What do soil, dough, or oysters have to do with reading a text prayerfully?
Meditative or prayerful reading is just one way to read sacred texts like the Bible or the Tao Te Ching.
From studying the context within the text itself and the cultural context the text was written in to word studies and devotional reading, you could stay with one passage for a very long time, especially if you add Lectio Divina to the mix!
Lectio Divina (Latin for “Divine Reading”) finds its roots in the ancient Jewish practice of meditating on Scripture but was formalized by Saint Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century. It was a cornerstone for spiritual development for the first sixteen centuries of Christian history and has been in the process of recovery since the Reformation left it in the monasteries.
And while it has been brought out of the monasteries and even has found its way into apps like Lectio 365, it seems we have to go through a bit of recovery ourselves like letting go of the idea that "more is better"! As we do so, we are ready to enter into the meditative practice of Lectio Divina.
By chewing on and resting with a single word or phrase that grabs our attention after slowly reading a short portion 2-3 times, we open to the divine wisdom offered through that word or phrase. We listen to how God is speaking through it and respond to the invitations and insights through prayer and/or journaling. As it takes up residence within us, the wisdom becomes embodied in our inner and outer world.
But after years of facilitating groups that practice Lectio Divina, it can still be difficult. Why?
It is hard for us to give up control (even when it comes to prayerfully reading Scripture!).
It’s much easier to study a text than allow it to study us! We want it to stay in our heads by looking up the passages before and after the text, by comparing it to other translations, or looking up what words mean in the original languages…all of these are very good practices, but they can be a way to by-pass the heart.
Instead, what if we imagine ourselves to be the soil that a single mustard seed is planted in? Or the dough that a woman worked a little yeast throughout? Or the oyster that allowed an irritant to stay within its shell?
What do these have in common?
Lectio Divina invites us to become soil, dough, or oysters.
Be receptive to the power of a single word or a little phrase (whether it delights or irritates). Spend some time with it, allowing it to spend time with and in your life.
In time, you may discover the “pearl of great price” dwells within you!
In time, you may become the nourishment (or beauty, medicine, wisdom) the world is waiting for! And all of that through a single word or phrase.
Spiritual practices, like meditation and even church-going, can become spiritual bypass—ways of bypassing reality both outside and inside of us, dissociating from wounds within and without, ignoring the healing work that needs to be done in our inner and outer world.
But spiritual practices can also be vehicles for transformation of both ourselves and our world.
How?—by giving us new ways of seeing and being (which is the whole point of authentic spiritual practice).
Let’s take a look at a few practices...
Conscious Breathing: With as little as 10 slow, complete exhales and 10 full, relaxed inhales, we can calm the fight, flight, freeze survival impulse, allowing us to move from a reactive, closed off, defensive place to a receptive, open, deeper place.
Centering Prayer: Through daily practice of 20 minutes of silent surrendering to God’s presence & action, we let go of our ego-drivenness and receive inner healing of compulsions and soul wounds. Not only does this bring personal freedom but it releases us from projecting our compulsions and wounds on others and passing them down to our children.
Lectio Divina: Spiritual reading allows a word or phrase in a small portion of inspired text, whether sacred Scriptures like the Psalms or a poem, to speak to us. Rather than bringing what we already know or studying it, we allow the text to study us! As we bring our story, our lives, to it, we humbly listen for the wisdom and guidance being offered (which may be encouragement to see a counselor or write a letter to your senator!).
Awareness Examen: Looking over our lives at the end of the day through the eyes of God helps us become aware of God’s life-giving presence and action (and the times throughout the day when we were unaware or resistant). The patterns of what is life-giving and life-draining help us discern who we are and what we are to offer this world.
Silent Retreats: Extended time in silence and solitude creates space for our souls to rest and play which opens us to better hear the “still, small voice” which may be drowned out by the external noise of daily life or the internal noise of comparing ourselves to others.
There are so many practices I could list here but the point isn’t the practice itself, it’s the “fruit.”
