It is common for a teacher to try to use an familiar example to help students grasp and understand a complex topic. The prophet Jeremiah uses such images quite often when trying to get the people to convert. Today’s image is quite strange, but the point is clear. If we allow ourselves to be away from God, when God has done so many things for us, we will rot. The good news is indeed the gospel. Just a little bit of God’s grace is enough to help us to experience grace and life.
How using the ancient practice can begin or revive a sense of prayer
DePorres Durham, OP
Lectio Divina is a way of praying with the bible. The word literally means, “Divine Reading”. God speaks to us, and we respond to God. So, Lectio Divina is not just reading, but rather, reading so we might encounter God, and so doing, responding to God. The roots of Lectio Divina go back to the 3rd century, to Origen. It is thought he passed this practice of prayer on to Saint Ambrose, who taught it to Saint Augustine. It was Saint Benedict who formalized it, and it is probably the Benedictines, and their approach to contemplative prayer that caused this practice to survive.
Almost all meditation, even the prayerful meditation of the Lectio Divina, begins by slowing ourselves down.
So just how does one go about Lectio Divina? While people discuss four parts of Lectio Divina, I would suggest there are five. I add the importance of preparation for the encounter. We cannot just rush into Lectio, but rather must prepare ourselves for it. Just as a person might stretch before doing exercise, so too we do “spiritual stretching” by getting ourselves ready.
1) Preparation. Increasingly there is recognition of the power of taking some time to meditate. Christians have been doing this for centuries. By taking some time to relax, reflect and focus, the rest of our life can be more peaceful.
Almost all meditation, even the prayerful meditation of the Lectio Divina, begins by slowing ourselves down. Our lives are quite busy. Too busy, in fact. You probably learned the secret to relaxing when you were little. When you got too anxious, it was likely that some parent or teacher told you to “take a deep breath.” We prepare ourselves by taking a number of deep breaths.
This preparation is known as focused breathing. Dr. Nick Lazaris suggests the following steps to engage in focused breathing.
6 Rules for Practicing Focused Breathing
1) Prior to practicing, make sure your spine is straight.
2) Inhale through your nose with a long, sustained breath
(not fast, shallow breathing)
3) As you inhale, imagine your lower stomach is filing with air (you are actually filling up your lower lungs)
4) Hold your breath for a count of 3
5) As you exhale slowly through your mouth, for a count of 6, picture tension and anxiety leaving your body.
6) Associate your focused breathing with words such as “Calm”….”Relax”. (Lazaris, 2018)
Do this a few times, releasing stress and anxiety, and filling with peace and calm. Know that this cannot be rushed, but rather, everyone needs time to let go of the stresses of the day and become focused. Since this is prayer, some find it helpful to focus on a word or two. Often, simply saying the name of Jesus quietly can be a big help.
2) Lectio (Read). The first step is simply to read the text, or if done in a group, to listen to the person reading it. Either way, the text should be read slowly. As you read or hear the text, you pay attention to words or phrases that strike you. This is an exercise of listening to your “gut.” This is not an academic study. This is more an exercise of the heart rather than a task of the head. Allow a few moments of silence before reading again.
3) Meditatio. (Meditate). As you read or listen to the text a second time, you are know seeking to pay attention to the experience. What do you feel as you hear this text again? What emotions are coming to the surface? Are there other situations or current events that cause you to feel the same way, or is there any connection to them? And reflect on these feelings and your experience.
4) Oratio. (Prayer). As you read or listen to the text a third time, take a moment to pray about it. Some find it helpful to journal about it. For others, it can simply be the case of seeking to make real the words needed to be spoken to God.
The prayer is about listening to God and responding to God.
5) Contemplatio. (Contemplate). Contemplation may at first seem to be no different than meditation. Often the two words are used interchangeably. But there is a real, if not subtle difference. Meditation is about discovering the experience and feelings, and reflecting upon them. Contemplation is about resting in the experience totally, resting in the presence of the Lord.
Lazaris, N. (2018). Focused Breathing Tips for Reducing Anxiety. Retrieved from http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/focused_breathing_tips_for_reducing_anxiety.html retrievewd on January 6, 2018.
Manneh, E. (2017). Lectio Divina: A Beginner’s Guide. Retrieved from http://bustedhalo.com/ministry-resources/lectio-divina-beginners-guide January 6, 2018.
