Over the course of ten weeks, participants in Awakening to Thoughts & Emotions 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 reflection’s meaning, participants immerse themselves in it, 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. The focus of Lectio Divina is not a theological analysis or study but entering into the reading with Christ in your heart. Contemplative Outreach explains “During Lectio Divina, the practitioner listens to the text … with the ‘ear of the 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.
The four elements of Lectio Divina are:
- read (soak in the words of the reading & notice your responses)
- pray (sit with the emotions the reading evokes)
- meditate (prepare for contemplation)
- contemplate (rest in God’s loving presence)
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 meditation, which for me is Centering Prayer. You may be drawn to some other practice. 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 surrender.
When my thoughts intrude, which they will, I acknowledge them and come back to my breath — ruach – the Holy Spirit that resides in me. (You may return to your sacred word, a mantra 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.
Before You Start
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.
Four Elements of Lectio Divina
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 reflection 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.
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
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 might resemble 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 in order 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.
Emotions 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).
When you are ready, read the same reflection again slowly — absorbing the words rather than analyzing them. Meditation opens us to contemplative prayer.
Centering Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, Christian Meditation or another practice can open you to contemplation. 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 want to 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 and surrender to God’s Spirit within you.
Read the same reflection a fourth time, slowly savoring the words, letting them soak in, absorbing their depth and breadth. Let go of your thoughts and surrender to the Spirit within you. When your mind wanders, as it inevitably will, bring your attention back to your sacred word, your mantra or 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 for its own sake, 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.
As before, accept whatever comes without judgment. Try to resist the urge to judge your contemplation as “good” or “bad.” You may feel the Spirit within you strongly sometimes or you might get momentary glimpses. You may not be aware of the movement of the Spirit within you at all. 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. I like to close with Thomas Merton’s Prayer for Discernment.
O Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going,
I do not see the road ahead of me,
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
And that fact that I think
I am following Your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe
That the desire to please You
Does in fact please You.
And I hope I have that desire
In all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything
Apart from that desire to please You.
And I know that if I do this
You will lead me by the right road,
Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust You always
Though I may seem to be lost
And in the shadow of death.
I will not fear,
For You are ever with me,
And You will never leave me
To make my journey alone