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The Underlying Rhythm of Lectio Divina

January 3, 2008

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IF WE are to practice lectio divina effectively, we must travel back in time to an understanding that today is in danger of being almost completely lost. In the Christian past the words action and contemplation did not describe different kinds of Christians engaging (or not engaging) in different forms of prayer and apostolates. Practice and contemplation were understood as the two poles of our underlying, ongoing spiritual rhythm: a gentle oscillation back and forth between spiritual “activity” with regard to God and “receptivity”.

PRACTICE – spiritual “activity” – referred in ancient times to our active cooperation with God’s grace in rooting out vices and allowing the virtues to flourish. The direction of spiritual activity was not outward in the sense of an apostolate, but inward – down into the depths of the soul where the Spirit of God is constantly transforming us, refashioning us in God’s image. The active life is thus coming to see who we truly are and allowing ourselves to be remade into what God intends us to become.

IN THE early monastic tradition contemplation was understood in two ways. First was the contemplation of God in creation – God in “the many”. Second was the contemplation of God without images or words – God as The One”. From this perspective lectio divina serves as a training-ground for the contemplation of God in creation.

IN CONTEMPLATION we cease from interior spiritual doing and learn simply to be, that is, to rest in the presence of our loving God. Just as we constantly move back and forth in our exterior lives between speaking and listening, between questioning and reflecting, so in our spiritual lives we must learn to enjoy the refreshment of simply being in God’s presence, an experience that naturally alternates (if we let it!) with our spiritual practice.

IN ANCIENT times contemplation was not regarded as a goal to be achieved through some method of prayer, but was simply accepted with gratitude as God’s recurring gift. At intervals the Lord invites us to cease from speaking so that we can simply rest in God’s embrace. This is the pole of our inner spiritual rhythm called contemplation.

HOW DIFFERENT this ancient understanding is from our modern approach! Instead of recognizing that we all gently oscillate back and forth between spiritual activity and receptivity, between practice and contemplation, we today tend to set contemplation before ourselves as a goal – something we imagine we can achieve through some spiritual technique. We must be willing to sacrifice our “goal-oriented” approach if we are to practice lectio divina, because lectio divina has no other goal than spending time with God through the medium of the Word. The amount of time we spend in any aspect of lectio divina, whether it be rumination, consecration or contemplation depends on God’s Spirit, not on us. Lectio divina teaches us to savor and delight in all the different flavors of God’s presence, whether they be active or receptive modes of experiencing the Word.

IN LECTIO DIVINA we offer ourselves to God; and we are people in motion. In ancient times this inner spiritual motion was described as a helix – an ascending spiral. Viewed in only two dimensions it appears as a circular motion back and forth; seen with the added dimension of time it becomes a helix, an ascending spiral by means of which we are drawn ever closer to God. The whole of our spiritual lives were viewed in this way, as a gentle oscillation between spiritual activity and receptivity by means of which God unites us ever closer to Godself. In just the same way the steps or stages of lectio divina represent an oscillation back and forth between these spiritual poles. In lectio divina we recognize our underlying spiritual rhythm and discover many different ways of experiencing God’s presence – many different ways of praying.

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