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Meditation has been having a moment, as they say. TIME recently released a special edition dedicated to mindfulness, which is about “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a mindfulness author and instructor. The issue details the many health benefits of meditation. Meditation, it seems, can drastically improve your health and wellbeing. For example, a study conducted at Carnegie Melon in 2014 found that three 25-minute meditation sessions can alleviate stress. Breathing exercises have also been shown to improve sleep and decrease anxiety.
While it’s unclear to me that there is anything about mindfulness meditation that is at odds with Christianity, I thought that it might be helpful to introduce another option: Christian meditation. Most people don’t know that Christian meditation exists when, in fact, it has existed for a very long time and Lectio Divina, a form of Christian meditation, was formalized in the 12th century.
The following introduction to Lectio Divina was written by my wonderful and accomplished mother, “Teresa.” She is a Carmelite (OCDS) and practices Lectio Divina.
In our times, we tend to associate meditation with various eastern techniques. However, Christianity has a long history of meditation, also called mental prayer. After all, Jesus often went off to pray by himself, to talk to the Father.
One method is Lectio Divina, literally Divine Reading, but that does not encompass its meaning. Lectio Divina is a form of prayer based principally on reading the Scriptures. It includes meditating, making personal the Scriptures and responding to them, and encountering God. This form of prayer uses our own mental powers in our search for God, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Personal prayer is a response to God’s love for us. Since God loves us, we can love Him, ourselves, and others in return. As St. John the Apostle states, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9).
St. Teresa of Jesus wrote in the 16th century: “Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves” (Life 8:5). God, through the scripture and through the teachings of the Church makes it clear that He desires a deep, intimate friendship with each one of us: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love… I have called you friends, for all I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 14: 9, 15). Through these words Jesus invites us into the very life of the Trinity. Prayer is our response to this invitation, to the love we believe God has for us.
Lectio Divina consists essentially in four parts: Lectio—slow and careful reading of Scripture in the Divine Presence; Meditatio—dwelling on the text for the sake of radical change in Christ; Oratio—responding to and making one’s own a small selection, phrase, or word in pursuit of greater faith, hope, and charity; Contemplatio—encountering the living God (Fr. Sam Anthony Morello, OCD).
We learn to pray in and through and with Christ to the Father. With Christ we enter the bosom of the Blessed Trinity and drink in the Spirit from the very source.
So how do you do it?
Choose a short passage of Scripture.
Choose a quiet place and a comfortable posture—sitting, kneeling, or standing.
Place yourself in the Presence of God. Through our baptism, God lives within us, the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts.
As well as being present within us, God is present in Scripture and He can speak to you through it. All Scripture is meant personally for you. Lectio Divina is about being open to how God wants to speak to you through His word. Read the Scriptural passage you have chosen, out loud if possible. Reading out loud involves more of one’s senses, so it can be more powerful. It is praying with the whole body.
When a thought, line, or word stands out or strikes you, stop and silently dwell on it. Carefully and slowly repeat it over and over to yourself. Do whatever helps most to engage you with the text. Keep in mind the intention, the desire to meet God through the text.
Enter into the text and try to identify with it, relate to it. Try to grasp the meaning, not just intellectually, but with your whole self: emotions, will, memory, and intellect. Don’t work too hard at this, simply keep listening to the words as you repeat them, letting them suggest their own images, reflections, intuitions. If distractions occur, gently bring yourself back to the text.
Ask God what He wants to say to you in the passage. Try to enter into the intimate sharing between friends that Teresa speaks about. The word of God moves over the lips to the mind, and now to the heart. Respond in your heart to the word of God. In order to hear what God wants to tell us, we have to be open to changing our lives. We have to desire to grow in our love for God and for others. God is always waiting for us with open arms. Without this openness to growth and change, we will always be holding Him at arm’s length, we do not allow Him to come close to embrace us and heal us.
We cannot force God to speak to us, but we can do our best to be open to Him and ask for grace, light, insight, and understanding. God is always much more generous with us than we are with Him. Wait patiently, keeping silent company with Him, knowing that He is gazing lovingly at you. Stay with the passage until it dries up, then move on in your selection, repeating the process.
Contemplation is a pure gift of God. We can’t make it happen. In it, you experience the love of God and understand what He says to you. Allow God to lead you, to give you what only He knows you need and only He can give. The love of God will no longer be abstract, but real and tangible, poured into your soul. You can experience yourself being loved, profoundly loved, and able to love and loving in return.
Give thanks to God for your time of prayer even if you had no insights, no feelings, or no conscious experience of God. The time you gave to God and the openness you offered Him is itself a gift from Him to you and from you to Him. Rededicate yourself to His service and respond to any insights you have been given that you might need to act upon.
Some Further Considerations
Don’t be too rigid about the method. As St. Teresa says, “Pray as you can, not as you ought.”
The parts can and do flow together. Avoid too much intellectual speculation. Avoid excessive efforts to manage distractions; just bring yourself gently back and offer the distractions to God.
Yield to contemplation, the gift of God. Persevere in dryness; be faithful to this prayer. If you find you have given it up, just start again. Pray every day: God will act within you, transforming you. Avoid too much brevity; one-half hour seems to be a minimum, but you can work up to it. Take the time you need.
“Stay with us, Lord Jesus, for evening draws near, and be our companion on our way to set our hearts on fire with new hope. Help us to recognize your presence among us in the Scriptures we read, and in the breaking of bread.” [Vespers week 4 prayer]
For further reading see
Fr. Sam Anthony Morello, OCD. Lectio Divina and the Practice of Teresian Prayer. Washington, DC, ICS Publications, 1995.
St. Peter of Alcantará, OFM. Treatise on Prayer and Meditation. Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 2010
Fr. Peter Thomas Rohrbach, OCD. Conversation with Christ. Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 1980.
Guigo II. The Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations. Np: Cistercian Publications, 1981.
A Monk of New Clairvaux. Don’t You Belong to Me? NY: Paulist Press, 1979.