Long venerated in the monastic tradition of private prayer is the art of lectio divina. St. Benedict, in his Rule, legislates that the monks ought to have periods of time to practice this discipline. At St. Benedict's Abbey, twice a day space is created in our schedules to stop our work, collect our energies, and turn to God in prayer with Sacred Scripture.
For spiritual reading I have been revisiting one of my favorite monastic books, The Path of Life, by Fr. Cyprian Smith. In his chapter on prayer he makes an provocative statement: “What we are trying to build in our prayer is a relationship, and that is not a matter of technique but of love, trust, surrender and giving. Otherwise what we are calling prayer is simply a kind of mental therapy,” (100). I think this is a profound clarification for those of us who are steady and committed pray-ers, and a solid, guiding principle for those who are beginning to pray. Our prayer must be all about an encounter. If we are not making of ourselves an offering to another in our prayer, then our efforts have more to do with psychological health and mental well-being than meeting the living God. Prayer, of whatever variety, is firstly an act of communion with the God who has created and redeemed us—and that must be our experience of it.
That being said, different techniques and methods can help us wade into these deep and (sometimes) intimidating waters. A particularly daunting proposition for many is to spend extended time alone with God in silence. What do I do for my weekly Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament? How do I know that I am listening to God? How does God speak? Just how is prayer an encounter? An ancient monastic practice of mental prayer is called Lectio Divina, or reading the Scriptures in order to encounter God – specifically to listen to His voice. I offer you my own method for praying with scripture:
After calming my mind and heart, clearing out all the other concerns and anxieties, I call down the Holy Spirit and request of the Lord, “Teach me how to pray!” Then, I read a selected passage one time at an unhurried, careful pace, pausing to let individual words and phrases stick out – let the words puncture me. When the first reading is complete, I ask, “What is the moral of the story? What dogma or doctrine is being communicated literally? What is the message of this passage?” Then I read the same passage a second time, with the same attention and care. After this second reading, I begin to apply the “message” of the passage, as well as any new insights from the second reading, to my own daily life. Each of these periods of meditation should take about five minutes. Finally, I read the passage one more time. After this reading, I shut my Bible, turn my mind’s eye to gaze at the Lord, and begin to speak. Whatever I have been meditating about up to this point is good content for a conversation. I speak, then listen, and speak again, and listen again, letting the interaction unfold naturally, not forcing it.
This manner of prayer, Lectio Divina, has the great benefit of using Scripture as it is intended: to bring each human person into contact with the life of the Holy Trinity. As the Catechism says in the very first paragraph, “God [ . . . ] in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” All that the Holy Church offers to us: the sacraments, the ecclesial life, the doctrinal guidance, the liturgy, and, of course, the rich tradition of private prayer – is developed for this purpose. These bring us into contact with God. May we commit to daily prayer and find our lives enriched and expanded by our encounter with Jesus.