Seated meditation may not fit you. You may desire some kind of moving meditation, like dance or qigong. Or you may prefer to spend time in nature or doing art.
What practices have you found that cultivate love in you? What helps you have eyes to see and tend to the suffering both inside yourself and in others? Which ways of wisdom help you discern what is yours to offer this world (not out of compulsion but compassion)? A Spiritual Director can companion you on this journey of discovery of spiritual practices.
But remember, it’s not necessarily the practices, it’s the humans who are transformed by these practices, that this world needs. What do spiritual practices like Centering Prayer offer a hurting world?—YOU!
When I was present to him
I saw his crinkled little brow of curiosity
looking at the commonplace.
Such seeing changed my day.
When I was present to her
I saw her dark eyes shine while
the rest of her danced with delight.
Such being invited me to play.
When I was present to him
I saw his furrowed brow and tired eyes
and I was invited into silence.
Such sharing meant more than I could say.
I wrote this poem in 2012 after being curious about what would happen if I was present to my ordinary surroundings for fifteen minutes. Knowing so much of my time can be filled with my to-do list (of which spiritual practice can be a part), I decided to "throw a stick in the spokes" of my day. Am I ever glad I did!
I saw my family members in such a different way in a mere quarter of an hour. And in seeing them, I felt seen by God and was invited into seeing as God sees...and isn't that the whole point of spiritual practice?!
Try it. Whether or not there are other humans in your house, be curious as to what you see and how it/they "speak."
While they may share silence and look the same on the outside, join me in taking a look on the inside…
Different forms of meditation offer the practitioner different gifts depending on their focus. Some of these forms and gifts are mindfulness, movement, awareness, breathing, insight, chakra-opening, loving-kindness, relaxation, guided, calming, and creativity.
As one who meditates, I appreciate and practice a variety of methods and even combine some, but I call Centering Prayer my main practice. However, many do not understand how Centering Prayer offers anything different from other forms of meditation.
Centering Prayer was developed by Trappist monks, Fathers William Meninger, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating, to help bring the ancient practice of contemplative prayer within the Christian tradition to people outside the monastery—which is most of us!
Inspired by early Christian contemplatives and the medieval text, The Cloud of Unknowing, their process—20 minutes of silence once or twice a day—allows the power of and presence in Silence to be accessed by those of us who live in the “world of words.”
This prayer’s nickname, the "Prayer of Consent," reveals how it differs from other forms of meditation. Rather than focusing solely on being present to sounds and sensations or giving the ego mind something to do like count, follow our breath, or say a mantra, Centering Prayer’s sole focus is surrendering. We consent to the presence and action of God within us.
During the 20 minutes of sitting comfortably, but alert, with head up and eyes closed (or with a resting gaze toward the floor), we introduce a “sacred word” as a symbol of our intention to consent. This can be a word like “Peace,” “Jesus,” or “Love.”
Whenever we become aware of our mind being engaged with thoughts (no matter how interesting or enlightening!), we simply and gently say our sacred word. We come back to surrendering all—every plan, worry, person, to-do list, dream, ah-ha, observation, insight…you get the idea. We let go of everyone and everything, trusting God with and for all.
Given the focus is learning to trust God, it does not matter how many times we catch ourselves wandering and returning. Every instance is an opportunity to “come home” and trust the Beloved with each. Some days we will find ourselves saying our sacred word quite often, for we may have more weighing on our hearts, minds, and bodies than other days.
Notice how relational Centering Prayer is!
It can certainly expose an unhealthy image of God which may be why a part of us rightly refuses to surrender! To explore that being a possibility rather than the normal ego tantrum of giving up control, go here.
How we enter into Centering Prayer can help us consent.
We see a model for this powerful and humble consent in Jesus, especially in the Garden of Gethsemane after asking to be spared from suffering but willing to surrender anyway. His deep trust in the Heart of God leads him to say what he taught his disciples to pray, “Thy will be done.”
