The General Examen Prayer

In my last post I described the importance of discernment of spirits. The more we notice what is going on in our heart, the more quickly and effectively we can recognize the difference between the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the wiles of evil spirits, and the steady background noise of our own needs and wants.

We can talk all we want about discernment; the only way to become proficient is to engage in it on a regular basis. We may struggle at first, but consistent prayer will yield results, just like daily practice with a sport or a musical instrument.

We’ve already discussed Lectio Divina, which engages our hearts at a profound level. Prayed consistently and well, it will definitely deepen our discernment.

Today we discuss another highly effective prayer method: the Examen prayer taught by Ignatius of Loyola to his companions and his retreatants.

Examen means “examination” – in this case, an examination of our heart. Here we are not so much thinking up a laundry list of sins that need cleansing. That can lead to a spin-cycle of shame that keeps us stuck in our sins. Rather, it is an exercise of the sober-minded watchfulness we discussed last time.

There are two different approaches to the Examen prayer: general and particular. One involves an overall awareness and noticing of what is happening in our heart. The other allows a specific, in-depth focus on one specific area. Today’s post focuses on how to make a general Examen, with the next post describing how to make a particular one.

[BORING NOTE: In case you are a curious reader inclined to cautious self-study, please note that the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are not meant to be read from cover to cover, like another book. They are, rather, a list of exercises that are meant to be, well, exercised. This best occurs in a serious retreat, under the ongoing guidance of a spiritual mentor, especially if one is undertaking all of the exercises. Today we are simply selecting one of those exercises, the General Examen, as an exercise that easily adapts itself to everyday Christian life].

Ignatius of Loyola identifies five basic steps for making a General Examen: (1) Thanksgiving; (2) Prayer for Light; (3) Examination of the day; (4) Examination of my response; (5) Hopeful resolve. Let us consider them one by one.

1) Recollection and Thanksgiving. Ignatius is a wise spiritual master. He understands how most of us may be disturbed or distracted. The first step is to allow our heart to be expanded in gratitude. Thanksgiving puts us in God’s presence and allows us to step into our watchtower. There we can calmly notice and discern. Nothing is so soothing or calming as a spirit of thanksgiving. We will notice everything in much greater detail if we are in a place of gratitude.

2) Prayer for Light. We should never try to fix ourselves. As Jeremiah says, “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:9-10).  Any examination of ourselves should always be a Spirit-led appreciation of the inner workings of our heart. We give God permission to show us our own heart.

3) Examination of the Day.  This is not so much trying to pile up a list of vices and virtues.  Rather, it involves a growing inner awareness of all the moods, feelings, thoughts, urges, and spiritual movements since our last prayer period.  We can ask ourselves, “What movements have most dominated my heart?”  We will always find one of three forces at work:

a) The Holy Spirit. He is always working within us, planting holy desires, calling us courageously or inviting us gently into deeper levels of holiness.

b) Our own spirit. So many of the movements in our own heart are simply our own human responses to the experiences of daily life.  We all have emotional and spiritual needs, in addition to more selfish wants. We should be especially attentive to negative feelings and to fantasy thinking – those thought patterns that urge us to escape the present moment. We need not judge – just notice. They happened. They were part of our story today. They need an intentional response. Sometimes they are a helpful reminder to pay closer attention to our emotional and spiritual needs. By contrast, if allowed to run wild, our fantasy thoughts will instead become windows for the devil to enter in, enticing us in the wrong direction. That is the beauty of the general examination. As we become more sober and aware, we simultaneously grow in our freedom. We begin to respond proactively to difficult situations – rather than reacting mindlessly.

c) The devil. He tempts us, often quite subtly. We all have wounds and negative emotions. In and of themselves, these are normal – Jesus had them as well, only without sin. These painful places of our heart can become breaches in the garden wall, through which the devil enters as he tries to sow lies about us or about God. He did no differently with Adam and Eve (successfully) or with Jesus in the desert (unsuccessfully).  The devil will bully us in the midst of our wounds, attacking us where we are weakest, predictably and relentlessly. If we resist firmly, he will flee. If we allow God and others to repair the breaches in our defenses, and if we bring our struggles to the light, he loses any power over us.

