Lesson 5: God’s Presence

Reading the BibleI really experienced what St. Benedict meant about the importance of conversation in any Christian community while teaching Sunday School last week. I was pointing out how much Luke-Acts associated the Holy Spirit with speaking boldly. A good one-third of this action-packed history, over 300 of its 1000 verses, are speeches. Some participants responded by asking how you discern which people really are speaking by the Holy Spirit. Marlin spoke up suggesting this is what the Benedictine community tries to do. I had not thought of that at all and began considering the remarkable similarities. When I mentioned we have to listen to scripture as well as each other, Derek remarked this also demands discernment and referred to the Lutheran lens for reading the Bible. The next day while rereading Chittister, I found Benedict pointed to the importance of using Jesus as the Word of God as a key when reading the scriptures. Learning certainly is an ongoing conversation.

In chapters 2 and 3, Sister Joan claims the function of religion is not about teaching laws but rather, about enabling us to see God all around us. She emphasizes the importance of listening to each other, the world, and the Gospel and observed Benedictine spirituality did this by listening in prayer, work, and holy leisure.

When I read this, I had to ask, “What is this holy leisure?” We all know what prayer is. Here it is especially associated with communal prayer when the community worships together. We all know what work is, even though we might not usually think of it as participating in God’s creative activity. But chances are we are not familiar with holy leisure. Sister Joan describes it as taking the time to quietly and slowly study the scriptures.

St. Benedict spoke of this as his version of lectio divina, an ancient practice for reading the Bible. It originated in the 3rd century with Origen who taught the Bible should be read as the living word of God rather than a text to be studied. Some form of this practice has been the standard for the Church ever since.

It came under fire when scholars in the 19th century insisted we have to analyze biblical books just as we study any other written text. Too often modern Christians think this means only academic scholarship reveals the true meaning of scripture. They come to believe they are too ignorant to read the Bible accurately unless they take special courses. That has led to at least one point of agreement between Sister Joan and Pope Benedict VI. They both think it is time to return to lectio divina as a means for understanding how to live according to God’s will.

St. Benedict’s version included 4 steps for a slow, quiet, thoughtful, leisurely reading of the Bible.

1.Read the passage four times, each time from a different perspective. Each should be a reflection on what it says about how you live. At the same time, remember the key for unlocking the meaning is Jesus, the Word of God. Martin Luther said much the same when he claimed the lens by which we read the Bible is always the Gospel that he summarized as justification by grace through faith. In other words, the ultimate standard for understanding any biblical passage is Jesus’ words and actions about God loving us.

2. Spend time meditating on the passage, allowing yourself to be drawn into the text. The goal is not gaining information but rather finding communion with God. The important function of scripture is placing us in a proper relationship with God so that we can respond appropriately in love to situations in our everyday lives. Others like the Franciscans use religious art in the same way. Observers place themselves in the painting, experiencing what it meant to be there and then translating that into their present lives.

3. Use prayer to converse with God about the passage. Sister Joan describes prayer as a filter that enables us to discern God’s presence in all things. In prayer you hear God speaking to you through the text as the divine opens your eyes and unstop your ears. Because this is an ongoing conversation, a text can have different meanings from day to day. This leads some who engage in the practice to keep a journal.

4. Contemplate by simply remaining silent in God’s presence. Some speak of this as quietly waiting for God’s loving embrace.

It is not hard to see this presents a challenge to modern people who find it necessary to think they must always be busy doing something or other. Holy leisure is slowing down to discern what is really worth doing. Some speak of this as feasting on God’s Word in our fast food world. You take a bite, chew on it, savor its essence, and finally digest it making it part of your body.

In other ways, the lectio divina is just what we need in the electronic age. The academic no longer accepts authorities and standards. To study the scriptures in this environment is never to move beyond questioning. If the scriptures are to regain their role as the living Word of God, we have to go beyond the academic to discern God’s presence in our everyday lives. We certainly cannot abandon historical criticism, but we have to use it to enhance the lectio divina.

Webmaster’s Addition 26 October 2016: There are now two resources posted on the site now. The first is a graphic which offers a five step approach to the Divina Lectura. Click on the picture to see a larger version. The second is a downloadable PDF which has a similar four-step approach.

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  1. Fritz Foltz says:

    A number of readers said they appreciated hearing about the lectio divina. One asked for examples about reading each passage from four different perspectives. I really never could find Benedict’s ideas, only what other people thought he meant. One suggested asking questions such as “What word or phrase caught your attention?”, “Where does the passage touch your life experience?”, and “What is God inviting you to do?” I thought of the relational Bible study that was popularized maybe 20 years ago. It recommended reading passages from the viewpoint of different characters that appear in it. For example, read the Prodigal Son as the Prodigal, the father, the elder son, the servants. Another was to look at various aspects of a word. This would think of “peace” in your world, my family, my heart.

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