Jesus’ response echoes the words of his mother, Mary, after being told she would bear the Messiah. To this overwhelming and possibly dangerous news, she says to the angel bringing her the announcement, “Let it be done unto me according to Your Word.” Perhaps Jesus learned his prayer of surrender from her!
Every time we enter into Centering Prayer, we join Mary and Jesus in this powerful, humble, and holy consent. For twenty minutes, we practice releasing our grasp on our plans, desires, abilities, and attachments.
After coming to an end of our own words in prayerful petition, no matter how a situation may look to us (and others) on the outside, we trust in the presence and work of the One who dwells in secret on the inside.
*Contemplative Outreach offers an app with a timer and ways to enter into and end your time of Centering Prayer. And no matter what level of experience you have, you are always welcome to join me for communal Centering Prayer every Friday morning from 9:00 AM- 10:00 AM (Central Time Zone). Contact me for the Zoom link.
Being Holy Week, let's allow the art of German priest and artist, Sieger Köder (1925-2015), to lead us in meditation. "The Eucharist" or "Communion Table" is the subject for these two paintings that will receive our contemplative gaze.
Look closely at the first, depicting Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper found in Mark 14, Luke 22, and John 13.
Look: What or who catches your eye? Let your eyes rest there for a moment.
Notice: What stirs in you? Feelings, bodily sensations, thoughts/questions/curiosities...
Ask: "God, what are you saying to me through this painting?"
Listen: Pay attention to any words, images, memories, scriptures, songs, feelings, etc. that may arise. You might choose to journal.
Now look at the second painting below with those from the 1940's WWII-era with the risen Christ. A Jew, prostitute, beggar, clown, scholar, rich woman (maybe a widow), and wounded African guest worker with Nazi concentration camp pajamas have been invited (and have come!) to the table. You might repeat the above questions or focus in on a particular person at the table.
Look: Who catches your eye? Or, who do you most identify with or feel resistance towards?
Notice: What does this person stir in you? Feelings, bodily sensations, thoughts/curiosities...
Ask: "God, what are you showing or saying to me through this person?"
Listen: Pay attention to any words, images, memories, scriptures, songs, feelings, etc. that may arise. You might choose to journal.
Now let both paintings dance together. What do you notice? Is there a theme in what is being communicated to you through the paintings? Are you aware of any invitations?
Like parables, Sieger Köder's paintings contain many layers of meaning. There are endless ways to engage them, like entering one or both of the paintings through your imagination as an observer, one who joins Jesus at the table, or is the face of Christ for those present. What happens next?
Whatever happens next, may your time at the table speak to your soul and lead you further on the path of and toward Life.
I did not think I could do spiritual direction without my dog.
She had been there from the beginning with her soulful eyes. She knew when to sit on a directee's lap, cuddle up beside them, or stay on my lap looking and listening. Her presence and gaze was the topic of conversation during many spiritual direction appointments.
"It's like she's looking into my soul!" one young seminary student exclaimed.
"In my vision, it was your dog that helped me have courage and assured me that I would not fall into darkness; how did she know to come sit with me at just that moment?!" a stay-at-home mom said with wonder-filled eyes.
When asked to sum up what God had been offering him through spiritual direction, the aerospace engineer who cultivated a Zen garden in his backyard, replied, "The image is Annie, your dog. God has shown me grace through her."
My miniature dachshund and I were partners. So when faced with sitting with people by myself, I did not think I had what it took. I was convinced it would not be as powerful of an experience for people. I relayed my fears to Father Carl Arico while on a Contemplative Outreach retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee. And while he believed I would be just fine, he suggested I set out a photo so that she would continue to be with me during the time of spiritual direction.
It was then that I understood how God had companioned me through her during my beginning stages of being a spiritual director. She had modeled ways of listening and discernment, showing me it was not about what I knew, or about any kind of performance, but how I was with people that mattered most. Through her, God had been present to me.
