Over the course of eight to ten weeks, class participants will read reflections from The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows And Blessings into One Joyful Step by Henri Nouwen (author) and Michael Ford (editor). Rather than simply reading and interpreting or analyzing the devotion’s meaning, participants immerse themselves in the reflection, practicing Lectio Divina — a 6th century contemplative practice advocated by St Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine order.
Lectio Divina (divine reading) is a way of immersing yourself in a scripture passage, devotion or reflection. Instead of simply reading, you pray it. Lectio Divina is a way of developing a closer relationship with the Divine by prayerfully experiencing what you read. Contemplative Outreach explains “During Lectio Divina, the practitioner listens to the text … with the ‘ear of the heart ….”
The focus of Lectio Divina is not a theological analysis or study but entering into the reading with Christ in your heart. For example, Jesus says in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you.” An analytical approach would focus on the reason for the statement during the Last Supper, the biblical context, etc.
In Lectio Divina, however, you “enter” and “share” the peace of Christ rather than “dissecting” it. You might visualize being a part of the Last Supper, hearing Jesus speak and feeling the emotions that arise. You might empty yourself to create space for the peace that surpasses all understanding, surrendering to the presence of God’s peace within you. If the peace of God eludes, you might silently pray to God for help to empty and surrender yourself.
Plan on 20-40 minutes to experience Lectio Divina. It helps to set a regular time and place where you practice daily. You might add some ritual. Lighting a candle or incense might remind you to experience the word or calm your wandering thoughts. Pray a short prayer of invitation. You might pray the same invitation daily or pray what comes to mind in the moment. John Main suggests Father, open my heart to the silent presence of the spirit of your Son. Lead me into that mysterious silence where your love is revealed to all who call, Come, Lord Jesus.
Then sit quietly, grounding yourself in the present moment. Open your hands. Relax your shoulders. Notice your in-breath and your out-breath, the weight of your heels on the ground, your buttocks on the chair, your relaxed shoulders pulling your elbows downward.
The four elements of Lectio Divina are:
- read (soak in the words of the reading & notice your responses)
- contemplate (rest in God’s loving presence)
- meditate (sit with the emotions the reading evokes)
- pray (respond to the Holy Spirit’s promptings in conversation with God)
These elements are often erroneously presented as sequential steps. With the exception of the first reading, the order is more organic. When you are doing Lectio, you will feel drawn by the Spirit to one element or another in no particular order. Go where the Spirit leads.
When I don’t feel drawn to a particular element, I generally shift to contemplation (or Centering Prayer). This helps me avoid getting drawn into analysis and helps me empty my mind to create space to rest in God’s loving presence, allowing my over-busy mind to descend into my heart in silent holy union with God.
To the extent I can, I gently empty my mind to make space for God’s ever-present Spirit within me instead of will power to let go and surrender myself. Then, I just sit in that space silently present with God’s Spirit within me.
When my thoughts intrude, I acknowledge them and come back to my breath — ruach – the Holy Spirit that resides in me. (You may return to your sacred word or icon.) In this way, I replace my thoughts long enough to re-ground myself in the intention of my heart.
Sometimes, it just feels natural and right. Other times, I struggle with my ego, my desires and my expectations. Whatever might get in the way on any given day, I try to accept it without judgment. God knows what’s in my heart and just the desire pleases Her.
Four Elements of Lectio Divina Explained
Lectio (Mindful Reading)
When you are ready, read slowly and rest between sentences. If possible, read aloud and feel the weight of the words. If you read silently, listen to the words as though they had been spoken aloud. Allow the “ear of your heart” to listen for God’s still small voice
Your goal is not to analyze the devotion or think about its meaning. Just wait patiently for the Holy Spirit. If your attention wanders or you find yourself grasping for meaning, simply and gently bring your focus back to your in-breath and out-breath or your sacred word.
Some word or phrase may jump out at you. These are the nudges of the Holy Spirit. Whatever comes, accept it without expectation or judgment. If nothing jumps out, accept that also.
It will be challenging to discern whether it is the Spirit of God nudging you or your own ego. The Ignatian Discernment of Spirits gives us some clues.
