Every committed Catholic is brought up to say their morning and evening prayers, to make their morning offering, to use the prayers handed down like the Lord’s own prayer, and many other prayers and devotional practices. However, the time always comes when Christ reaches out to them personally and calls them to a deep personal relationship with him that can change their lives. It may be through a book that is read, a Christ-like person who is met, a sermon that is heard or even through a direct spiritual ‘touch’ that is felt. Then a new and personal relationship with Christ can begin.
But what is the next step?
How do we get started once we are aware that we are called to: come to know and love Christ in a way that we have never experienced before?
How can such a relationship begin?
The Spaces Between People are Bridged by Words
There is nothing mysterious about human communication. We get to know someone by listening to the words they use. The spaces between people are bridged by words. They enable us to find out more about them, to draw closer and closer to them. This is why Christians have always regarded the Bible with awe from the earliest times, because it contains the words that bridge the gap between God and man – God’s words. It even goes a step further by showing how God’s words were eventually embodied in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. When we learn to listen to his words we learn to listen to God. When we learn to love him we learn to love God.
This is why all authentic Christian prayer begins not by flinging oneself into obscure states of transcendental awareness, but by trying to listen to God’s words, most particularly as embodied in the words of Jesus Christ. When we read the Scriptures then, slowly and prayerfully allowing them to sink into our hearts, we listen to the word of God speaking to us now. This is how the early Christians used to pray in a method of prayer called Lectio Divina or the divine or sacred reading. It was so called, not just because they believed the words they read were inspired, but because they believed that they too would be inspired as they read them, by the Holy Spirit who inspired them in the first place. They believed that through the holy readings they would be led into a sort of profound conversation with God that would lead them on and into what St Paul called, “The height and depth, the length and breadth of God’s love that surpasses the understanding” (Ephesians 3:18).
This is why whatever other methods of prayer we may at times find helpful, we must never forget and always turn back to the Bible as the Christian prayer book par excellence.
Lectio, Oratio, Meditation, and Contemplation.
Four Latin words have traditionally been used to describe how Lectio Divina can lead serious-minded Christians onward to experience the Love that surpasses all understanding. The words are Lectio (Read), Meditatio (Reflect), Oratio (React), and Contemplatio (Repose). The early Christians knew no other method of meditation. Many of them knew whole passages, if not all of the Gospels off by heart. They had no other prayer book to hand, nor did they have need of them. When the Desert Fathers used the Scriptures, most particularly the New Testament and the Psalms, they were not interested in how much they read, but in how deeply they penetrated the sacred texts. They would read a few verses at a time, going over them for a second and a third time, poring over them, entering more profoundly into their dynamic inner meaning. Then they would pause in moments of deep interior stillness to allow the same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures to inspire them also. When they had savored one particular text they would reverently move on to another and repeat the process, leaving pauses for silence, for the impact of the words to seep into the very marrow of their being. As this prayer grew more and more intense, the moments of silence would become more and more prolonged until, in the end, words would give way to periods of profound inner contemplation.
True Lectio Divina
Lectio means learning to read in a new way and learning to listen as we have never really listened before. We are so bombarded with reading materials from all sides that we have had to acquire a habit of reading at a breathtaking pace. Every day there are the newspapers to be read, mountains of junk mail to sift through, memoranda to be absorbed and letters and bills to be dealt with. Our only concern is to glean the relevant facts as quickly as we can and to move on to something else. If we apply the same techniques to the way we read the Scriptures, they will not enable us to get to know Christ more deeply. They should be read as we would read good poetry, endlessly going over them to plunder their contents. This is the beginning of true Lectio Divina.
Having read and re-read the sacred texts it is time to reflect – Meditatio. Pore over them again and again, ruminate on them, as St. Augustine would say; allow the inner meaning of every word to seep deep down into the very marrow of your being so that their dynamic impact can register with effect. To facilitate the use of this profound meditation, some people find it helpful to recreate the scene in which the sacred words were first spoken in their imaginations. Let us suppose that you have chosen to meditate on those profound words of Jesus at the Last Supper. Begin by setting the scene in your imagination. Picture the Apostles preparing the tables, see Christ coming into the room, watch the way he moves, look into his face when he speaks, then mull over his every word and try to penetrate the inner meaning.