This “examination” step of the Examen may seem difficult at first, but it gets easier with practice. As Jesus says, “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). We start to recognize the rotten fruits of the devil: discouragement, paralyzing fear, resentment, self-pity, rivalry, factions, self-indulgence, peevishness, etc. We start to recognize the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22). And we become much more aware of ourselves along the way, gaining insight and freedom over our patterns of behavior.

4) Examination of my response. Only after fully appreciating all our interior movements of the day do we move to the next question: “How have I responded?”  When the Holy Spirit has invited me to take the more difficult path, have I done it?  When the evil one has used my daily experiences to lead me away from the Holy Spirit’s path, have I given in? We praise God for any positive response and spiritual growth we have had, and ask Him for grace to help us continue. We express sorrow and contrition for our hesitancy or refusal to respond to God’s invitation, or for the times we gave in to temptation.

5) Hopeful Resolve.  Our reflection and examination should give us a good idea of what challenges today and tomorrow will bring.  Here we invite the Lord to walk with us during the coming hours, and renew our confidence in His ability to win the victory in these daily struggles. We visualize how we can and will overcome – for He is with us to deliver us.

With practice, all 5 steps can be done in 10 minutes – probably even in 5 minutes. It can be done anytime, but evening is an especially good time. During those final hours of the day, many of us tend to be tired or fatigued and are looking for mindless escapes. What a difference to turn first to gratitude in God’s presence as we stay sober and watchful. From there we will much more fruitfully rest and recreate.

Again, consistency is the key. If we are daily and habitually engaging in these five steps – even better if we are talking about them with a trusted spiritual mentor or friend – we will definitely notice over time that we are much more attuned to what is going on in our heart. We will be much more equipped to say “yes” to God and “no” to the evil one, with ever fuller freedom.

Sober and Watchful

“Be sober; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8).

The apostle Peter calls us to a sober-minded watchfulness. Far from fear-mongering, he is calling us to a calm and confident vigilance with Christ and with each other. He is calling us to be awake, to be aware, and to abide in the present moment. When we do so, we grow into a very special spiritual gift: the gift of discernment.

Discernment yields a threefold benefit: 1) It unmasks the subtle lies of the devil; 2) it increases our self-awareness and maturity; 3) it tunes us in to the still small voice of God. Recall John’s words: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). At any given moment, in the depths of our heart, there are many movements. Some are from the Holy Spirit, some from the evil one, and some representing our own needs and wants. The wise and discerning person is able to see with ever greater watchfulness and clarity.

Discernment is a marvelous gift from God. Like many of his gifts, it needs to be cultivated and nurtured through consistent effort. It is not at all like riding a bicycle. It is more like playing the piano or speaking a foreign language. Most of us will need to apply ourselves diligently before seeing significant progress – but it’s worth it in the end. Yes, there are varying degrees of natural giftedness (or in this case, supernatural giftedness). But the gift only flourishes when practiced regularly. It stalls or stumbles when we become inconsistent.

As the passage from Peter indicates, discernment begins with sobriety and watchfulness. It is worth taking a peek at the Greek here. So much gets lost in translation. Peter issues a twofold command: “Be sober” (nēpsate) and “be watchful” (grēgorēsate). We should notice that he uses the second person plural (“Ye” or “Y’all” or “Yous guys” – depending on where you live). Sobriety and watchfulness and discernment of spirits cannot be exercised in isolation. We do so in a faith community, abiding in love and truth with other members of the Body of Christ. The devil’s oldest tactic is to divide and conquer. We are so much more susceptible to his lies and distortions when he gets us isolated. By contrast, when we surround ourselves with wise people who are deeply attuned to our heart, who truly care for our well-being, and who speak the unvarnished truth with love, then we will find ourselves making much more progress in the ways of discernment.

“Be sober” means much more than avoiding drunkenness. The Greek suggests self-denial and fasting, moderating the pleasures of our five senses. So, yes, “be sober” includes choosing against addictive behaviors such as drunkenness, gluttony, narcotics, fornication, pornography, or masturbation. But why? Because they pull us out of the present moment, stealing away our freedom to give and receive love. They are drugs of choice to numb our pain. They leave us fragmented and empty. They are the opposite of watchful discernment. Our “no” to over-indulgence and self-gratification must be combined with a “yes” to the present moment – choosing to be truly present to God and others and self.