- Does my ego lead me to rationalize behaviors or attitudes I know are wrong or am I accepting the Spirit’s nudges to my conscience?
- Does my ego raise doubts that cause inner turmoil & self-absorption or is the Spirit encouraging me — increasing my peace, joy, faith, hope, and love?
- Is the Spirit a consoling presence even in the midst of life’s inevitable pain & suffering or is my ego leading me to unrelenting self-judgment & misery?
Listening Hearts: Discerning Calls in Community lists some other signs of the Spirit, including:
- A sense of peace
- Disorientation that leads to greater openness or acceptance
- Cathartic tears
- Sense of clarity
- Seeming unrelated strands of experience begin to converge
- Message keeps coming back to you
Contemplation most resembles Centering Prayer. You set an intention. While the intention is typically the same for all of us — opening to God’s presence in our heart — you express it in a way that resonates for you. Here are some ways your intention might be expressed. You surrender to God’s love, rest in God’s presence, let go of egoic attachments to experience God’s love, allow the mind to descend into the heart of the Spirit or empty your mind to create space for God’s Spirit within you.
With the intention in front of you, simply empty your mind for 10-15 minutes (or longer). When your mind wanders, as it inevitably will, bring your attention back to your sacred word or to your breath. When the urge to think passes, sit in silence again, resting in God’s presence. When your mind wanders again, gently bring it back again. Your goal is not to clear your mind, think about what you have read or talk to God; only to be present with God, resting in Her presence, surrendering your egoic self to God’s love.
When it feels right, read the same reflection again just as you did the first time. You may read from beginning to end or focus where the Spirit nudged you.
This element of Lectio Divina resembles Ignatian Imaginative Prayer, when you focus on the emotions the reflection elicits in you. In this element of Lectio, I try to use my five senses to actually hear, touch and see the deepest meaning of the words and to feel the emotions evoked. It’s an intensely personal experience.
Visualize yourself experiencing whatever is in that word or phrase. Notice your emotions. Feel your emotions. Sit with your emotions. Just let them be what they are. Don’t try to push them away, minimize or enlarge them. Just accept them as is.
Try not to analyze your emotions. It’s easy to slip into “study mode” with you as the subject. If you catch yourself questioning “why?” or “what if?” — then your mind has wandered. You’re not feeling your feelings; rather you are thinking about them. If you find yourself problem-solving, then you have succumbed to thought or analysis again. Try not to expect any particular outcome (e.g., I should feel one way or another.) Whatever emotion comes, accept it without judgment.
When your mind wanders or you start analyzing, bring your attention to your sacred word or breath. Feel the rise and fall of your abdomen. Notice the weight of your buttocks on the chair. When you feel grounded again, return your attention to visualizing and feeling the emotions the reflection or scripture brings up in you.
When it feels right, read the same reflection again. As the Psalmist (49:3) writes, “the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.” Understanding may build slowly or appear in flashes of insight. There inevitably also will be times when understanding eludes. Whatever understanding comes or doesn’t come, mental prayer ala Teresa of Avila may make sense.
This is not the time to tell God about your problems or burning needs. Avoid planning, problem solving or analyzing. Simply wait for the Holy Spirit to move in your heart.
Speak to Jesus or God from your heart. What gift does this passage lead you to request? What does it call you to do? What issues does it stir up in your depths? Your prayer may be a simple thank you. Speak briefly; then listen quietly.
Words may come to you or not. If not, “… the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
As before, accept whatever comes without judgment. Your conscious mind may not even be aware of the movement of the Spirit within you. That does not mean the Spirit is not present.
You will practice Lectio Divina daily between classes. You may want to close with a brief prayer.
Lead us Lord, into the desert of our lives,
that we may find there the spring of eternal life
the hope of Christ risen in our hearts,
the hope that defeats death and darkness
and brings us to the life and light of his love.
This we ask through Christ, our Lord. Amen. ”
Lord, our God, increase our love for you.
May we love you with all that we are
and learn to love others as you love us.
This we ask through Christ our Lord
who first showed us the real power
of your love, he who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God of wisdom and love,
send us the Spirit who will teach us truth
and guide our actions that we may live
to praise the God of Jesus.
This we pray in his name,
our brother and Lord. Amen.