The same sort of scene-setting could be used to build up the atmosphere before meditating on other Gospel texts. The Passion of Christ, for instance, would lend itself to this method of praying. Do not just think of what Christ went through in your mind, but go back in your imagination and place yourself in the event. You are among the soldiers at the scourging, one of the crowd during the carrying of the cross, an onlooker at the actual Crucifixion. You see everything as it happens, you open your ears and hear what is said and then you open your mouth and begin to pray. The more we penetrate the inner meaning of the sacred text, the more we feel moved to react prayerfully with our hearts to what we have assimilated – Oratio. Real prayer begins now as we start to try to raise our hearts and minds to God, as we respond to the inspired words upon which we have been reflecting.
The State of Mental Paralysis
To start with, the truths of the faith are too big, too enormous, almost too incredible for us to take in effectively. When I first heard that the stars in the nearest galaxy Andromeda were two and a half million light-years away, I simply could not take it in. The distances were too enormous for my mind to cope with. It is exactly the same with the truths of our faith, at least to begin with. They are too much for us to cope with, too great for us to take in. It is as if our minds are paralyzed by their transcendent enormity. We simply cannot penetrate or comprehend their meaning.
However, in time, this state of mental paralysis gradually begins to lift thanks to the Holy Spirit. The slow meditation on the sacred texts suddenly begins to bear fruit; the spiritual understanding begins to stir and the emotions are touched and begin to react. What began as rather dry academic knowledge about God changes and begins to strike with an ever-deepening impact. Knowledge begins to turn into love, as the love that God has for us begins to register with effect. Nobody can remain the same when they realize that another loves them. We respond automatically, the emotions are released and we begin to express our love and thanks in return. This is the beginning of real prayer that will grow with depth and intensity as the truth of God’s love is brought home time and time again in so many different ways through slowly poring over, digesting and assimilating the sacred texts. As the impact of the Gospel message begins to explode with maximum effect, the believer finds that even the most extravagant words do not sufficiently voice the depth of feeling they experience welling up from within. In the end, the words of thanks, praise, adoration, and love give way to silence that says far more than the most potent man-made means of expression.
The Simple Loving Gaze Upon God – Contemplation.
The slow meditative penetration of the texts now opens out and envelops the whole person as the believer is ever more deeply absorbed into a silent contemplative gaze upon God. The most powerful and poignant expressions of the new relationship with God seem to be emptied of their meaning in face of the reality. All one wants to do is to remain silent and still in the simple loving gaze upon God that has traditionally been called Contemplation. It is the fruit of this profound prayer that is, in the eyes of St Thomas Aquinas, the perfect preparation for sharing the faith with others. He could have said that we should first meditate and then share the fruits of our meditation with others, or pray and share the fruits of prayer with others–but something even more profound is required. We must persevere for long enough in prayer to experience for ourselves something of the love that we are called to share with others in sublime mystical contemplation or we will have little to give.
In this contemplation in which the whole person, heart and mind, body and soul is more united than ever before, a subtle change begins to take place. Initially, it was through meditating on God’s love, as embodied in the human body of Jesus that led the believer to contemplation, but now a change gradually begins to take place. Meditating on God’s love as it was embodied in the historical Christ gives way to contemplating his love as it is now, pouring out of the risen Christ, whether the believer realizes this or not at the time. The first was generated with God’s grace and human endeavor, the second is a pure gift of God. However, before the gift of contemplation can lead to the full union for which the believer now craves, a purification begins to take place so that the selfish seeker can receive the Selfless Giver without any let or hindrance. This is the only way to the full union with God that is our deepest desire. The purification is the work of the Holy Spirit–all we have to do is to faithfully persevere in prayer. He will do the rest.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.