The Bible is not an ordinary book. First, it is in fact a collection of many different books. Only the modern printing press allows us to conceive of them as one volume! However, these books are bound together, we believe, by a common Author working through various human authors. Therefore, it is more than just a historical record of information. The Scriptures offer us a chance to come into conversation with the God that inspired them, which we call prayer.
I first approached reading the Scriptures primarily from the perspective of “quantity.” When I sat down to read, I was looking to see how much information I could get through. This is how I read most other books. I knew people did pray with the Scriptures but wasn’t really sure how. For me, the primary change was realizing that I should have been focusing on “quality” of reading. The goal of prayer isn’t to read over as many words as possible. It is to discover riches that are hidden and to begin to savor them. This approach is classically called lectio divina (“divine reading”). It focuses on entering into the texts as a treasure house for prayer. A theological study of the Bible supports and nourishes this reading, but it stands distinct.
Divine reading begins by selecting a text. Again, the goal isn’t quantity, but quality. We read over a section and continue until we come across an idea or phrase that strikes us. It is important to be watchful, because we do not know when the Lord will speak! We begin to meditate and reflect on this. Maybe we imagine ourselves in the scene. We think of the way that it gives insight into our past, present, or future. We think of its implications for us. But, prayer can’t remain at only the level of personal consideration. When we turn this reflection into a conversation with God, it becomes prayer. Maybe the meditation inspires us to expression of praise or thanksgiving; maybe petition and intercession; or, maybe even to express sorrow for some event. We speak to God about our meditation on this passage. Then, we listen for a response. Contemplation refers to this phase of God’s response to our prayer. It is important to have some times of silence. Our goal isn’t just to fill up the space with our own thoughts and words. We need room for God to work. There is a need to be open if God is going to direct our prayer somewhere, and not to try to force the conclusion we want. If we find our attention wavering, we can return to the earlier steps and move back and forth. This cycle of reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating forms the structure of lectio divina. It may happen over the course of five minutes, or an hour. In this, the riches of the Scriptures can be opened to us in a new way.
I’d like to end with one final note. While these four steps form the classic structure, there is an implicit fifth step that is contained in the practice. True prayer gives us inspiration for action. It doesn’t always mean starting some new routine—perhaps it might just be encouragement to persevere in our spiritual life. But, at the end of the time of prayer, it is very helpful to make a practical resolution. I think a lot of problems can come up if we ignore this. Often it leads to a separation between prayer and life. Going to prayer might become something completely divorced from everyday life, which is not healthy. Instead, I encourage you to end your prayer by asking God for a practical resolution. This resolution could be to continue a practice, change a habit, take a particular action, or even seek the answer to a question that arose during the time. It might mean some study or speaking to a spiritual director. In this final step, though, we can let the graces given through prayer take root and bear fruit.
A great resource if you would like to learn more about this form of prayer is Praying Scripture for a Change by Tim Gray. I highly recommend it.