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!

Holy vs. Unholy Agreements

In moments of heartache, we humans are prone to make poor decisions by entering into unholy agreements. Jesus teaches us that the devil is the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). He does not abide in truth, and strives to keep us from doing so. In times of trauma he sows many lies, hoping that even a few will sprout. They often do.

That is why Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, urges us to be discerning about when and how we make decisions in life. Entering into an agreement is serious business, and should only be done under favorable circumstances.

In my last post I described my need to unlearn what I had learned in order to be more receptive to the love of God and others. I am convinced that all of us have much “unlearning” to do as we seek to abide in love and truth.

We learn many lessons in our life. Not all of them are good or true or beautiful. Some of them are lies about ourselves or God, unholy agreements that get ratified and renewed as we proceed through life’s more overwhelming moments.

By “agreement” I mean that we somehow give our consent to a false core belief or an ungodly vow that gets presented to us amidst a difficult situation in life. For example, if a child or a spouse is repeatedly called “stupid” or “fat” or “ugly” or “bad,” all too often she internalizes that identity; she begins believing at her core that it is actually true. Later in life, when others tell her she’s good or beautiful or a blessing, she doesn’t believe it! They’re just saying that because they don’t really know her. Many of you know all too well how difficult it can be to break out of these identity lies – even with all the divine helps at our disposal.

I have made unholy agreements in my life. Part of me really believed lies of shame – that something was wrong with me, that I was not lovable for who I was, that I could only be loved if I achieved or performed well enough, and so forth. Part of me believed lies of abandonment – that no one would ever really understand me, that others could not be trusted and would ultimately let me down or leave me alone to face the most difficult moments of life.

I have also entered into agreements in the form of unholy vows. Around the age of 11, I vowed that I would never be like my stepfather. True, my desire not to imitate his abusive behaviors was praiseworthy. But making that vow wounded me deeply. It distanced me not merely from my stepfather, but from my heavenly Father and from my own healthy masculinity. I began striving to perform and be strong on my own, rather than abiding in the Father’s love. I have since called on Jesus to deliver me from that vow and have received much healing and peace. I find myself more and more free to relate to God as a loving Father and to be his beloved son.

In my last post, I mentioned another inner vow, one of self-protection. Even as an infant I began believing that it was better to face life independently, figuring it out myself rather than crying out unheard. We are made by God to be interdependent, receiving and giving love in a community of faith. The unholy agreement that I made so long ago (and renewed often enough when I felt like others had let me down) has restricted my freedom to receive love. The end result has been a fruitless attempt to live against the full truth of my human nature. We are made by God for  communion and  vulnerable receptivity. Instead, there I was, striving to be in control and independent. It would never work in any lasting way. Thankfully God has been leading me in a new and better direction.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises (nn. 175-177), describes three moments in which we can rightly enter into holy agreements. The first is when God attracts our will in an almost irresistible way. Think of Jesus calling the apostles, and the way they left their nets behind and followed him. When God inflames our holy desire in that way, we have no doubt of his goodness and truth and beauty, and say “yes” quite eagerly and easily.

Secondly, there is the experience of “consolation” and “desolation,” and the discernment that follows. This was how Ignatius discovered his own conversion and his new calling. Once a vain and proud man, this wounded soldier spent months in a hospital with only a Bible and lives of the Saints to read. Even though he found these stories to be dry and dull (unlike the spirited tales of knightly escapades that he was hoping to read), they left a deep and lasting impact. He began to notice a difference. Even though the fantasy thinking of his knightly tales would get him excited in the short term, it left him empty and distracted and distressed. By contrast, the Scriptures and the lives of the Saints would inflame holy desires in his heart that would abide for long periods of time. They continued bearing fruit days afterward. This growing awareness of a difference led Ignatius to accept the fruitfulness of his new calling and to reject the empty and fruitless fantasy of his old ways.

Thirdly, there is the use of our natural faculties of reason and deliberation to make the best decision possible – but only in a time of inner quiet. Ignatius repeats, “I said time of quiet, when the soul is not acted on by various spirits, and uses its natural powers freely and tranquilly.”

Notice the contrast with false core beliefs and unholy agreements, with which the devil is so eager to ensnare us! In times of trauma and heartbreak, he enters in, preying upon our fear and confusion, our sadness and loneliness, our powerlesness and hopelessness. He tempts us to give our consent and enter into an unholy agreement with his lies.

May we, like Ignatius, be set free from all unholy agreements that impede us. May we discern and embrace the full truth of our calling in Christ, and say “yes” freely and wholeheartedly.