Will You Join Me for A Prayerful “Experiment” this Lent?

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We’re just over a week away from Ash Wednesday! Which means it is time to be reflecting on your Lenten devotion.

Last week I suggested a couple of books that might be good choices for your Lenten reading. Today I’d like to offer another idea — something I plan to explore more fully in this blog each week during Lent.

It has to do with prayerfully — and mindfully — reading scripture.

Many people who embrace Christian contemplative practice discover the monastic exercise of lectio divina or “sacred reading,” in which a slow and prayerful reading of a passage from scripture (or some other appropriate source) becomes a devotional practice that includes the reading itself, reflecting on what has been read, prayerfully responding to the reading, and then entering into a period of contemplative rest.

Each movement of the lectio process takes us deeper within our own heart, in the interest of allowing the reading/reflecting/responding/resting process to be a means for interior growth and transformation, always in response to the grace and love of God.

As I like to tell students, “In lectio divina, it’s not so much you reading the text, as in God reading you through the medium of the text.”

Lectio divina is a core spiritual practice. It’s one of the big three Christian contemplative practices — the other two being daily liturgical prayer, and daily silent prayer. Monks have been engaged in the practice of lectio divina for at least 1500 years, and probably longer than that.

Incidentally, if you are new to Lectio Divina, or simply wish to explore the practice more deeply, the best book I’ve read on the topic is Michael Casey’s Sacred Reading.

Lectio divina is not Bible study

Lectio is meant to be devotional, intuitive, prayerful and meditative, in contrast to the more cognitive, discursive, and rational exercise of careful, informed Bible scholarship (whether done by a professional Bible scholar or even just an informed layperson).

But like so many things in life, lectio‘s strength is also its weakness. The plain fact of the matter is, many passages in scripture are obscure, if not downright confusing, to the contemporary reader.

Perhaps the single biggest reason why Protestantism has yielded literally tens of thousands of different sects is because scripture, when read without careful scholarship, can easily be interpreted — or misinterpreted — in many different ways. The Catholic position is that scripture needs to be read — and interpreted — in a communal way: which means we need more than just a private, devotional “me-and-God time” with the text.

“Silence is praise.”

What should we do, then, when we wish to read the text prayerfully and meditatively, only to find so many passages difficult to understand, challenging to one’s faith, or even apparently contradictory to the Bible’s overall message?

Take, for example, this (in)famous verse from Psalm 137:

Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

Here the Psalmist is speaking of revenge against the Babylonians who oppress the Jewish people. But still! It’s a horrific, gratuitously violent image in this verse, and probably should come with a trigger warning.

How does something like that fit in to the prayerful/devotional reading of scripture that lectio divina entails?

It’s for this reason that I am proposing an experiment.

Lectio Divina Diligens

I am calling this experiment: Lectio Divina Diligens. 

Obviously, this means “Diligent sacred reading” — but it could also be translated as “Careful sacred reading,”  “Studious sacred reading” or even “Mindful sacred reading.” Think of it as “lectio divina plus.”

The idea is simple. What would a daily practice of lectio divina look like, if we combined it with a thoughtful, contemplative consideration of scholarship — or, at least, historical commentary — related to the passage we are reading?

In other words, I’m proposing an expanded, five-step process for lectio.

  1. Lectio, or reading:
  2. Investigatio, or research:
  3. Meditatio, or reflection:
  4. Oratio, or response:
  5. Contemplatio: or rest:

Now, I know some purists may argue “you cannot combine prayerful reading of scripture with the scholarly reading of scripture. It’s like trying to write poetry and prose at the same time. Uses two entirely different parts of the brain.”

I appreciate this line of argument: I’ve said as much, many times myself. The purpose behind this line of argument is to protect the integrity of the lectio process: when we try to bring prayer and scholarship together, it’s too easy to let the scholarship run the show and the prayer gets lost in the shuffle.

But in our zeal to protect a prayerful reading of scripture, have we created an unnecessary and unhelpful firewall? Certainly, the ancient church fathers or monastic theologians would never have recognized this insistence that prayer and scholarship should be kept separate.

On the contrary, they would have insisted that you can’t truly have one without the other!

My Lenten Experiment

Verbum logo (courtesy of Faithlife Corporation)

So this is my experiment: each week during Lent, I will take one passage from the Catholic Sunday Lectionary and read it using the five-step process of lectio divina diligens. For the “investigatio” step, I will be relying on my favorite tool for Bible study, Verbum.

Verbum not only gives me access to the Bible in multiple translations (and the original Hebrew and Greek texts), but it also gives me access to scriptural commentary and exegesis from throughout church history, including the insights of many of the great mystics, doctors of the church, and contemporary scholars.

So I am going to do all this, and then document my experience here on this blog.

Since this is an experiment, I don’t know if the posts will have more of a devotional feel, or more of a scholarly feel, or some sort of a blend. It might well vary from week to week.

My hope is that what I write might be useful for you as you engage in your Lenten devotion.

This is an “experiment” in contemplative practice. Not an experiment in a strict, scientific-method sense — perhaps a better word is “exploration,” since I have no idea what will come of this.

Hopefully, what I write will be of some small use to you. If it is, wonderful! Please let me know. If not, well, still let me know. I — or we — may discover that there really isn’t a place for investigatio in lectio divina. But on the other hand, perhaps this will open up a new contemplative  way of integrating scripture into a daily prayer practice.

Will you join me? If you have Verbum, join me in weaving investigatio into your lectio practice. If not, then I hope you will at least read what I’ll be posting and offer your reflections on my words. Your feedback will make a difference as I make my way through the Lenten lectionary

Oh by the way, if you want to buy your own Verbum library, visit this page to get a special coupon, just for readers of my blog! — www.verbum.com/partners/carl.

While I’m calling this an “experiment,” let’s remember that what really matters is the prayer and the seeking of greater intimacy with God. The experiment is a “success” if it helps us to grow in response to Divine Love. So my prayer is that each of us will draw closer to God during this Lent (and beyond).

Lent is a sacred time, and my prayer is that as we approach the Lenten lectionary with the twin blessings of scholarship and contemplation, that we will all be enriched in our daily response to God’s grace.


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