is not about having a feel-good experience. Eventually we will need to learn to love God more than good feelings about God.

In the end, being overly cerebral or overly sentimental are just two different ways of avoiding encounter and walling ourselves off from meaningful relationships. Avoiding and numbing are so much easier than entering into full communion with God and others. When we learn authentic Christian prayer, we begin to put out into the deep waters – yielding our control and following where the adventure may lead us.

Returning to Lectio Divina, “Prayer” (the third component) translates the Latin word Oratio. Those of you who speak Spanish are familiar with the difference between orar and rezar. Both are translated “to pray.” But rezar has more a sense of reciting prayers, whereas orar describes a heart-to-heart conversation with God. The two are not opposed; we can do them both at the same time. Remember that Jesus taught us to recite the Our Father, and intended us to engage our heart when we do so, truly entrusting and surrendering ourselves to God as a loving Father.

Oratio, the third component of Lectio Divina is the point at which our heart begins encountering God and spending time with him. The experience can vary. It can involve feeling, thinking, imagining, remembering, desiring, delighting, rejoicing, speaking, listening, sighing, weeping, repenting,  firmly resolving, and so much more. Oratio begins happening quite spontaneously, like wood catching fire. We need not and should not strain to make it happen – any more than we strain ourselves in our spontaneous love for spouse or children or friends. As in those relationships, when we have a moment of intimacy, we hopefully learn to drop the other things we are doing and let the moment happen. As in those relationships, more moments happen if we bring a listening ear, an open heart, an attentive posture, and plenty of quality time spent together.

When we find our heart touched in prayer, it is so important not to move on too quickly! One touch of the heart can sustain our prayer for days or even months. When God opens up these heavenly streams in our heart, it becomes a wellspring that we can keep going back to. Ignatius of Loyola offers the image of a sponge slowly soaking up every drop of God’s love. If there is a particular verse of Scripture, image, thought, memory, or impulse that captivates us, we can keep returning to it when we notice our mind or heart wandering. As long as it keeps consoling us, it is working. We will have a sense of when to move on.

As we meditate and pray, we can learn to avoid rigidity (“I have to do it in exactly this way…”) as well as avoiding laziness or complacency. Discipline pays off, but only if we allow our heart to be open – and often to be surprised. God is full of surprises. Indeed, sometimes the biggest graces are given at other times of the day, when we are least looking for God. In that case, be flexible! Allow the moment with him to happen, and then return to that moment of grace the next day, allowing it to become the new content of your meditation and prayer. The more and the better we pray, the more we notice what God is doing. The more we savor what he is doing and respond lovingly, the more and the better we will pray. It becomes a virtuous cycle that leads us deeper into the heart of the living God.

To Be Concluded…