Notice that Peter pairs the word nēpsate (“be sober,” “fast,” “deny yourself”) with grēgorēsate (“be watchful”). The Greek here suggests staying awake, keeping vigil, being like a night watchman. A true watchman notices everything and discerns carefully. Some sights and sounds are attention-getting, but insignificant. A skilled watchman knows not to be distracted by them. He calmly ignores them, gently refocusing on what truly matters. Conversely, he is attuned even to the slightest change of environment. No detail is too small if it is new or out of place. The more intimately familiar he is with his environment, the more skilled he is in his watchfulness and appropriate responsiveness. He is also no fool in trying to confront certain evils alone. He knows when to consult a companion for advice, when to call for help, and when to sound the alarm.

So there are three basic steps here: 1) Watch; 2) Discern; 3) Respond. Habitually doing those three things in the present moment (aided by God and others) will yield profound growth and fruitfulness in our spiritual lives. It’s so simple. Why do so few of us do it?

I suppose one of the main reasons is that watchfulness involves much self-denial and discipline. The classic Christian understanding of nēpsate and grēgorēsate is to engage in fasting and prayer vigils. Early Christians, particularly monks and religious, did so for centuries. Although it is not advisable to fast or pray in a way that harms our health or hastens our mortality, nonetheless most of us these days err in the opposite extreme of over-indulgence. Our “no” muscles could use more frequent exercising as we gain freedom from the things that enslave us.

A second obstacle is trying to do it ourselves. We resist being vulnerable to others, sharing our struggles and asking for help. It is easy to deceive ourselves with our own willfulness and ego. It is easy to pretend to be religious, all the while serving ourselves. That is why it is so important to open our discerning hearts to a third-party perspective – perhaps a trusted spiritual mentor, perhaps Church leadership, certainly the whole of Sacred Scripture and the collective wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian Tradition.

As we enter into the depths of our heart with greater watchfulness, we can begin discerning which spirits are moving there. Jesus offers a simple litmus test:  “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). St. Paul lists several rotten fruits (Gal 5:19-21): self-indulgence, sensuality, lust, factions, rivalries, division, anger, hatred, jealousy, etc.  We can add other rotten fruits: obstinacy, rebelliousness, paralyzing fear, discouragement, and despair. The Holy Spirit will never prompt us to these attitudes and behaviors. If we experience them, it is a sure sign that we are not being led by the Holy Spirit and that we need to turn to God and ask for grace and conversion. By contrast, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. If we experience those positive attitudes in the depth of our heart it is a sure sign we are being led by the Spirit.

Finally comes our response. If we discern the work of the evil one, Peter urges us to resist him with faith. If we resist him firmly and directly, he will flee (James 4:7). By contrast, if we discern the Holy Spirit leading us, we respond with docility. He will act. We need only abide and cooperate freely.

How can we grow in this great gift of watchful discernment? In addition to daily Lectio Divina, there are a couple of other prayer methods that help immensely. I look forward to sharing those in the weeks ahead.

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…

Lectio Divina Part II: Meditation

We continue our consideration of how to engage effectively in Lectio Divina, including its four chief components: (1) Reading, (2) Meditation, (3) Prayer, and (4) Contemplation.

Last time we considered component #1: purposeful reading as the fuel that consistently feeds the flame of prayer in our heart. Today we turn our attention to meditation.

In our contemporary world, “meditation” has many connotations, not all of them helpful for launching into Lectio Divina.

For instance, many gurus today (even Christian ones) urge us to “clear our mind” and utterly empty our imagination in order to meditate. I cannot help but think of the hilarious scene in Ghostbusters in which Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) urges his companions, “Okay, empty your heads!” – and Ray (Dan Akroyd) can’t help himself. The Stay Puft Marshmallow just pops in there. It is normal and human to have an active imagination, and God will work with that.

The gurus have a good point, though. The finger that points at the moon is not the moon. God is radically beyond our ideas and images of God. They are but shadows of his infinity. Nevertheless, He chooses to use finite images and concepts to feed us – especially at the beginning of our journey of prayer. Did he not send his own Son in the flesh, as the visible image of the invisible God? He wants to appeal to our five senses, our memory, our intellect, our will, and our imagination. As we actively engage these God-given faculties, they become more and more purified in his presence.