Countless times since then I have met with people whose best (& many times only) experience of the unconditional love of God has come through their dogs. Because of my own experience of how a dog can be a vessel of the Divine, I pay special attention to the relationship people have with their pets. And I integrate this relationship into prayers and spiritual practices, because the love they give counts.
So maybe you are one of the people who need to hear that the way your dog loves you is God loving you through your dog. If that's the case, a spiritual practice for you is spending more time with your dog!
I know a woman who has three precious dogs, I call them her visible Trinity. Being with them is so life-giving, filling her with such love, that she is able to be in the world and interact with people differently than before the time with them. Her dogs usher her into the mind of Christ and is that not what the best spiritual practices do for us?
Honestly, I really don't.
As a Spiritual Director, I'm listening and looking for life.
For some this looks like a daily time set aside for reading Scripture and praying with words (whether silently, written, or spoken). This can be a very grounding and growing time.
Or it can be a burdensome box on the spiritual checklist marked by guilt-if-I-don't-do-it.
Even worse, it can be a time to grow the ego (rather than the mind of Christ).
Reading the Bible and memorizing Scriptures are not a guarantee that one is on the path of and toward Life. Some things may have the appearance of life but underneath we find superstition or pride in disguise.
However Spirit is in the process of utterly transforming our hearts (which impacts the lenses through which we see the world, including Scripture), that is what I am looking and listening for when I sit with a person in Spiritual Direction.
Let me give an example:
One person felt guilty because they did not want to do a one-year-Bible study initiated by their peers. I affirmed their resistance which was telling them the truth--should they say "yes" out of obligation, they would only grow resentment, not life, in their relationship with God and others.
As I continued to listen, it became clear that this person would step out of their particular compulsions and into a deeper place the more they spent time in Nature (God's first revelation) and working with wood. Nature and Beauty were of utmost importance in growing in Love and Life. Their year would be better spent outside and in their workshop.
There is no one-size-fits-all contrary to what you may have heard as a child, young adult, or a newbie to tending to the spiritual life.
Having regular, uninterrupted time on the couch with a cat or dog or sharing a peaceful and delicious meal with one's partner, both are life-giving, love-growing practices. Others may find that silent meditation or reflecting on a poem expands their soul. Working with a dream from the night before, puzzling over a vision, wrestling with a spiritual question, painting, gardening, playing with children...the possibilities for spiritual practice and experience are endless because God is endless.
It also does not have to be either-or when it comes to spiritual practice...either I read the Bible or I spend time in Nature. You might read the Bible in Nature. Spending time in Nature may give you new eyes with which to see the Bible when you do read it next (or you might discuss different ways to read Sacred Scripture with your Spiritual Director).
So how do you know if your "daily quiet time" or spiritual practice is life-giving and growing?
Reflect on the practice after you've engaged it for a length of time, at least a month. Any given day can feel like a slog and the fruit of the practice may show up outside of the time itself! For instance, after time in Nature, you may be calmer, less reactive, and more patient with others.
Here are some questions to discover the fruit your practice is bearing (or not):
If you come for Spiritual Direction, I'm not going to give you Bible verses to memorize or critique your spiritual life. I'm going to listen for life within your life so that you may walk in the way that leads to Life (which is what the Bible encourages us to do!).
Christmas decorations (including outdoor lights) remain up at our house for the “12 Days of Christmas” culminating with Epiphany on January 6th. The candles will be left in the windows through Candlemas on February 2nd, but that’s for another post.
Through the years I’ve looked for ways, old and new, to celebrate the rhythm of the liturgical year (the Christian/Church calendar). Our "Christmas Card Prayer Path" is a favorite.
Throughout December as Christmas cards come in, we often take a quick glance before putting them in a card holder on the wall. When Epiphany, also called “Three Kings Day,” arrives on the 6th, we gather the stack of cards and lay them end to end, attaching them with tape.
After all are attached, the kids form whatever path shape they want leading to the nativity with its Christmas star overhead. Some years it has been a swirl, others a zig-zag of jagged turns, and once it looked almost straight! Isn't that the journey of life?!
