It's no secret that I'm passionate about spiritual formation: rhythms, patterns and practices in our lives that cultivate intimacy with God, that shape character, that form Christlikeness, and that make the Christian faith real and relevant in daily life. Spiritual formation is the journey of discipleship: apprenticeship to Jesus where, over time, we become more and more like Jesus.
I also love the Bible - this weird and wonderful library of books and stories and poetry and prophecy that has been so central to apprenticeship to Jesus over the last two thousand years.
But, I think it's harder than we often acknowledge to find the sweet spot of the overlap of Bible-reading on the one hand, and personal change and transformation on the other. It's much easier to get caught up in the Bible's details, or weirdness or differentness, or in systematised doctrines, or... perhaps it's easier just to relegate Bible reading to that list we all have... The list of 'Activities we feel we should do but don't really have the time (or desire) to actually do'.
It can be difficult when reading the Bible to deeply connect with the story and allow it to impact us, and change our lives for the good. I suspect that this is one of the reasons why so few Jesus-believing, church-going Christians really read the Bible much at all.
So, if you haven't already heard about it, I'd love to tell you a little about the very old practice of Lectio Divina.
This simple Bible reading practice helps us to deeply engage with the Bible. It connects us with the story. It allows us to see things in different, often unexpected ways. It opens up our hearts and makes us more aware of the gentle whispers of the Spirit. It can engage not just our mind or intellect but our emotions and desires and dreams and disappointments and frustrations. And that's why it's such a powerful practice in terms of spiritual formation: it puts us in the position of being spoken to by God, through the Bible, in powerful and transformative ways.
A quick comment before we jump in: there's a school of thought that is concerned that Lectio Divina opens us up to misinterpretations and distortions of the text due to subjective and biased readings. Ie, some people would argue that this practice focusses too much on what we feel, and not enough on the absolute truth of scripture.
For our purposes here, here's my quick thoughts in response to this. No-one ever reads the Bible (or anything!) completely objectively. We all bring our own stories and contexts and biases to bear on the text. I don't think Lectio Divina should be seen as replacement of other forms of study and reading, but rather as a beautiful complement. Ie, because we're all subjective, imperfect and biased, we need to read and study the Bible in various different ways, and intentionally make space for the Spirit to speak to us as we're doing so.
Also, I think this practice really helps us to slow down... Not to rush through a daily devotional text to tick a box. There's something powerful and beautiful and cathartic and life-giving in the slowing down, paying attention, and listening.
What is Lectio Divina?
'Lectio Divina' is Latin for 'divine reading'. Today, this practice is experiencing something of a resurgence, and might seem like a 'new fad' to many evangelicals, but in fact it's been around for a while. Benedict of Nursia developed an early form of Lectio Divina in the 6th century, and it was later formalised by a 12th century monk. It was intended as a way of listening to God in a Bible text and people have been using this discipline to help them open their hearts to Christ and one another for centuries. Here are some basic guidelines to help you try this ancient practice yourself. You don't have to be a bible expert or have your life all together. You just need to give it a go - to make the space and see what happens. What I've written below is just a guideline anyway - you can be flexible with it and make the practice fruitful for you.
Before you start:
Make sure you are in a comfortable spot, where you won’t be interrupted - this might mean making arrangements with family/friends/housemates, and turning your phone off!
Choose a text that you will read for this Lectio Divina. Here are some suitable examples:
John 15:1-17 - Abiding in the vine
1 John 4:7-11 - God Is Love
Mark 4:35-41 - Jesus Stills a Storm
Matthew 5:1-10 - The Beatitudes
Matthew 5:13-16 - Salt and Light
Romans 12:9-12 - Marks of the True Christian
Psalm 23 - The Divine Shepherd
John 4: 1-26 -Jesus and the woman at the well
Luke 7:36–50 - Anointing of Jesus
Quiet your heart, sit in silence for a few minutes, and ask God to meet you during this time of prayer.
1) Lectio (reading)
Read the passage slowly, letting your awareness rest on the paragraphs, sentences and words.
Read the passage again slowly, but this time read it out loud. Make it personal. Perhaps insert your name or a personal pronoun into the text. Listen for the still small voice of God as you read. Be aware of any word or phrase that catches your attention. Don't stress out about 'doing this right'; just relax and enjoy the process.
In the traditional Benedictine approach the passage is slowly read four times, each time with a slightly different focus. If you do this with other people, allow different people to read the text and notice what you notice as the story is presented through different voices.
2) Meditatio (reflection, meditation)
Meditate on the passage you have read. Allow your imagination to picture the scene, possibly imagining yourself as one of the characters, or just a witness to the scene. Perhaps go through your senses - what would it have looked/felt/smelt/tasted/sounded like? Really try to feel the story or what is being discussed in the passage. Is it awkward? Heartwarming? Confusing? Exciting?
If Jesus is in the text you've chosen, what is Jesus doing? In your imagination, what is his posture like? His facial expression? His tone of voice?
If a word or phrase attracted you or caught your attention, notice that, and meditate and reflect on it. As you reflect, listen and allow God to speak to you. Be aware of any emotion or memories that the word or phrase may stir up.
3) Oratio (respond in prayer)
Respond to what you're noticing, and what you might feel God saying to you. Respond to God about how you're feeling, and what you're thinking.
If something particularly caught your attention, take that to God in prayer. Do you sense God saying anything to you? Drawing you towards anything? Dialogue with God about what you are hearing or feeling. Ask God about things you do not understand. Take time to sit and listen for God’s response.
Some people might find journalling helpful; others might find it distracting.
It's not technically a step in the original Lectio Divina, but you might want to consider, with God, what the implications are of your reflections: What does this mean for you? How are you challenged? Is there something you feel drawn to do or change in your life?
4) Contemplatio - Contemplation
Be still before God. See yourself in the compassionate gaze of the God who loves you and accepts you and who is present with you now, and, in one way or another, is communicating and communing with you.
Few words, if any, are necessary here. Enjoy this time where your heart and mind are turned towards the loving presence of God.
As you go through your day, keep returning to the passage and your reflection. Keep returning with the intention of integrating the word into your life.
So, that's it... It's not rocket science! And I guess we can be relieved it's not complex and difficult. But don't let the simplicity deceive you - this can really be a powerful practice.
This practice, along with every other spiritual formation practice, is absolutely useless to us... if we don't actually do it. It holds no special value just as an idea or theory.
The proof is in the pudding that we actually eat.
So, if it sounds like something you'd like to try, how about right now planning when you might be able to do this? Perhaps put it into your diary and give it a bash. Otherwise, we know it'll just end up on that list...