Lectio Divina

Vincent Dwyer

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           What I try to describe here is really a journey. It's a spiritual journey. A journey of love, that requires a sensitivity, an honesty, an ability to leave people free, not to possess another human being. That's very hard to do. It's difficult to have loved a human being, and to actually almost have begotten that human being, and then to allow that human being to go forth and to touch and love other human beings, to give them the freedom to take your love and to give it away. That is very hard. It requires a great deal of discipline. 

           It also means that in the process one must have encountered Jesus Christ. One must have been led to understand and to touch and to feel the person of God within oneself. He is real. Private prayer becomes critical. You begin to realize that prayer is spontaneous, a beautiful response to God. Just as you can't program your dialogue with someone you love -- it has to come out of your heart, so too with prayer. 

           And yet if you have never experienced in a human dimension the ability to deal in signs, to know through your whole being that you are communicating love and that you are receiving love, then there is no way that you can step into the relationship with God and all of a sudden begin to think that you can deal with God in signs. It won't work. You can get caught in a world of illusions which all the the mystics warn us against. The test of your intimacy with God is in the intimacy you've achieved with your sisters and brothers. 

          I remember one time in the monastery -- as a young monk, my reasoning went something like this. It was said that if you meditate a half-hour a day then you were sure of salvation; contemplation is a pure gift of God, but if you put more time into it, you're probably better disposed to receiving the gift. Being pretty practical, and with my Irish background saying, "Well, God, if I got into this outfit I ought to at least arrive at contemplation or something," I began to invest a great deal of time in "prayer". 

          I built it up to a point where I was spending probably six hours a day before the blessed sacrament, maybe even more. When I'd come in from work or maybe it was class, whatever it was, I would head immediately to the church to pray. 

          And I had a special spot in that church. It was the second pillar behind the brothers' choir stall. So if I was coming in from the cloistered walk I'd make my profound bow in the centre, go to the left hand side and then down behind the second pillar, and that's where I'd rendezvous. 

          At the beginning I used to spend most of my time kneeling there, but then as I spent more and more time I had more and more trouble with my knees. Then I took a stool out of the brothers' chapter house and used to carry it with me. Then I decided, "Well, I really don't have to go back and forth for the stool since I'm here most of the time. I'll just leave it here," and so I had it hid there. 

          Everything was unbelievable. As soon as I'd arrive at that spot, I'd be in passive prayer. Sometimes I'd wonder if I was going to ascend or what was going to happen to me. But then I would arrive sometimes and one of my brother monks would be there, in my spot. Then I'd have to back up and in the centre of the main hall I would kneel in the infirmary choir and begin my prayer. I would place myself in the presence of God. If I had been behind the second pillar I would immediately go into passive prayer and prayer of quiet, contemplative prayer, but in this spot it didn't seem to happen. 

          I would then find myself with distractions. My navy language would come back and I'd say, "What the hell's he doing over there?" and then I'd check myself: "No, I shouldn't have said that. I'm back in your presence, Lord; speak to me."  Then I'd look again and say, "Gosh, you know, look at this damn church is empty. What the hell. And now he's sitting on my stool!  No, it's not my stool. It's our stool."  I'd have all these distractions. And then finally he'd leave. I'd make my bow, I'd go over there and, pfft, I'm fine. Beautiful. 

          Well, I went to see the old abbot one day who was one of the great men in my life, a spiritual genius in my estimation. Much of what I share with you came from sitting at his feet. He had this loveable way about him. He said, "How's everything going?"  I said, "Reverend Father, just tremendous."  He said, "How is your life of prayer?"  I said, "Oh, boy. It must be six or seven hours a day I'm spending before the blessed sacrament."  He said, "Your prayer is fine?"  I said, "Just unbelievable."  He said, "No problems?"  I said, "Well, I have one little problem."

           So I described this distraction. He looked at me and he said, "Fili mei, would you like some advice?"  In my little soul I was saying he's about to tell me I'm on the maybe the seventh or eighth mansion of St. Teresa and I'm going through some particular trial, and "Oh, yes, Reverend Father. Speak to me."  He said, "Well, the Holy Spirit doesn't seem to get locked into one spot all the time. He's very capable of meeting you even out in the fields. You don't really have to be there." 

          He said, "It sounds kind of strange to me that you have no problem and then somebody comes along.... Would you really like some advice?"

          I said, "Oh, yes, Reverend Father." 

          He said, "I think you'd better spend more time out working in the fields."

           What I'd really like to try to share with you this morning is to take you back and to look at the theology of prayer and to show you that for a long time prayer was really unified, really one, then we began to foul it up. We began to compartmentalize it. 

          As we compartmentalized it people lost the unity of the spiritual life, this unity that comes out of a life of prayer. All of sudden I began to value those moments where I'd be in the chapel as being greater than the moments I would spend maybe in work or greater than the moments I would spend on a tennis court or swimming or something like that. 

          So all of a sudden we started having all these hierarchical values, on the top being the moments that I spend in prayer or the moments that I spend in spiritual exercises as being the most important elements. We were failing to say that really the spiritual life is one. I think most people would agree or feel comfortable when we describe prayer basically as union with God. 

          Prayer is really my response. As the Holy Father has said, it is a dialogical process. It's basically God revealing God's Self and my response to that. Or we could say that it is union, it is lifting of one's heart, etc. Do you feel comfortable with that as a definition or description  of prayer?  Do you? 

          Now, let's go back to four pillars of a life of prayer and watch what happens. I'll use the Latin to show you what a poor job we did at translation. They were Lectio Divina, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio. I'm sure that the priests and religious here would recognize that immediately because it's in all of the classic textbooks. 

          Those are the four pillars. For a long time in the Church they were not four distinct parts, they were one. 