They choose which Magi to accompany, then for the next 30-40 minutes, we join these learned “Wise Men” from the East on their journey to meet Jesus, Love Incarnate. Their journey (and ours) begins with the first card they are set on. As the Magi move toward the manger, the name(s) on each card are read and a blessing is said for each person, family, or group.
It’s usually something simple like, “Thank you for being part of our journey…
…may you be blessed with peace & joy this year.”
…may the love of God be with you.”
…may you continue to give and receive love.”
Throughout the prayer path, we pause when we hear, “Who’s that?” or “Do I know them?” We get the opportunity to introduce names and faces to each other. There are memories shared and stories told. We discover new friends on the journey. And we get to enjoy the humor and beauty of the cards themselves (deciding that some need to be added to our crafting and collaging materials!).
When we reach the last card, we say a prayer for all of those beyond the cards who are part of our journey and we theirs. Our prayer ends with acknowledging that although we’ve made it to Jesus with the Magi, it’s just the beginning of this year's journey of incarnating Love.
*Magi from Build Your Own Bethlehem by Gertrud Mueller Nelson and The Christmas Star from Afar Wooden Nativity Set and Book
My friend, Betsy, recently shared with our Centering Prayer group the Jewish practice of "100 Blessings a Day" (as mentioned in the Talmud). It's a way of cultivating gratitude (& awe!) by finding 100 things you are grateful for each day.
I can’t help but think of The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon and his weekly “Thank You Notes” segment! Whether weekly like Jimmy or daily like the Talmud, our own practice can be just as fun and meaningful. We might even choose some background music for our “100 Thank-Yous (if you want Fallon’s music, one fan has put it on a 14-minute loop).
Says Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, “True prayer is a bursting forth of the soul to God. What can be more natural and more human than turning to God’s listening presence with our thanks and our burdens?”
As we get ready to say goodbye to 2020, most of us would agree it has been a year of burdens for all of us (some of us more impacted than others, some burdens heavier than others). But before it leaves, pause with me and see if you can "burst forth" with 100 things (no matter how small) for which you are grateful.
My little family of four decided to do this (without music for now). So in no particular order:
Once we started, it was hard to stop!
“Whoever does not see God everywhere does not see Him anywhere,” said the Hasidic Kotzker Rebbe. It's also true that whoever sees God everywhere can see God anywhere...even in 2020!
May we enter 2021 with the gift of 100 Blessings (our Thank You-Notes to God).
We've got magnetic, chocolate, and cheese Advent calendars and we've just started lighting our Advent candles, but something my daughter said stopped me in my Advent tracks.
"I hate taking down our fall decorations, I feel like I missed out on enjoying them as much as I could have."
To which I replied, "But you're in the house all day, everyday!" (She's doing virtual school the entire year.)
To which she replied with a smile, "But I'm worrying a lot, so am I REALLY here?"
We both laughed.
But I heard her longing and it got me thinking about how we often miss the gifts that are right in front of us like beauty, rest, fun...
She is often busy with virtual classes during the day and often does homework right before bed. We're often busy with work and household chores during the day and often are on our phones or falling asleep watching Netflix. Days and evenings can easily come and go in a whir of busyness and distraction.
So a few hours later, I said, "I have an idea. Every evening before bed beginning December 1st, let's put down phones and homework, shut off the television, and turn off all the lights except for Christmas lights and candles. Let's sit in silence together for the number of minutes matching the day it is, which means we begin with 1. You can sit or lie down, eyes open or closed, and just take in the surroundings. What do you think?"
My daughter and husband were on board immediately, my 10-year-old son nodded slowly but with some skepticism (which makes me particularly excited for him!). So I'll set my Centering Prayer timer for 1 minute tonight and we'll enter into the Silence.
A new Advent practice. Doing nothing. But present to everything.
Whether in the morning, during a lunch break, or before bed, whether the 1st or 14th, you might experiment with Silence as both a way of entering into and a companion during this Christmas season.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.