I have encountered misguided methods of “centering prayer” that urge the vacating of our minds. Sometimes they appeal to John of the Cross and other great mystics of our Christian tradition. I truly love John of the Cross, and his message is clear: keep on meditating on something as long as it feeds you. Yes, God will eventually “empty your head” for you – but until he does, keep meditating.

Saint Paul explains to the Corinthians that we feed on milk when we are babies, and gradually grow into the nourishment offered by solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). Over time, God leads his holy ones beyond ideas and images into his own inner life. That process can involve a purifying darkness, described by John of the Cross as the “dark night of the soul.” One by one, God kicks away the props we are leaning upon and teaches us to trust in Him alone. That emptying of our mind and heart will come in time – step by step – and only as we are ready. In the meantime, most of us need to meditate on something, fully engaging the mind, heart, and will that God gave us.

There is also a deeper danger of emptying our minds, namely, a lack of discernment of spirits. We read in the First Letter of John: “Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God” (1 John 4:1). Unfortunately, not all spirits are benevolent spirits. Some of them serve us, but others have rebelled and are actively seeking our ruin. The devil and his minions are cunning, baffling, and powerful. Jesus warns us about leaving our house empty and undefended against malicious spirits (Luke 11:24-26). Eventually, people of prayer learn the gift of discernment and can quickly recognize (and fight) the deceptions of the evil one. In the meantime, a Christ-centered meditation is the safest path for beginners.

We can express similar cautions regarding the practice of mantras, another well-intentioned and sometimes misguided method of meditation. The idea of using a mantra is to help soothe or calm our mind, allowing us to enter a meditative state – i.e., to get into our watchtower. In principle, it’s a marvelous idea. In practice, it can become esoteric, New Agey, or even idolatrous if the mantra invites us to invoke the name of a pagan deity or demon.

By contrast, the classic Christian way to soothe or relax our mind through repetition is to keep repeating a verse of Scripture, a short prayer, or the name of Jesus. Actually, that is exactly the idea behind the Rosary in the West and the Jesus Prayer in the East. Both center on Jesus by repeatedly uttering his holy name. Both can be wonderful ways of calming and soothing us, opening us to God’s presence and activity.

The model of meditation in Scripture itself is found in the Virgin Mary. Twice Saint Luke tells us that she treasured God’s activity in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). We can do the same, in any number of ways.

First there is the classic means, exercised by so many of the medieval monks. They ruminated. Not having a personal Bible of their own, they fastened in on one verse heard orally and proceeded to ponder it for days on end. Imagine a cow chewing its cud, savoring it. If we find a Scripture verse that truly speaks to our heart, we can keep mulling over it: verbally, mentally, or in our imagination – whatever works for us.

Ignatius of Loyola encourages the use of our imagination in prayer, suggesting that we put ourselves into the scene we are pondering. For years I told people that this means of meditation didn’t work for me. I was mistaken.  More recently, I have found enormous healing of imagination through Lectio Divina. Remember that “imagination” refers not just to visual pictures but to all five of our senses and to our creative capacity in general. Sooner or later, those capacities need to be consecrated entirely to God. Healthy meditation can help accomplish that.

As we meditate, God may speak to us in any variety of ways: images, words, thoughts, emotions, or desires.  I have definitely found him to be full of surprises! In time, we will recognize when our heart has been stirred, and will allow ourselves to enter into a heart-to-heart encounter with the living God. We’ll pick up with that point next time!

Lectio Divina Part I: Reading

In my last post, I introduced Lectio Divina as an age-old Christian method of meditation and prayer. Classically, authors distinguish between four dimensions of the experience: (1) Reading, (2) Meditation, (3) Prayer, and (4) Contemplation.

I first began practicing Lectio Divina about twenty-five years ago. If you are as I was, you may be worried about “getting it right.” I can think of many moments of anxiety on retreat or in my personal prayer life. My wounds were causing me to have a distorted view of God and of prayer. I have since learned to be calmer and have confidence that God will lead me on a good path, so long as I keep surrendering. There are many “right” ways of engaging in Christian reading and meditation. To be sure, it helps to learn from the spiritual greats who have gone before us – but with flexibility and trust rather than rigidity and fear.