          Lectio Divina became translated in our framework into "spiritual reading", which became a particular exercise. 

          Meditatio was translated into "meditation", which became a procedure, a methodology of prayer, and by that I mean that you would, for instance, place Jesus before you, or you'd read something in scripture, and then you would create an image of it, and then you would walk with him and chat with him and then you would move down towards movement of the affection, of the heart, and after that dried up you then made a resolution and you went on to kind of look at that later on in the day. Does that ring a bell?  That is what we call a methodology; it's a procedure. 

          Oratio became translated into all kinds of prayers and devotions, divine office, and so forth. 

          Contemplatio was translated as "contemplation" and then you were told, "But contemplation is only for chosen souls like myself and others who are called to contemplative monasteries. The rest of you poor people are called only to meditate and that is the way it is. Too bad. Some are chosen, some aren't."

          It's a heresy. I'll never forget Eugene Boylan who was the first one that I heard publicly say that it was a heresy. We are all called to contemplation. You know one of the tragic things is that many of you have been  led to believe that you are called only to meditate, you are called only to a very simple form of prayer, and that contemplation was like looking at somebody on the mountain, and saying, "Not me."

          It actually was a cop-out for many people like yourselves. You read something about the mystics. You read something about the purifications that you must undergo in order to really be able to receive the gift of contemplation, and so you'd say, "Well, thank God I'm not called to that. I don't have to go through that. It's okay for those special people called to contemplative monasteries, but I'm not called. Therefore I don't have to face the reality of such purifications. I will be a good boy or a good girl and I will meditate."  That was a tragedy in the history of the Church. 

           The whole thing was kind of foolish in terms of our translation or our misunderstanding of it. Lectio Divina being translated into "spiritual reading" -- how in ... [the world] did we ever get to that, particularly when in the early Church most people couldn't read anyway?  It's true. There weren't that many books around. So it was never meant to be what we made it.

           What was it?  Lectio Divina was the art of listening. That's why I said the pope was opening us to the key of all prayer when he started to emphasize in the encyclical the need to relearn and to develop the art of listening.

          Meditatio was not a procedural method. It was merely a presence, a presence which from listening brought about reflection, to the point that when you listen, infallibly you reflect. It just flows. 

          Oratio wasn't meant to be all these things that we made it be. Oratio was really when you reflected you then found yourself moving towards prayer of petition, prayer of thanksgiving, silence, awe, anything that would move you. It was ability to allow oneself to move from reflection. And infallibly the Spirit would move you.

           And Contemplatio was a direct and natural sequential development of having listened. And it was receiving the gifts of the Spirit and being able to taste and to know what it is to operate under the Spirit's influence, which in the old days we called the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

          This really had a unity. It was a oneness, but as with so many things, in trying to understand it -- and there's nothing wrong with trying to understand -- we analyze, we abstract it. What happened here was when we abstracted it, we forgot to put it back together into this beautiful unity. What did we do?  We put it back into a bunch of boxes. And we lost the rhythm of it. 

          If prayer is union with God, if it's a response to God or a dialogical process, the dialogue between ourselves and God, then the question is, how can God reveal God's Self to me. How can God reveal God's Self to me so that I can respond? 

          Well, God certainly can reveal God's Self through revelation, the scriptures. God can reveal God's Self through the Church, through the sacraments. How else?  Through people. Nature. Music. Art. Literature. In recreation. In events. In sin. Is there any way God can't reveal God's Self?  No. It's too good to be true!  What have we done?  If this is true then these are possible forms of prayer. 

          What makes them prayer?  Listening.

          Is it necessary to know that you're praying in order to pray?  No. Most people really don't believe it. It's a head trip, it's too good to be true. But as the old abbot used to say to us, quoting the desert fathers, "You pray best when you don't know you're praying."

          What were they really trying to say to us?  They were saying prayer is a way of life. 

          Sometimes when it's very sweet and we're kind of feeling wonderful, the Lord is touching us and everything. Boy, I'm praying. Then along comes the Lord and says, "Well, you've had enough of this sweet stuff, now you're supposed to walk."  God comes along and takes away the sweet stuff and we say, "Oh, my God, something terrible has happened. I no longer pray. I no longer feel, and therefore I'm no longer praying."

          Prayer often will start out with very sensible consolations and a feeling, but you can be sure, you can be positive, you can be absolutely certain that if you are faithful you will find yourself moving through a development in prayer which will bring you to a point where you will not feel his presence, and you will walk in faith. 

          The ultimate test for the Christian life is whether we keep going. When the chips are down, do we quit, or do we keep moving?  There are times in your life when Christ will lead you along a path where you won't feel God. You will actually think God has deserted you, and you will really experience in some degree what Jesus experienced when he cried out to his father, "Why have you abandoned me?"  You will feel the same agony, and you will think that all is lost, only to discover when you turn the corner that it was a very important part of your life.

          Prayer is really a way of life, a living out of the commitment to Jesus Christ.

This paper is a transcription of the text of a filmed lecture, Many Paths To Prayer by Vincent Dwyer. It was the fifth presentation in the Genesis II series frequently used as an adult religious education program in the late 1970's. Genesis II was a program for spiritual growth. Its purpose was to appreciate, develop and deepen spirituality and human relationships. The program sought to bridge the gap between a pre-Vatican individualistic spirituality and a post-Vatican more inclusive spirituality by rooting itself in the a more basic spirituality communicated through the ages. The program was devised by Trappist priest, Fr. Vincent Dwyer, of the Center for Human Development at Notre Dame University and produced by Intermedia Foundation, Santa Monica, CA. I have taken the liberty to make the language of this presentation more inclusive
------ John Veltri

For further information read: Accepting The Embrace Of God --
The Ancient Art Of Lectio Divina by Luke Dysinger, O.S.B.

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