Water and Blood. Baptism and Eucharist. Words in the bible often refer to something other than the obvious. Today is such an example. Water is part of both readings. Whenever we see or read about water, the first thought should be baptism. This is true whether we read about New Testament letters, like today, or stories from the Old Testament. The flood in the book of Genesis points to baptism. The faithful, those who trust in God, are saved.
Today is just such an example. The readings remind us of the very important difference between John’s baptism and the baptism of Jesus. John’s baptism points to human effort. Jesus’ baptism points to divine salvation. The Incarnation of Jesus is not simply a nice Christmas set. Rather, it is the miracle of God’s becoming human. And, because Jesus is both human and divine, the sacraments lead to salvation.
Love. This word is at the center of the gospel. Without love, little in the gospel makes sense. However, today it is difficult to understand exactly what love is. It has been weakened so much. Love, in popular language, can apply to just about anything. In fact, the way it is used, love can be applied to people or things. But someone once said, we love people, and use things, not the other way around.
At the heart of any ministry there is the call to love. But not a sugary sweet love, but one that really challenges. The gospel sees love as the way we are fulfilled, because God is love.
I have to confess that I am not a big fan of shrines for saints. The reason is that when I am at a shrine, it always seems like the saint is someone so “plastic” they could not possibly have been a real person. The shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is not like that. Rather, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is presented as an ordinary person, who quest for God was a response to extraordinary grace.
This means that we cannot let ourselves off the hook. We too are called to holiness, and even though we might feel ordinary, we have available to us God’s extraordinary grace. And if we respond to this grace, we too can become a saint.
Do you know you are made in God’s image? Most of us would answer yes. But do we really believe it? How often do we excuse doing something wrong by saying, “I’m only human?” When we know we are in God’s image, we know we are at our best when we are human. It is when we sin that we are less than human.
The Incarnation then, is about the wonderful event where God took on human flesh. Think about that for a moment. God is one of us. Emmanuel. God with us. And that is marvelous indeed.
There are some people who really, really hate religion. It is not just that they disagree with this or that thing, but the very existence of religion makes their blood boil. And it is not just that they do not want any religion mentioned, they do not want anyone else to mention it either. It is about destroying any public reference to religion. Religion is simply something that is meant to be private. Period.
In today’s first reading, Saint John refers to such people as liars. Those who deny the existence of God are the ones who speak untruth. Often, if a simple statement is made to an atheist, namely, “Tell me about the God you do not believe in”, it often becomes clear that Christians do not believe in such a God either.
This might not be the time of year you feel like slowing down. It may not be the time of year you can slow down. But today’s gospel is an invitation to contemplation. As we consider the role and person of Mary, Mother of God, we are given the model of someone with a contemplative heart. And this contemplative heart allows Mary to overcome some very difficult things.
In our lives, too, things can be hard. We can find that so much activity is part of life. It can seem there is no time to think. But is this really true? What if we imitated Mary and treasured what happens in our hearts? What if we made time for prayer and contemplation in our lives? Try to do so during this year.
There is such a contrast to the first reading and the gospel. Ahaz seems to be taking the high road by not wanting to tempt God, but he is not. He does not want a sign from God, because he wants to do something different. Mary does not seek a sign from God, but when God asks, she says yes. Ahaz does not cultivate a relationship with God. Mary orders her entire life around her faith in God. Do you want a sign from God, or not?
Advent is about seeking. Do we want to find God, to get a sign, or do we wish to turn away from God? Do we use the guise of faith, of goodness, to turn away from God? Is your heart open to God? Are you ready to hear God’s voice? Will you do what God wants? Make this a holy Advent. Say yes to God.
Finding the presence of God in your life is important. What helps is to think of past, present, and future. Today’s readings provide some help in that regard. As we look back to the Old Testament, we can see how the plan of salvation was revealed by God. Today, we can seek to find how God is active today. And it is also the case that we can find the promises from God of how God is active tomorrow. This is really the season of Advent in a nutshell.
On a personal level, our life if faith is no different. We look back in our lives to see where we have experienced and felt the presence of God. We engage in a life of prayer and the sacraments so that we are better able to find the presence of God today. And through both of these experiences, we can see how God will be active tomorrow, for God keeps promises.