Perhaps a helpful analogy here is a baseball player aspiring to become a great pitcher. Consider the rich variety of pitching styles that are out there. Each player needs to learn what works for him personally. There are many possible variations of how he might execute his windup, his arm motion, his delivery, his stride, and his follow through. A good coach will identify certain bad habits to be broken, but will resist the temptation to over-analyze or micromanage. At first, there are many mechanics to be mastered. Things may feel awkward for a while. If the pitcher freezes or fixates too much on any one step, he will struggle. In time, with plenty of practice, it becomes a single fluid process; it becomes “second nature.”

Lectio Divina likewise eventually becomes “second nature,” or more accurately, “supernatural.” It is impossible without divine assistance, yet ultimately leads us to become more truly human, and more fully ourselves. If we persevere in consistent prayer, it will come to feel as fluid and natural as an athlete playing catch.

For that reason, I have deliberately avoided using the word “steps.” Yes, there are four dimensions of Lectio Divina, but they often happen simultaneously, and they happen best when we keep our focus on Jesus.

Without further ado, let’s consider dimension #1: Lectio (“Reading”).

As the very name suggests, Lectio Divina is fueled by reading. Most commonly, this includes reading a well-chosen Scripture passage. Starting with Gospel stories is probably the easiest and most effective way to begin.

Our reading is best done slowly and prayerfully, noticing the Word of God, noticing especially how it speaks to our own heart. If we find a word or passage or image or thought that deeply consoles us or deeply troubles us, it is a good time to pause and ponder and meditate. It is important to resist the temptation to rush ahead, to bury ourselves in reading, or to plow through as much text as we can. Instead of pushing ahead or pushing through, we will need to learn to be still and silent, to savor God’s presence and activity.

Alternative approaches: Not everyone finds it easy to launch into Lectio Divina. More often than not, the reason for our struggles has to do with a lack of consistency or a lack of silence (see my last post!). If we are winning those battles and still struggling, then we may need a bit more trial and error until we figure out what works.

There are many “right” ways of praying and meditating, and it is worth considering some alternatives: different books of the Bible, perhaps even other inspirational writings such as a well-written life of a Saint or an devotional book that really resonates with our heart. In the end it is the good fruit that matters, and we can tell what is working well and what is not – especially if we are not just judging for ourselves, but are sharing our discipleship with friends or with a trusted spiritual guide. In considering whether your reading is working, think upon the image of fuel steadily feeding the flame of our prayer life. If the fire keeps burning (and others attest to that fact), we know that the fuel is good.

Regarding the timing of our reading, there can also be a healthy variety. I know people of prayer who read the night before and allow themselves to sleep on it. I know others who read early in the morning over coffee and then pray at a later time. I know still others who spend ten minutes reading and then enter meditation and prayer shortly afterward. Finally, I know people who alternate back and forth between reading and meditating throughout their period of prayer. In fact, I have personally tried all of the above at different seasons of my life. The main point is to draw spiritual nourishment from what we are reading.

We should also realize that “reading” need not mean picking up a book and looking at the written word. Ponder this: Many of the Christians who practiced Lectio Divina over the centuries were not even literate! Prior to the printing press, books were rare and expensive – especially Bibles. Even in the monasteries among monks who could read and write, their precious manuscripts had to be shared, and with the utmost care. Typically, one monk would read in the refectory as the others attentively listened. Whatever words or verses stuck in their heart were the ones they meditated on later, during their designated time for Lectio Divina.

Outside of monasteries, literacy was even less common. But the stories of Scripture were passed on in song, poetry, storytelling, architecture, paintings, stained glass windows, or statues. Those media fueled the prayer of Christians for centuries. If any of them speak deeply to our hearts today, why not utilize them? I know several Christians who struggle to pray with a written text, but flourish with a visual image, a guided meditation, or even an inspiring podcast. We need to find what works well for us personally. If our mind is meditating and our prayer is bearing good fruit, we know we are on the right track.

Returning to our analogy of a baseball pitcher, there are several styles of “reading” that can be effective. You may need try a few of them until you figure out what works consistently well for you. Returning to our image of fuel and fire, I encourage you to ask yourself: What fuels your heart? If your spiritual reading is indeed working, it will consistently be the fuel that helps your heart to be set ablaze in the presence of the living God.

Next time we’ll consider dimension #2: Meditation.